Death, Immortality, and the Powers of the Subterranean world
Nikolay Smirnov
We present the essay exhibition of the artist and curator Nikolay Smirnov "Death, immortality and the forces of the Subterranean world". The project, expanding the study of "Permafrost", was made specifically for the V Ural Industrial Biennale of Contemporary Art and presented in Yekaterinburg in the fall of 2019.

The project involves:
Necromancer Anatoly Moskvin (Nizhny Novgorod), batyr Klaus Vetter (Yakutsk), Kraeved Yuri Dmitriev (Petrozavodsk), general Konstantin Petrov (Public Safety Concept), Permafrost Ontologies Researcher Charlotte Alexandra Wrigley (London), Mammoth Museum (Yakutsk)

as well as artists:
Alexander Agafonov (Perm), Jess (Yekaterinburg), Alena Koziol (Tyumen), Olga Mezhevich (Yekaterinburg), Juliana Semenova (Yakutsk), Egor Sleptsov (Yakutsk), Eugene Strelkov (Nizhny Novgorod), Irina Filatova (Moscow), Sergey Yudichev (Chelyabinsk)

Project coordinators:
Daria Antipova (Yekaterinburg), Elena Vasilieva (Yakutsk)

Chthonic (subterranean) forces possess a number of resources important to humans and are inextricably linked to the solution of the issue of death and/or immortality. The project is devoted to the study of human chthono-politics which turns out to be the Gaia-politics, namely the building of relations with the inner forces of Earth.

The exhibition-essay is built in accordance with the narrative, which has three semantic centers. 1. Different mythological and religious ideas about the world beneath the Earth's surface; 2. The positivist discourse of the Modern Period about the conquest of nature penetration under the earth's surface and the extraction of resources; and 3. Hybrid Contemporaneity in which new technologies are combined with animism.

Narrative of the exhibition is not historic. Rather, it is concentrated on the complex nature of Contemporaneity. It aims to demonstrate the complicated character of the ideas connected with the Subterranean world today and to show the origin of its components. Ideas of the Subterranean world today are often the heirs of the earlier sacral meanings of chthonic in new hybrid forms. For example, new techno-secular projects that are trying to find resources for immortality under the surface of the Earth, upon closer examination, turn out to be closely related to sacred archaic beliefs in the power of the Lower World.

1. The Underworld

The chthonic (Underworld) was an integral and very important part of many ancient cosmologies. Underground depths were exemplified by the Netherworld, namely, the astral world of spirits and "subtle" matter. On the one hand, it is associated with death, the cult of ancestors, and the world of spirits. On the other, with fertility, wealth, and the resumption of life through resurrection.

The Netherworld is known in the pagan beliefs of the Eastern Slavs and Russians as темная навь (dark nav), in the Yakuts as аллараа дойду, in the Mansi (votyaks) as хамал-ма, and in Bashkirs as теге донъя (another world). The Underworlds or Neverworlds in different pre-Christian geocultures have much in common: they are all places of eternal life, but of a fundamentally different life, namely, the life of spirits with which it is dangerous to interact. For example, a number of geo cultures have similar legends about ancient people who have gone beneath the Earth's surface. In the Finno-Ugric tradition and in the Urals these people are known as the белоглазая чудь (white-eyed Chud), and among the Celts as elves and fairies.

Thus, the ancestors, spirits, and eternal non-life beyond death are linked together closely through the chthonic. This world is dangerous and is associated with death for the living. But since the ancestors patronize the living and the Earth with its depths creates new life and gives strength, the Subterranean world is also associated with wealth, extraordinary strength, and resurrection. In various geocultures, such as the Bashkirs, Eastern Slavs, Mansi, and Yakuts, the connection between worlds (lower, middle, and upper) is depicted as a World Tree.

Birds figure prominently in the work of the Yakutsk-based artist Antonina Shadrina. Within the cosmology of Siberian pagan beliefs, birds connect the ground with the air and often act as a symbol of the soul. The birds' own kind of freedom in the works of Shadrina is only possible on the surface of the ground, as the subterranean roots trap and hold them, preventing them from flying.

Memory and a link to the underworld with all its roots acquire here a somewhat fatal and even ominous character.

In the meantime, a character in the Yakut fable Yi kyyha escapes to the Moon from the misfortunes and bitterness of her unhappy life by changing her physical state — literally evaporating into atoms. The Earth had offered to help the girl but she was afraid of the underworld and refused that help. Artist Ayiyna Alexeeva depicts two episodes from this tale in her prints: the girl's atomization while she is contemplating her bitter destiny and looking into an ice hole. This black hole in the ice leads deep inside, opening an entrance into the world underneath, the world of the dead.

In Slavic mythology, the other world, which is often associated with underground space, is called навь (nav'). The eponymous work by the artist Alena Koziol is based on a synthesis of various cultures: the common cultural heritage, according to the author, also serves as a path to immortality.

