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Afrika Stalker III

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					Amy Mryzgel, Rutgers University (USA), Latvia, ‘Afrika’s Stalker III’

In the late 1990s the St. Petersburg artist Afrika (Sergei Bugaev) came to possess an amateur

video of an attack on an army convoy. The origins and the creator of the video remain a

mystery; it is a work of art without an artist, without a known producer. The tape was apparently

found by Russian forces, and it documents the April 16, 1996 attack on the Russian 245th

Motorized Infantry Regiment by Arab fighters led by a Saudi Arabian national. The troops were

returning home without air support two weeks into a general cease-fire. As a postscript to the

film there is footage of the morning after the fight, followed by footage of a 1995 Chechyan

funeral. In a statement that accompanied the installation, Afrika wrote that “now there is very

much talk about terrorism, but they forget that one of the most effective forms of terrorism is

semiotic terror, engaged in by the mass media. The object of terror is not man himself in his

entirety but his unconscious. If today a struggle is being fought against terrorists armed with

Kalashnikov automatic rifles, then no one is talking about the corporations‟ influence on

consciousness and the unconscious, which are practically unprotected. Unfortunately, today no

adequate mechanisms have been worked out to defend man‟s mental world from the negative

influences on it exerted by the transnational corporate structures.”1 Afrika‟s installation attempts

to counter these terroristic effects of today‟s media by providing a therapeutic and cathartic

experience for the viewer.

        This paper will examine Afrika‟s use of a found-object video as a cultural artifact. As an

artist Afrika is concerned with the spiritual reawakening of his audience in the face of

globalization and mass-marketing. Whether he considers the fate of his compatriots in the

aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, or the fates of his fellow world citizens in the


1
 Afrika, as qtd. In Edward Leffingwell, “Sergei Bugaev Afrika at I-20 New York,” Art in America, April 2003.
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1248/is_4_91/ai_99554572
postmodern age, he attempts to use his art as a shamanistic practice that will heal the ills of

contemporary man. In addition to the film used in the Stalker III installation, Afrika has also co-

opted politicized cultural relics, such as flags, banners and medals from the former USSR. Once

removed from their original context, they become empty signifiers, no longer able to „mean‟ as

they were originally intended to. This paper will consider the implications when such potent

images as those of a massacre are employed in Afrika‟s art. By raising the document to the level

of art and surrounding it with allusive imagery, the artist attempts to provide audiences with a

pathos that is absent from the media broadcast.

       The installation was first shown in June 2001 at the Valencia Biennale in Spain, under the

title My Movie. In winter 2002-2003 it was exhibited at the I-20 Gallery in New York City along

with two additional room-sized installations. It was at this exhibition that the main room,

containing the video, took on the name Stalker III. The video/DVD was projected onto the wall

of the gallery on a continuous loop. Surrounding the projection on the wall were A4-sized

glossy photographs of an unidentified model, creating a mock-TV frame of the image. Directly

in the center of the screen was a steel cylinder, like the gun barrel of a tank, forced through the

wall to the other side. There were also pieces of pipe scattered across the floor of the room.

Finally, there was a bench covered in rabbit fur from which viewers could watch the video loop.

       The film begins with a pastoral scene of the convoy of Russian tanks leaving Chechnya

down a winding road. The viewer shares the perspective with the attackers, watching the

mortars destroy the vehicles one by one. The tanks sit there burning in the afternoon sun. The

next scene is dawn, the next day. The attackers now loot the rubble, dancing around the charred

remains, and even pulling the corpses apart. Finally, the scene shifts to a 1995 Chechyan

funeral, complete with close-ups of the dead, surrounding by grief-stricken mourners.
        The next room was called Charlot, after the inscription on the pipe, which read “USA –

Charlot.” Here we see the other side of the pipe that had been thrust through the video in the

Stalker III installation, dripping oil onto a rabbit skin that had been laid on the floor. On the

opposite wall is a wall-hanging made of more white rabbit skins, also spattered with oil. The

light from the projection in Stalker III reaches as far as this wall and is reflected on colored

diamond-like gems dotting the skins. Scattered across the floor, at the back of the room, are

scraps of paper, test tubes and Petri dishes, with tar drizzled over them. A third room simply

contains film stills from the Stalker III video.

         For Afrika, the War in Chechnya was one of many symptoms of the ills of Post-Soviet

Russia. It was in 1991, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, that Dzhokhar Dudayev, President

of the Republic of Chechnya, declared Chechnya‟s independence from Russia. As other

republics, such as the Baltic and Central Asian countries, declared their independence from the

Soviet Union, the Republic of Chechnya sought to do so as well.

