Navigating the Poetics of Failure
Navigation is the science of working out the position of a ship and charting a course for guiding the craft safely from one point to another. A navigator usually tries to find the shortest route between two points. The initial planning and the end results of navigation are plotted on flat surfaces called maps and charts. Until the twentieth century, the most sophisticated navigational tools and techniques available, dead reckoning using the magnetic compass, chronometer and sextant were rather inaccurate. Many shipwrecks have occurred when the crew of the ship allowed the ship to collide with rocks, reefs, icebergs, or other ships. Accurate navigation is made more difficult by poor visibility in bad weather.
In 1596 Willem Barents set out from the Netherlands with his crew on a third expedition to find a Northeast Passage to Asia. Various compasses, a sextant, an astrolabe, a navigation manual from 1580, and a 16th century volume on China served as the cartographical and cultural guides to unexplored territory. Although a navigational achievement, Barents’ final expedition to Nova Zembla, the third of its kind, was an utter failure in terms of its initial goals. No Northeast Passage to China was discovered, the ship ran aground on an iceberg, the crew was stranded for a winter on the ice, and Barents lost his life. In 1597 the remaining crew landed in Amsterdam, still dressed in bearskins, after rowing back part of the way in open boats.
The displacement of items from the Nova Zembla collection from History Department of Rijksmuseum and their re-location into a contemporary art context through the CTP exhibition project at De Appel was guided by the principle of re-contextualization: a process of cultural value exchange between two major cultural institutions. In this sense, the aim of including the Nova Zembla collection in a contemporary art context was to offer a new reading on the collection, in which a reexamination of the story served as a metaphor for questioning the linearity and authorship of complexly layered historical “sites.” One of these is the former socialist landscape of Central and Southeastern Europe, which has been engaged in a process of renegotiating its historical heritage for over fifteen years. With the EU enlargement, this whole area has become more accessible to the western consumer. Opening to the East has been almost a random process, in which the West takes a quick look to see “who” is ringing at its door, indifferently inspects “the visitor” through the peephole, and then decides whether to engage or simply register the given identity as “other.” One navigational path through the exhibition Mercury in Retrograde—through the works of Sven Johne, Dimitry Gutov, IRWIN, David Maljkovic, and Fernando Sanchez Castillo—represents a process of engagement in discussions of hidden histories that were long trapped in ice, due to a frozen political environment—societies where the politics, cultural, moral and ethical values were fixed. The moment when the ice breaks is the notorious “zero point” in history, a starting point for renewal and revisionism. Here, the point of departure is Nova Zembla, a site where artifacts were trapped in the ice for over 300 years and a Dutch historical narrative played out on the distant island, Novaya Zemlaya, now on Russian territory. Only through the thawing of the Cold War and the effects of Glasnost and Perestroika were the Dutch able to successfully set foot once again on the site of Barents’ winter camp, 400 years later, to search for material remnants of a distant past in a changed landscape.
"So (we) were sent (out) from (Burgomaste)rs of Am(ster)dam An(no) I(596) in order to sai(l) by the (N)orth to the countries of China/ so th(at) we after great trouble and no (small) danger are come round the West of Nov(a Zembla) intending yet also to sail (along) by the coast of Tarter(y) to the aforesaid countries/ (and are fin)ally come on this plac(e) on the 26 August(t in the year) above men(tioned) where our (ship/after we had) so bravely exerted ourselves (at last) became fast in (the) ice/ And we have (moreover in) this emergency been compelled to build a h(ous)e (to) preserve our lives therein(n) through the winter if possible from cold. Lived in the house from the –12– October anno – 1596–all the whol winter through till–13 (Jun)e of the following year –97–in great cold. Are on the same 13 Jun(e) when our ship still lay pinched all fast in (the ice) with our boat and yawl sa(iled) from here in order that we might come home again/ Our God will grant us safe voyage/ and bring us with good health in our fatherland/ Amen.
-English translation of a note signed by Barents and Heemskerk and stuck into a powderhorn and inside the chimney of the Behouden Huis on Nova Zembla, June 13, 1596. Discovered in 1876 by Charles Gardiner.
