From Ashes

 Lesia Maruschak’s Transfiguration is a complex exploration of memory and its visual expression. The work, in both book and exhibition forms, is a photographic response to a particular historical event, but it is also an evocation of the ways such an event may be known, as it lingers and resonates in the artist and others, long after, and far from the site of, its occurrence. The event is the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine, known today as the Holodomor, in which some millions of people, mostly peasants, died of starvation and related diseases. Although drought and crop failure may have been a factor, the famine was exacerbated by government mismanagement and the aggressive collectivization policies, instituted by Stalin, that today are widely perceived as intentionally genocidal. The causes, impact and implications of this event have become a critical aspect of Ukrainian identity, both in that country and amongst the large populations of ethnic Ukrainians living elsewhere.

Documentary evidence of this episode exists both as eyewitness accounts and as photographs, although both have been contested as narrow and out of context, or even as intentionally faked for political purposes. What is clear is that the stories of these many deaths have a palpable presence today, a lifetime after they occurred. In Maruschak’s work, as in the larger culture from which it emerge-, the famine is repeatedly re-imagined, re-presented, and re-interpreted, as the mostly anonymous victims of it are remember and thereby elevated. It is the process, act, presence, purpose, and outcome of this remembering, and its relationship to photography that interests us here.

Maruschak has transformed her knowledge of this period by creating an elegant book. It is clothbound and displayed on a wooden stand, like a reliquary for the deliberately mysterious and ambiguous objects and images with which it is filled. Handmade in a limited edition, each copy is unique; the surfaces of its already complex manipulated photographs have been painstakingly treated with added layers of wax and pigment before they are individually affixed to the page. It is a metaphor for memory, a process that is increasingly seen, not as simple recall, but as an elaborate mental function by which information is continuously stored, organized, changed and retrieved. The book’s title may refer to this process, to the ways the art in the book is produced, to the artist’s life-changing journey through the past, or to something as literal as the way a starving body turns into skin and bone. The images themselves are hugely varied, as befits the incomplete natures of memory, knowledge, and history, but they are also examples of the many ways such notions can be approached, generated, experienced and expressed. The range of work reminds us that there is no single correct way to depict the events of the past, and, indeed, that the strategy of offering multiple points of entrée what the artist knows and feels may speak best to a broad audience.  

It often falls to the artist to give material form to memory, especially when, as in this case, there can be very few people still living who experienced the Holodomor firsthand. It is tempting to call this event unimaginable, yet Maruschak has not only imagined it, but has created a series of images that manifest the ways she responds to it, intellectually and emotionally. More than many photographs, these works are objects as much as images. Whether organized in book-form or in large-scale installation, it is the materiality of these heavily worked, waxed, and pigmented things that conveys the tortuous and persistent re-visiting of the past that the artist engages in.

Maruschak would have known the stories and anecdotes passed down within her Ukrainian-Canadian community since she was a child.  As an adult, she has also sought out more evidentiary material, from newspapers and photographs to academic studies, in an effort to affirm the contemporary truth and meaning of this knowledge. She wants facts, yet accepts, for example, that she will never know exactly how many people died and who they were. The pictures she makes, finds, organizes, and embellishes, are thus powered both by a need to know and by the impossibility of knowing, and both elements become what the pictures are about. Maruschak transcends the absence of statistical fact by asserting the higher truths of selfhood, identity and artistic expression with images that are intentionally ambiguous, mysterious and abstruse.

The book’s cover image is one of several blurred gray rectangles, so obscured by digital manipulation and by hand-applied layers of ashes, pigment, and wax that it is impossible to be certain of what or whom they reference. Like a dream, they evoke half-recalled portraits and landscapes, an effect supported by subsequent images of ancient sacred texts, also rendered in shimmering gray, that are as unreadable as the faces. In contrast to this leaden tone, other images pulse with a rich deep red, the color of fire, of a living heart and of life itself, but also, more darkly, that of the flag under which the famine was orchestrated. The glimpses of snapshots we are offered serve to emphasize the ways the artist has changed them. Both the documentary base and the artist’s transfiguration of it are true, and both are fictions.

In the midst of this complexity, a single strand emerges. It is a story based on a single vernacular photograph of a girl named Maria, who survived the famine as a child, though her family did not, and who is still alive today in Canada at 95. Maruschak speaks of her as the heroine of this project and she is certainly a potent symbolic representation of the millions who died and of fragile human links to the past. She now stares back at us implacably and across time, surrounded by evidentiary images of artifacts from the period, including traditional clothing of children and brides. This story is a quiet secret, manifested in an ordinary, now crumbling album, designed to hold the popular and ubiquitous cabinet cards of the late 19th century. The album is a familiar object in which individual photographs are ordered, preserved, shared and displayed. Such albums are so ubiquitous as to feel both inevitable and invisible; they convey the authority of a bible or an encyclopedia and the meaning and aura of the library. Even today when most of what we call photographs flash by our eyes without materiality, the album persists as metaphor and organizing principle. Maruschak has filled the album with her own triumphant imagery and buried it deep within the pages of the larger book. The album itself evokes a time of calm and relative prosperity, a time before the nightmare, while the images that it organizes, like the work as a whole, speak both to the time of the famine and the time of remembering it afterwards. 

©Alison Nordström, 2018