Machines of Potentiality: About Angels, Metaphysics, and Parallel Realities in Vadim Fishkin’s Works

Vadim Fishkin, born in Penza in the Soviet Union in 1965, has been living and working in Ljubljana since 1992. Fishkin is not merely an artist working with a variety of different media, but also an architect who studied at the Moscow Institute of Architecture, a stage designer, an “angel researcher”, a botanist, a spiritualist, a photographer, a pyrotechnician, an engineer, an inventor, and a geologist. Most recently, he collaborated as a set designer with the Slovenian choreographers Mateja Bucar, NSK’s theatre department Cosmokinetic Cabinet Noordung, and others.

During the Transnacionala trip(In the summer of 1996 an international group of artists (Alexander Brener, Vadim Fiškin, Yuri Leiderman, Michael Benson, Eda Cufer and the five-member IRWIN group) set out on a one-month Transnacionala journey across the United States.) in 1996, initiated by the IRWIN group, Alexander Brener characterized Vadim Fishkin as “showing an awareness of the metaphysical tradition of objectness”(Alexander Brener: Conversation at the Grand Canyon, Arizona, July 16, 1996. In: Cufer, Eda (ed.): Transnacionala. Highway Collisions Between East and West at the Crossroads of Art. Ljubljana 1999. 116.) while Eda Cufer characterized his artistic work as a “metaphysical embodiment expressing his ability to create an unusual and even esoteric feeling or condition”.(Cufer, Eda: Detonation of a Gaze. In: ????? ?????? / Vadim Fishkin, Soros Center of Contemporary Arts, Moscow & Kulturkontakt [without year, without page numbers].)

This ‘esoteric feeling’ is mainly created by the fact that Vadim Fishkin’s work links the physical to the metaphysical, and sometimes even the supernatural. He tries to make the invisible visible by emphasizing the invisible connections between two points. In addition, all of Fishkin’s work is ephemeral (time based) and immaterial (non-material). As the metaphysical generally remains invisible, ephemeral, and immaterial, so does Fishkin’s work. He constructs machines or media that produce the metaphysical, making the metaphysical visible-if only for a short period of time. In describing his ideology, Fishkin quotes one of his favourite writers Ren\uFFFDDaumal, “The door to the invisible must remain visible.”

All of these aspects – ephemerality, immateriality, and a link between the physical and the metaphysical – were expressed through Fishkin’s installation Darkness Orbit (1993). The installation consisted of projects installed in the Guelman Gallery, the Dar Gallery, the Shkola Gallery, the 1.0 Gallery, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Moscow.

Unlike the regular exhibitions at the five venues, Darkness Orbit was only shown from midnight to six a.m., due to the fact that the installation was only visible at night. The project was based on light and sound material, which were entirely unnoticeable during the day. This aspect of the project emphasized the possibility of another parallel layer or reality within the same space. By using slide projections, sound, ultraviolet light, photo flashes, and a radio receiver, the premises were transformed into a completely different space through silhouettes of flying saucers and angels. The constructs of the images were always there, but merely made invisible during the day.

Darkness Orbit, as well as many of Fishkin’s other works, stresses the potentiality of space, emphasizing a non-technological deconstruction of the notion of virtual reality. As emphasized by Elena Esposito, what is normally called “virtual reality” often proves only to be a “fictional reality”.(Esposito, Elena: Fiktion und Virtualität. In: Krämer, Sybille (ed.): Medien Computer Realität. Wirklichkeitsvorstellungen und Neue Medien. Frankfurt/Main 20002. 269-296.) Whereas “virtual reality”, or “fictional reality”, merely appeals to our sense of reality, “real virtuality” appeals to our sense of potentiality, or as formulated by Robert Musil “If there’s a sense of reality there must also be a sense of potentiality.” Darkness Orbit expresses this very idea as it opens up our sense of perception for the potentialities of everyday spaces.

Similar to Darkness Orbit, the aspect of “immateriality” and “materiality” was a predominant focus of the exhibition … incommensurabilis … This project was initiated by Vadim Fishkin, curated by Gregor Podnar, and took place in Škuc Galerija in Ljubljana at the end of 1999.(… incommensurabilis … Škuc Galerija, Ljubljana, 16 December 1999 – 30 January 2000.)

