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'Neophyte II' by Jura Shust at EXILE, Vienna

When did we start counting days? It might be that blue lights whirled us up and having removed the blindfold we found ourselves on this glade… It’s a looking-glass world, a forest with eye-like lakes where time moves in a loop and echo circles over tree crowns to get back to the throat.

– When sacred pancakes are fried by sunbeams in the name of photosynthesis, mirrors are juggling data, catching it in the eclipse.

– When the spring shoots appear they burn like a green fire, leading to exaltation and regeneration.

– When the young hearts are pumping green blood by the veins of liminal space a new form of life is waiting to be awakened.

— Jura Shust

It has been almost a year since the violent crackdown of the Uprising in Belarus. By now the ongoing protests were forced to morph from the mass demonstrations of 2020 to clandestine partisan activities operating from within a dispersed underground. Secret gatherings, temporal displays of the illegal opposition flag, and establishing decentralized infrastructures of care, mobilisation, and support have since taken center stage in maintaining the protest against the current illegitimate regime.

With this ongoing political crisis as well as the Covid-19 pandemic as the given socio-political reality, the Belarusian-born, Berlin-based artist Jura Shust returned to Belarus to film a group of Zoomers hiding deep inside the forest where they find themselves in a parallel universe. Their precarious temporality rejects and escapes the present and instead freely mixes elements of past and future situations, hence becoming a dis-, as well as utopian community at the very same time.

In Neophyte II, a group of young people goes through a series of mysterious rituals that reference pagan myths as well as purposeless pastimes of contemporary youth. They aimlessly draw onto the soil, burn a dead tree stump, sing, dance and beat each other with nettle to later decode their respective burns. In quiet and randomly appearing actions, they displace various natural matters such as fungi, nettles, wood, and bark to accumulate their transcendental qualities and abilities to influence a social and escapist current. For the film’s protagonists, the forest becomes a shelter for magical and partisan forces, a space of non-linearity and freedom. As a temporal community, a brigade or a gang, they seek autonomy and protection against a hostile political order.

In the centrally-placed object entitled Preventing distress; Averting misfortune, a glass unit is filled with nettle and smashed into pieces. The membrane liner however keeps the integrity of the glass, freezing the moment of disintegration. According to popular Slavic beliefs, nettle was spread around one’s house to protect it from negative energies. The composition emphasises two apotropaic – protective – functions, metaphorical and physical ones, keeping the aggressive energies and gestures of violent break-up still and motionless.

The surrounding wooden panels, collectively titled Solar Plexusdepict pyrographed portraits of the film’s protagonists with their faces covered by pancakes. Not unlike the sun, the pancake functions as a symbol of circular temporality that restlessly produces seemingly infinite amounts of light and energy. The opacity and anonymity of the protagonists hidden behind their organic veil points to the complex interplay between various layers of physical and digital (in)visibility in the course of the protest with the image of the pancake/sun referring to both, a solar eclipse and a balaclava mask. In the Belarusian protests, masking one’s identity was essential for protestors to protect themselves from prosecution and recognition from surveillance systems as well as for the security forces to remain anonymous against peoples’ rage and revenge.

Upstairs, two embossed mirror trays, each containing an apple, refer to popular Slavic fairy tales in which the spinning of an apple on such a tray resembles a natural vortex phenomenon that allows the viewer to predict the future.

Two wooden panels demonstrate a pattern appearing on the skin after being burned by nettle and the chemical formulas of chlorophyll and hemoglobin. Chlorophyll is a substratum of vitality and rejuvenescence, whose formula is almost identical to the one of human blood.

The exhibition culminates with a new, two-channel video installation which gives the exhibition its title. In the first part of Shust’s film Neophyte I from 2019, the protagonists went into the forests searching for crypto objects, either in form of metaphorical, magical fern flowers or so-called zakladki, where ordered illegal drugs are dropped off at a prearranged GPS location, just like the current forms of protest, through multiple decentralized telegram chats.

Now, in Neophyte II, the same protagonists explore the forest as a space of opacity and regeneration. Presented on two vertical screens, one screen follows the group’s activities during the day, the other captures their unsettling and hypnotic world at night. Fragments of the forest uncannily flash at the viewer from one screen, while on the other, the protagonists appear seemingly submerged in a peaceful, arcadian pristine forest. At some point during the night, an untagged car covered in nettle slowly drives through the dark. Similar unidentified cars were used by special police forces to kidnap and arrest protesters during the 2020-21 protests in Minsk and other cities in Belarus.

The linear time is looped, referring to the narration of a fairy tale and creating an endless spiral of day and night, of a parallel dis-, and utopia. Neophyte II creates an a-temporal space where camaraderie and affinity are based not only on human affection but also on the relation with entities and powers exceeding human agency. This ontology of time is grounded in ideas of revival and structural recomposition of the social relations in the nexus of political and natural powers.

At first sight, Jura Shust distances himself from the political immediacy and ongoing confrontation, but for the artist political agency is deeply rooted in the processes of regeneration in the struggle that will always be going on, in the past and in the future.

— Aleksei Borisionok  

22.6.21 — 17.7.21

EXILE

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