In considering an installation of 16th century artifacts, the curatorial strategy of the team was driven by the premise that the initial displays of the Nova Zembla collection in the Netherlands were forged by the myth-making ideals and nation-building desires of a burgeoning national state. Recovered, or as Dutch archeologists might say, “plundered,” in 1871 and 1876 respectively by Danish and English seafarers from the site of Barents’ wintering on the ice, the artifacts were obtained by the Dutch and displayed as national trophies with the opening of the Rijksmuseum in 1885 in Amsterdam. According to Lucian Boia, Romanian writer and historian “the definition of what we could refer to as myth is the following: an imaginary construction (keeping in mind once more, that it does not signifying “real” or “unreal,” but can be ordered according to the rules and logic of the imaginary) designated to reveal universal and social phenomena—in accordance with fundamental values and with the aim of strengthening their cohesiveness. History’s myths essentially are, indeed, a reuse of the past in the real sense of the above-mentioned sentence.”
The main concern of Mercury in Retrograde overall was to start a negotiation process and debate around current constructs of history within society. How artists decide to reuse the past in the face of persistent nationalism and a merging global community reveals the fault lines between these two historical forces. In this context, the growing neo-liberal environment in Eastern Europe has aggressively gained influence and followers who are in the process of establishing the towers of a new legacy. Nothing new in this respect, as the East merges into the whiteness of history repeating itself. Resistance can take the form of harvesting a long or recently forgotten past. The question is whether in moments of rupture or revision this past represents dangerous entrenchment in a “retrograde” history or a guiding vision for the challenges of the future. Considered by the curatorial team as metaphors for finding a way between these poles of historical perspectives, the 16th century navigation tools selected for exhibition were used to control the direction of the ship; some were even manufactured by Barents’ technical crew to calculate their position and map new territories during their explorative journey. Heralded as “Barents Relics” in the first Dutch publication on the finds, the artifacts serve as starting point for a route through numerous historical “icebergs” that is guided by the agendas of artists’ research methodologies.
Problems of Navigation
Within Mercury in Retrograde, problems of navigation are noticeable from the start. In the room with the Nova Zembla artifacts hangs a large icescape, apparently a work of a 19th century history painter. However, The Death of Barents by the Russian realist painter, Georgy Kitchigin, is actually a commission of a Dutch-Russian Nova Zembla expedition team in the mid 1990s, kindly loaned for the exhibition. Unsuccessful in their search for the burial site of Barents, the expedition members sponsored this illustration of the moment of Barent’s death on the ice, which commemorates a hero’s “final sacrifice” in a theatre of gestures and naturalistic drama. Interestingly this scene is not included among the many illustrations of the expedition published in the early 17th century. In a combined style of retro-romaticism and Russian realism, the work embodies multiple eras in an attempt to reinsert a missing image into the visual narration of events.
On another wall in the room the series, Vinta, by the young German artist Sven Johne, chronicles various micro-histories of human mistakes and failures associated with the Baltic island of Vinta. With black and white portraits of the individuals concerned and pithy but telling stories of their adventures, Vinta functions a timeline of failed expeditions to an island so tiny it almost represents an abstract notion—a miniature utopia of personal ambition and hope that was poised on the border between East and West in the era of the cold war. From Fritz Lang’s failures surrounding The Woman in the Moon (1929), shot on Vinta, to the escaping East German doctor who mistook the unchartered GDR island for Denmark, the work speaks to the individual fates impacted by failed attempts and heroic amibitions gone awry.
Resistance on the Ice
While continuing the navigation of the exhibition through the constructed and mediated space of Dmitry Gutov’s Livshitz Institute, it becomes apparent that not only is his work an efficient tool in re-reading the Marxist esthetic, but it is also a form of collective survival in the Russian neoliberal and nationalistic winter. Perhaps it is utopian ideal to mention here the notion recalled by Gutov’s initiative in his attempt to recontextualize M. Livshitz’s writings and his statement: the ideal of human race is to be in complete agreement. Who else besides Gutov presents M. Livshitz’s legacy as a crystallized opposition to figures of liberal capitalism. This is particularly apparent in Gutov’s documentary presented in MiR exhibition, in which Russian artists discuss the snobbery of pop art—as they describe it, a movement that is completely based on commerce and its affections. The collective initiative that appeared in the early 1990s under the most hostile environment, a rapidly developing neoliberal system in Russia, is associated with a political “winter” that seems to coincide with our imaginary exploration itinerary. This is not by geographic accident, but rather it is the result of a significant physical and mental experience that resembles the sort of drama of the state parallel to the resistance of Barents’ explorers trapped in the ices.
Image of Barents navigation tool (instrument that looks like an astrology measurement tool)
“In this classic method, used most commonly in the open sea, the navigator uses celestial bodies that have been identified and grouped into constellations since ancient times. Celestial navigation makes possible voyages across thousands of miles of unmarked water. However, clouds, fog, rain, snow, mist, or haze, may prevent the essential sightings of celestial bodies.
