“Senses of Measure”
written by: John E. Bowlt
(exhibition at Museum of the Academy of Arts and Krokin gallery, St. Petersburg)
In 1845 Edgar Alllan Poe published A Descent into the Maleström, one of his most gripping tales of man’s struggle with the elemental forces and of the dramatic confrontation between two sets of conventions, one immanent and perhaps divine, the other invented and patently human. Although the story possesses many symbolic associations, perhaps the most vivid has to do with the clash of inexorable forces within the universe – of the pantheistic commandment against which mankind pitches his own fabricated conventions. The struggle is always unequal, but occasionally, as in Poe’s narrative, the individual not only threatens, but also, manifestly, vanquishes, the forces of nature, even if the essential message there is not about the uneven or misguided match between will and Will, but about the very interaction and interplay of those two conditions.
With its juxtaposition of magnetic energies (one Classical and permanent, the other contemporary and fleeting), “Text-Context” extends Poe’s sentiment into a three-dimensional configuration — the thirty-two sections of Greek and Roman statues gravitating towards the rotunda interpolated with Infante’s and Goryunova’s photographic images beneath the auspices of the Museum of the Academy of Arts of Russia, perhaps Russia’s most patent symbol of esthetic canon and convention. The configuration is bold, to say the least: here we have replicas of celebrated heads, busts and full figures, prescriptions of hallowed values which are considered to be timeless and an intrinsic component of Western civilization. These values, expressed in dramatic gesture and serious mien and embodied in the three dimensions of marble and bronze, often bear the emblems of power and majesty which tally with a long established system of technical, esthetic and social criteria. On the other hand, the photographic images of the Artifacts with their abstract structures, distributed among the lapidary tributes to Greece and Rome challenge, but also complement, the homage to order and measure. Their abstract structures set in landscapes of sun, water and snow elicit the dimensions of nature, ecology and the cycle of life so lacking in the still and studied poses of the Classical display.
Although the installation does not bear the grim, eschatological mood of Poe’s prose and, on the contrary, tells us about elegance and measure, it still confronts us with the daunting territory of antique casts (even if these are pedagogical copies) vis-à-vis the “additive element” (as Kazimir Malevich might have said) of the Artifacts. In other words, “Text-Context” is all about contrast in the widest sense – between antiquity and contemporaneity, between the Classical and the Radical, at least, that would seem to be the initial impression.
A second glance, however, reveals that the collision is only apparent and that the concept of old versus new, axial versus peripheral, is in itself false and untenable. Infante’s and Goryunova’s evocation of the synchrophasotron (a powerful particle accelerator for protons) and the association of atoms hurtling through space, electric current and funnel of force-lines, constitutes an appropriate metaphor for this esthetic imposition of motion (the dynamic artifact) upon stasis (the Classical statuary), of rhythm upon meter.
The outward effect is of vessels (the artifacts) racing across the vast ocean of white figures (the statues and busts), like the shipwreck descending into the maelström, and a casual conclusion might be that, indeed, the experimental “text” is fresher than “context” of remote tradition. However, the exhibition also forces us to appreciate a more universal truth, a denominator common to both the Classical legacy, the artifacts and the architectonic configuration of the halls and rotunda themselves. This is the divine and perfect geometry which pertains not only to Phidias, Praxiteles and Infante, but also to the physical space and intellectual mission of the Museum of the Academy of Arts of Russia itself, because it, too, is an architectonic perfection, challenging the outward disorder of Poe’s inclemency. In other words, in spite of the outward differences there is a precision of calculation which unites all the exhibits at “Text-Context” and which reminds us that even the speeding particles of the synchrophasotron or of a maelström are subject to the order of an indefeasible formula. On this level, Infante’s and Goryunova’s Artifacts are both extensions of, and metaphors for, the secret, yet omniscient, geometry which permeates our every movement, whether esthetic, social or ideological, and that, ultimately, the antique representations of high culture, the luminous Artifacts, the maelström and the speeding particles are constituent parts of a single cosmic energy.