Issue 2/2021 - Dinge, die uns trennen

Roots and Stems

About Jura Shust’s Installation NEOPHYTE II: Extraction of Apotropaic (2021)

Anna Karpenko

“Accompanied by an artist who is both a mediator and a cameraman, young people explore decentralized nature, moving through it with their minds and bodies. Testing the apotropaic properties of the stinging nettle, they flog each other with it, decoding burns and extracting chlorophyll, the chemical structure of which is almost identical to hemoglobin. A shelter for magical and partisan forces, the forest becomes a place of protection, a territory of nonlinearity and freedom.”

This is a fragment of the text with which artist Jura Shust introduces his new work NEOPHYTE II: Extraction of Apotropaic, 2021, to the viewer, presented as part of the group exhibition “Things We Sense with Each Other” at the Badischer Kunstverein (Karlsruhe) in partnership with The installation consists of a dual-channel video (28:51, loop), an aluminum glass-holder, a double-glazed window, ethanol-based sanitizer, stinging nettles, graphite mirrors, melted raincoats, tree branches, and wheat pancakes.

In the video, a group of millennials accompanied by an artist who acts as cameraman and guide find themselves in a forest amid the protests that unfolded in Belarus after the 2020 presidential campaign. This is a peaceful forest where there is no GSM signal, no OMON, no Telegram channels. The young people do strange things resembling rituals. They knock down mushrooms with a stick, reflect sunbeams with mirrors, draw pictographic images on the ground and then immediately spill salt over everything. They collect nettles, whipping each other’s hands so that they can read the future in the skin burns. They pour vodka over the collected stinging nettles so they can extract concentrated green liquid chlorophyll from them, a formula of life that is almost identical to the formula of hemoglobin that makes the blood red.

This concentrated metaphoricity of familiar objects irritates and frustrates. The anticipation of a political statement embedded in the conventional language of the explanatory narrative is absorbed by the magmatic looping time of the video with its liminal state and the concentration on the present moment and the now-space.
If you’ve ever shouted in the forest, you know how quickly your voice melts, swallowed up by the surrounding space.

In one of his latest works, Graham Harman, continuing to develop his object-oriented ontology, recalls a famous statement made by Martin Heidegger in the 1936 article “The Origin of the Work of Art”: “The artwork is not paraphrasable.”1 In an effort to draw the truth from the field of logic and project it onto the field of art, Heidegger carries out a critical revision of the subjective-predicative form on which thinking is based. An object as a thing cannot be reduced to the totality of its predicative forms, to certain properties and characteristics. In particular, this concerns objects of art, the special ontological nature of which Heidegger demonstrates through the categorization of three sorts of things, depending on the ways in which we define them. The first way is through a set of attributes and properties. The second is through the diversity of our perceptions of an object, when, for example, noise is not noise in itself for our consciousness but always the noise of the wind, or the noise of rustling foliage, and so on. Finally, the third way of dealing with objects in the world is their definition through “reality.” Here, Heidegger cites his famous example of peasant shoes from a painting by Van Gogh to demonstrate that it is not so much Van Gogh as the shoes, splattered with mud and tired of life, which themselves represent the beingness of the matter more fully than any concept or definition.

Independent nature, or what Harman calls background, etymologically refers to the grounding, earthiness, rootedness of objects in the world, which elude the subject who tries to throw a chain of concepts of consciousness at them. The Kantian thing-in-itself remains an inaccessible ideal of philosophical knowledge, content only with the phenomena of the world, which can be clothed in a linguistic form with a transcendental nature. The question arises of how this whole world of unknowable objects that are however accessible in the form of phenomena can be described in language. Drop everything and shut up, following the well-known maxim of Ludwig Wittgenstein, or fight for the dialogical nature of consciousness and communication as the basis of social interaction together with Jürgen Habermas.

The objects Jura Shust interacts with to build a ritual action situation are not just objects with a pronounced metaphorical nature. These are the objects with suggestive status: object-myths, which, according to Roland Barthes’s definition, possess “the boundless power of suggestibility and self-evidence.”2 The mirror, as one of the main mythological, metaphorical, and mystical objects for humans, contains both objectivity and processuality. Narcissus, seeing his reflection, is captured by the object itself and the process of peering into the doubled subjectivity. This, according to Marshall McLuhan, leads to an extreme degree of acceleration; as a result, the closedness of the image becomes a closed system for imago. The liminal state of anesthesia in which Narcissus finds himself, experiencing horror and numbness from the closure of the system on itself, can be described as a state of complete identity, when the object and the referent coincide to such an extent that silence is all that remains.

The mimetic imitation that underlies human interaction with the world does not carry positive or negative characteristics. Just as mirror neurons are responsible for the experience of both pain and joy, so does social mimesis reproduce the model and the objects that are already present in a particular system. The violence that has been replicated in Belarusian society for decades has been reproduced at different levels, ranging from individual auto-aggression and self-deprecation to classic Foucaultian institutions: school, army, hospital.

The plots of Jura Shust’s video installation are extremely natural and illogical at the same time. In a state of meditative pacification, young people finish off a rotten forest stump with their feet, setting its remains on fire, collect young shoots of nettles in order to draw life from them in the form of chlorophyll extraction, and then combine ritual baking and eating of pancakes with a spontaneous rave. The social illogicality and external meaninglessness of these actions, however, has a pronounced beingness with the world in the now-moment. The objects of interaction and the subject who captures them find themselves in an equal position as existent things, sharing one being in a liminal state.

If freedom has the same suggestive subjectivity, in what Heideggerian gap is its background hidden? The collective sublimation of aggression, the media propaganda machine, the church and science serving state power, the building and forcible retention of closed systems simultaneously coexist with the self-regulating non-hierarchical structure of the forest, which has always been a place for escape and shelter, a place where the cyclical nature of linear time and the archaic desire to merge everything with everything (entity) has persisted for centuries.

Our ability to interact with the world (physical, biological, social, sensory-emotional, etc.) is limited by the accelerative predestination of conquering the world with concepts and definitions but also imbued with the archaic nature of the liminal states of complete numbness of the mind and body in which we experience the subjectlessness of freedom and its “doingness” in the sense of Heideggerian philosophy. The border that liminal objects mark for human consciousness and thinking becomes both a trap and a portal. A mirror capable of reflecting light is not made of light but connects emptiness, darkness, and entity of being, the ultimate desire behind the binaries.



[1] Graham Harman, Art and Objects. Cambridge/Medford: Polity Press 2020, S. 30.
[2] Vgl. Roland Barthes, Der Mythos heute, in: Roland Barthes., Mythen des Alltags. German by Helmut Scheffel. Frankfurt am Main 1964, S. 85ff.