The conceptual framework for this exhibition was to present art projects based on an “immaterial nature” – light, shadow, fire, fog, water, electronic media, other ephemeral phenomena. The concept drew on Ludwig Bolzmann’s idea that the invisible properties of the atom (e.g. mass, charge and structure) define visual properties of substances (e.g. viscosity, thermal conductance and diffusion). All the works of the participating artists (Olafur Eliasson, Vadim Fishkin, Marko Peljhan, Eulalia Valldosera) were ephemeral and dealt with the division between the material and the immaterial.(C.f. Španjol, Igor: Ritmicne podobe. 2000.)

Like in Darkness Orbit, angels also appeared as faint forms on Fishkin’s photographs Breathing (1991) and Orbit 2 (1993). These works actually look like spiritist photographs from the end of the 19th century. During this period, people tried to catch spirits of dead relatives or other spiritual beings during a séance.(Spiritualism is a belief in the continued existence of the dead and in the ability of the living to communicate with them through a sensitive, or medium. Manifestations of spirit presence include rapping, table turning, automatic writing, spirit voices, and ectoplasmic materialization. C.f. Carlson, Maria: “No Religion Higher Than Truth” – A History of the Theosophical Movement in Russia 1875 — 1922. Princeton 1993. Especially “Spiritualism” pp. 22-28.) We are there all the time, but you cannot see us. Primarily in Western religions (i.e., Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), an angel(The term angel derives from “angelus”, the Greek word for “messenger”. Comparable beings in Eastern religions include the Hindu avatars and the Buddhist bodhisattvas.) is a benevolent spiritual being, power, or principle that mediates between the realm of the sacred (i.e., the transcendent realm) and the profane realms of time, space, and cause and effect. Angels are volatile intermediaries between the physical and the metaphysical realm.

Vadim Fishkin, 'Orbit 2' (1993).

Much of Fishkin’s work links the physical to the metaphysical by literally tracing the invisible activities of angels. Vertikalna Projekcija (Vertical Projection, 1995), which was shown in the exhibition ‘Interregnum’ at the Kunsthalle Nürnberg, consisted of a model of the Russian space station MIR, combined with angels attached to the model as if flying around the space station. The object and stage set Molitveni stroj (Prayer Machine, 1993), built for the Kozmokineticni kabinet Noordung, connects the notion of a machine (i.e. the physical) with the notion of praying (i.e. the metaphysical). Fishkin’s Machine for catching angels serves a similar purpose, using the physical to catch or obtain access to the metaphysical, or supernatural.

Fishkin’s projects make us aware of the invisible connections between two points and the interconnectedness of the most diverse phenomena. In the Lighthouse installation (1997), Fishkin’s heartbeat was transmitted to the cupola of the Viennese Secession from where it was re-transmitted as a pulsating light installed inside the gold-leaf filigree of the cupola placed on the rooftop of the Secession. In an interview I conducted with him in Ljubljana in March 2000, Fishkin compares the Lighthouse project with the On Kawaras “I am alive” project, which consisted of telegrams being sent to friends that only contained the phrase “I am still alive”.(Since 1970 On Kawara sent daily telegrams to friends and to people from the art world. These telegrams only contained the sentence “I am still alive”. The telegrams documented On Kawara’s existence not in a personal, expresive way but through a standard sentence on a standard form.)

Vadim Fishkin, 'Lighthouse One': Fishkin's heartbeat is transmitted to the cupola of the Viennese Secession. Vadim Fishkin, 'Lighthouse Two': Fishkin's transmitted heartbeat becomes a pulsating light in the cupola of the Viennese Secession.

Another link, much more global in scope, will be developed by Fishkin through the project What is on the other side? , which presently remains only a concept. What is on the other side? intends to make visible the opposite point of a particular location on earth (the ‘antipode’) in its actual size (1:1). The ‘antipode’ is by definition located exactly on the other side of the globe, at the other end of a straight line drawn directly through the center of the Earth.

Imagine the floor of a shopping mall located in the center of Ljubljana being covered by a life-sized model of a piece of sea floor. Since most of the Earth’s surface is covered by the ocean, the antipode of that particular shopping center would likely be sea floor. What will be conveyed is an intrusion of the literal opposite reality from one’s everyday reality.

Interdependence was the focus of Dependance (1997), a collaboration between Mateja Bucar (choreography, dance), Fishkin (stage), and Marko Košnik (music). The performance was dedicated to Aleksandr Chizhevsky(C.f. Hagemeister, Michael: Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and today. In: Rosenthal, Bernice Glatzer (ed.): The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture. New York 1997. 185-202. Here p.196.) (1897-1964), a Russian biophysicist, historian, cosmist painter, and poet who further developed a theory examining the influence of cosmic factors (such as cosmic radiation and periodic sunspot activity) on the behaviour of organized human masses and the universal historical process. Chizhevsky’s “geleobiology” presupposes the dependence of all living processes on Earth, biological and social, from the activity of the sun.

