the permafrost

This piece was written for the eponymous exhibition that took place in November and December 2016 in Yakutsk as the main project of the Zeroth Arctic Biennale of Contemporary Art. The Biennale became a manifesto for Geological Feminism and complex subject-object relationships between a system of discursive human knowledge and that of animism. From a particular perspective, animism contains a progressive potential, and is capable of prying open the otherwise hermetic scientific systems and even working towards the creation of new materialism and a new kind of anthropology that goes way “beyond” the study of humans. That being said, such speculative constructs are largely pragmatic and functional, for they serve to juxtapose and redistribute the structures of knowledge.

The Biennale was organized by the Yakutsk-based Laboratory for Complex Geo-Cultural Research of the Arctic (LKGIA) in collaboration with several Yakutian organizations. A room rented at the National Museum of Art became the exhibition venue for the main project. The work of curators and artists-in-residence was funded by the Office of the Mayor of Yakutsk. The LKGIA Lab had been set up three years prior by a group of Yakutia-based scholars and culture-makers supported by a grant from the Russian Science Foundation. It was conceived of as an interdisciplinary research platform for arts and humanities. Dmitry Zamyatin, a Moscow-based geographer, author and cultural theorist, was invited to head the LKGIA Lab; he, in turn, invited myself and a few other people from the Moscow academic community to join in their work.

The “complex geo-cultural research” masterminded by Dmitry Zamyatin became the central focus of the Lab. In general, this institution has aspired to somehow “get a hold” of the Arctic discourse in the field of humanities and social studies by positioning and promoting Yakutsk, the city that is currently undergoing a remarkable surge of activity, as the “capital” of this discourse. Yakutsk has always been one of the hubs for the exploration and development of the Arctic, which today experiences a new wave of colonization, although this time this colonization is to a large extent, academic and artistic.

The Permafrost-themed Zeroth Arctic Biennale was to become the culmination, the grande finale of the LKGIA Lab [three-year] activities. I was invited to curate the main project and a two-week residency for several artists whom I had selected. For the residency it seemed important to create projects in collaboration with Yakutia-based institutions and artists, as well as other local cultural workers. There was also an open call in Yakutsk supported by the organizers. We managed to work together with a number of institutions, for instance, with the Melnikov Yakutian Institute for Permafrost Research, Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, that enabled us to receive some exhibits from them and to install one of the projects on their premises. We also collaborated with the Museum and Center of The Khomus of The People of The World, the National Moving Image Archive of Sakha-Yakutia, the Mammoth Museum, the Emelyan Yaroslavsky Yakutian State Museum of History and Culture of the Peoples of the North, the Sakha-Yakutian Artists’ Union, the Arctic State Institute of Culture and Arts, as well as with a number of local historians.

Of the ten participating artists (Ayiyna Alekseeva, Alina Fedotova, Irina Filatova, Dzhuliana Semenova, Antonina Shadrina, Max Sher, Yegor Sleptsov, Mikhail Starostin, Nina Velmina, Nikolay Vetter) only three were from Moscow, the rest were based in Yakutsk. This means that the project was almost completely entrenched in the local context. The show comprised moving imagery and exhibits from the Institute of Permafrost. For me as a curator, it was important to create a coherent narrative of the permafrost by embedding particular projects into it. “Lateral” connections among the exhibits grew increasingly important as the project enfolded while the works of artists from various contexts, as well as scholarly objects, archival and local history materials (including works authored by someone who had never worked as an artist before) became equal in terms of their functional status.

The exhibition was divided into sections and their sequence worked to develop the narrative. The key points of it were the Subterranean Museum of Eternity; the scientific discourse on the permafrost and the work of the Institute of Permafrost; the underworld as a reality of animism as juxtaposed with the scientific discourse of human beings as such; immortality and the surface of Earth; going deeper into the Earth as humanity’s perennial dream. In the future, each of these topics, albeit overlapping, can become a research subject in and of itself. The purpose of this text is to introduce the project that took shape in Yakutsk and to provide an overview of all of the topics listed earlier. It was also meant to function as an index section for the exhibition.

