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Video Art & Conversation: Ruth Maclennan: New Short Films on Crimea & Odessa; with Zinovy Zinik


By Ruth Maclennan, 2013, 20 minutes. Distributed by LUX. Commissioned by ICIA, Bath

The artist gratefully acknowledges the support of a Joanna Drew Travel Award

A pilot crashes in the steppes of Crimea in 1944. Tartar tribesmen rescue and care for him. The artist Joseph Beuys ascribes this event to himself, founding a myth of rebirth that he revisits throughout his life and work through the materials he uses and the persona he inhabits. Two  months later another event took place, known in the Crimean Tartar languages as Sürgünlik, the exile: the entire Crimean Tartar population was deported to Uzbekistan, and other far-flung regions of the Soviet Union. At the same time, all Tartar villages were renamed and many were erased from the map and the land. Two thousand years earlier, in the poem cycle, Tristia , the Roman poet Ovid bemoans his exile on the Black Sea in the first century AD. He writes of his fears, sense of dislocation, his barbarian neighbours, and his despair at ever returning home. For the Russian poets Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam, the Black Sea and Crimea are fascinating and exotic, worlds away from Moscow, an idyllic, pre-lapsarian, pre-revolutionary time and place they return to in their poetry. So begins a century of Crimea as holiday destination. The Soviet Union saw the peninsula transformed into a summer camp for rewarded workers and spoiled apparatchiks. Tens of thousands of children descended to stay in purpose-built sanatoria, and converted Karaite mansions, to enjoy two weeks of sun, sea and indoctrination through sport and leisure. Two decades of dysfunctional capitalism and kleptocratic rule are the latest arabesques written across this palimpsest. Crimea is clearly still sought after as a site to enact myths and desires.

Model for a Projection: The Future is ours!

Video loop, 7 minutes, wooden construction 2013

 This is Odessa, a Russian city built by Italians for Catherine the Great on the Black Sea, a major seaport and formerly headquarters of the Imperial Russian fleet. Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film The Battleship Potemkin celebrates a famous mutiny in 1905, a precursor to the Russian Revolution of 1917, showing the solidarity of the Odessan citizens with the brave sailors rising up against their oppressors. This film has one of the most famous scenes in cinema, of Imperial Cossack guards shooting the onlookers who are cheering the sailors of the Potemkin. A pram rolls out of control down the steps, close-ups of horrified faces, broken glasses, and the cries of mercy of a distraught mother carrying her dead child up the steps to challenge the unprovoked aggressors. A modern Pieta. The massacre of course never actually happened.  The scene was shot in Odessa, on the Potemkin Steps – which were renamed after the film. But history has taken over. The Russian Revolution did happen. The Utopian cry in the film, ‘The Future is ours’ was answered, though perhaps only in the art of that period.  Other worse massacres left less spectacular images. 

Tourists and Odessites visit the Potemkin Steps today, drawn by the vestigial memory of the film, to perform on this staged historic landmark, consuming the pleasures of the spectacle.  A wooden construction functions as an apparatus for  projecting and watching a film, built as a model space for viewing.  

Ruth Maclennan’s work includes video installations, photography, bookworks, drawings, curatorial projects and live events. Recent projects include Sea Change, an expedition sailing around Orkney and Fair Isle, to explore ideas of resilience, adaptation, and island life and a commission for Cape Farewell. Solo exhibitions include The Faces They Have Vanished, at ICIA, Bath; Anarcadia, commissioned by FVU and John Hansard Gallery, which toured nationally to Photogallery, Stills, and Castlefield Galleries and to international film festivals. Her collaborative art project Polytechnical Institute for the Study of the Expanding Field of Radical Urban Life interrogated the present and speculates on the future through writing, performance, film, and events in the city. ( Other projects and exhibitions include Interspecies (Arts Catalyst, Cornerhouse), Central Asian Project, Cornerhouse, Space, and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Publications and artists’ books include: Anarcadia (FVU, JHG), Hide, ed. Hart/Maclennan (AIR, 2011), Reflections on the City from a post-flâneur, Proboscis (2011); Re: the archive, the image, and the very dead sheep with Uriel Orlow (London, Double agents: 2004), and Style/Substance—The MaxMara Coat Project with Volker Eichelmann (MaxMara, 1999). All This Stuff: Archiving the Artist, edited by Judy Vaknin, Karyn Stuckey and Victoria Lane, Libri and Arlis, UK, 2013; Ghosting, The Role of the Archive within Contemporary Artists’ Film and Video, J. Connarty and J. Lanyon, 2006

Moscow-born British author Zinovy Zinik lost his Soviet citizenship in 1975 and arrived in London via Jerusalem in 1976. Zinik’s eight novels, six collections of short stories and numerous essays dwell on the dual existence of bilingual immigrants, religious converts, political exiles and outcasts – from habitués of Soho to Russian mushroom pickers in Aldershot,  to displaced Lebanese refugees in Vienna and the sect of Jewish Muslims in Istanbul. His novel Russian Service as well as many of his short stories have been adapted for radio and his novel The Mushroom Picker was made into a film by BBC TV (1993). Zinik is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and BBC radio. His recent books include History Thieves, an autobiographical tale in English (Seagull Books, London, 2011), and the collection of prose Third Jerusalem (NLO, Moscow, 2013).