The 20th-century myth of the “Golden Age of Air Travel” was battered by the deregulation of the European air industry in 1992 that gave rise to low-cost carriers such as Ryanair; then floored by Concorde Flight 4590 ploughing into a hotel nearby Charles De Gaulle International Airport leading to the glamour-liner’s decommissioning in the summer of 2000; and then killed on September 11, 2001, when three passenger planes were hijacked and flown, like missiles, into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. More than anything else the three events robbed the myth of its romance by reducing air travel to a form of mass transit; robbing it of its highest aspirational, and supersonic, marque; and eclipsing the era of the walk-on/walk-off experience in which one embarked and disembarked on the tarmac with friends and family accompanying you to the aircraft’s gangway. (Royalty, heads of state, and rock-n-roll stars retain their walk-on privileges).
The events of “9/11” doubled the sense of threat (of mechanical failure or pilot error) embodied in all jet travel by linking it to a new regime of security and control that – ironically and dialectically – constantly reminds travellers that they are not safe. At the same time it has slowed the procedure of disembarkation to a crawl and made it into something akin to queuing-for-bread (a process exacerbated by the increased number of travellers enabled by low-cost carriers). The endless queuing, waiting, and seemingly pointless and time-wasting routines of identity checking and security scanning of personal belongings is excruciating enough for sane-minded travellers who experience it as boredom and bored frustration. For travellers who suffer from flight anxiety it adds minutes-and-hours to their doom-laden anticipation – turning it into a form of torture.
Like every myth the golden age of air travel was always relative and like so many such myths canonized in the hegemonic West. It looked different from other geo-political perspectives: either more golden or more mythical (inter alia fake). One such perspective is that of the, equally hegemonic, East of Europe comprised by both the tsarist Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Just listing the names of scientists and engineers – from the respective Empires – that made an invaluable and pioneering contribution to the development of aviation and aeronautics expresses something of a competing golden age: Antonov, Ilyushin, Mikoyan and Gurevich, Polikarpov, Sikorski (who emigrated to the United States), Sukhoi, Tupolev, and Yakovlev. The scientists were often privileged to have their production plants, and the planes they made, named after them. And given a Soviet habit of identifying aircraft by two-letter denominators (AN, TU, IL) reflecting their nomenclature and the encouragement of its citizens to be able to identify planes overhead there is a sense in which these were household names: even more so than the names of their Western counterparts whose names were subsumed by the brand name of the aeronautical companies they worked for (i.e. Boeing, Hughes, and McDonnell Douglas).
Because of the instrumentalisation of travel – and vacations – as an aspect of a healthy Soviet life linked to “trans-nationalisation” (a policy enabling the creation of a unified and hegemonic Soviet identity) there was a high degree of access to highly-organized intra-Soviet travel, for: athletic tourism, children’s tourism, health/therapeutic tourism, student tourism, trade union tourism, and youth tourism (including “young pioneer” tourism). The Soviet Union’s vast distances necessitated air travel for the sake of social time management; and from the period of wealth and openness associated with the “Khrushchev Thaw” and the foundation of the “Intourist” Agency in 1964 this even meant jet-travel. Access to jet-travel certainly permeated many more layers of Soviet society than its western equivalent, where, until the 1990s, the lower classes embarked on endless “busman’s holidays” (a phrase describing a holiday that is almost the same as one’s life at home and/or work i.e. a bus driver takes a bus to his vacation). Of course the mythical element of what is being described is that, until the 1980s and perestroika, it was a resolutely domestic experience of jet-travel: for the majority of Soviet citizens it didn’t involve seeing-the-world. International travel was reserved for an even smaller percentage of the population than in the West.*
* It is worth noting that, even today, only 35% of United States citizens hold passports and as such cannot travel internationally. This contributes to both a) the regularity with which conservative GOP politicians make ridiculously ill-informed observations about world geography-and politics; and b) the low numbers of US citizens enrolled to vote (as they might lack statutory personal identification).
As tragic as the Soviet control of its external borders and of the international passage abroad of its citizens was, even more tragic – that takes the lustre off the reputations of the aforementioned aeronautical engineers and scientists – has been the notoriously bad air safety record of Soviet and now Russian (including ex- Soviet) aircraft. To the rest of the world – inured to Moscow’s propaganda about its scientific and technical achievements – it has seemed for decades that endless capacity and resources are invested in development and nearly none for maintenance because of the regular news of Antonovs, Tupolevs, Sukhois, and Yaks falling from the sky. It made sense during the years of Soviet collapse when systems and key personnel were being overturned. And in the putative years of Russian instability when the Rouble collapsed and there was no money to be had. Yet, after nearly a decade of infrastructural rebooting, associated with the Putin-Medvedev conjuncture, Russian aviation suffered an Annus horribilis in 2011 when 15 civilian planes crashed killing 120 people – following the infamous downing of the Polish Presidential TU-154 near Smolensk airport in 2010 killing all 90 passengers and crew on board including President Lech Kaczynski and several of the country’s most senior politicians, bureaucrats and military brass.
In dying so aimlessly, and in repeat of a historical tragedy (the Polish delegation was travelling to Russia to mark the 70th-anniversary of the Katyn massacre of the Polish Officers Corps by the Russian NKVD), President Kaczynski has been martyred and conferred his own mythical status. It is a rich territory for immortalization as in July 1933 the American-Lithuanian pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas crashed-to-death some 620km short of their Trans-Atlantic destination in Kaunas (in what was then German and now Polish terrain) after being aloft for some 37 hours and traveling 6,400km from New York: placing them in the record books of the day. Even in failure the Lithuanian people adopted them as national heroes and monumentalized their achievements – famously emblazoning them on the 10 Litas banknote after soviet-independence in the 1990s. While Darius and Girėnas had been flying an American plane this remains a cautionary tale: travel is nothing less than dangerous if not heroic.
The danger, embodied in a number of works by Anna Jermolaewa and Audra Vau included in the exhibition A Sort of Homecoming, is both man-made and natural. The most emblematic expression of the former – human threat – is embodied in Jermolaewa’s video Untitled (conveyor belt) (2010) in which a Russian airport customs officer inspects luggage – inbound from Samarkand, Uzbekistan – spiralling on a conveyor belt with the help of a dog. It is a quotidian scene of shabby public utility architecture and shabbier baggage shrinkwrapped in plastic, which feels familiar to anyone who has travelled through airports in any of the former-soviet states (including Russia). Near the end of the video’s loop the dog, a German shepherd, leaps through the air in proximity to Jermolaewa’s camera. In that moment reality rushes back in and the airport – remember the fate of the US security service whistle blower Edward Snowden at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow – becomes a Panopticon: one of those ultimate instruments of surveillance and social control. Moreover, all of the myths about Russian attitudes towards security linked to its seemingly paranoiac international in-bound visa regime and heavy-handed border regulation (not to mention state sponsored xenophobia). The video begs a question, whether flights from Uzbekistan (Samarkand is visible on the LED display over the conveyor belt) are treated to exceptional surveillance: as, for the last decade, the country has aligned its foreign policy with the United States and the United Nations – and not with Moscow.
Such policies have been openly pursued against states like Georgia, and its citizens, which have entered into military hostilities with Russia to protect itself from extraneous external political influence and continue on their road to self-determination. In the case of Georgia its products were embargoed from Russia (its largest international export market) and thousands of guest workers were ejected from the country. There is no small irony present, therefore, in Jermolaewa’s suite of nine-photographs – that are much lighter in their subject – Volga, Moskvich, Lada, etc. (2008). Titled for the soviet-era brands of cars depicted in the photographs what is depicted is a scene typical of open-markets in summertime- Russia, and in Lithuania for that matter, of such cars being loaded-to-overflowing with fruit and vegetables. The specific fruit and vegetables – cucumbers, egg plants, honey dew melons, red paprika, tomatoes, and watermelons – are all hankered for and cherished in memory through the harsh winter months and then consumed with relish during the summer. They are all products associated with the Caucasus (and Caucasian cuisine) and especially Georgia. Despite any negative governmental policy – banning produce from there – a corner of the popular palate, and imaginary, remains positively linked to those sights and smells and places… summer wouldn’t be the same without them.
No surprise then that Jermolaewa has acknowledged in interviews with the mainstream press in her adopted home of Vienna that: her favourite social space in the city is the Naschmarkt (the main inner-city open market) as she can comfortably speak her mother-tongue there; and her favourite restaurant is a small Georgian restaurant in one of the city’s smaller market squares. Another such country to nestle itself into the Soviet popular imaginary since the 1960s – linked to amongst other things produce (principally, cane sugar) and good weather – is Cuba. The island-state’s alignment with the Soviet Union via the COMECON and CMEA treaties, for economic and military aid, to ensure its economic wellbeing and border integrity meant that numerous Soviet experts and advisors travelled there for work and it became the dream destination for compulsory Soviet military service. Limited numbers of tourists were even allowed to travel there. Consequently, since the 1990s, the highest number of inbound tourists to Cuba is people from the ex-Soviet states wanting to experience the myth for themselves in the style of a pilgrimage. (Of course there are no direct flights to Cuba from the United States, and Americans who want to test-the-waters have to suffer the ire of their government and fly to Cuba via Canada). Both Anna Jermolaewa and Audra Vau have travelled there in recent years; and made art work about the experience – with Vau’s work from Cuba being included in A Sort of Homecoming.
The logic of holidays – except for those made for skiing – is built on the idea of an endless summer (the phrase which appositely gave its name to the picaresque surf film The Endless Summer: the search for a perfect wave (1966) which achieves the feat of 365-days of sunshine). It is the way that tourism is promoted the-world-over and is a vision exploited by marketers – especially for products like beer, soft drink, and sunglasses – spruiking summertime leisure: never mind that these products are consumed and used all-year-round. People from countries, such as Lithuania and Russia, which experience long and harsh winters and are situated at a geographical- latitude of which determines minimal daylight hours in the winter months, may be forgiven their summer holidays. Don’t forget that Vitamin-D deficiency is a reality in those places, which impacts negatively on general wellbeing – especially in years like 2013 when the snows extend into May and (by April) a collective depression seems to descend over entire national populations.
That the skies in the photographic series Stagnation (2006/2013), which Vau shot in Cuba, are anything but blue hints that something is amiss and that the summer is stillborn. The title of the work – Stagnation – holds the clue. Vau’s single channel video animation of the same title, and also shot at the sea shore, in which the ebb-and-flow of the tide is manipulated to create an uncanny stillness and an increasing sense of unease and that there is something unnatural going on in the exhibition – despite the beauty of the images being described. Travelling to Cuba as a post-Soviet Lithuanian is surely an exercise in nostalgia a word that at its Greek-root – derived from the Greek nostos [return home] and algos [pain] – means “homesickness” in as much as it can be applied in English to indicate a type of time-travel. In travelling to Cuba Vau was searching for the mythical signs of a functioning socialism in tropical paradise she remembered being publicized in earlier times. The myth is too-Utopian-to-be-true when seen through jaded 21st-century eyes, rather than the refraction of her immanently naïve 20thcentury Soviet gaze, which reveal a country problematically tied to its founding father and foundational communist myth – resistant to progress. The clouds scudding across the sky therefore are Shakespearean in their reflection of human tragedy: remember the bard made the earth do unnatural things – most famously in King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest – before earth scientists engaged with the concept of the Anthropocene and the way the earth reflects man’s degradations.
The battle between man-and nature – especially the sea – is a trope in art established in the 19th century by the British painter J.M.W. Turner and his close contemporary the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (also associated with discourses of the sublime). While both painted idyllic maritime scenes, Turner most famously in his sun sets in Venice, they built their renown on their dramatic pictures where man is overwhelmed by nature: ships falling victim to the ocean and the elements. The way in which the people appear so small in Vau’s photographs is suggestive of such insignificance and invokes a sense of natural-threat. Ships, like planes, go down in storms. This is the undertow of Vau’s contribution to the exhibition; articulated in the single channel video-projection and suite of four photographs both titled Tsunami (2013; 2004/2013). The frame in the video is divided into four, reflecting the photographs; each window is depicting the surface of an anonymous section of roiling sea. The photographs, shot in close-up, indexically depict the ruins of the hotel and hotel room where Vau and her family were staying in Sri Lanka when the India Plate Tsunami hit at Christmas 2004. The photographs are testament to her, and her family’s, surviving that natural disaster. It is also testament to the survival and longevity of the mid-format negatives she shot there and has only printed almost a decade later in 2013 – in a creative act that is the antithesis of nostalgia.
Remember, this is a cautionary tale… and not even the sea in tropical paradise is safe. It too can buckle under the weight of projection – and more literally under the weight of the shifting tectonic plates – and rise up as a hitherto unnoticed sublime. For this reason, and despite the title, Vau’s LCD-screen video The sleep of reason brings forth monsters (2012) seems like a soothing corrective – that reminds of simpler pleasures. In the video a butterfly has settled on the photograph of a young woman in a floral dress sitting in a pastoral and summertime landscape. It is a scene reminiscent of images from the high moment of Lithuanian photography and cinema of the late-1960s and early-1970s that poeticised the Lithuanian pastoral. Moreover, it’s a close match for the aforementioned market scenes by Jermolaewa and hints that there is beauty and value to be found in the familiar and close-to-home. Significantly, this is also a narrative impetus of many of the epic odysseys born of classical literature. Put simply, Ulysses’ quest is to return to the comfort of home and faithful bosom of his wife Penelope.
Combining the domestic and the sublime – or taming that sublimity – is what Jermolaewa does in the photographic self-portrait The Mountain Calls (2009) in which she turns her critical lens away from Russia and towards her adopted home, Austria. In the self-portrait as reclining nude an Alpine scene is visible through the window set in the middle-ground of the image – calling to her. In answering that call, or, by making the picture, she is trying to commensurate her new national identity and connect to an apposite version of the sublime associated with the Alps: so important to Nordic, Wagnerian, and Austrian myth-and-legend. The call wasn’t clarion, however, as in 2012 Jermolaewa set out on an odyssey of her own – not in the mountains but across the steppes – to visit the settlement in Siberia, Russia, where her grandparents were exiled during Soviet times.
The steppes, or at least vast expanses of snow and ice hold an equivalent place in Russian mythology and canonical literature, as the mountains in the Austrian canon. The resulting video documentary Gulag (2012) returns Jermolaewa, and the exhibition, to the frozen climes and snows of the North, and all of the hardships and day-to-day discomfort they bring. On the trip – taken by train and truck and not by air – she assembles pieces of information about her family, stories about life in that place, and a glimpse of why people still live there today – when they are now free to migrate elsewhere – even if it is out of a sense of fatalism typical to that emanation known as “the Russian soul”. For Jermolaewa assembling the narrative represents a sort of homecoming – and for Audra Vau, too, as she also had nuclear family exiled to Siberia during Soviet times – because she has assembled an archive to be carried back to Vienna and worked with again. The same might be said of Audra Vau’s archive of photographic negatives, and transparencies. There is a sense in which that material, gathered by each of the artists, represents a history of the future – that will arrive who-knows-when.