        Afrika‟s art has consistently dealt with the fate of the Post-Soviet man. His main concern

is with the loss of a Soviet identity, and the struggle to find a new one in exchange. His 1993

performance, Crimania, addressed this theme head on. It involved the artist voluntarily spending

two weeks in a mental institution in Crimea, becoming a patient of the hospital himself. The

artist was interested in examining “the mood and behaviour of the artist…under the extreme

dissociation of a remarkably powerful social structure and under circumstances of geopolitical

changes comparable in size to the end of the Roman Empire, namely the decline of the Soviet

Union.”2 These changes brought about a type of schizophrenia in the mind of the artist, and in

the minds of his compatriots, he had assumed. Questions arose as to one‟s nationality, and a


2
  Sergei Bugaev Afrika, “Ethics and Ethology of the Artist,” in Peter Noever, ed., Sergei Bugaev Afrika: Crimania:
Icons, Monuments, Mazàfaka. (Germany: Cantz Verlag, 1995) 64.
common language that was shared by all Soviet citizens was lost. Crimania sought to

understand the illness brought about by the socio-political changes at the end of the Soviet

period.

          Afrika‟s choice of location for the Crimania performance – the First Republican

Psychiatric Hospital in Simferopol, Crimea – was not arbitrary. Almost fifty years earlier, in

1944, German artist Joseph Beuys, while flying for the German Luftwaffe, was shot down on

that same peninsula. Throughout his life Beuys considered that to be the moment of his rebirth

as an artist. Beuys created a myth surrounding the plane crash, and claims to have been kept

alive on fat and felt by sympathetic Tartars who found him. After the War Beuys became a

pacifist, and focused on his art. He believed that art could have a social purpose, providing a

catharsis in order to heal the ills of modern society. His installations often featured fat and felt as

materials – in order to provide his audience with a similar therapeutic experience to the one he

claims to have undergone in Crimea.

          It is a common trope of the twentieth century that modern society has brought with it

alienation, suffering and illness to humankind, and that the role of the avant-garde artist is to

reconnect the individual both with himself and others, by providing a cathartic experience

through his art. Artists would then take on the role of the artist-shaman, a social healer who,

because of his priviledged position among the advanced-guard, ahead of society, would know

how to cure the illness of modern man. This was the role that Beuys took on in the late 20th

century, and the one that Afrika takes on today – seeking the cure-all for the schizophrenia of the

Post-Soviet mind, and in Stalker III, the illness brought about by mass media and its attacks on

the unconscious.
       So how does the artist attempt to facilitate our healing? How can art provide us with a

catharsis? In Stalker III and the adjacent installation Charlot, Afrika used a number of devices

similar to that of his predecessor, Joseph Beuys, namely the rabbit fur and black tar that

predominate in the installation, echoing the felt and fat often employed by Beuys. Beuys also

used animals in his installations – from dead hares to live, wild coyotes. For him the animals

were an incarnation of the soul – the earthly form of spiritual beings. The contact with animals

could bring us closer to the spiritual side of life, which the artist felt had been lost in modern

society. Beuys was interested in felt as something warm and protective – a much-needed warmth

for the soul, which had grown cold in the modern age. The fat was used for its nutritive

properties. The artist was also interested in it for its mutability; he saw it as a symbol of chaos

because of the fact that it underwent changes in form which corresponded to changes in its

surrounding temperature. For Beuys, everything is in a state of change, and the resulting chaos

can have a healing character.

       In the gallery, Afrika presents his materials unexplained, and we must draw our own

conclusions as to what they might mean. When asked, he told me that the rabbit fur symbolized

desire. Rabbits have long been a symbol of fecundity in art history, and in this installation,

Afrika co-opts them for their libido, and the energy contained in it. While the rabbit fur stands

for desire, the tar symbolizes will. Tar represents another kind of energy – the energy from

petroleum that circulates in depths of the earth and has done for millions of years.

       The animal furs, like the animals in Beuys‟ work, could also provide us with a connection

to the animal world, bring us closer to the spiritual, and also, like Beuys‟ felt, provide us with the

warmth and comfort that is lacking from our everyday world. In Stalker III, the rabbit furs offer

a warm, soft place for us to rest to view the carnage depicted on the screen. In the next room,
however, their softness is cut violently by the spattering of tar that drips from the gun barrel

connecting Stalker III with Charlot. The tar drips out onto a mat of rabbit fur, but the splash

seems to reach across the room and splatter the fur hanging on the opposite wall. This tar is not

nutritive, not healing, like Beuys‟ fat. Rather it brutally echoes the spray of blood in the Stalker

III video, and calls to mind the oil in the region of Chechnya that is such a major issue in the

conflict with Russia. If anything it makes the subject matter and contents of the video more

visceral.

           The focal point of Stalker III is of course the video of the attack on Russian soldiers, the

images of which are repeated throughout the gallery in various formats. In Charlot, stills from

the video are stacked along the edges of the room and are also found leaning against the sides of

the gallery walls. In a third room 24 of these black-and-white stills are displayed, unframed,

mounted on white metal brackets. The artist has exhibited this video and its images as a found

object, and the pipe that penetrates it is a found object as well – found by the artist in the street.

The found object is another trope in Afrika‟s work. This is because in addition to being an artist,

Afrika is also a collector. Most notable in his collection are the relics of the former Soviet

Empire, such as busts of Lenin, banners, and medals. During the Crimania performance the

artist sought to discover the motivation behind his collecting and exhibiting these icons3 and

answer the question: “does the representation of Former Institutions of power in their

metonymical manifestations constitute a representation of representation directed towards the

healing of a socio-psychological trauma?”4 In other words, is Afrika‟s collecting a pathology, or

a process of healing?