The Underground Museum of Eternity by Irina Filatova; video streaming screenshot, streaming set up by Alexey Romanov

The permafrost lies beneath the surface layer of soil. It is a strange world incomprehensible to humans who, for most of their history, have been trying to make sense of it or to “tame” it by entering into communication with it. For humans, this world has been both a subject and an object at the same time. It has been actively defining the human forms of life on the one hand, and has also served as a “stratum” from which natural resources are extracted, an object of scientific study and research.

There are, perhaps, three vectors or three approaches that we can pursue in our exploration of the permafrost: 1) the pagan tradition of imbibing the underworld with a soul, making it animate 2) scientific discourse 3) consumerist attitude towards it as a subsurface resource waiting to be conquered and appropriated. This division is tentative, though, for the subjectification of the surrounding world in pagan beliefs ensures an environmentally conscious and sustainable management of natural resources. Mikhail Sumgin, the founder of the permafrost science, called it the “Russian Sphinx” [ 1 ] 1. Sumgin M. I. Vechnaya merzlota pochvy v predelakh SSSR ("The Permafrost Soils Within the Borders of the USSR"). — Vladivostok: Far Eastern Geophysical Laboratory, 1927. — Frontispiece. , implying the many enigmas it concealed. The “objective” science often stemmed from utopian projects or dreams, such as the [Soviet] space program that emerged from the reflections of Nikolay Fedorov on how to send the dead, who he hoped, would be soon resurrected, to other planets.

An electromagnetic probe used for geophysical exploration from the Museum of the Institute of Permafrost and three video projections that flow and spill into each other, representing the three parts of the exhibition are placed in the middle of the room. The first video is a 1934 archival film Povelitel L’dov (“The Master of Ice”), directed by Grigory Kabalov. It illustrates the Soviet ambition to “conquer and subjugate nature”. The second projection is a selection of archival materials about the Yakutian Permafrost Research Station (YANIMS) and it denotes the scientific approach to the subject in question. The third screen displays a fragment from a documentary Wooly Mammoth: The Autopsy (2014) that covers the 2013 discovery of the best-preserved body of a mammoth with soft tissues and blood-like liquid in Yakutia (the so-called Malolyakhovsky Mammoth nicknamed Buttercup). The film was shot by visiting researchers obsessed with the idea of cloning mammoths. The displayed frames show the permafrost at it starts bleeding with mammoth blood — a pivotal and shocking point in the story when what appeared to be dead suddenly seems potentially alive. It is the moment when our understanding of the world can be turned upside down, while the ancient pagan beliefs collide with advanced science, and a possibility of cloning the long-dead body can potentially shatter the conventional boundary between the living and the non-living, between the subject and the object. Unexpectedly, the electromagnetic probe, the phallic-shaped device used to penetrate deep below the surface of the Earth tapping into knowledge, which is also a symbol of life, turns out to be a dead object, while the passive stratum of matter, the thick frozen rock, in which holes are drilled, appears to be alive and bleeding. Nature and culture, subject and object, the male and the female thus swap places.

It seems that we have now reached the point at which the boundaries of a deeply entrenched mental “map” of scholarly disciplines need to be revisited and reconsidered. The permafrost is not only an object of study and inquiry but also something external with respect to humanity in general, something “non-human” that exposed the gap between its phenomenological projections, the linguistic constructions and itself — a thing-in-itself that exists in a different temporality and modality.

A frame from Wooly mammoth. The Autopsy

This gap could be filled on a complex material level where the entire world and everything in it, from objects and processes to humans, mechanisms and animals to images and brands, emerges as a complex material surface. On this level, globality is replaced with planetarity [ 2 ] 2. For more on this: Smirnov N. Provintsializatsia Globusa i lovushki planetarnosti ("Provincialization of the Globe and the Pitfalls of Planetarity") // ХЖ (Moscow Art Magazine), # 99, 2016, pp. 48−57 , ecology sprawls to an all-encompassing size, while everything on the planet and the planet itself become alive and dead in equal measure.