The performance consisted of two stage spaces: one set up in Ljubljana, the other in the Centro Cultural de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal. Each stage consisted of an object, similar to Malevich’s planets, suspended in front of a vertical wall covered with light bulbs. The intensity of light was conditioned by the activity of the sun on 7th February 1997, Chizhevsky’s centennial birthday.

The rhythm of the light on the Ljubljana stage was determined by the heartbeat of the ‘antipode’ dancers dancing simultaneously in the performance of Paula Masson in Portugal, and vice versa. The ultimate goal of the performance was to reach an understanding of the interconnectedness between objects or beings, and by “understanding what our own existence depends on”, thus gaining a certain freedom from total outside control.

Having mentioned Kazimir Malevich and Aleksandr Chizhevsky it is important to note Fishkin’s fascination with ‘dreamers’- which he also discussed in the previously mentioned interview. Russian history is replete with an abundance of eccentric dreamers – most notably Vladimir Illick Lenin, the Dreamer in the Kremlin as referred to by H. G. Wells after their meeting in Moscow in 1920.(Wells, H.G.: The Dreamer in the Kremlin. In: Wells, H.G.: Russia in the Shadows. New York 1921. 145-168. Concerning the electrification of Russia, Wells writes that “Lenin, who like a good orthodox Marxist denounces all ‘Utopians’, has succumbed at last to a Utopia, the Utopia of the electricians.” (pp.158-159).) These ‘dreamers’ are characterized by the coupling of rational, scientific ideas with eccentric, esoteric, or even irrational concepts.

Fishkin is not so much fascinated by the ‘visionary’aspect or even by the content of these ‘dreamers’ concepts, but rather by the obsessive element driving them. As he sees it, they develop and imagine their excessive fantasies through the combining of technology and esoteric ideas.

These obsessive, metaphysical, ‘amateur’ scientists include not only the previously mentioned Aleksandr Chizhevsky and Kazimir Malevich, but also Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, science fiction writer and ‘inventor of the Russian rocket’, and Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945). With the aid of Edouard Le Roy and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s work in mind, Vernadsky developed his own conception of the noosphere, defining it as a new phase of evolution brought about by conscious human activity.(C.f. Hagemeister 1997, 200.)

Besides thinkers connected to the tradition of Russian cosmism,(Nikolai Fedorov, author of Filosofiia obshchego dela (Philosophy of the common task, 1906/1913) is considered to be the founder of this tradition. Cosmists maintain that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Vladimir Vernadsky and Aleksandr Chizhevsky – many of whom Fishkin refers to – are the major representatives of the Russian tradition of ‘cosmic thinking’ in this century. Tsiolkovsky, the ‘eccentric from Kaluga’, has often been called a disciple of Fedorov. However Hagemeister shows that Tsiolkovsky’s “rather primitive philosophical views obviously have very little in common with Fedorov’s.” (Hagemeister 1997, p.196f.; c.f. Hagemeister, Michael: Nikolaj Fedorov. Studien zu Leben, Werk und Wirkung. München, 1989).) theoreticians of the Fourth Dimension (G.I. Gurdjieff, Petr Demianovich Uspenskij(Uspenskij, Petr Demianovich: Chetvertoe izmerenie: Opyt issledovaniia oblasti neizmerimago [The Fourth Dimension: An Experiment in the Examination of the Realm of the Immeasurable]. St. Petersburg, 1909. Uspenskij, Petr Demianovich: Tertium Organum: Kliuch k zagadkam mira [Tertium Organum: A Key to the Enigmas to the World]. St. Petersburg 1911.)) and visionary engineers such as Nikola Tesla and Hermann Potocnik Noordung(Noordung, Hermann: Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums. Wien, 1993 [orig. Berlin 1929]. The first complete English translation [1995] can be found at  http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4026/contents.html. C.f. Hunley, J.D.: Preface. In: Noordung, Hermann: The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor. Edited by Ernst Stuhlinger and J.D. Hunley with Jennifer Garland. Washington, D.C.: NASA SP-4026, 1995  http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4026/preface.html. C.f. Frederick I. Ordway III: Foreword. Loc. cit.) are also included in this category.

For Fishkin working on certain topics and themes can lead to new, different, and sometimes even embarrassing questions. This kind of transformation (i.e. beginning with a certain concept but unexpectedly resulting in something completely different) was typical for the One-Man-Show exhibited in Mala Galerija in Ljubljana in 1995.

When Fishkin was invited to do a solo exhibition he asked himself how he could reflect on the contemporary meaning of a one-man show. This process resulted in an installation consisting of a futuristic wooden construction placed in the middle of Mala Galerija.

Slide projectors installed in the wooden construction projected slides of Fishkin’s work on the walls of the gallery space at an intense speed. Speakers and a recording device inside the construction also played 22 pre-recorded questions posed by curator Viktor Misiano. The audience would answer the first ten questions (e.g. “Do you remember the name of the artist whose exhibition you are visiting?” and “Are you sure thatyou are pronouncing the name correctly?”).

But by question 13 and 14 – “Has this exhibition enriched you somehow?” and “Has anything in your life changed because of it?” – the environment created -through the projected images rushing by and the questions that were increasingly heavy and esoteric – developed into a sense of absurdity. There was nothing to be seen, in a double sense, but the voice continued to obtrusively articulate these paradoxical questions, like an unwanted, persisting intruder.

Fishkin recorded the visitor’s answers at the exhibition. While most of the people still answered the first questions, the majority tended to stop giving answers later on and remained silent. Most felt uneasy with the questions being asked of the public, which reflected what the audience was thinking personally but would not dare to formulate publicly: “Why then […] hasn’t [the artist] presented anything substantial?” And how dare this voice articulate so clearly what the spectator is thinking?

Three years later, as in an act of reconciliation, Fishkin exhibited Dedicated… at the Knoll Gallery in Vienna and the Kapelica Galerija in Ljubljana (1998). In the center of an almost completely empty and dark gallery space, there was a red button on a dramatically lit board. The text read: “Press the button” and “tell your name” and then “wait”.

After a few seconds the pre-recorded announcement stated, “This exhibition is dedicated to…” and then played the voice of the visitor “…Inke Arns”. It remained unclear as to which exhibition the voice was referring, and why it should have been dedicated to the visitor. Once again a feeling of uneasiness emerged within the visitor. Suddenly, a noise came from the wall – a firework.

Like a real Chinese firework the fire performed revolving geometrical movements, with the flames and the smoke darkening the wall – all this having left the spectator overwhelmed. Once the visitor finally realized that Fishkin has dedicated his exhibition to him or her, uneasiness is appeased by joy. This experience that has seemingly been shared only by the artist and the visitor has established a personal correlation between the two entities.

One of Fishkin’s most recent works is Ognegraf (Fire-Dropper, 2000), a machine that translates data from various sources into the language of fire. It produces drops of fire that fall from the ceiling (where the machine is fixed) to the floor at various rhythms, intensities, and colors. The drops of fire remind one of stars falling from the sky, recalling the tradition of making a wish when one sees a shooting star.

During the installation of Ognegraf in the private apartment of Vlasta Delimar and Vlado Martek, two Zagreb-based artists, Fishkin commented on Ognegraf by stating, “Children often daydream about catching a falling star. Dolina [Delimar and Martek’s daughter] will be able to watch falling stars from her bed… In a way, this will be a dream come true… For me, this is a sort of vertical link between children’s imagination and dreams on the one hand and the sky on the other.

A very physical link, for each drop produces light, from top to bottom, yet this link only exists for very personal reasons.”(‘Fire-Dropper for One Use Only’, interview with Vadim Fishkin by Nada Bero\uFFFD 4 Feb. 2000, in: Vadim Fishkin: Vatrograf / Fire-Dropper. Vadim Fishkin u Stanu Umjetnika Vlaste Delimar i Vlade Marteka, Zagreb, 23.2.-25.2.2000, Zagreb: Muzej suvremene umjetnosti 2000.) While the realisation of utopias in the course of history has almost without exception proven to be of a totalitarian nature, the realization of daydreams is of a very different sort. Realized daydreams give rise to the creation of new daydreams, Vadim Fishkin being the artist-engineer of this transformation.

Inke Arns(*1968) is an independent media art curator and a PhD andidate at the Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany, where she has been lecturing in 2000-2001. Her dissertation deals with the reception of the historical avant-garde in artistic projects of the 1980s and 1990s in ex-Yugoslavia and Russia. Her curatorial work since 1993 includes exhibitions, festivals and conferences on international media art and culture. Besides her books on “Netzkulturen” (“Net Cultures”) and on “Neue Slowenische Kunst” (2002) she has published widely on issues of media/net culture/art in international journals and books.

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