Invocation Trilogy is a series of videos that are situated in a cluster of significant anniversaries for Eastern Europe. The year 2017, when I began this body of work, was the centenary of the Russian Revolution. And in the year the series concluded, 2021, 30 years will have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These two momentous bookends mark an era in Eastern Europe that is significant not only in terms of politics and social organisation, but also as a time that continues to shape the psyche of the inhabitants of a vast region for years after it passed. But unlike the marks left by war or occupation, the traces of Eastern European socialism that remain on Eastern Europeans, do not have anything near a unified pitch or tone. That there are attempts at writing singular and officially sanctioned histories of socialism, as is the case with Poland’s right-populist PiS party or Hungary’s Fidesz, only proves that, in fact, the legacy and memory of the 20th century Marxist-Leninist experiment continually resists any effort to pin it down to any one interpretation or recollection.
Here, in this hazy zone of diverse memories, a cultural phenomenon that Svetlana Boym calls “reflective nostalgia” can spread and thrive. Placed in opposition to “restorative nostalgia”, which is regressive, reactionary and typically chauvinist in character, reflective nostalgia is concerned with the object of longing as much as “the longing itself”. It is, in Boym’s words: “a social memory, which consists of collective frameworks that mark but do not define the individual memory.” As such, it has immense poetic potential.
In one variant, Boym’s ‘good’ nostalgia, in the context of 21st century Eastern Europe, sets it sights on the memory of socialism. And each Eastern European region has its own variant of this memory: in ex-Yugoslav states it’s known as Yugo-, or Tito-nostalgia, for residents of the former GDR it’s Ostalgie, in the ex-Soviet republics, it’s often simply Nostalgia. This widespread phenomenon can be loosely defined as a longing for the socialist past, often by those old enough to remember it, but not exclusively. Its tone varies, but usually sits somewhere between irony, mild nationalism, and a genuine grievance with contemporary post-socialist society. But typically, if unconsciously, it’s less an uncritical celebration of the past than a rejection of present neoliberalism, austerity, and the human scale difficulties associated with these realities.
Nostalgia, as with history itself, is not a linear sequence of instances of visual or material culture, such as memories of architectural styles, a succession of political leaders, or serialised TV shows. Nostalgia can flow and weave, disappear and reappear through time and place and carry within it the nostalgia for nostalgia itself.
In 2017 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, art critic Boris Groys curated an exhibition and conference about Cosmism, a largely forgotten Russian quasi-religious philosophy that began in the late 19th century with a mystic named Nikolai Fedorov. Groys’s undertakings were the zenith of a whole host of events during 2017, including a series of lectures at MOMA, exhibitions at the Tate, numerous publications and a special Cosmism focused issue of e-flux journal. A generation of Eastern European contemporary artists, such as Daniil Zinchenko, Anton Vidokle, Arseny Zhilyaev, and the collective Vverkh!, to name a few, create work with a conceptual basis in this obscure theory and its related concerns. But the resurrection of an archaic idea is in not inherently remarkable, except that it is in this case a theory which quite simply, is concerned with the literal resurrection of all humanity and the attainment of eternal life for all (an idea surely incompatible with this current era of secular liberalism). But why, then, would the art world concern itself with such an obscure and anachronistic subject?
I suspect that Cosmism’s popularity is a nostalgia for 19th century mysticism entwined in a nostalgia for 20th century socialism: it is a lateral extension of Boym’s notion of longing for longing itself. To a large degree, nostalgia for the Eastern European socialist project is also a nostalgia for the ‘mystical’, or the ‘numinous’ or to use a term from the early 20th century Futurist poet Kruchenykh, refers to as the ‘transrational’. Under the banner of transrational, we can group together not only Cosmism, but also Orthodox Christianity, Slavic Catholicism, Hasidic Judaism as well as Eastern European shamanism, Neo-Paganism, occultism, the Bolshevik bogostroitelstvo movement, Eastern European YouTube conspiracy theory and state-endorsed pseudo-science, to list a tiny handful of examples.