Properties of thinking and representation are attributed not only to humans but to a broadly defined “life”. Contemporary philosophy, science and art have arrived at this standpoint in part in an attempt to put an end to a preying, destructive attitude towards Earth and to reduce conflict of different kind. The indigenous ethnic groups of the North with their animistic traditions, self-objectification and shamanism have known the importance of a sustainable, respectful treatment of the environment from times immemorial, for animism, according to curator Anselm Franke, is, above all, a practice of resisting objectification [ 3 ] 3. Anselm Franke. Animism: Notes on an Exhibition // e-flux. — Journal #36. — July 2012. — Available at 258/animism-notes-on-an-exhibition/ (last available on 26.01.2017). .

In today’s world, various discourses and practices coexist and can be both functional or not. No worldview or theory can claim the ability to comprehensively describe the world any longer. The dichotomies suggested by the Enlightenment, such as “soul versus body”, “nature versus culture”, “civilization versus barbarism”, “subject versus object”, “the sacred versus the profane” and so forth, are crumbling. It is largely accepted today that the key political move on the way to decolonize our imagination would be to reject any disciplinary boundaries that confine and restrict imagination, to eschew divisions of any kind, and to rethink accepted borders so as to probe their instability.

Under and Above the Ground: The Influence of the Permafrost on the Sacred and the Powerful

Yakutian ethnologist Semyon I. Nikolaev-Somogotto argued that the image and concept of the underworld in Yakut paganism was shaped by the images of Biblical Hell after Russian Orthodox Christianity had been brought to these lands. [ 4 ] 4. Nikolaev S. I. Dva yazychestva naroda sakha (Sakha People's Two Paganisms). — Yakutsk: Yakutski Krai Publishers, 2007. . Before the arrival of the Russians, the Yakuts buried their dead on or above the ground, and not inside it. This world equally belonged to the dead and the living who took turns (“shifts”) reigning it (days were the time of the living, while at night the dead took over), while space was commonly shared. Not unlike Christian dogmas, the pagan underworld was linguistically constructed as a heterotopia, or “another” space, “the other world”.

In their joint project Infrastructural Ethnography, Max Sher and Antonina Shadrina reflect on the unstable status of infrastructure in the permafrost area. Power cables and pipelines laid above the ground resemble the ancient arangas — aerial burials. In this sense, the infrastructure of death in the pre-Christian Yakutia was as real as the present-day Arctic infrastructure. On the one hand, spirits and creatures inhabiting this infrastructure also become intrinsic to this world. On the other hand, it is a reflection on the essence of power and its metaphysical “infrastructural” status (whether power is profane or sacred, otherworldly or real). But it is also a decolonizing gesture that populates the state-controlled infrastructure with traditional mythological figures.

Electromagnetic probe

The fact that the infrastructure in the permafrost areas is built above the ground and is directly influenced by permafrost accounts for a number of important religious and civilizational features of geo-cultures that have taken shape here.

Birds figure prominently in the work of the Yakutsk-based artist Antonina Shadrina. Birds connect the ground and the air within the cosmology of Siberian pagan beliefs. Creatures and spirits that dwelled in the sky were guided by the same principles as were the humans that resided on Earth. Not unlike the gods of Ancient Greek, these creatures and spirits could descend on Earth and enter into various relationships with humans. Shadrina’s birds signify the world’s inseparability, the interconnectedness of everything, which, today, also adds an environmental dimension to the subject of major social migrations and population movements. The birds’ own kind of freedom in the works of this artist is only possible on the surface of the ground as the subterranean roots trap them, hold them and keep them from flying. While in the air, a bird becomes a totem, a mighty creature capable of encompassing the whole infrastructure with a gaze from above thereby claiming ownership of it. Memory and a link to the underworld with all its roots acquire here a somewhat fatal and even ominous character.

