The artist Anton Ginzburg is a connoisseur of stasis, forming sculptural and light-based installations that freeze a moment from history — or just as frequently, a moment of artistic conception—in time.
The artist Anton Ginzburg is a connoisseur of stasis, forming sculptural and light-based installations that freeze a moment from history — or just as frequently, a moment of artistic conception—in time. Born in Russia and based in New York, he creatively inhabits the fertile space between the waning days of the USSR, which he witnessed growing up in St. Petersburg, and the current disarray of the Capitalist West, where he was educated (at Parsons). It’s appropriate, then, that Ginzburg has adopted the mythic classical figure of the Medusa as the motif that runs through much of his work: an ambivalent figure who can petrify (and therefore sculpt) with her gaze, she stands at the border of cultures as an Ethiopian monster/demigoddess who Perseus has to conquer to establish his kingdom.
Ginzburg—who has exhibited at SFMoMA, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, and White Columns, and who has his latest exhibition of laser-based work, It Has Never Been Otherwise opening at St. Petersburg’s NEVSKY_8 artspace later this month — showed his most fully realized Medusa installation, No Echo, No Shadow, in last year’s Moscow Biennale. I spoke to the artist about his use of the mythological figure, the Medusa’s deep connection to Russian culture, and its relevance to the sculptural process.
Andrew M. Goldstein In your work you’ve embraced the Medusa as a conduit for different conceptions of seeing, for instance for the artistic gaze. What do you see in the figure of the Medusa?
Anton Ginzburg Well, the character of the Medusa is a very curious one. It kept reappearing from the Greek times through the Baroque period. For me she is kind of a metaphor for sculpture, as a way of stopping time and being able to encapsulate the moment, which I find to be essential for sculpture. It also provides an interesting view on identity, because the way Perseus was able to kill the Gorgon was by looking in a mirror. It was a form of self-awareness, a way of defining who you are in a specific moment. And because whoever looks into her eyes turns to stone, according to the legend, you have a reversal of the roles where the spectator who comes into the exhibition and sees the Medusa becomes the one who is being seen. It becomes a notion of reversed perspective, with the viewer and the art object exchanging places. There are interesting texts by Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky who himself was quite close to the avant-garde artistic circles in the early 20th century. One of the explanations for the reverse perspective, through the particularities of Russian orthodoxy, is that the icon ceases to be an idol and becomes an active, watchful presence. The spiritual aspect of painting was adapted later by the Suprematists, which set it apart from the classical notion of western Modernism. And a lot of Suprematism at the turn of the century was quite connected to this idea of reverse perspective, where the black square was viewed by Malevich as the ultimate icon.
AMG How were you first drawn to the idea of the Medusa?
AG In St. Petersburg the architecture has a theatrical quality. The Imperial Russian capital was built in just 25 years, which was unbelievably fast. It became a slice of particular time and worldview, so I look at it more as a sculptural expression. Since the city is primarily neoclassical in style — there are many images of Medusa used in reliefs on the walls, doors, and the ironwork on the canals — the image is really present. I appropriated it in part because to me it’s very familiar both visually and by my classical education that incorporated Greek and Roman mythology.
AMG Why is the image of the Medusa so widespread in St. Petersburg?
AG It was really embraced by Eastern Europe, all the way through Turkey actually. There are a number of things the Medusa can represent historically. One of the most obvious ones is a defense against the evil eye, so it’s viewed as a kind of protector of the city or the house. But the Medusa was also one of the children of Poseidon, so there is a nautical angle to it as well. There is a multilayered metaphor that’s built around the character of Medusa, because she’s also the origin of the Pegasus, the symbol of poetry, which rose out of her body when she was killed.
AMG Other artists have employed the Medusa, from Antiquity and African art, to Caravaggio, Rubens, and Dalí. But you don’t see very much contemporary art that references classical mythology, aside from examples like Matthew Barney. Its refreshing to see an element of this kind of historicity appear in conceptual art.
AG The classical Greek tradition is quite present for me, but it isn’t so prevalent anymore and when it’s introduced it has kind of a kitsch aspect to it. But I think the classical tradition is embedded in the culture, and it was quite popular in the beginning of the 20th century at the tension when Modern art was founded. So you can see it then in decorative art and design and the work of Surrealists. That’s territory that I’m quite interested in, not in High Modernism as you might call it, but actually the beginning and the transition into Modernism that appears in design as well, like the transition from the Vienna Werkstatt into the Bauhaus where certain kind of ideas are being injected into the culture but it’s still trying to find its form.
AMG Do you plan to have the Medusa recur in your work?
AG It’s not something that I want to stick to as a focus, but it’s an image that has appeared in my work a number of times and I am interested in exploring its formal and conceptual aspects for now. Lately I’ve been interested in the “notion of the impossible”, trying to overcome physical limitations, whether it’s working against gravity or working against the formal properties of the medium. In my recent projects, I’ve been working with lasers in an attempt to dematerialize the artwork, in a similar way to how Fred Sandback was able to create spatial tension with minimal formal intervention. And for me the Medusa is a representation of an invisible tension that can be formally revealed and recognized.
AMG An installation you did in Lille, France combined your motif of the Medusa with your light art through the use of neon signs. How did that come about?
AG I was commissioned to do a public sculpture in France. I had noticed that in Soviet countries during the late 20th century store signs were defined by their function, rather that in the West, where they were expressing ownership, whether it is corporation like Walmart, or the owner, like Ray’s Pizza. I found that a very interesting way to experience ideology through language and also your day-to-day life, so I collected a series of historical signs that composed a whole lifestyle cycle in eastern Europe at the time I was growing up, going from “bread” to “books” to “glove shop” et cetera. Today, of course, these signs remain only as the memory traces from the epoch that is gone
AMG Another way your work uses the gaze of the Medusa is as a unifying element, as you did in your recent show in Moscow, No Echo, No Shadow. Tell me about that show.
AG I was working with psychological space of utopia and the transitional period of Perestroika. A lot of my work focuses on the intersection of the ideal and the real, the actual and the potential. In the late 1980s, Perestroika was the end to one of the biggest and bloodiest social experiments. It was meeting of the influence of the West, its popular culture and the sexual revolution. At the time I was 15, so I was able to witness the decay of the old empire and the beginning of the new era, and all of the tensions and conflicts that came to the surface.
In the exhibition I constructed two spaces, with one as more of an ideal space and one dealing more with real, with an emphasis on pop culture as I experienced it as a teenager. For the ideal space I used the notion of collector’s cabinets of traditional objects like bronzes, masks, and drawings as an expression of alternative, constructed reality and the key to that was the mask of Medusa. On the other side of the room was a piece of polished aluminum that was reflecting the mask, so around the installation there were several trajectories of reflections, almost like an invisible Modernist drawing.
AMG The “pop-culture” installation was built around the Russian actress Natalya Negoda. Who was she?
AG That room was a tribute to the eponymous cult film Little Vera (1988), a point of culmination in a vector of late Soviet time, the end of Perestroika and its relation to the Western eighties. After this film, Playboy approached leading actress Natalya Negoda to pose for its centerfold. It was a pivotal point for the sexual revolution in USSR. The iron curtain gradually moved aside revealing a robust sex industry in the very center of the morally squeaky land of communist utopia. This became the epicenter of interaction and acquaintance with the newly available, always desired, and equally desiring West. The exhilaration of the sexual body newly liberated from constrains of ideology.
Anton Ginzburg solo show opens 3/31 at Nevsky_8 artspace, St. Petersburg.