Feature Insight: Of Wormholes and 'Blagoustroistvo'

Hanna's recent developments towards her artistic intervention for the AFEW Culture Initiative have drawn her to identify new parallelisms between Amsterdam and Moscow. Her new focal points revolve around topographic symbolism and how urban beautification ('blagoustroistvo')  — both in Amsterdam's De Wallen (Red Light District) as in the Russian capital — have clear consequences on the realities of sex workers, 'here' and 'there'.

Snapshot of Moscow's eclectic cityscape during the AFEW Culture Initiative's visit to the Russian capital during the month of April 2018 © Juan Aguirre Fernández-Bravo

Snapshot of Moscow's eclectic cityscape during the AFEW Culture Initiative's visit to the Russian capital during the month of April 2018 © Juan Aguirre Fernández-Bravo

Associative thinking processes behind the current ideas for the project.

Just immediately after this project for the AFEW Culture Initiative, I was invited to take part in a collective exhibition in Moscow themed Portal Zaryadye, taking place in August through the city’s Museum of Architecture. The joint collaboration is set to reflect on the recently constructed Park Zaryadye, the newest incorporation to Moscow’s central cityscape, touching on the symbolism and mythology of physical landmarks in relation to the Russian public imaginary and contemporary urbanism. The Museum’s ‘Ruins’ Annex, where the exhibition will be held (and situated, interestingly enough, in close proximity to the Netherlands’ Embassy in Russia), is symbolic in itself and invites to think about a process of abandonment and reconstruction — a theme that is also intimately linked to my project in Amsterdam.

This preliminary glance at symbolism and the connections between both projects led to examining the etymology and meaning of a ‘portal’ — namely a doorway that connects two distant places, separated by space and time. Beyond this conception, there is an alternative cosmological approach to understanding portals through the lens of quantum physics as ‘wormholes’ linking two separate realities.

Upon further stages of mapping and research of the geography and landmarks of Moscow’s central district, I came to the conclusion that there is an underlying social and cultural reality to my topo-symbolic analysis of the political heartland of the country. Taking the concept of a portal or ‘wormhole’ further, it is not by pure coincidence that I found linkages between, for instance, the Church of St Anne — last-standing relic on the grounds of the newly revamped Zaryadye Park, the disused brothel on Sint Annendwarsstraat (loosely “the site around St Anne’s street”) that I have been assigned to work while in Amsterdam or even my own name as the mediator between the two geographies.

'Park nastoyashchego budushchego' (Park of the authentic/present future).

It is also not by coincidence that the grounds where Park Zaryadye — the newest symbol of Russian grandeur and imperial power — was inaugurated in 2017 were the site of the now demolished Gostinitsa Rossiya (Hotel Rossiya), back in the day celebrated as the biggest hotel in the Soviet Union (and the world). Interestingly, the hotel was informally known as a site where the boundaries between business, travel and pleasure got blurred — renowned as a prime location for sex workers and their clientèle to meet during Soviet times and well into the 2000s, until its demolition in 2006.

Similarly, the old brothel on Sint Annendwarsstraat in De Wallen (Amsterdam’s Red Light District) is stuck in an awkward in-between, not functional as a work space for sex workers anymore and caught up in a tug-of-war between realtors who will soon transform it for tourism or investment-related purposes. Although the foundations and appearance of what the brothel used to be are still present, the site is no longer a ‘window’ and not yet real estate — though both are already disconnected from sex work as a profession. For me, through the current state of the brothel we are able to grasp the liminality of the situation, marking the end of one world and the beginning of another.

No boundaries on love.

Coming from a research-based background, my working methods are transdisciplinary, which situates me as the mediator or ‘portal’ both in my artistic practice and between the different connections and boundaries that delineate the social realities I touch on.

In the words of Alexandra Kollontay, one of Lenin’s closest allies in the early stages of the Russian Revolution, the “ideology of social class doesn’t impose any boundaries on love” (“идеология рабочего класса не ставит никаких границ любви”). My project deals precisely with these ‘boundaries’ and the materiality of what was and isn’t anymore, be it in relation to sex work, sexuality, topography, mythology or urban transformations. It reveals all that which marks the difference or sets an intangible boundary between past and future, altering the realities and social conditions around which we function.

[Text by Juan Aguirre Fernández-Bravo, in response to Hanna Zubkova's words.]