Universalizing, global deterritorialization processes engender the reverse reterritorialization once expressed in the “longing for one’s ancestral homeland”, “getting back to one’s roots”, or “national revivals” large and small. The indigenous peoples of the North have gone through a complex, multistage process of identity formation, which still continues today, as topical as ever. Involved in the interplay between the global and the local, the subterranean and the “above-the-ground” become significations of sorts, albeit not as straightforward as they may seem at the first glance. The Yakut pagan beliefs included an Upper world of their own, which was not connected to any globalization processes. It was later somewhat reimagined in the Olonkho [epic] and gained some traits of a universal national modernity.

The Northern Hero: the Strong Man and the Blacksmith

The person living on the face of Earth enters into special relationships with the Lower world. The Yakut Olonkho epic warriors often went under the ground to conquer a woman or to go through a series of trials. This is comparable to the concept of “conquering the depths of the Earth” in the Soviet narrative of modernization, for the Soviet ideologues believed that the riches of the Earth should be extracted, wrestled from its bowels through heroic effort fraught with many dangers and perils. In this sense, the Lower underground world is always a dangerous environment concealing a much-needed resource.

Nikolai Vetter. The Man who Works with Earth. Spiritual Sculptures

The epic 1934 movie documenting the rescue operation of the Lena Expedition trapped in ice reflects this heroic effort to assert the human power over nature that the nascent Soviet warrior society set out to do. The rescue of the ice-locked expedition was made possible thanks to the use of explosives and an icebreaker that violated the hard surface of ice/water.

The epic Olonkho warrior is always a strong man tempered in the furnaces of Kydai Bakhsi from whom he receives his armor and weapons. Kydai Bakhsi is a patron of smithcraft and the craft in general, which has traditionally been very important for the Yakuts. Legends have it that Kydai Bakhsi resides in the Lower world. In many other ethnic myths blacksmiths dealt with the underworld, “partnered” with evil spirits and possessed huge power.

The present-day Yakutian man of muscle Nikolay Vetter is known on the Internet as “the man who bends nails and metal” [ 5 ] 5. See a series of eponymous videos on YouTube, for example, (last available on 30.01.2017) . Vetter says he feels strength as a heaviness, which suddenly overcomes him and needs to be released or discharged somehow. In no small part, he receives this strength from his interaction with the subterranean: Vetter is a caretaker at one of Yakutsk’s cemeteries. Like ancient blacksmiths and Yakut epic warriors, he enters into special relationships with the metal, acquires a certain power over it and goes underground to replenish strength, to strike a “contract”. Furthermore, the outcome of his effort looks like abstract sculptures while what he makes with bare hands makes him a quintessential sculptor — a masculine human who makes a physical effort and masters the material.

The main topic explored by the well-known Yakutsk-based painter Mikhail Starostin is a Northerner. The artist is searching for a generalized image with the same recurrent attributes, such as snow goggles that also have been made from metal. They erase the individuality transforming a human face into a mask. This mask is a special subject shaped by the Arctic that plays the role of a “device” with the help of which people can adapt to and, at the same time, “medialize” oneself, or distance from the harsh environment.

Antonina Shadrina, Max Sher. Infrastructural Ethnography

A painting by an unknown artist provided by the Institute of Permafrost serves as a rhyme of sorts. In it, the human and the environment are abstracted ad maximum but the environment remains manifestly Arctic. Complex subject-object relationships in which the northerner and nature are entangled to a certain extent erases subjectivity, renders it uncertain and unstable — “floating”. In this context, it is fascinating to reflect on the Russian names of the Yakuts: as though intentionally “nondescript”, they function as a disguise, an avatar, while also inscribing themselves in the well-known tradition of changing babies’ names many times in order to confuse and drive away the evil spirits, the tradition that used to be observed by the Arctic peoples.

