Radical art today is synonymous with dark art; its primary colour is black.
– Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970)1
A few years ago, when Aslan Goisum was still using a Russified version of his surname, I felt compelled to compare his work to history painting:Art history tends to repeat itself, and this is also the case with history painting, which in the royal academic tradition of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France was identified as the most important and prestigious of all the regulated genres of painting, together with mythological allegory.
Later, in the bourgeois nineteenth century, history painting was revisited in all countries – including peripheral ones such as Sweden or Mexico – and in the twentieth century the countries under Real Existing Socialism again awarded it a prominent position in their strictly policed cultural hierarchies.
Political power has, ever since the great empires of antiquity, used visuals to represent and reinvent historical events (which themselves, by definition, exist only as written testimony) and to make sure that viewers correctly perform their role as subjects, identifying with the official version of whatever actually happened.
And if we use the term ‘history painting’ in an extended sense to also cover other kinds of politicised memory art, such as monumental sculpture, historical novels, costume drama or epic war movies – D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), Alexei German’s Twenty Days Without War (1977) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) are just a few high-quality examples of this genre – we realise that it might also be applied to television and other audio-visual media of the twenty-first century.
– Anders Kreuger, Aslan Gaisumov: History Painting Revisited (2015)2
I still stand behind this analogy between Goisum’s video works and the ‘extended field’ of history painting, although I could only offer a tentative sketch of it at the time. I will try to go further here, in that direction and others.Born in 1991 and actively exhibiting since 2012, Goisum must by any standards be characterised as an emergent artist. I will therefore adapt my critical reading of his work to his own evolving interests as they are reflected in his work produced after he and I started collaborating in the summer of 2015.
This led to his exhibition ‘People of No Consequence’ at M HKA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, in 2016 and has continued – with myself in an advisory or editorial role rather than a strictly curatorial one – throughout the production of his films Keicheyuhea in 2017 and Scythian Journey in 2019. I also edited the first monographic book about his practice in 2018, launched in connection with his solo exhibition ‘Crystals and Shards’at Kohta.3
The point of this disclaimer is that I’m already unable to take the position of the outside observer when I write about Goisum’s work. Not that such a position ever guarantees any of that elusive quality commonly known as ‘objectivity’ and held up as an ideal for critical thought. More often than not, it fails to materialise when the topic is art and artists, because writing about an artist’s intentions and their realisation requires an educated use of subjectivity more than anything else.
Yet it is also commonly – and more correctly – held that critiquing something that you have helped produce is quite an impossible task.
I can only promise to do my best. I will attempt to characterise, interpret and evaluate six recent works by Goisum, one by one. But first some considerations of a more general nature, provoked by my previous comparison of his use of the moving image to history painting.
Our real reason for comparing one thing to another is not so much the concrete likenesses or differences we may tease out as the new understanding we may arrive at by crossing the boundaries customarily drawn between different categories of things.
What can we learn from comparing a young artist’s videos and video installations to a specific tradition of European painting?
Perhaps that traditions, genres and established techniques are there to be used and reused, combined and recombined, and that their best chance of surviving – or at least be saved from oblivion – is to be cannibalised by new generations of doers and makers and thinkers who may or may not be aware of what their specific weight used to be.
Every distinct artistic intelligence will, at some point, find itself reinventing something it should already have been aware of but wasn’t. Learning to avoid the embarrassment of not being in the know is part of the trajectory of becoming an artist. On the other hand, those who never find themselves in this predicament will probably not become artists anyway.
Such truisms have illustrative value. Like ‘the image that says more than a thousand words’ they work for visual art, not against it.
When Goisum reinvents video as performance and video performance as sculpture and installation, and when he does this in a spirit that may be associated with history painting or mythological allegory, it is because his work somehow drives him into territories that are new to him, although perhaps not to his viewers – and that is why he makes us see them as new.
It is the ‘somehow’ of this long sentence that I will try to rearticulate here.
Another potentially useful truism: every artist is self-taught, in some meaningful way. It is by succeeding or failing at materialising their ideas, by listening to advice or ignoring it, by participating or declining to participate in art world events, that artists emerge, mature and become established.
