May 13 — May 29, 2022
Solo Exhibition: "Amber Hum"
Centrum (Berlin, Germany)
Deep in the ancient forests of central Russia lies the industrial monotown Vyksa. The city is completely organized around the Metallurgical Plant, the largest and one of the oldest iron and steel plants in Russia, which today plays a central role in Russia’s geopolitical ambitions by supplying pipes for oil and gas projects and the armor hulls for the Russian military. The plant was founded in the middle of the 18th century when the protracted baptism of this deeply pagan region was being finalized, assimilating the indigenous populace and severing a spiritual connection to the land. Jura Shust’s exhibition Amber Hum examines the hidden energies and rituals that have been repressed and released in this process, using the city as a prism to understand the complex entanglement of nationalist identity, religion, and the ecocidal and military-industrial complex that is Putin’s Russia, while also suggesting a lingering persistence of ancient spiritual forces in the here and now.
With a burner continuously melting pine resin to produce an almost sacral environment, the core of the installation is a large video diptych that juxtaposes a fleeting assembly of maybugs around a street light with cell-phone footage of Vyksa and its natural surroundings during the town’s 2019 Victory Day celebration. Though initially the May 9th holiday honored the losses suffered across the USSR against Nazi fascism, it has increasingly played a vital role in contemporary Russian ideological propaganda, becoming its main identity-building celebration. This fanatical nostalgia for the “Great Patriotic War” appropriates Soviet history and aesthetics as a biopolitical tool in aid of an ethno-nationalist, imperialist, militaristic, and Orthodox Russian identity, and is celebrated in parades and mass processions across Russia and the former states of the USSR, as well as by the diaspora across the world. Every year, people gather in Treptower Park in Berlin, with rival factions claiming the holiday as either a celebration of Soviet communism, peace, and antifascism on one hand, or statist militaristic Russian hyper-nationalism on the other. Indeed, only a few days before this exhibition premiered, the parade was staged in bombed-out cities of Ukraine as an illusionary testament to Russia’s “victory” and as “proof” of their cultural and political hegemony. The blast of fireworks, the customary culmination of any Victory Day celebration, echoes throughout Shust’s video installation, correlating mass public ceremony with the repetitive and ongoing bombardments today.
The two-channel video is presented in the corner like an Orthodox icon while chunks of pine resin are melted throughout the exhibition, as if returning the exhibition format to its origins in religious conventions. Shust floods the room with the scent of the woodlands. This ritualistic, yet industrial gesture, recalls the mystical tree groves of the indigenous people of the region and suggests that the prominent Christian tradition of incense burning is rooted in a communion with the trees by bringing their sacred spirit, the natural world, inside. One should remember that resin is a defense response by the tree’s immune system, a reaction to trauma, and this is perhaps why this aromatic sticky polymer is associated with spiritual cleansing, healing, protection, the perseverance of life forces, and the persistence of the past. Pine resin, and its later form in amber, are time capsules, and by liquifying the substance into gooey pools of matter and smoke, the artist releases latent energies and boils them to the surface.
This emanation from within or below after periods of dormancy is a key feature in the life cycle of the maybug, which congregates in front of a flickering green light in the left channel of Shust’s video diptych. Sometimes called may-beetles, cockchafers, or doodlebugs, the huge and heavy insects spend several years underground before emerging en masse during early spring evenings. Long ago their “mass flights” would be a mysterious pest for populations, but in the modern age, pesticides and industrialization diminished their numbers. But now, their revivals have become once again more frequent, as if replicating their own life cycle at a larger time scale, lying in wait for the right moment. The ancient Egyptians worshiped such scarab beetles as symbols for resurrection and transformation, and ancient peoples in Europe often considered them as avatars for the seasons whose frantic dance in the face of a fleeting life gives an essential view into cycles of mortality and change. The fluorescent green light source is somewhat of a toxic backdrop, a supernatural sign for life forces, while also alluding to the chlorophyll in plants, which shares the same properties of the hemoglobin in our blood minus the iron. The light thwarts the bugs’ phototactical navigation, ensnaring the bugs in a tragic trance. The juxtaposition of the bugs with footage of the Victory Day march draws a parallel between the periodic appearance of these auto-destructive rituals in early May, and suggests that the explosive discharges of the fireworks, and the militaristic and chauvinist spectacle of the event, are as disorienting as the light is to the maybugs.
Amber Hum is a repetitive ritual in regeneration and ruination in response to a time of extreme cruelty, both to man and to nature. The work confronts the political instrumentalization of the past in narratives of nationalist identities and looks to the clashing dynamics of Vyksa as peculiar biopolitical landscape, an emblematic site for the interlocking beliefs, geopolitical policies, ideologies, behaviors, and organizational forms which work as a life-destroying paradigm in our age. By summoning spiritual configurations of identity, community, and communication with nature, the installation identifies the traces of ancient rites and mystical forces within an increasingly oppressive ideological environment, thwarting attempts at erasure and manipulation. As a form of critical resistance, the project proposes that when human practices and non-human resources are assimilated or subjugated by dominating forces, a latent energy remains waiting to reemerge.