For celestial navigation the navigator uses a sextant and a chronometer. The astrolabe is an instrument used for measuring the positions of heavenly bodies. It consists of a circle or section of a circle, marked off in degrees, with a movable arm pivoted at the center of the circle. Until the sextant was invented during the 18th century, smaller types of astrolabes were the main instruments used by navigators.
Visually charted as a constellation of white orbs on a black background, the East Art Map is a longstanding initiative of the Slovenian artist collective IRWIN, a project presented by IRWIN member Miran Mohar at the Mercury in Retrograde symposium “What Say These Stones.” Like the multiple expeditions of Nova Zembla by Dutch and Russian teams in the 1990s—“recovery operations” in search of new artifacts and information—IRWIN’s initiative aimed to build up a complex system of orientation through freshly recovered coordinates of art history. “History is not given,” write the EAM editors and project authors, “it has to be constructed.” The statement follows the principle of a guidebook through the visual culture of totalitarian and post-totalitarian societies. The project and recent publication, East Art Map, is the largest contemporary art documentation project ever undertaken on the East. It guides us through the recent reconstruction of history from a collectively authored approach. This is an attempt to balance out the history-making process itself by precisely working with the mechanisms of constructing and mediating realities from a historical perspective. IRWIN deals with what has been “lost” by post-WWII historiography, a strategy associated with the curators’ approach to dealing with Lippmann & Rosenthal affair.
(Image of the Behouden Huis (reconstruction at Ship Museum))
In David Malijkovic’s Scene for a New Heritage 1 and 2 visitors from several decades in the future make a trip to a mysterious silver structure, a monument at Petrova Gora to victims of World War II, which was built in Croatia under the communist regime (designed by Vojin Bakic). What was once a site visited by Croatian school children is now a gleaming shell that had almost been destroyed in the conflicts that raged in ex-Jugoslavia in the 1990s. In the video works, the knowledge about the structure has been lost. In part 1 a group returns to explore its exterior and attempts to decipher this artifact of a lost heritage, while in part 2 a solitary young man returns from even farther into the future and seems to be guided through its cavernous, peeling interior by a magical golden ball. The work speaks to a ruptured, broken history that can no longer be accessed, and a structure from a modernist heritage becomes an alien artifact. Like the recent Dutch expeditions to Nova Zembla, in Scene for a New Heritage the protagonists return to a destroyed site to reassemble the past. A sense of loss and fragmentation are pared images of with gleaming futuristic fragments, upon which a new history may be constructed.
(Image of Carol equestrian statue / Image from FSC Film)
Although the central area of the city was destroyed during the WW2 bombardments, the equestrian statue of the ruler Carol survived till 1948, when it was dismantled by the communists and melted down. From the resulting bronze a statue of Lenin was cast in the late 1940s and installed in front of the “Scanteia” building. After a judgment passed by the Hague Tribunal in the late 1950s the Romanian state was forced to pay reparations to the Mestrovici family for the destruction of two monuments, the first mentioned statue and the second of the ruler Ferdinand, which was situated near the Mavrogheni church.
-Excerpt from an article by Gabriela Lupu in the
Romanian newspaper “Cultura” December, 2006.
Placing Fernando Sanchez Castillo’s monumental video Rich Fat Cat Dies in Chicago at the very end, on the top floor of Mercury in Retrograde brought the cycle of navigation through the labyrinthine exhibition to an archetypal, post-climax downfall—a Hegelian moment of collapse and rage in an eternal historical dynamic. In his film the artist choreographs a range of displays and games that take place around the abuse of a bronze head: a coup d’etat restaged in a riding ring, in the desert, in the street. Drawn into the operetic the ritual of political revision, the viewer becomes part of the actions and movements. Consequently, it becomes painfully apparent that the symbols of one deposed regime are removed, only to soon be replaced by others. As Fernando Sanchez Castillo’s states: “Spanish recent history is trying to eliminate the excess of signs and symbols that characterized Franco’s period from streets. I wonder where they are being stored, and I would like to attempt to see if art can use them as the remnants, the building blocks, of our current art history. Sometimes one needs to reconstruct the memory of events. Art can speak metaphorically to relocate us in the structures of history in a way that other disciplines cannot.”