Every young artist is anxious about how this will play out, how smoothly the feedback loop of work and recognition will be running. Let us look at a selection of works by Goisum that have already gained visibility and recognition.
Volga (2015, single-channel HD video projection, colour, no sound, 4’11”) is the work that prompted me to discuss history painting, although I might just as well have discussed how a video projection can become ‘sculptural’ by virtue of its highly synthesised narrative and visual form.
As much as I would like to opt out of the standard Anglo-Saxon model for writing about contemporary art, I rarely find it possible. ‘What are we looking at? What does it mean? Why should we care?’4 I would often prefer to leave the work alone with its viewers and vice versa, but some amount of description, interpretation and evaluation is usually necessary for cajoling both parties into starting a conversation.
Goisum and myself faced the same dilemma when we were preparing his exhibition at M HKA in 2016. We chose to show only two video installations – Volga and People of No Consequence – in such a way that visitors would have to walk around white freestanding walls to the see the projections on the reverse.
On the one hand, any viewer could see what was going on in the work, so surely no explanation was needed! On the other hand, we wanted to aid understanding – or, to be more precise, help viewers overcome non-understanding – by placing short captions, in black vinyl lettering, on those white walls.
Volga starts with a static and silent image. A white Soviet-made car is parked in an autumnal field. In a slow crescendo of activity and tension three or four small groups of women, children and men – 21 people all in all – walk up to the car and squeeze into it, managing to close the doors only after a few attempts.Once inside, out of view, their bodies must have acquired new, hitherto unknown shapes, in defiance of the laws of physics. How could they otherwise all fit into the five seats? Finally the engine starts, emitting more exhaust fumes that we are used to seeing nowadays,and the car drives out of the frame, into an unknown future as it is envisioned in Western, left-to-right systems of writing.
But why? And where? And when? What are we looking at? What does it mean? Why should we care?
The ‘Soviet Volvo’, made in Gorky (now again Nizhniy Novgorod, like before the Revolution) where the Oka flows into the Volga, was typically a chauffeured perk for middling officials, but by the mid-1990s quite a few of them had ended up in private hands, not least in the peripheries of the humiliated empire.
So the work title is only tangentially to do with Russian geography. And the backstory could not be further removed from those YouTube videos of college students cramming into a Volkswagen Beetle.
Volga was staged as an enactment of hurried escape under extraordinarily stressful circumstances, as experienced by hundreds of thousands of Goisum’s compatriots during the Chechen Wars of 1994–2009.
Yet the characters allow themselves to be swallowed by the car with calm and dignity. It is as if their action, in all its absurdity, should also be understood as an allegory of travel in a wider and less urgent sense, or even as a stoic display of dark humour.
The silence of the film makes it all the more eloquent. Goisum has chosen to approach an uncomfortable truth indirectly, elliptically, at the ghostly intersection of the seen and the unseen. It is there that lived experience becomes poetic image: both open-ended field and precisely scripted – or indeed ‘sculpted’ – action.
These decisions to suppress meaningful detail in favour of strong composition contributed to making Volga Goisum’s most successful work to date, at least in terms of its reception by the art world. Clarity – of intention, representation and reading – took precedence and was enlisted to promote seamless form.
Without really aiming for it, Goisum had created a biennial-worthy artwork doubling as a museum piece. When it won him the Innovation Prize in 2016, in the ‘New Generation’ category (the yearly prize is given by Russia’s National Centre for Contemporary Art), he asked a friend to read this statement at the awards ceremony:
Who could have thought, when we – 21 persons in one Volga – left the burning city of Grozny under bombardment in 1995, that this Volga would one day arrive in the place from which those bombs were thrown?5
Yet achieving success on the art world’s terms is not necessarily what motivates Goisum. He comes from a darker place than most of his peers, and he has certainly had the misfortune of living in interesting times.
It therefore comes as no surprise that darkness is his topic and tonality of choice. Indeed it always has been, since he first started exhibiting expertly mutilated book objects in his early twenties under the title Untitled (War) (2008–17). Perhaps darkness chose him rather than the other way round.
It should also come as no surprise that some of Goisum’s most important references are artistic articulations of genocidal atrocities: Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1985), Alfredo Jaar’s photography-based Rwanda Project (1994–98) and Jonathan Littell’s novel Les Bienveillants (2006).
Regardless of the material that went into their making – footage at the same time coupled with and uncoupled from evil, images elaborately hidden from sight, words in a language foreign to their author – these works become detailed frescoes and monumental friezes.
They are less far removed from history painting or mythological allegory than most critical viewers would assume or desire. Goisum knows them so well that they have become virtual mentors, almost friends, and it is no wonder that their insidious techniques have found their ways into his own oeuvre.
The series Memories of War (2016, felt pen on torn-out book pages, each 22.2 × 13.3 cm) is darkly ironical in both intention and execution. It mocks the comforting illusion that ‘useful lessons’ might be drawn from violence and trauma by blotting out – in a fashion echoing pre-digital censorship – everything but one word, which in the end names only a big nothing: ‘war’.
Goisum uses black to signal this agenda, and at the same time to block any signal that the original text might have telegraphed if it were still visible or legible.
I chose a quote from Aesthetic Theory as a motto for this essay, so now I would like to show how Adorno, in that dense stream of aphoristic thought, clarifies his approach to ‘dark art’ or ‘black art’:
The injustice committed by all cheerful art, especially by entertainment, is probably an injustice to the dead; to accumulated, speechless pain.
Still, black art bears features that would, if they were definitive, set their seal on historical despair; to the extent that change is always still possible they, too, may be ephemeral.
The radically darkened art – established by the surrealists as black humour – which the aesthetic hedonism that survived the catastrophe defamed for the perversity of expecting that the dark should give something like pleasure, is in essence nothing but the postulate that art and a true consciousness of it can today find happiness only in the capacity of standing firm.
This happiness illuminates the artwork’s sensuous appearance from within.6
I wouldn’t presume to know where Goisum is heading with his practice, what he will be doing and making even in the immediate future. I doubt that he himself, as someone with ‘a true consciousness of art’, would know for sure.
But I do know that he intends to stand firm, because he has already proved capable of doing so in his creative work and in his work to protect and promote its outcome.
And I sense that Adorno’s circumspect affirmation of the pleasure given by art that doesn’t try to give pleasure is of relevance in Goisum’s case.
Now, darkness in art essentially comes in two varieties: one based on visibility (as when there is black paint or ink in plain sight) and one on invisibility, i.e. the absence of light rather than the pigmentation that makes us notice it.
As an aside – but one that is permissible because it ultimately touches on all visual art – we may note that ‘illumination’ and ‘illustration’ are both to do with ‘casting light onto something’, and thus with enlightenment, while ‘obscurity’ and ‘occultism’ both refer to what is sometimes ironically called ‘endarkenment’, and thus to leaving things veiled, hidden, inaccessible to rational thought.
At this point it should be made clear that Goisum doesn’t subscribe to or engage in obscurantism of any kind. He is on the side of enlightenment, on the making-visible and making-conscious that is not only a sign of social and political progressiveness but also, by the way, a basic tenet of psychoanalysis.
Drawing things out, bringing them to the surface, taking a good look at them and filing them away: safe, defanged, emasculated…
Household (2016) the overtly sculptural installation featured in the exhibition at M HKA, moves in these two directions at the same time. It hints at a dark truth but it does so by concealing objective evidence of it, while at the same time making it physically present in an institutional space dedicated to display and imagination.