Deep or Up: Flowing of States

Humans have long been fascinated by the inner space of the Earth. This fascination has given rise to many legends and theories about the hollowness of the Earth and the various forms of life that may exist underneath. Vladimir A. Obruchev, for instance, the founding director of the Moscow Institute of Permafrost, wrote a novel titled Plutonia in which he describes a star at the core of the Earth and populates the planet’s inner surface with prehistoric animals and humans. The scholar has thus turned time into space by placing the past underground, which is essentially congruent with archeology’s constituent practice as well as with the popular perception of the underworld. Obruchev chose to place an orifice canal between the two worlds in the Arctic.

In his fairytale-like novel Dunno on the Moon, Nikolay N. Nosov located a capitalist civilization of shorties on the inner core of the moon (which the locals refer to as the Earth, too). Within the context of the historicist Soviet Marxism, this heterotopia also reflected another time — another historical formation that Communism was supposed to replace. In the meantime, a character in the Yakut fable Yi kyyha escapes to the Moon from the misfortunes and bitterness of her unhappy life and she does so by changing her physical state — literally, evaporating into atoms. The Earth offered to help the girl but she was afraid of the underworld and turned that help down. Artist Ayiyna Alexeeva depicts two episodes from this tale in her prints — the girl’s atomization while she is contemplating her bitter destiny and looking into an ice hole. This black hole in the ice leads deep inside, opening an entrance into the world underneath, the world of the dead.

In her animation Into the Deep, Alina Fedotova seeks to create a generalized, suggestive image of moving deep into Earth as an old dream of the humankind. At a certain point, moving deep into the planet becomes identical to flying into space. Traveling back in time suddenly turns inside out with the future and a new horizon, the one not yet attained, for humans have not yet been deep inside the Earth.

The first issue of the wall newspaper Yakutski Merzlotoved (“Yakutian Permafrost Scientist”), 1963.

Into the Deep looks like a hole, a funnel. That is exactly the way any mine or hole in the ground looks like, be it a well or an ice hole. References and allusions to the female element are laid bare here. The Earth is always female: it keeps its secrets and riches deep inside and they should be conquered (just like a woman is conquered in traditional societies) through a strong-willed masculine effort. Each in their own way, Olonkho epic warriors, scientists and pioneering geologists display this effort.

The Underground Museum of Eternity

The permafrost as a notion was constructed within the Soviet scientific discourse. Mikhail I. Sumgin put it to institutional use in 1927 [ 6 ] 6. Sumgin M. I. Ibidem. . A model of the permafrost was instrumental in order to be able to include engineering and construction projects for Arctic areas into the Soviet modernization project. Integral to this project was a perception of Nature as something external to Culture, something that had to be explored, conquered and subjugated, while eliminating all its properties that were negative and counterproductive for the humankind. However, the enigmas of the permafrost stirred futuristic imagination. Sumgin called it “the Russian Sphinx” and proposed the creation of a vast underground refrigerator museum where the bodies of animals and humans of various races would be kept for thousands of years. He also suggested that the museum’s holdings should include important manuscripts and that experiments with the state of anabiosis should be conducted on the museum’s premises.

Artist Irina Filatova revisits the ideas of the 1920s by placing portraits of the founders of the permafrost science into the Institute of Permafrost’s underground lab and by arranging video streaming “up to the surface”. Sumgin’s ideas are intrinsically connected to a range of utopian projects that today are considered avant-garde museology. In this sense they are no less valuable than Nikolay F. Fedorov’s thoughts on the museum. The form in which they had been implemented within the context of institutionalized science is all the more interesting for that. In Irina Filatova’s project, this “museum of eternity” now houses representations of the founders of the permafrost science. To create these representations the artist resorted to the medium that is primarily associated with reflections on eternity: oil painting.

