A park of ruins

The Dark Forest by Taisia Korotkova is the first total installation by the artist. Black-and-white “veduta” drawings are hung in a semidark hall, very much like espaliers in a fairy-tale castle or a painted stage backing and wings in an old theater—this is indeed a forest where one can go astray or at least wonder around. It is not so much an impassable pristine thicket, but a slightly deserted world fair, where looming behind the laces of branches are outlines of grand and mysterious structures, there to showcase all sorts of wonders of progress: towers and domes, antennae and radars, missile silos and power generators. Not quite a world fair even, but rather the national VDNKh expo—most of its “wonders” on display still scattered around the former Soviet republics.

The new project by Taisia Korotkova continues on the themes that the artist began exploring in her past painting projects. In the series Technology, Museum of Cosmonautics, Off-Limits Russia and others, she looked at the mythology of progress and achievement, the legacy and ruins of the sci-tech utopia. Taisia’s medium of choice, tempera, was deliberately anachronistic, which presented her narratives through a lens of an artificially distant perspective. The ruins of abandoned Soviet defense installations were reminiscent of the ruins as depicted in Romanticism, and the spacesuits in the museums seemed as ancient as Egyptian sarcophagi.

In the Dark Forest, Taisia Korotkova goes for a drastically different technique and scale. Painting is replaced in favor of black-and-white drawings, which, according to the artist, is a reference to old Art Nouveau illustrations in old fairy tales: a dark forest is first and foremost a fairy-tale setting. Instead of book pages, however, the drawings are made on huge laminated tablecloths hung under the ceiling. Images look even more refined than Taisia’s past paintings, small and meticulously detailed—yet, they do not allow the audience to maintain any distance by surrounding the viewer with the dark forest, the one which leads astray. Their incorporeality is the incorporeality of the omnipermeating specter.

The Dark Forest invites a description as “hauntological.” Coined by Jacques Derrida, the term “hauntology” was first introduced in 1993 in his Specters of Marx. By the late 2000s, through the works of British thinkers and music critics Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, hauntology came to denote a genre of electronic music—thus becoming a trend in contemporary culture, engrossed in a nostalgia for unrealized futures. In Fisher’s eyes, the claustrophobia of the eternal present and the inevitability of capitalism were connected, to a large degree, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a term, hauntology is rarely used to characterize contemporary art. Still, Fisher’s exploration of hauntology on his k-punk blog, published throughout the 00s, touched upon cinema and TV series as well as music, and was in synch with the revived interest to the subjects of “ruins,” as exemplified by the 2014 exhibition Ruin Lust at Tate Britain put together by British art historian, critic and curator Brian Dillon. These ruins as rediscovered in the 00s are the ruins of modernism, that same unrealized future. The cult of new ruins coincided with the emergence of the notion of “socialist modernism” in architecture, where most current objects are also ruinated—from the abandoned “spomeniks” of the former Yugoslavia to the whimsical bus stop shelters across the former USSR.

Although hauntology was mostly developed in European writings, there are, frustrated by the definitive collapse of a socialist future, hauntological motifs in works by several generations of post-Soviet artists: from Irina Korina to Danila Tkachenko, or from Pavel Otdelnov to Arseniy Gilyaev. Even Ilya Kabakov of the 00s, with his numerous “monuments to a lost civilization,” appears to be a perfect fit for a hauntological artist. But, perhaps, the most impactful and paradoxical manifestation of a hauntological outlook on the world can be found among Taisia Korotkova’s generation of artists, who happened to lose out on both the communist utopia and the free future after socialism (which had been available as an aspiration for the Soviet non-conformists). Moreover, Taisia and her fellow Surikov graduates try to resolve the question of what is possible to describe in the language they were taught, which is a successor to the representative socialist realism, and the question of what meanings and stories are generated by this aesthetic, which has become almost “objectless.” “Generally, if you were to name a facet of Soviet art, which I am interested in and will probably continue working with for now—this would be the utopia, the myth of a beautiful future or present, and everything which ensues,” says the artist. “I am not interested in socialist realism or propaganda, but there are gems and sources of inspiration to be found in the avant-garde and the Taw period.”

Although most structures depicted in Taisia Korotkova’s new works are functional and come from the military-industrial complex, when surrounded by greenery in the monochrome “tapestries” they look like whimsical architecture utopias (utopias that could be produced by any people in any historical period). The works are shrouded in phantasmagorical pessimism, quite on par with the Mir Iskusstva magazine, which throws off any attempts at temporal attribution completely. So, for example, the sphere in Neman-P radar station at a Kazakhstan test site and the missile silo in the near-by forest begin to resemble the utopian architecture of Ledoux and Boullée. The only facility at this ghostly VDNKh to be located outside the former Soviet Union is the famous sound mirrors, build by the UK after World War I as part of the air defense system and soon obsolete after the invention of radar technology. These extravagant structures along the Kent shore have become a key destination for hauntology fans; in significant part this was due to a 16mm black-and-white film by Tacita Dean (1999) where the mirrors were featured several times in the context of “ruins of modernity.”

Other structures depicted in the Dark Forest have also attracted “stalker” pilgrimages, visits by urban explorers, or mentions in conspiracy-themed folklore around formerly secret sites. The artist refers to the “stalker” subculture and, too, to the movie by Tarkovsky, which is part of the “hauntological canon.” The multitude of social media communities have made these ruins almost a kitsch item (also noted by Brian Dillon)—joining the ranks of such clichés as romantic ruins in old paintings or postcards, becoming the familiar elements of “picturesqueness”; and Taisia Korotkova makes a play on it by drawing her works with a marker on the backside of a tablecloth. It would not be too much of a stretch to imagine that similar landscapes with test sites and bunkers could soon adorn table covers or shower curtains, like the Eiffel Tower or old lighthouses do now.

We are not faced with a “dark forest” but with a full-blown “park of ruin.” In place of nature prevailing over civilization, here is a botanical garden, where all plants are actually artifacts and not products of wild nature. The “herbarium” collected by Taisia Korotkova contains both grasses and monumental trees, but there is an additional rubric for flora that possesses magical, medicinal or intoxicating potency, or, in other words, a power to manipulate reality.

The Dark Forest brings to mind the renowned project by Pierre Huyghe at dOCUMENTA (13). A lost world of bogs, marijuana bushes, a stature with living beehive in place of a head, and a white dog with a pink paw—a world which, by the artist’s own admission, was a “composting pit” whereto all the various objects found on-site went to “rot,” and, ultimately, for this “humus” not to return into nature but to produce new cultural apparitions. The “nature” itself in the Dark Forest seems a construct, a decoy, a mimicry act by the collective memory. In this case, it is the culture and the past, which poses as nature, that prevail over modernity and progress with its ambitions for the future, they get grounded and enveloped in roots. And this “nature” is by far not going to “heal.”

Irina Kulik