What is a date of birth? A bureaucratic formality, a line in your passport? Or is it an event, something that marks the individual’s coming into the world, a point in the flow of time when a new existence begins? How should we identify an artist’s date of birth: by the day, month, and year when he was “really” born, or by the moment when he was granted a new artistic vision? A little hole punched in the paper of everyday life suddenly transforms it into a camera obscura. From nowhere, from a bit of nothingness, a inverted projection of the world enters our field of vision. In this reflected image of the world, everything has changed size and gone topsy-turvy. The gaze the world fixes on us penetrates through this tiny point. Artist and world encounter each other on the projection screen.
Date of Birth is the name of Vitaly Pushnitsky’s new project. It includes the installation Heaven, the objects entitled Lines, a panorama and series of objects united under the name No Man’s Land, the large-scale painting Spinners, and the cycle of photo-lithographs that lent their name to the whole project. Last year, on his birthday, the artist found himself at an infant cemetery in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There he saw how time contracted from a line indicating life’s length into the single point of a date: a date of birth that was simultaneously a date of death. This point of birth-death was incarnated in a series of modest tombstones whose purely geometric forms were reminiscent of the experiments of minimalist artists. The realities of a cultural tradition—reduced to a bare minimum by poverty, a hot climate, and the diminutiveness of the lives buried under these stones—acquired another symbolic content. The abstract forms of the cement rectangles suddenly appeared to the artist as a desert landscape, dotted with abandoned buildings and viewed as it were from an airplane descending toward an airport. The gravestones had shed their meaning as memorials and become part of an entropic landscape. In this case, entropy means repetition, the inevitability of loss, the sense of life’s finitude. It is this entropy that turns the tombstones into anti-monuments. The artist shows us that something meant to serve as an eternal symbol of death is, in fact, an object that itself is in the process of dying. Pushnitsky’s photographs of these fading monuments are the basis of the lithographic series Date of Birth. In the lithographs he has combined these photos, excerpts from the Odyssey, images from a botanic encyclopedia, and burnt soil. This documentary landscape is commented by the artist, who accompanies his “aerial” photographs with scientific descriptions of American flora and lines from Homer. The texts provide the key for reading everything we see by introducing a new, metaphoric dimension. The journeys of the ancient Greek hero or the structure of a plant stem are merely means of describing the world, an attempt to represent reality and give names to things. Pushnitsky has long been experimenting with photo-based printmaking. Whereas earlier he combined photos using the collage method and thus compiled a new reality, a pseudo document, from several photo images, in his new cycle he does not manipulate the documentary principle of photography, but rather makes use of direct photography.
Date of Birth is a conceptual project. The dry catalogue of artifacts is amplified by commentary. The turn to photography, as well as the text in the margins, lets the artist distance himself from the depicted image. Meaning emerges in the gap between the documentary nature of the photograph and the culture of the text, somewhere in the depths of the works itself, in the layers of pressed Chinese paper that make up the background on which a shinkol lithograph (a lithograph made with a special type of Japanese paper) has been printed. Pushnitsky monotonously catalogues the objects he finds in the world. He gazes at it from the wings; he changes positions, moving away from its objects in order to interpret them anew. He transfers the photos he took in Albuquerque onto marble slabs. The silk screens he prints show us a No Man’s Land—the territory of the dead, the territory of art. As they enter the marble’s white field, the gravestones disappear; they become invisible while at the same time taking on flesh, materiality. This, however, is not the materiality of the cement “original,” but the materiality of marble, ennobled by the history of culture. In the installation Heaven, Pushnitsky unites marble and wood, a combination that seems hard to manage. Compositionally, Heaven reminds us of any number of depictions of battles on earth and in the heavens. Supported by metal rods, a slab of marble becomes the heavenly firmament. Perhaps these are invisible knights who have crossed lances; they form the endless line of a frieze under the weight of looming storm clouds. Perhaps this is a forest of beams and piles that prop up the vault of the sky; perhaps these are the masts of ships. On the “heavenly” white surface of the marble, a line from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has been inscribed: “Depart then satisfied, for he also who releases thee [is satisfied].” These words impart a memorial quality to the marble: the material reminds us of the frailty of existence, which is also the message of the quotation from Marcus Aurelius. As in the lithographs in Date of Birth, meaning arises in the synapse between image and commentary—that is, in the material and medium itself. While in the silk screens of No Man’s Land the marble serves as a support for the image, as a kind of snow-white stony paper, in Heaven marble plays a paradoxical role: as paint, as color. This, however, is a particularly vivid pigment: it has volume and considerable weight; and it produces a special visual effect. Pushnitsky thus fashions a sort of three-dimensional painting that draws on the reflective capacity of marble. In the objects Line 1 and Line 2 the artist also combines marble and wood. In this instance, however, we should not read the marble as sky or memorial plaque. Instead, it is the blinding whiteness of snow-covered mountain peaks. The cycle Date of Birth deals with a point, with the cessation of time in the single date of death-birth, which in turn helped the artist to sense its materiality. Heaven and Lines, on the contrary, have to do with movement, with extensiveness and with the linear experience of time. Point and line are the fundamental formal moments of the entire project. In a panoramic painting, also entitled No Man’s Land, Pushnitsky constructs a horizon line that travels as it were from one work to another. This is not a panorama in the literal sense of the word, but rather a collage made from various views of abandoned settlements photographed by the artist. The photographic fragments have been bound together by the painting that covers this collage. The horizon line is likewise a matter of artifice. It is more likely that it has been generated by the emptiness and expanse of the landscapes that Pushnitsky witnessed during his travels through the high desert plateau of New Mexico than by some gesture of optical authenticity.
The painting Spinners is based on a photographic group portrait of nurses taken during one of the world wars. It can been seen as an allegory for this entire project. The nurses (spinners) spin the thread of life. Subject to multiple erasures by the artist, their image reminds us of an impression made on marble. Based on a photography, the painting is, in fact, just such an impression, an imprint made from life, its document, a document that over time we begin to perceive as allegory. Pushnitsky’s Date of Birth is linked to a particular topos, to a particular place. But topos also has the sense of theme, of a rhetorical commonplace. Reflected in the name of the project itself and referring us back to time, this figure of speech has been given flesh in volumetric, plastic space. We might say that the theme of this project is the topos—the place and the theme—of time: the ambivalence of how we represent life’s finitude and its length, and point and line as the graphic, spatial incarnation of this ambivalence.