Nearby the visitor can see several exhibits provided by the Yakutsk Institute of Permafrost, including books by Sumgin, his bust by Nina Velmina. Velmina, a hydrogeologist and permafrost scientist who designed water supply systems for Russia’s major Arctic ports, such as Tiksi, Dickson, and Provideniya, is a woman of many talents. She followed in the steps of the many Russian scientists before her who variously combined professional interest in science with a passion for artistic creativity. Velmina authored a book of science-fiction about the permafrost titled The Ice Sphinx and made illustrations for it herself.

Irina Filatova’s The Underground Museum of Eternity. A video streaming screenshot. Courtesy of Alexey Romanov

Upon retiring, Velmina took to sculpting and completed a full-fledged course taught by a well-known sculptor Valentina V. Alexandrova-Roslavleva at the Moscow House of Scientists’ People’s Studio. She then created a series of sculptured portraits of scientists and writers. The first issue of the Yakutski Merzlotoved (“The Yakutian Permafrost Scientist”) bulletin-board newspaper is also displayed in this section. It was published in celebration of the founding of the institute and of the permafrost lab in a new building in 1964.

X-raying the Surface

Extreme cold in Yakutia is associated with the advent of Ehee Diyla — a bull from the Arctic Ocean. This mythical animal embodied the features of both the familiar domestic bulls and the fossil mammoths whose remains are still found in the permafrost. During the ice drift on the Lena River, the body of the winter bull floats back to the Arctic Ocean sweeping away the souls of dead humans and animals. Dzhuliyana Semenova created “sneaking” photographs of ruptured surface of snow and ice, with an elusive secret embedded within them: a formation or a trace of the past that is hiding underneath the surface. The signs and patterns of her photographs signify the manifestations of a hidden structure, both in the ruptures of the material surface and in its image per se.

Yegor Sleptsov, on the contrary, seeks to X-ray or scan this surface in order to present a hypnotizing mark of another reality and to expose it by translating it into a precise language of figures and geophysical scans. The artist uses the Oko-2 (“Eye-2”) ground penetrating radar (GPR) to make imagery of underground rocks in the area surrounding Yakutsk. These “underground” structures largely define the physical existence of buildings and networks above the ground. The GPR-sourced imagery made by Sleptsov reveals the existence of a different, underground reality. But do they add anything significant to our understanding of any vital processes and mechanisms?

Semyonova’s and Sleptsov’s projects viewed together make visitors reflect on the limits of the Enlightenment processes. Is there a need to preserve some kind of a mystery, and only hint at its presence under the surface, or should we do our best to shed light on the invisible structures? Today it is clear that the result of this deconstruction and critique may seem no less complex and enigmatic than their starting point. And scientific imagery sourced from a radar may turn out to be a skillfully made artistic “fake” with an artist making minor but important modifications to the document, that raises a question about the legitimacy and verifiability of criteria of our scientific knowledge.

  1. Sumgin M. I. Vechnaya merzlota pochvy v predelakh SSSR ("The Permafrost Soils Within the Borders of the USSR"). — Vladivostok: Far Eastern Geophysical Laboratory, 1927. — Frontispiece.
  2. For more on this: Smirnov N. Provintsializatsia Globusa i lovushki planetarnosti ("Provincialization of the Globe and the Pitfalls of Planetarity") // ХЖ (Moscow Art Magazine), # 99, 2016, pp. 48−57
  3. Anselm Franke. Animism: Notes on an Exhibition // e-flux. — Journal #36. — July 2012. — Available at 258/animism-notes-on-an-exhibition/ (last available on 26.01.2017).
  4. Nikolaev S. I. Dva yazychestva naroda sakha (Sakha People's Two Paganisms). — Yakutsk: Yakutski Krai Publishers, 2007.
  5. See a series of eponymous videos on YouTube, for example, (last available on 30.01.2017)
  6. Sumgin M. I. Ibidem.