Invocation Trilogy aims to explore the contemporary Eastern European art world’s attraction to the transrational and to engage with it as a phenomenon of post-socialist nostalgia and neo-Romanticist nationalism via the moving image. Although not exclusive to screen-based art forms, this tendency to mysticism and the transrational by way of nostalgia is constant in 20th century Eastern Europe, and its growth has developed hand in hand with the development of cinema.
In 2017 Invocation Trilogy commenced with Floor Dance of Lenin’s Resurrection. Set in the early 1980s, part one of the series depicts a man living in a fictitious amalgam of several Eastern European states. The man, played by me, is being interviewed by another man, also played by me. The interview is conducted in a fictional Pan-Slavic language that I have devised from an ‘irrational’ mix of Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Serbo-Croat and Bulgarian. The conversation of the two men starts formally, but quickly devolves into a rumination on social responsibility, sincerity, and the limits of language. It ends in an ecstatic pseudo-mystical dance and an introduction to a pair of angels: representatives of 1917 and 1991; bookends of the Eastern European 20th century socialist project.
Part two of the series, entitled Seven Revisionists (2018) is a continuation of this theme. The two angels of 1917 and 1991, here portrayed by children, walk through mountains and tundra, through canyons and birch forest until they reach their goal: a giant concrete bust of Lenin. The angel of 1917 recites a prayer in the Pan-Slavic ficto-language, and something happens…
Part three, Connection of the Sticks, is a feature length work that, like its predecessors, uses language, dance and references to Eastern European cinema to tie together a series of discrete vignettes, each only loosely connected to the ones before and after by an evolving thread of associations.
Connection of the Sticks covers 19 locations, across 3 countries:
We begin in Myslivka, in present day Ukraine. Where my maternal grandmother witnessed her foster mother kill a Nazi with a loaf of bread.
Then to Perm, Russia. Where my maternal grandfather, returning to Poland from Siberia where he spent much of his childhood, stopped for a few days in 1945 and renounced God.
Then to Nizhny Tagil, Russia. Where Budanova, the famous Soviet ski jumper collided with ball lightning during a jump in 1977.
Then to Magnitogorsk, Russia. A mining town at the base of the Urals, where a mountain filled with magnetised iron ore repels birds and breaks compasses.
Then to Dzerzhinsk, Russia. Where a Soviet engineer conjures ghosts through photography.
Then to Moscow. To an army of Lenin monuments dotting the metropolis.
Then to the Kerch Strait. Where Ukraine and Russia face a tense standoff.
Then to Dorobino, Russia. Where an ace World War II pilot crash landed and was taken in by a sisterhood of witches.
Then to Orenburg, Russia. Where a child climbs a cliff to poach a fledgling falcon.
Then to Arhyz, in the mountains of Russia’s south. Where a team of scientists break the laws of biology and decency.
Then Smolensk, Russia. The town where a government plane crashed, killing the Polish president and dozens of other Polish officials in 2010.
Then to the middle of the Baltic Sea. Where reactionaries and CIA agents plot the collapse of Human Hopes.
Then to Kazan, Russia. Where I find myself trapped under the ice.
Then to Volgograd, Russia. Where a prophetic boy sees the future.
Then to Chernobyl, Ukraine. A place of tragedy, generations before the reactor was built.
Then to Dobroslav, Ukraine. Where mycologists resurrect an extinct psychedelic mushroom species.
Then to Zamość, Poland. Birthplace of Rosa Luxemburg.
Then to Rzhev, Russia. Outside of which in a dark dense forest, on one night a year, the trees can be heard singing.
Then to the Crooked Forest, on the border of Poland and Germany, and therefore the Westernmost point of Eastern Europe. Where an old woman performs a simple ritual that keeps proletarian Eastern Europe safe from the bourgeois West.
Finally, tracing all these interconnected geographic locations, we come upon a surprising realisation. For the third and final time in the Invocation Trilogy, a famous mystical prophet is invoked and resurrected from the dead.
Written by Kuba Dorabialski.
28 August – 10 October
Curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham