Moscow — Beijing, 2019–2021
Aluminum frame, monolithic polycarbonate, concrete,
aluminium I-beam, Dibond, plotter print, audio (8’)
Courtesy of the artist
In 1893, French novelist and adventurer Jules Verne wrote Claudius Bombarnac, which tells of the opening of a transasiatic railroad connecting Russia and China. The main character’s route was a 19th-century literary invention, but today it is a forecast come true. As well as the existing Moscow–Beijing direct train, new large-scale transnational projects which will infrastructurally integrate the Eurasian continent are being developed and implemented: the high-speed Moscow–Beijing railroad and the transport corridor Western Europe–Western China, almost a third of which lies on Russian territory.
Andrey Shental’s series of self-portraits made near Moscow, on the construction site for a road that will eventually connect the Russian capital to Beijing, explores the “apocalyptic” aspect of the construction project, which leads to deforestation, destruction of meadows, and the diversion of the irrigation system into pipes. The construction of the highway began in spring 2019, just a few meters away from the house where Shental grew up and still lives today. The ambitious project for “the new Silk Road” was conceived in the Soviet era and will connect the capitals of “the raw material (oil) and plastic empires,” two of the biggest Eurasian cities, neither of which has direct access to the sea and both of which arose historically as tax and administrative centers established by nomadic invaders to collect tribute from settled people.
The installation partially recreates one of the elements of the construction project: the noise barrier concealing a natural setting that has, in a sense, become the scene of an ecological—and perhaps a financial—crime. Most local residents have no clue what the road is, where it leads, and who needs it. As with many construction projects that radically transform and disfigure the environment (such as the clearing of the Khimki Forest), the expedience and viability of this megaproject are questioned by many, and the project itself is seen as a product of authoritarian modernization.
Both Shental’s approach of exploring structural problems through his own lived experience (“the personal is political”) and his use of his own body in the choreographed episodes in front of the camera relate the project to 1970s feminist activism, such as the series of conceptual photographs Body Configurations (1972– 1976) by Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT. However, in Shental’s work, the body interacts not with a cityscape but with an artificially interrupted landscape, where the infiltration/integration of the human requires unusual means.
In the end it is not hopelessness and pessimism that triumph in Shental’s work. The delicate juxtaposition of the naked human body with the remains of nature, an attempt to reanimate the connection to the chthonic might of the earth, hints at the redemptive power of ecosexuality and at new possible scenarios of salvation through the queer healing of the planet. In her article “What Lenin Teaches Us About Witchcraft,” philosopher Oxana Timofeeva writes that “the age of reason—or the age of capitalism, whose advent, according to [scholar Silvia] Federici, coincides with the emergence of witch hunts and the eradication of alterity [. . .] chases out magic, queer, female, and animistic lifestyles, just as, in Foucault’s analysis, it excluded madness.”