by Dilpreet BhullarOct 02, 2022
The paraphernalia surrounding celebrations is seldom of importance after the event. The afterlives of these symbols of rituals find a new visual voice in Jura Shust's exhibition Coniferous Succession at Management, New York. For the Maladzyechna-born Berlin-based multimedia artist, the idea of rituals and escapism ground the conceptual blocks of his practice. A native of Eastern Europe, Shust’s understanding of forests, contoured by the non-linear flow of time, drawn from the Finno-Ugric tribes, sets the tone for the display. Adding to that, the conifer tree associated with Christmas festivities is the kernel of the exhibition. When wrapped within plastic bags as waste, the conifers metamorphosise as sites of excavation for Shust to trace the varied meanings of mythologies and divinity enveloping fauna. The conifer, considered the oldest of its kind, has an average life span of hundreds years, with a few of them even living to a thousand years.
The text accompanying the exhibition, by New York-based independent curator Adriana Blidaru, acquaints viewers with the ritualistic practices surrounding the conifer tree—involving breast milk, blood, or stillborn babies being buried under trees. Expounding on how the trees manifest divine powers to 'bless households' and even 'long for their twin-humans to find them.' She adds that in folk tales the trees hold the power to sanctify the union of lovers, 'trees that open their bellies to give birth after nine months, and of trees that help the departed ones pass on peacefully to the after-world.' Revisiting these oral traditions then, becomes a site to draw interdependence across the world of humans and nature—exploring the bond strained over a period of time.
Since the theme of a cyclic way of life, shared by humans and fauna, drives this art exhibition, there is piqued curiosity to know how this idea translates to tangible artworks. The first is a series of wooden reliefs called Walking, knocking on the roots, and shaking the spruce paws, that was generated by artificial intelligence, feeding it with ethnographical prompts describing pre-Christian relations between people and forests. “The process of anthropomorphization lies outside the field of my interests, but despite that fact, our brain is looking for figuration everywhere, the logic that is woven into AI visual engines. It was not easy to guide the AI to follow phytomorphic and figureless patterns,” admits the artist.
Shust collected pine needles from remnants of Christmas trees, found in the city of New York, carefully arranging them on the floor of the art gallery; emulating the shape of a map inspired by the territorial terrain of prehistoric Europe. A smartphone, playing a video of a squirrel running up and down a tree, eponymously titled Coniferous Succession is perched on top of this geographical map. The AI-generated creature is presented as a representation of the shape-shifting forest spirit, mutually found in Slavic and Norse mythologies. The forest spirit manifests Yggdrasil—the Tree of life—believed to thrive in Norse cosmology, among other traditions.
The idea behind the ‘Tree of life’—a symbol of immortality and connector of worlds, is personified by the installation Hardens on the surface and heals the wound. The large self-standing panel, composed of a two-sided laminated glass unit, holds a spruce branch absorbed in pine resin. When a wound is inflicted on the tree, the resin flows from the cavity. The live-installation with the overflowing resin presents itself as a simulation of trees with blood floating in their veins. The visual artist recollects, “The resin development sites in my native forests, would always trigger empathy in me, especially knowing that trees generate the resin as a healing mechanism that is meant to fix injuries. Northern and Eastern European tribes worshipped trees like many other tribes across the planet, this is why the concept of a ‘World tree’ or ‘Tree of life’ is so ubiquitous.” The immersive installation captures these intentions, along with the other works in the show, all of which together form an organism, fossilised by dozens of litres of this vital substance.
In the industry-driven process, a sharp blade is used to cut into the trees to collect resin. The continuous process either 'renews or extends the wounds,' and if need arises newer wounds are inflicted. The installation Until all the needles fall talks about this process, presenting two rows of metal cones filled with hardened, overflowing resin—placed vertically on the wall, giving the appearance of a frozen waterfall.
The solo exhibition, reminiscent of circular dependency, defines the bond between humans and the forests. Yet, Shust is careful, mentioning that these bonds are not always devoid of anxiety and distress, as is largely perceived, and is connected by a thread of harmony. The artist upholds that the liminal state that organically integrates humans into the environment and in the whole cosmology is a promise of real freedom. However, it requires a refusal of all anthropocentric subscriptions.
The exhibition Coniferous Succession by Jura Shust is on view at Management, New York, until February 26, 2023.