Visitors to the exhibition had to take Goisum’s word for it that all those use-objects were really there, inside two unpainted wooden crates (139 × 145 × 195 cm; 116 × 152 × 209 cm), and his word mas materialised as this list, displayed in black vinyl lettering on the reverse of the white wall that shielded the exhibition from the rest of the museum:
5 tarpaulin awnings from UNICEF
3 wood-and-gas-fired heaters
5 chimney pipes for heaters
1 metal-mesh bed
7 felt mattresses
9 down duvets
8 wool blankets
5 down pillows
2 felt pillows
2 wooden tables
4 metal chairs
5 wooden stools
1 washing machine
1 gas stove
1 TV set
1 antenna for TV set
11 cooking pans
10 lids for cooking pans and buckets
2 tea kettles
2 plastic buckets
1 enamelled bucket
12 aluminium cups
19 aluminium mugs
16 aluminium plates
2 aluminium trays
34 ceramic plates
11 ceramic cups
2 ceramic sugar bowls
5 plastic canisters
8 plastic basins
2 enamelled basins
3 plastic mugs
4 plastic sieves
6 plastic containers
1 plastic hand washer
1 thermos flask
7 frying pans
2 drying racks for crockery
3 drying racks for cutlery
2 soup ladles
1 rolling pin
1 wooden spoon
1 knife sharpener
1 can opener
1 can sealer
1 soap tray
2 ravioli cutters
2 cutting boards
2 shoe brushes
3 extension cords
13 candle sticks
1 ironing board
1 electric heater
1 shoe rack
3 down jackets
2 pieces of linoleum
4 framed photographs
If nothing else, tarpaulin sheets from UNICEF would be a reasonably strong indication that something is being occulted, not least in combination with the improbably neutral and straightforward work title.
As a title, People of No Consequence (2016) is also straightforward, even blunt, but hardly neutral. The work that it names (single-channel HD video projection, colour, sound, no dialogue, 8’34”) also lent its name to the exhibition at M HKA for which it was produced – and is now part of the M HKA collection.
Of course the title of this video installation works best in English, the language in which it was conceived and which is gradually becoming one of Goisum’s regular professional tools.
It refers to these people (the septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians we see entering a shabbily over-decorated room, one by one, slowly, for almost eight minutes, most of them bent, some leaning heavily on walking sticks) but also to this people (the Chechens, separately or together with the neighbouring Ingush).
‘Do what you like to them’, the title taunts us, ‘because whatever you do, there will be no consequences’. To you, that is.
But first you will have to deny these people’s humanity and forge a new, bestial, monstrous identity for them. Otherwise you won’t be able to drive them from their homes and their land, strip them of their rights and livelihoods and leave them to their own devices, but under constant harsh supervision, deep inside unknown and hostile territory.
The deportation of the Chechens and the Ingush was one of the many bizarre, but therefore no less cruel, subplots of the Second World War.
It so happens that I have a personal relation to the time-frame set by the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (the NKVD, a predecessor of the Committee for State Security, the KGB) for rounding up half a million ‘traitors to the Motherland’ and dispatching them to Kazakhstan or other parts of Soviet Central Asia in the winter of 1944.
The operation started on February 23 (the Day of the Soviet Army, incidentally also my twin brothers’ birthday) and ended on March 9 (my own birthday, the hung-over aftermath of International Women’s Day).
These two weeks between cakes and presents I know very well. When I was the same age as Goisum’s protagonists at the time of the deportation, they seemed unbearably long. Now I realise that just the logistical planning required for uprooting a whole people in a fortnight stretches the humanly possible, in every possible way.
Others, not least Goisum himself, are more able and entitled than I to provide background information, interpretation and speculation to help us understand what happened to the Chechens 74 years ago and later – and to ask the unanswerable question: Why?
My task is, instead, to direct the conversation back to the actual artworks, to what they articulate with what means, and to how they are presented and mediated.
These are matters of overriding importance to any artist, and as the curator for Goisum’s first solo exhibition in a museum I had the opportunity to discuss them with him at length and in depth. We decided, for instance, that the Belgian audience probably needed to read the following caption, in black vinyl lettering on the white wall before watching People of No Consequence:
From 23 February to 9 March 1944 the entire Chechen and Ingush nations, about half a million people, were deported to Central Asia by the Soviet authorities.
They were accused of having collaborated with Nazi Germany. The same thing was done to many other nations of the USSR.
Almost half of all Chechens perished in the deportation. Survivors were allowed to return home only in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death.
119 of those survivors gathered, for the first time, in April 2016. The youngest was one month old at the end of February 1944.
Whether these were the optimal words is hard to tell, but they have continued to accompany the video, as credit lines projected as soon as the screen fades to dark after the last of Goisum’s protagonists has found her place (the women enter the room after the men, as is still customary in Chechnya) and they all look into the camera eye, as if expecting to be asked to speak or at least to be spoken to.
