Since the early 2000’s I have been interested in the tumultuous relationship between the Caucasus and Russia and have traced the conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia and Dagestan to the days of the expansion of the Russian Empire.
Mind the Map is the result. It is a project that oscillates between journalism, performance and documentary. It aims to create a more personal connection to history by allegorizing the news, and combating the desensitization engendered by the media.
Recently Human Rights Watch equated the number of civilians killed in Chechnya in the 90’s to genocides in Rwanda and Kosovo. Due to the efforts by the current Kremlin government this conversation remains a taboo. My project points to the history that started in the distant Imperial past and still echoes through centuries and geographies into the Post Cold War present.
In the summer of 2011 I travelled to the Caucasus and followed the path of Mikhail Lermontov, a 19th century Russian poet who served the Imperial Army during the Caucasian War (1817–1864). I traced his route using a 1989 Soviet travel guide called Lermontov’s Memorial Places. The towns, mountains, rivers and villages in the Caucasus have a bitter-sweet mythology and history.
Their names recall the Romantic descriptions of Lermontov’s Russian empire and allude to the gruesome war sites of the recent conflicts. Chechnya’s capital Grozny is synonymous with the words “Welcome to Hell,” the graffiti by Chechen separatists which met Russian tanks in 1994. Grozny fortress is also where Lermontov was stationed while serving in the Imperial Army in 1840.
The collective image of the Caucasus is formed by literature, tourism advertising from peaceful times and the news media during the war. I am interested in challenging these narrative formats by conflating them into one story to create a new understanding of the Caucasus, its place and its history.
Mind the Map consist of several components. For one part of the project I dress as Lermontov and take a series of photo and video self-portraits in sites of recent political violence. One such place is Darial Gorge, where Lermontov’s poem, “The Demon,” is set, and where today the Georgian Military Road (an ancient invasion route) is crossed by the North Ossetia gas pipeline. In the photos I am wearing a military outfit similar to the one Lermontov wore in his watercolor self-portrait. To make the project about the history of Russian colonialism, in which the country of my origin is the invader, I wanted to play the role of a soldier and a poet. The idea of working with the figure of Lermontov was born out of this logic.
The second part of the project are video interviews with local intellectuals, among them Alla Dudayeva, the widow of Chechnya’s first president Dzhokhar Dudayev, who is in political asylum in Georgia and Vasily Markelov, a literary scholar in the Lermontov museum in Russia.