Sasha Kurmaz – Poisonous Berries

Written on by Callum Beaney

Fragmented, chaotic, multi-layered and riddled with juxtapositions, the collage is a breeding ground for identifying and manufacturing relationships between different pieces of culture. Parts form a whole; external completion defined by internal separation.

[notes from a translator]
The middle part is also orthodox christian text but where the first one was a teaching about virtues and so on, this bit is about the church mass and what the abbot should do.

The lower part is a part in pre-revolutionary Russian, I can’t clearly see what is there, but it seems to me it is about how to resist temptation and defeat passions. Note that all of the “background” pieces here are written not in modern Russian, but in “Church Slavonic” Russian.

This comes to apply not just to the relationships between the scraps of newspaper, bible pages, photographs and digital text in Poisonous Berries, but also what’s inside the un-cropped photographs themselves, be they people or objects. Bible in one hand, bat in another… tattoos, cigarettes, nude figures, hammer and sickle … whether they appear together in one photograph or not, they all seem to reduce to isolated symbols as part of a larger collage, indexes of cultural movements, changing attitudes, political histories. The bat floats free from the hand that grasps it, stops being what might just be a moment of prayer and is free to stand-in for “violence”, “sports” or “alternative lifestyles” characterised by the modern-day punk aesthetics surrounding it.

Page spread 3 — the artist’s text says in modern Russian: “…this flow of images is different snatched (picked) episodes in which I fix my view on the situations, objects, events that are important to me, that convey and form my feeling of reality…”

In a clipping titled “Of the Signs of the Times”, some turn-of-the-millennium text proclaims that then-new plastic ID cards to be marks of Satan. Elsewhere, old, pre-revolutionary Russian bible excerpts espouse the importance of resisting temptation and defeating the passions.

The paper upon which Poisonous Berries is printed is thin and soft, like bible stock; the ink comes off on my fingers like newsprint.

The analogue media — newspaper clippings, bible pages, conservative propaganda — all of this is sequestered to the background, onto which are digitally imposed those images the photographer took himself. If I move how I approach that relationship between the two away from thinking in terms of collage, then I find myself thinking of these paper scans as what they are — a “background”. Quite literally, the historical context in which these photographs have been taken, the context from which the activities of the newer generation sprouted forth, the reason why they mean something to begin with. The Soviet monuments are all in ruins; a movement focused on the collective remains only in architectural skeletons before the living and breathing individualism of newer generations.

Spread 4 — The artist’s text: “To everyone who does care about love and it’s fleeting manifestations”. Background text is a continuation of the previous text about antichrist and satanic dictatorship that are manifesting in innovations and inventions.

Insofar as the photographer’s images act metaphorically or symbolically, such as the fingered tree or the hand-clutched heart, it seems pertinent that the way those metaphors might work changes along with those generational differences. Historical criticisms of Christian institutions often point to their rejection of nature, how their moral assertions appear designed to stifle people’s natural passions, some philosophers even regarding those moralities an enemy of life itself.

On the lower part there is some text with the title in Ukrainian “only love and truth can help to defeat evil and falsehood”. And a text about the sign of the cross.

I have no real knowledge of Ukraine and of what it’s like to live and grow up there [especially at time of publication], and at best a summarial knowledge of its modern history — without a translation I would probably be in trouble on this front. I recognise that, at a glance, Kurmaz’ work might be seen as just another edition in an excessively-published niche: male photographer depicts gritty, sex-rich lifestyle; lots of pictures of naked women; visually or conceptually clever but somewhat morally questionable (think Araki).

It says on spread no.6 — “to the greater extent I’m interested in the inner space of a man (human), its social and psychic manifestations.”

Contrary to that trend, I find Poisonous Berries to come from a warm and in some ways quite loving viewpoint, one full of joy yet tinged with anxiety. From these pages, I read a repudiation to these histories. This is what makes Poisonous Berries work for me, and I am not convinced that experiencing it well depends on knowing the translations; Biblical collage vibes quite consistently across cultures, especially when counterposed against images such as Kurmaz’s.

In that picture above, there is a feeling that ‘the heart’ is not just a romantic metaphor, nor is it the locus of some transcendental spirit. Nor is it like the simple ♥ ideograph we draw in love-letters. It is real flesh, and the emotional and sexual desires that ‘the heart’ are also used to speak of are no less physical, no less something to embrace in the here, and now.

You can mention me just as Doukhneaux. By this “pseudonym” it’s more likely I could be found on the net than by my real name in Russian.

Sasha Kurmaz
Bronze Age Editions