Such defiant speech acts, however, such pushes for cathartic release, such attempts at publicly sharing and coming to terms with traumatic experiences, are not yet possible. They have not been possible in these people’s lifetime. They will possibly never be possible – not in the harsh, dehumanising reality where these people are still of no consequence.
In People of No Consequence, Goisum adds visual, narrative and political complexity to the format he first explored in Volga. Both works feature non-actors appearing in their own costume but performing staged acts in front of a camera. Both works adopt visual and narrative characteristics of painting and sculpture. They orchestrate tableaux vivants of human figures acting collectively for both formal and ideological reasons.
In this sense, Goisum’s protagonists are not unlike the characters we encounter in classical history painting, where history is depicted and made almost simultaneously (as in Jacques Louis David’s unfinished The Tennis Court Oath, 1790–94) or in its twentieth-century reincarnation as Soviet socialist realism of the ‘severe style’, which optimises the embellishment of socialist reality by eschewing conventional beauty. The classical example is Viktor Popkov’s The Builders of Bratsk (1960–61).
Goisum also aims, in both these video installations, at instantly reassuring viewers that they will be watching a ‘sculpture in time’ rather than a short film documenting a performance.
The absence of sound in Volga and of dialogue in People of No Consequence enhances this tension between the durational and the instantaneous, which it is tempting to call dialectical because it can only be resolved by moving forward to the next proposal for how to monumentalise ‘these people’ and their historical plight in a responsibly and convincingly dark register.
This is why People of No Consequence is more advanced than Volga: it is darker, blacker, both because of what can be visualised (the survivors’ presence, their interaction, the questionable aesthetic of the room they are filling up) and because of what can’t even be verbalised (the questionable ethics of keeping them silenced, the continued violence that makes the ongoing obliteration of historical memory possible).
If People of No Consequence spans over at least five genres or techniques in contemporary art – performance, film, painting and sculpture, but also photography, because Goisum took black-and-white analogue portraits of his protagonists on the day of their gathering – then the work that followed, Keicheyuhea (2017, single-channel HD video projection, colour, sound, dialogue in Chechen, English subtitles, 19’57”), clearly self-identifies as a film.
The opening frame lays bare the steep slopes of the Galain-Chazh valley in southern Chechnya, not far from the Georgian border, but also Goisum’s readily acknowledged indebtedness to the virtuoso Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami.
This is going to be a road movie set in the most inaccessible and rugged terrain, a film where cars play a role almost equalling that of the human protagonists. Just like in Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry (1997) or The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), the car is a vehicle for much more than transport. We are going to see the car in the landscape and the landscape from inside the car.
Yet that is just one of the stylistic givens of this film, named after Goisum’s maternal grandmother Zayanu Khasueva’s ancestral village. It is now reduced to a few stones far below in an eerily silent valley that was never accessible by any means of transport. Another is the insistence that international audiences should hear the Chechen language as Khasueva speaks it, in plaintive but sharp-witted incantations.
This is the first time she has been able to revisit the area where she was born and spent the first years of her life, but she only gets as far as the four-wheel-drive can take her. There, on the steep mountain road, she picks up a dry stick to lean on and gazes down at the site of a state-sponsored crime that took less than half an hour to perpetrate but has stayed with the victims every second of their lives for almost seven and a half decades:
The Russians came and told us to leave within fifteen minutes. Only what we could carry. There were no trucks, only what we could carry with us, nothing else. We went up here, at Roshni-Chu. There they loaded us onto trucks and brought us to Grozny. And in Grozny they put us in cattle cars and took us away.7
The film is driven by Goisum’s quest for a hard-edged, crystalline beauty capable of refracting the sinuous curves of the road he and his grandmother travelled – roughly cut into the staggering slopes as if by one single excavator eating its way through no-go territory – and, more importantly, the tectonics of Khasueva’s face as she narrates, comments, laments.
Her face is neither soft nor hard, neither contorted with the pain of her individual remembrance nor submissive to any imposition of collective ‘truth and reconciliation’ – a methodology for pacifying the victims of historical injustice that is still a long way away from being tried in the central Caucasus.
