Human and Animal Ecospheres

Olga Chernysheva’s work shown at Kohta in Helsinki conveys both maxims to live by and ephemeral encounters with minuscule events.

Olga Chernysheva, Platforms, 2017. Photo: Jussi Tiainen / Kohta.

Kohta Kunsthalle opens its spring season with Ordered Equivocations, an exhibition by Olga Chernysheva, the Russian artist whose work has been described as “epitomizing the post-Soviet atmosphere of nostalgia and melancholy.” Kohta is a new venue in Helsinki, initiated by a group of artists and curators. With this exhibition they show that their program is concerned with the particular way recent history is reflected in contemporary works.

Chernysheva shows both charcoal drawings and works from her ongoing Screens series. The latter are very short single shot videos depicting various events and situations which might otherwise easily pass unnoticed. One shows people waiting on a train station platform on a particularly gray day, another one shows the corner of a park or a square. In a more intimate scene, a nightgown flutters in the corner of a bleak apartment house. A sociological observation of the situation in today’s labor market shows a group of guest workers standing about hoping for a chance to work.

Olga Chernysheva, Night Gown, 2010. Photo: Jussi Tiainen / Kohta.

Sometimes the disproportion between past grandiosity and contemporary smallness becomes very striking, as in the screen showing plastic bags blowing around the ancient pyramid at Giza. But most often the melancholic atmosphere is related to an everyday episode involving humans or animals, such as the one about a carrier pigeon, or another one about a crow whose nest is suddenly left exposed after the tree that contained it was pruned.

The vertical format of these screens is standardized, reminding one of an A4 paper sheet, yet the events shown fall outside standard categories. In fact, they defy any effort at classification. A brief caption accompanies each short video sequence, forming a necessary part of the whole.

These combinations of text and image resemble a first idea, or a sketch for a synopsis. Arranged in a row, they form a kind of intimate chamber cinema, like a series of letters addressed to the viewer. The short form becomes strangely poignant, and every screen seems to convey a moral. To me, they also recall the short format of such very different literary genres as Blaise Pascal’s Pensées or Russian émigré author Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropismes. Or perhaps better still, a very particular mixture of the two: both maxims to live by and ephemeral encounters with minuscule events.

Olga Chernysheva, The Optical Rec, 2010. Photo: Jussi Tiainen / Kohta.

Chernysheva’s charcoal drawings have the same kind of immediacy to them. Again we encounter everyday scenes, such as the reflection of a commuter’s back in a tram window, or a fragment of a metro station escalator. Both her screens and drawings seem to ask just how something emerges into visibility and, conversely, how it fades away. The cinematic method of fade-in/fade-out morphs into a more general, almost philosophical artistic practice. The magical event of visibility is translated from nothingness into something, and back into nothingness.

In Chernysheva’s work the city is both a stage and an ecosphere. Its human inhabitants resemble animals, and likewise, its animal inhabitants sometimes resemble humans. The carrier pigeons’ courage and perseverance equal that of the bravest Soviet cosmonauts.

Chernysheva’s Moscow is an elegiac city; it is not as glamorous as the new Russian elite would have it, and you will not find high end flagship stores or expensive cars portrayed in her work. Instead, you have peripheral things, the things in the margins, neglected equally by both the old and the new elite, yet which form the texture of the everyday: life as it continues to be lived on earth unseen by travelers in spaceships and in shining new cars.

Olga Chernysheva, Ordered Equivocations, installation view, 2017. Photo: Jussi Tiainen / Kohta.