Without intentionally writing it into the manuscript, the role of memory is a key driving force in Birch. Alyona, the central character, begins her story in purposeful denial of her family’s memory. She is forced to contend with the result of this denial when she becomes the primary caretaker of her grandmother, Irina Alexandrovna. Irina’s memories are the traumatic, stormy results of what occurs when memory is relegated to the periphery of awareness. Her state of mind foreshadows the madness that threatens to overtake Alyona if she remains in ignorance.
While completing a major re-write of Birch, I tried to use painting as a way to understand my experiences in Saint Petersburg. One of the largest works from this period was Vechnaya Pamyat, a piece roughly 2m x 1m. The name means ‘memory eternal’, and is the title of a chant used to complete a Russian Orthodox funeral service – which I did not know at the time. They seemed to fit, those words I translated from an inscription on a plaque in Smolenskoe Cemetery. The intricacies of Orthodox Church ceremonies have always been a mystery to me. From childhood, the songs have been a coded language within a language, and the rituals of behaviour forever inexplicable. In the process of research and reading I’ve found explanations for many of the ceremonial acts, but still they remain an enigma, holding a different meaning to the one they should have.
Over the last few years I have grown lax in my painting, partly because of my obsession with finishing Birch. Vechnaya Pamyat was a work of exorcism. I was lonely for Petersburg and it was a way to engage with some of the thousands of photographs I’d taken during my trips there. The composition came about by accident, I’ve never been good at knowing how to lay out and balance a work. I painted on top of another canvas, an old work from my major HSC project. I’d come to hate looking at it, hated the reminders of a time and ability so long ago. I wanted it to become something else.
While I was studying visual arts, a tutor made a passing comment that I have not forgotten: a painting is not a painting, but a changeling. The idea is not to get precious about how a work looks at a particular stage – there are always more layers waiting. The same applies to writing; the classic wisdom of killing one’s darlings.
Vechnaya Pamyat is a delving into memory. I tend to overload my paintings with references significant only to me. There are three main characters in this work: the man, the cat, and the sphinx. The male figure is a stranger, perhaps an artist, about to light a cigarette. He walked into my shot as I was about to photograph part of the courtyard at Pushkinskaya-10. A strange meeting in front of the wall on John Lennon Street, a weird homage to peace and love. The cat is a sphinx breed. His name is Dusha and he lives in the cat café Cat Republic on Yakubovicha, near Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. His hairless body felt unnatural, not animal and not human. Something completely other. His housemates at the café include the famed Hermitage cats.
And then the sphinx itself, gilt like an icon in (admittedly fake) gold leaf. It is not one of the ancient sphinxes found on the river embankment before the Imperial Academy of Arts. This is a brutal, disturbing sphinx based on a sculpture found on a different part of the embankment: the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression. From a distance it is non-descript, a seeming homage to the Egyptian relics. At close quarters though, this sphinx’s face is revealed to be a half-face, a terrible and skeletal form. It is a monument supposedly remembering murders committed in the name of the state, one of those uncomfortable and uneasy parts of still-living history. Its very placement is ironic (or deliberate), situated across the river from Kresty, a still-functional prison that has operated since the late nineteenth century. In the time of the purges Kresty’s population surged with political prisoners. Notoriously, cells meant for solitary confinement contained twenty or thirty prisoners. The website and net seems to indicate there is a museum in the prison, though closer research reveals it is seemingly inaccessible to visitors. It is a mysterious snare, like the memorial, made to look transparent – but what dent does either make in remembering uncomfortable things?
This is one of the reasons I write, and paint: to try and decode memories and associations I can’t make sense of in any other way.
- Арт-центр Пушкинская 10 / Art Centre Pushkinskaya 10
- Республика кошек / Cat Republic
- “Memorial to Victims of Political Repression”
- “Smolenskoe Cemetery”