Khasueva is neither forgetfulness nor forgiveness; she is both victim and witness, but most of all she is the present tense in a world that thought of it as abolished forever. She has stayed alive, which in itself is an act of defiance, and she has agreed to speak, to address us.
‘There is a footpath through that ravine’, she says, and I have added the italics to point out how radical that simple speech act is: to equate the existence of something ‘inanimate’ with the moment in which you yourself are animated, breathing, speaking of it, about it, to it.
‘Hail place!’ Khasueva incants three times (in the English subtitles that I helped edit, so again I am both observer and accomplish, because we could also have chosen to write ‘Mother Place, I greet you!’). ‘If I could only get down there!’
At the moment of speech, she is almost there, in the place that is no longer there. Keicheyuhea. The name of the village means ‘white closeness’ in Chechen.
As a work of art, Keicheyuhea is more ‘difficult’, more ‘demanding’ than Volga or People of No Consequence. It is more unambiguously bound to its topic and to a particular interpretation of it. It is bound to one place, one language, one person. It also requires time: roughly 20 minutes, including the text credits at the end.
Keicheyuhea may deliver on its promise of sharpening the observed moment of speech into a crystal of time, but does it have the light sparkle that we have also come to expect from crystal?
With this work, Goisum appears to have taken more than one step towards becoming a ‘serious’ artist, someone who makes work ‘about’ topics that may be interesting but must, above all, be ‘important’.
The inverted commas give me away. I don’t have much belief in these categories, and I somehow doubt that Goisum’s motivation is to conform to them. Nor do I believe he expects that ‘research’ into things – no matter how serious, interesting or important he finds them – will necessarily help him shape his understanding of them into a convincing film, video installation, sculpture or work on paper (to name only the techniques and formats he has been exploring until now).
I have come to believe that Goisum is, rather, driven by a will to form, a desire to find or invent the optimally precise articulation for any idea or topic that he deems worthy of engagement, his own and ours.
His will to form doesn’t necessarily have its own form, just like his topics aren’t necessarily dictated by his own experience. There is certainly nothing predetermined about his work, nothing that forces it to continue in any fixed direction, and it is in fact rarely autobiographical – although some viewers have been tempted to read it as a mere symptom of ills inflicted on him early in life.
Against this we can only insist on what we have already noted, nudged along by Adorno. In today’s dark world, radical and progressive art must also be dark. It must have the depth that comes with being occluded, occulted, obscured, and it must move forcefully into the light, which should be refracted and refocused by the artist to become as incisive as possible.
Form is of essence, but also the understanding that form alone is unable to create and sustain interest.
Goisum’s most recent film Scythian Journey (2019, single-channel HD video projection, colour, sound, no dialogue, 13’49”) was commissioned for the group exhibition ‘Blood and Soil: Dark Arts for Dark Times’ that I organised, together with Julija Fomina, at CAC Vilnius in 2019.
The exhibition’s subtitle was, as you will already have understood, inspired by the passage in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory that I quoted above. And for his film, conceived and executed in deliberate contrast to the epic scope and tone of Keicheyuhea, Goisum chose to treat darkness in ways that are at the same time literal and metaphorical, rhapsodic and carefully composed. In other words: he tries out different literary devises on material that is, in itself, unambiguously audio-visual.
Black frames with diegetic sounds from a hillside forest in late winter or very early spring separate the six short scenes that make up the film. These vignettes, populated by three sketchily outlined male figures digging for something in crunchy snow or tending to various crackling fires, unfold under a gradually darkening sky, until four man-sized fires become the only sources of light.
In this last strophe of Goisum’s poetic field notes from a staged rustic reality, all of them recorded on a hand-held video camera, his three silent custodians light firebrands to guide them into the forested nocturnal slopes, as the sonorous impact of burning wood is ramped up to an almost other-worldly intensity.
Otherwise nothing much ‘happens’ in Scythian Journey.
After watching the film two or three times in a row I thought I had deciphered another compositional principle: the soundscape shifts from predominantly natural in the first two or three episodes (the wind through the forest, branches falling) to almost entirely man-made (the purposely kindled fires) in the later ones.