3
    Viktor Mazin, “Afrasia,” in Noever, 41.
4
    Mazin, in ibid., 41.
        Two years after the Crimania performance an exhibition took place at the MAK Gallery

in Vienna. This exhibition was considered, by the artist, to be the culmination of the

performance, and it was there that he exhibited a number of items from his collection of Soviet

memorabilia. Among these were a series of old Soviet-era banners inspiring the “proletariat of

the world to unite,” upon which symbols from different cultures and religions, from different

periods and different parts of the world have been superimposed. This decontextualization

disables the Soviet symbols, reducing them to simply another layer of the palimpsest of human

culture. These symbols from different eras lose their original meaning but within the flag do not

acquire a logical new one, resulting in a glossolalia, or nonsense language. It is this vacuum of

meaning that allows for the potential of a new one to take shape.

        The same can be said about the Stalker III video. The title of the installation is a

reference to the film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The original negatives for

Tarkovsky film were destroyed during processing, and the entire film had to be shot from

scratch; thus the film that we know is actually the second version of it, which is why Afrika‟s

film is Stalker III. Tarkovsky‟s film tells the story of three men who venture into The Zone, a

mysterious place cut off from the rest of the world by a barbed wire and armed guards. Located

in The Zone is The Room, a place where one‟s wishes can come true. In a Chelsea gallery,

Afrika has created his own Zone for the purpose of showing his video, this no-man‟s land that

remains separate from the everyday. It even contains its own Tunnel, through which Stalker III

passes as it moves into Charlot, hoping to find fulfillment on the other side. The video shown

inside the gallery partially loses its status as news item, document, mass media broadcast, as it

takes on another identifier in its categorization as art. It is in this alternate space, this third zone,

between art and media, where Afrika hopes for the potential making of meaning.
           Stalkers, in the Tarkovsky film, are people considered to have a mental gift, or a close

connection with The Zone, and so they work as guides leading others through it. Regarded as a

holy fool, the stalker can use his knowledge to help others find what they are seeking. Working

as an artist-shaman, Afrika takes on a similar role. In this case, however, he invites the viewer

into a Zone of his own creation – a seemingly ideal guide for such a situation. But Afrika does

not lead us directly to the Room, which in the Tarkovsky film was the final destination – the

place where one‟s greatest wish would come true. Afrika is a leader who helps us only to take

the first steps; the rest of the path is up to the viewer. Viktor Tupitsyn, a Russian art critic, has

referred to Afrika‟s work as “goblinry.” The wood-goblin, a well-known Russian folk character,

lives in the forest and knows every inch of it by heart, but instead of helping those lost in the

woods, he purposely misguides them. According to Tupitsyn, he “knows what not to know.”5

The purpose of the wood-goblin, in literature, is “to lead the way and lead astray but never arrive

anywhere.”6 In some ways, Afrika does resemble the wood-goblin, in that he leads us down a

circuitous path that constantly causes us to wonder where, in fact, we are headed. Unlike the

wood-goblin, however, Afrika seems to join us in our uncertainty, his artistic meanderings meant

to inspire, rather than to harm. Because the wood-goblin already knows, and knows well enough

to “know what not to know,” he has no use for searching. While the wood-goblin poses no

questions, Afrika puts them forth ceaselessly. His work sets questioning into motion, with

knowing or finding the answers being of secondary importance.

           Throughout his work Afrika has been concerned with the sickness and healing of modern

and Post-Soviet man, and has sought some type of healing through the collecting and exhibiting

of found objects of certain cultural and sociological significance. By removing these objects


5
    Viktor Tupitsyn, in Afrika. (Los Angeles: Fisher Gallery, 1991) 36.
6
    Ibid.
from their original context and exhibiting them as art, the artist attempts to create a Third Space

to experience them anew, with the hopes that a new understanding will result. In a review of the

exhibition, Chris Moylan, a Professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology, had

this to say about Stalker III: “This is not to say that Stalker III lacks spiritual pathos, but this

pathos emerges in surprising ways. In the confines of a gallery, the vacuous immediacy of the

film corresponds to the categorical emptiness of death, its refusal to hold meaning (the afterlife is

something else) except in negative terms; death as such is not an experience, and the person who

has died is not a person but a name or placeholder for that person, and so forth)…. The soldiers

in his film, caught in the documentary tedium of their annihilation as it is played and replayed,

signify loss-the loss of their lives, or to put it simply, their deaths--and little else.”7 The artist has

provided us with a space for making meaning. He can take us to it, but not lead us through it or

provide us with answers; in that sense, once the work is out there, Afrika becomes a spectator

himself, joining us in the search for pathos, catharsis and understanding. Whether it is found is

up to the individual spectator and his experience of the media as laid out in Stalker III.




7
 Christopher Moylan, “Those That Sleep in the Dust.” artcritical.com (May 2002)
http://www.artcritical.com/thinkpieces/CMStalker.htm

				
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