Updated: May 2, 2021
There is a certain reasuring experience that people under pressure and stress crave for, like an anchor in mids of a dangerous current. Think of the cracked photograph that soldiers keep in their inside pocket, it holds a totemic force that instantly rips them from the trenches back to the maple tree in the front garden back home. The current fear for contamination did not just opened the box of Pandora, but someone threw a handgrenade on the thing and distributed the wracked content permanently via all media. Hard to describe how I felt when I became the happy new owner of a Belgian book mill from the 1930's. Suddenly I had three lovely challenges, mingling and pulling me home, pushing all the Corona rubbish off the cliff, dissolving in the depth.
First there is this oak wooden piece of furniture, rotating steadilly on it's cast iron foot. It sure needs some repairs, one of the nicely detailed bars is missing, including the bronze nails. Moreover this book mill needs a new destination! What if I exclusively house my Russian Library in this fine object? The legendary publisher G.A. van Oorschot started the series in 1953 and it originally covers the heyday's of Russian literature from Poesjkin to Tolstoj, translated by Charles B. Timmer. Later the series was expanded to include the bloom of 20th century authors, there are still well over 50 volumes available today (totalling some 30.000 pages plain fine printed text). That's when my second challenge kicked in with a shock... What if I paint small portraits of all the authors in my collection as sort of bookend next to their work?
Thats how I spend the April month making 13 carton board cut outs, each placed on small wooden pedestals using clay, acrylic paint and glue with some add-ons. A nice repetitive task, searching and selecting the images, printing, sketching and modelling, watching how my book mill gradually turned into an installation titled Slova (слова, russian for "words").
Towards the end of the month the making of my monthly video short came near. By now the book mill had become a sort of cultural container holding a vast part of the Russian literary legacy. The step to Alexander Sokurov's film Russian Ark was at that point unavoidable. The film displays 33 rooms of the Hermitage St Petersburg museum, which are filled with a cast of over 2,000 actors and three orchestras. Cameraman Tilman Büttner registrated the whole tour in a single uncut shot*. It is not just the idea of celebrating and conserving a cultural heritage, but also the metaphor for the stream of time, associated with the slow rotating movement of the book mill, a circle where the end is also the beginning. I stole a tiny fragment from the film and used the voice-over epilog by Sokurov himself for my Slova video:
May 1st in the context of the late Russian Empire, was marked by a traditional picnic in the countryside or park by members of the Russian elite. What we now know as Labor Day sterns from "proletarian mayovka" the illegal protest-picnic's by revolutionary citizens. I can hardly imagine a better day for this posting as I take up the work on the book mill and the last group of cut-out portraits. Waiting in line are Tolstoy, Saltykov, Toergenjew, Boenin, Boelgakov.