On July 14 I had the privilege of being present at one of the last events of the Pushkin House summer programme – Video Art & Discussion on Crimea.
Artist Ruth Maclennan, inspired by the works of Chekhov, Tsvetaeva and Tolstoi, decided to get out there herself and live through some of the experiences described in their works. Her trip resulted in the production of two pieces: a short movie showing the Crimean landscapes – Theodosia – and a video loop on Odessa, strangely entitled The Future is ours!. Both pieces were filmed during July-August 2012, before the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
The Future is ours! shows images of modern Odessa, a major Ukrainian seaport and formerly the headquarters of the Imperial Russian fleet. A historic landmark, the Potemkin steps, becomes a central stage for the scene, as tourists and Odessans visit the Steps, enjoying the beautiful view and consuming the accompanying pleasures. Interestingly, the Steps were renamed after the famous 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, directed by Sergei Eisenstein. By the author’s own admission there was no real purpose to this mini-film, but by going all the way up to the statue of Richelieu and Catherine the Great, located on top of the Steps, and then back down to the road again, it appears that she sought to give different perspectives on the place through showing the relationship between present and past. How successful she was at this is another question: the filming seemed unremarkable and it was hard to see the idea behind the film: ultimately, the piece seemed rather empty.
The second work, Theodosia, presented a much more interesting case. Even though, as Miss Maclennan admitted during Q & A session, she had no particular aim in mind, we did have the pleasure of seeing a multi-layered piece about the transformations of history. For the purposes of the film, she shot footage of Theodosia, Sudak, Balaklava, Koktebel – cities well-known among former Soviet citizens – and the countryside around those municipalities.
For about 20 minutes the audience witnessed revelations of historical and personal tragedies from the Crimean War and the exile of the Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia, combined with cheerful images of holiday resorts for people from all over the former USSR. The images of breathtaking landscapes from the Eastern part of the Crimean Peninsula were accompanied by tragic poems from Ovid , whose poem cycle Tristia is an incarnation of the despair and anxiety he suffered in exile in the remote province in Crimea back in 8 AD. These were then contrasted with the diametrically opposed feelings that surfaced in the souls of Marina Tsvetaeva and Nadezhda Mandelstam, for whom the experience of living in Crimea was an incarnation of the best moments in their lives, echoing in their works, some of which also featured in this short film. Ruth Maclennan’s attempt to explore the complex area’s history by reframing Crimea as a place of inspiration, vitality and historical interest presents a peculiar piece in the context of current affairs, as one may wonder what the piece would look like had she filmed it now. Whether they have a purpose or not, her film installations fuel a desire to visit the Crimea to experience for yourself this historically rich soil.
Ruth Maclennan’s Theodosia and The Future is ours were part of the cultural programme at Pushkin House, which will resume in September 2014 (www.pushkinhouse.org.uk)