Such an idea finds its antipode in the recent post-socialist reality of Eastern Europe. Here a striking parallel is the current recasting of statue of the Rumanian King Carol I (1839-1914), an equestrian statue that had been destroyed and melted down in 1948 when the Communists seized power. In keeping with an ancient ritual, the victors created a statue of Lenin from the bronze. In a reversal of regime and fortune, the Romanian government is considering reusing the broken remains of the Lenin statue that was toppled in 1989 to recast and reinstall the former statue of Carol.
Novaya Zemlya, Nova Zembla, New Land
Now on the island of Novaya Zemlya, only a few polar bears remain lurking around the meagre, exposed remains of the Safe House. Today, the landscape is dotted with other abandoned structures, the heavy lead containers used as protective shelters for humans during the nuclear tests executed in 1950s by the Russians. On the other side of Nova Zembla the glacial climate preserves the remains of concentration camps dating from Stalin’s regime, which are situated near isolated and abandoned Eskimo settlements. As we near the end of our journey, it would be an appropriate time to mention the vision of Russian artist Y. Lederman who presented a proposal for the installation of Barents’ Relics, which we rejected, both because of its excessively critical statement and how this would reflect on prized cultural artifacts of Dutch history. His idea was to surround artifacts from Nova Zembla with images of Soviet gulags as a metaphor for the present and a reflection on the current state of world historiography/museology, in which the past is used to reaffirm the will and needs of exisiting power structures.
Ultimately, we the navigators—the artists and curators—are indeed the prisoners of time. Currently the History Department of the Rijksmuseum is reconstructing the display of the Nova Zembla collection, and we can only guess about the new look of updated Dutch historiography. What we knew for sure is that the former Dutch symbol of patriotism—invoked as a model of endurance during World War II—will experience a shift in representational accents, and we might discover a new face of the myth in accordance with new contemporary realities. And in the future, as the ice continues to melt, the Northeast Passage may become a shipping route with access rights contested among its bordering countries. Here, it is worthwhile to recall another thought of Boia, who said “that it must be understood: there is no objective history, so although we speak about objectivity, in principle we are also talking about its non-existence. In other words, our era marks the end of the illusion, entertained and amplified by the scientism of the past century. The “Critical School” was so trustful and aware of the historian capacity to squeeze from the document, or what the Ranke called “the history as the way it really was’ and the Marxist theory with its accurate disposal of the phenomena’s into the perfect schema of the evolution of humanity actually are the two highest points reached by the myth of “perfect” and objective history.”
In the context of Mercury in Retrograde, the Nova Zembla collection reflects on an expedition to the past where the outcome is uncertain. Overall, as cultural producers and mediators we see our aim in parallel with members of Barents’ expedition. Carrying prints and books on their journey, the explorers were bringing items of their culture to an unknown land in a mission of enlightenment and cultural exchange. Clearly, a group of foreign curators entering into the unknown waters of the Dutch political, historical and cultural context represents a potential for failure in an attempt to research a complexity of history within a contemporary (“western”) society. Although this process cannot solve contemporary historical dilemmas, nevertheless it represents an attempt to build negotiation platforms between the individual for the future achievements. Here, the roles assumed by curators engaged critically in exploration could be best described with a paraphrase of Lucien Febvre’s words: “The historian is not the one who knows but the one who searches for…”
Laura Schleussner and Stefan Rusu
Laura Schleussner is a curator and translator based in Berlin. After studying Fine Art with Lothar Baumgarten in Berlin, she initiated and directed the project space Rocket Shop (2001-2004). Since completing the De Appel Curatorial Training Program in 2006 she has been working on a number of independent publications and curatorial projects.
Ştefan RUSU (born in 1964, Câietu, Moldova) currently based in Bishkek/Kyrgyzstan. Ştefan’s artist and curatorial agenda is closely connected to the processes post-socialist societies underwent and to the changes that occurred in these societies after 1989. In 2004 he completed an MA in cultural management from Belgrade Art University, following the years 2005-06 he attended the Curatorial Training Program at Stichting De Appel in Amsterdam.
1 Soon after the Dutch attempted an expedition to the Behouden Huis on Nova Zembla, which was not successful.
2 Lucian Boia, History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness. Translated by James Christian Brown. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2001, p. 56. Lucian Boia is Professor of History at the University of Bucharest. He is the author of Great Historians of the Modern Age (1991) and La Fin du Monde: une Histoire sans Fin (1989)
3 Interestingly, the scene was excluded in early 17th century illustrations of original crewmember Gerrit de Veer’s journal.
4 Ibid., p.54.