An Encounter with What Has Disappeared

No-one can bear witness from inside death, and there is no voice for the disappearance of voice?Giorgio Agamben

The paradoxes of indirect knowledge haunt many of us who came after. The formative events of the twentieth century have crucially informed our biographies, threatening sometimes to overshadow and overwhelm our own lives. But we did not see them, suffer through them, experience their impact directly. Our relationship to them has been defined by our very “postness” and by the powerful but mediated forms of knowledge that have followed from it.?Eva Hoffmann
The Saint Petersburg artist Alexander Morozov begins many of his projects by delving into the archives. For him, the practice of art is an opportunity to arrange an encounter with the vanishing, the forgotten, the missing, with things that have lost their place in history. In the project Akchim. Coordinates 60° 28’35’’ N 58° 02’53’’ E, for example, he created acoustic installations which made it possible to bring back to life for a time the Akchim dialect that survives only in dictionaries and no longer has any native speakers. Another of Morozov’s works – Polity – was a monument to republics and territorial divisions of the USSR and Russia that were brought into being by local initiatives and had only a brief existence.
The new exhibition is constructed around the artist’s dialogue with objects of world cultural heritage that have been destroyed in the literal sense of the word, having physically ceased to exist. It includes paintings from the Black Book series created on the basis of works by celebrated artists of different periods that were lost during the Second World War or other political conflicts, as well as earthenware vessels – remakes of archaeological artefacts, pots thousands of years old smashed in the course of the recent armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Morozov associates many of his projects with the concept of “postmemory” that Marianna Hirsch uses to define the characteristics of a large body of research and works of art devoted to traumatic events of the past.[1] Hirsch focusses her attention on those authors who were not themselves witnesses to such turning points in history but seek with almost obsessive persistence to find new means of working with the memory of those events. They did not acquire recollections of the traumatic experience directly, yet they perceive those episodes as significant not only for the past, but also for the present moment, for their own life and practice. Such work presupposes an understanding of the process of historical transmission and at the same time a constant indication that the handing on of memory inevitably proves to be a break in that continuity. Holding on to these mutually contradictory modes of interacting with the past requires the art of creating projections, the art of imagination.
Following on from such artists as Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans, Morozov considers that figurative painting can and should be an instrument for the preservation of memory, regaining a function entirely traditional for that medium. At the same time, the modern-day “history picture” points to a discontinuity with those forms of art that laid claim to the creation of an “auratic” image of some important event.[2] It is possible to suggest that the creators of contemporary painting are working in a “postmemory” regime in two senses. They are addressing historical episodes, recollections of which are accessible to them only in a mediated fashion, yet the influence of those events, for various reasons, proves topically relevant for the moment when the work is being produced. Their relationship with the actual medium of painting is also constructed through the establishment of a connection with tradition while at the same time breaking with it.
Morozov’s Black Book project begins with the discovery of a moment when the continuity of memory and the disruption of it find embodiment in a specific event. The artist produces replicas of works created within the bounds of various European cultural paradigms, from the Renaissance to the Modern Era. Some of them are particularly mentioned and given weight in the present-day history of art, such as Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel. In its time that work, which presented the Evangelist as a simple peasant, was a precursor of change in the conventions for religious painting and evoked a scandal. In 1945, after Soviet forces had entered Berlin, it was, like hundreds of other pictures from the stocks of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, consumed in a fire that broke out in a flak tower (tall blockhouse for anti-aircraft guns) being used as temporary storage for precious objects. Other works that Morozov has tried to recreate remained no more than entries in sales catalogues. Nothing remained of a landscape by Korovin, for instance, but a two-sentence description. A third group, such as Rubens’s Susannah and the Elders, were already being reproduced in painted copies during the original artist’s lifetime. All these works are linked by the fact that they vanished in the confusion of war. They did not grow old but perished in an instant. The painting that the artist produces is needed not to provide yet another “contemporary” interpretation of the art of the past, but to manage to be there in the moment when one more episode, one more work, is erased from memory and to record that imaginary encounter.
Morozov received his first artistic education at the Repin Academy where, like hundreds of years ago, the students are supposed to train their eyes and hands through copying “great works of the past”. The Black Book painting project is also founded upon the reproduction of exemplars, but the reproduction is deliberately disrupted. The artist finds a great many ways to indicate the impossibility of a direct encounter with the original – he alters the palette, often employing just two or three colours; he makes the depiction indistinct, as if blurred or melted; he selects only part of the composition, cutting or cropping the original; he stops at the laying-in stage, leaving just the outline underpainting. He almost always contaminates recognizable figurative compositions with applications of paint that breach the mimetic effect. Those patches resemble losses, erosions of the main paint layer, or else might be interpreted as the traces of the artist’s interaction with the manifestation of the lost image, and, of course, this device demonstrates chronological distance, indicating that the replicas were painted in the era after abstract art. Morozov often employs an inversion of light and dark. When making a Landscape with Rainbow after Caspar David Friedrich, he turns the sunlit valley into a dark space resembling a turbulent sea. The figure of a man and the rainbow become dark, while the ornate tree-stump in the foreground, on the contrary, is brightened. These manipulations, which we associate with the photographic printing process, are a reminder that the original has survived only in the form of a photograph.
Artworks, in contrast to their creators, can live for centuries, remaining almost unchanged. When they disappear, though, they do not merely cease to exist as objects. A disruption occurs, a change in the functioning of the great many networks – social, professional, institutional – into which they were incorporated. When signing his works in the Black Book series, Morozov supplements the titles with the identification numbers of the lost originals that can be used to find them in databases.[3] Today all these paintings are not primarily relics of the age of the Baroque or Romanticism, but entries in a catalogue of wartime losses. A fascinating encounter with a disconnect: if these works had survived, they would still look as they did at the time of their disappearance. Paradoxically, the fact of their destruction, their “falling silent”, induces us to regard them as witnesses.

Anastasia Kotyleva

[1] Marianne Hirsch. “The Generation of Postmemory”, Poetics Today, 2008, Vol. 29 (1), pp. 103–128
[2] Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. “Divided Memory and Post-Traditional Identity: Gerhard Richter's Work of Mourning”, October, Vol. 75 (Winter, 1996), pp. 60–82; Ulrich Loock et al. Luc Tuymans. London–New York: Phaidon Press, 1996, 260 рp.
[3] Lost Art (; “The Cultural Values –The Victims of War” (