Aisha Christison, Margarita Maximova
Harm & Charm
With writings by Artun Alaska Arasli
“We went to work but produced nothing […] We only had irony and sarcasm.” The epitome of a meme-fed millennial working in late capitalism’s service economy, one might say. Ironically, these statements pertain to life in the Soviet Union as recounted by the mother of Russian-born artist Margarita Maximova in her video Madmen, informers, sleuths, seducers. The video revolves around the transcribed memories of the artist’s mother regarding life in the Soviet era, in light of Mikhail Bulgakov’s famously censored novel The Master and Margarita.
Chronicling the role this novel had in creating a new collective consciousness in the USSR, Maximova's video devises a mirroring effect through the use of her mother’s statements, and the latter’s description of people surreptitiously exchanging phrases from Bulgakov’s “profane bible.” Presented on a small screen with headphones, the video emphasizes this exchange of short sentences. They become the vectors that create a sense of togetherness in spite of the contingency of fragmented language. Mixing skillful shots of shimmering vodka and aerial views of Berlin’s former Soviet suburbs, the oneiric piece made for this duo exhibition with Aisha Christison, feeds upon the artist’s 2017 video, Memorial. In Memorial, Maximova reconstructed the identity of her estranged father by bringing together her mother’s recollection with images of a commemorative statue, and footage of East Berlin’s Plattenbauen.
This activity of merging one’s available representations with one’s projections; of consuming images in order to create new ones, is also at play in the intimately scaled oil paintings of Aisha Christison. Her layered depictions of spiritual realities exert a charming sense of foreboding. The sanguinary red painting of a cat putting forward its severed tail in a ceremonial offering, glows under the red light of Damien & The Love Guru’s recently partitioned space. Its slick layered surface acts like a membrane storing time but not freezing it. Standing on its hind legs, this feline could be the infamous Behemoth from The Master and Margarita — a large demonic cat with human attributes, and a known penchant for vodka and destruction. Is Christison's cat really handing over its tail, or is it trying to trick us in an attempt to steal our tongue? Harm or charm? The old story goes, that the cats of witches would steal the tongues of those who encountered them so they wouldn’t be able to tell anyone.
Speechlessness is again at stake in Christison's painting of a dentist light. Mounted on a jointed metallic arm propping it off the wall, A-R-T-I-C-U-L-A-T-E first appears as a small geometric abstraction before revealing its representational quality. Not unlike trying to speak after a tooth extraction, this painting is marked by a void — a dark oval shape indicating the absence of light in the center of the dental device. In Christison’s symbolism, caregivers and magicians often become interchangeable Jungian archetypes. Harm and Charm correlates, while the stars that populate her canvases blink like the light of a fire alarm in a waking dream. Her pictures call to mind the work of belatedly discovered painters Agnes Pelton and Gertrude Abercrombie. Dreamers of dreams whose black cats, moon cycles and portals are clearly shifting the orbits of painting today.
At the back of the gallery, a small painting shows a crane fly swimming in a toilet bowl. Flush it or save it? We peer down into the toilet’s vortex, the hole in its centre like the threshold of a domestic antediluvian world. A gateway that would get lost on those who lower themselves onto the seat without looking. At the front of the space, a larger blue painting suggests the other side of the hole. Waste Management is crossed by yellow pipes trading water like fountains of youth, while a dead fish symbol known to signal environmentally hazardous substances, hovers over the scene in an oval halo. In popular dream interpretation, dead fish are also a symbol of loss or missed opportunities — another type of waste management.
“…if you lose a thing the retrieval of what you think you have lost becomes that thing the facts of loss become the content…” writes Artun Alaska Arasli in the unpunctuated text accompanying the exhibition. His keen remark also applies to Maximova's second video. In Sway a way, the film from a cell phone falling down an aircraft, GoPro cameras getting lost in the ocean, tumbling down rivers, or picked up by birds, come together in a continuous filmic whirlpool. Sampling these accidental excerpts from a camera operator’s diary, Maximova’s montage of found footage is the lockdown exercise of a contemporary kinok. Cameras severed from the body of their GoPro Heroes, turn the I into a machine, as the lost mechanical eye becomes the protagonist of a disembodied point of view. However, what we observe on the overheard screen of her installation is not an autonomous mechanical vision, but rather, the more-than-human world with a movie camera. Its disorienting cinematography fueled by Joeri Bultheel’s atmospheric score could be what happened if Jean Painlevé had Crittercams to make his surrealist Neo-Zoological Dramas. But, there is something more mediated about Maximova’s video; something about the spiral of life merging with the vortex of the internet as we imagine her searching the web to collect other-worldly sequences.
In Madmen, informers, sleuths, seducers, Maximova’s mother goes on to say “It was a happy time […] Yet lethargy ruled amongst us.” Six months ago, in the comments section of an enthralling GoPro ad, someone reflected “I bought a few go pro cameras - but life is still boring.” Give or take, this person has more cameras than they have arms and legs, yet they apparently produce nothing with them. People like to say it takes losing something to realize what you had. You can lose your teeth, your tail, or your camera, but in the Soviet era - like today - the few who have too much have a lot more to lose.
Review by Emile Rubino