In Scythian Journey there is, as in Goisum’s other work, a substrate of observation, recording and memory. People, both men and women, do roam the forests of the Caucasus in early spring to dig for wild garlic, a delicacy fetching good prices from bulk buyers.
Yet the film consists entirely of material that is staged, fictional and part of Goisum’s ever more intense and inquisitive dialogue with illustrious predecessors from the worlds of art, cinema and literature.
Here we can sense his respect for Robert Bresson’s cinema of the body, of hand-movements and, not least, of diegetic sound eerily disconnected from its visible sources and therefore contradictorily ‘disembodied’.
The title of the film is an open reference to the German writer G.W. Sebald (one of the great interpreters of what it means to write, in Adorno’s famous phrasing, ‘after Auschwitz’) and his short poem Skythische Reise.
This is how it reads in Iain Galbraith‘s English translation:
Faced with the deep shadows
of the mountains of growing darkness
we had to break our journey.
Making ourselves at home
high in the canopy of the forest
with the birds and fishes
Discussing the dragging winter
and maybe blowing a tune
on the Berecynthian horn
Savouring our dawdling
the poor Penates
smile among themselves.8
The Scythians were, of course, an ancient nomadic people of the Pontic steppes, probably of Iranian origin, who, for the Greeks, came to embody the savage (but also occasionally noble) barbarians forever threatening to overrun them from the north-east. It may also be useful to note that Berecynthus was the name of a sacred mountain in Phrygia, in present-day Turkey, and that the Penates were guardian deities of the household and state.
None of this – the cultural or archaeological references, the text of the poem, even the interpretative description of the film’s content and composition – is crucial for experiencing and understanding Goisum’s Scythian Journey, which marks a new departure for him, a first step towards a mode of artistic articulation less intimately connected with lived experience than in the other works discussed here.
Whether Goisum’s dark art is political or not is perhaps beside the point. Today, ‘political art’ is quite often art that aestheticises the political and makes it lighter than it should be – rather than making itself politically forceful or incisive and, correspondingly, darker and blacker.
That is why I have left the category of ‘political art’ aside in my attempts to characterise Goisum’s oeuvre to date. It doesn’t seem to be precise enough to capture what is at stake in his various approaches to visualising recent historical trauma – although that in itself is a highly political undertaking.
Precision is, perhaps, the ultimate hallmark of the art that works well today: an art capable of focusing our attention and energy on new forms, new images, new thought. Precision and imperfection may be the most forceful and futures-oriented combination of characteristics in any artist’s work, and especially if the artist is still young and emergent.
Just imagine its opposite: perfection and imprecision. Isn’t that the very definition of aesthetic and political stagnation? And doesn’t it bring to mind the art of Pierre Auguste Renoir, or that of Ólafur Elíasson, or the architecture of Zaha Hadid, or the cinema of Peter Greenaway…?
For me, Aslan Goisum’s art is not just dark; it is also precise. That is why I am looking forward to whatever he will decide to do next.
This is a re-edited and expanded version of the essay ‘Aslan Gaisumov’s Dark Art: Five Recent Works’, published in the monograph Keicheyuhea, 2018.
Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970), newly translated from the German by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.39.
Anders Kreuger, Aslan Gaisumov: History Painting Revisited, unpublished short essay, distributed during Goisum’s solo exhibition ‘When You Ride in a Chechen Cart, Sing a Chechen Song’ at the Contemporary Art Centre, Grozny, 2015.
Aslan Gaisumov (ed.), Keycheyuhea. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018. (Produced with support from the Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona; Kohta, Helsinki; Zink Galerie, Waldkirchen; Emalin, London. With essays by Aleida Assmann, Georgi Derlugian, Anders Kreuger, Madina Tlostanova.)
This three-part scheme is most eloquently, and therefore perhaps most damagingly, formulated in Gilda Williams’s book How to Write about Contemporary Art. London/New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014.
As reconstructed in conversation with the author on 22 May 2020.
Theodor W. Adorno, op. cit., p.40.
Zayanu Khasueva in Keicheyuhea, quoted from the English subtitles.
Winfried Georg Sebald, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964–2001, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith. New York: Random House, 2011, p.