In the background of the painting is the Princess of Ukok, an ancient mummy found in the Altai burial grounds. She guards the gates to the underworld, and we see how the ferryman on the river of the dead (known as Charon in Greek mythology) transports someone past her. The main part of the picture is the image of the underworld. The gloomy cavernous space is filled with characters and symbols of the World of the Dead from different cultures: a girl in a Mexican death mask, Cerberus, mermaids, spirits, poppy flowers, water.

The synthesis of various traditional beliefs is continued by Ekaterinburg-based artist Olga Mezhevich. Her work depicts the Mistress of the Kingdom of the Dead, apparently Hel from Scandinavian mythology. But the artist avoids proper names, preferring generalizing epithets in the style of integral traditionalism: the Great Foremother, Mistress of the Kingdom of the Dead. As the artist herself says: "In my paintings I express the power of the Great Foremother. The language of my paintings is her language, the root language of our planet. My paintings are a look from the 'other side."

The work of Perm-based artist Alexander Agafonov is presented in the center of the hall. Alexander is a doctor by profession. For the Vanitas series, he used home-made and semi-decayed photographs from gravestones. Placing the image of the deceased at the place of burial is a tradition that testifies to the belief in a posthumous life and allows sensory communication with the deceased. Regular visits to deceased relatives in the cemetery, their photographs on the graves, and the mass character of the Immortal Regiment movement show that in modern Russian culture the dead are actively involved in the lives of the living. According to pre-Christian beliefs, East Slavic in particular, part of the deceased acquire parental status in the правь (prav'), while others remain in the dark nav'. It is the latter, the заложные покойники (wicked dead), who are connected with the subterranean world and regularly disturb the living by shaking the ground, because they can't find post-mortal rest.

General Konstantin Petrov became known for creating the Dead Water Public Safety Concept. At the end of his life he became the magician Meragor. In one of his videos, he talks about the traditional Slavic division of the worlds into the spheres of правь (prav'), явь (yav') and навь (nav'), and also says that today the world of nav' is an information space.

The artist Jess (Yekaterinburg) is certain that immortality is possible through experiencing oneself in a vast endless stream, with neither a beginning nor an end, and undergoing constant transformation. According to the artist, everyone is connected to the Earth, and grounding is a powerful recharge "created specifically for Us by Us." Astral travels between worlds is a spiritual practice, a way of attaining unity with the world where the Lower World is embedded in the general flows of energy. Jess creates visionary images representing the connection between different worlds as a document of his spiritual practice.

Alena Koziol (Tyumen)
Nav (‘probability,’ ‘soul of the dead,’ ‘subterranean world’)
Oil on canvas, 1300х2000
Courtesy of the artist
Aiyyna Alekseeva (Yakutsk)
Yi kyyha. Flying. 2016
Linocut on paper, 320х280
Yi kyyha. 2016
Linocut on paper, 320х210
Courtesy of the artist
Antonina Shadrina (Yakutsk)
Life of Bird; Lower World. Part of the Yakut World Tree
Oil on orgalite
Courtesy of the artist
Olga Mezhevich (Ekaterinburg)
Queen of the Subterranean world
Oil on canvas, 400х300
Courtesy of the artist
Aleksandr Agafonov (Perm)
From the Vanitas series
General Petrov (Conception of Social Security)
Yav, Prav and Nav (‘actuality’, ‘right’ and ‘probability’)
Jess (Ekaterinburg)
Markers on paper, 594х841
Courtesy of the artist
Jess (Ekaterinburg)
Markers on paper, 594х841
Courtesy of the artist

2. Batyr, Modernizer, and Necromancer

The "ordinary" world and the Netherworld, or явь and навь in the tradition of the Eastern Slavs, are in constant interaction. However, only special people — heroes/batyrs and shamans — can safely have direct contact with the Underworld.

In Olonkho and in Ural-Batyr (traditional epics of the Yakuts and the Bashkirs) only Bogatyrs/Batyrs/Heroes are able to descend into the Underworld. They do this to obtain immortality for all people from the demonic forces of the Earth (Ural-Batyr), or to gain some other resource, for example, to find a destined wife and become the ancestor of a prosperous people (Olonkho, Эр Соготох). Trials such as the fight against evil spirits and powerful forces await the heroes in the Netherworld, and only a very strong Batyr can win and return to the surface of the Earth unscathed.

Thus, only people with special abilities are able to communicate with the forces of the Netherworld and protect ordinary people from the negative impact of spirits. This communication is necessary not only in heroic mode but also in everyday life. In this case, it is carried out by shamans and sorcerers.

However, the spirits of the Underworld can open their treasures to certain others, for example, blacksmiths and stonecutters who work with the earth's bowels and elements, as can the Great Poloz (the Great Whipsnake) and the Mistress of the Copper Mountain - spirits of the Earth's interior in the Ural tales of Pavel Bazhov.

With the advent of the modern era and the Enlightenment, animistic pre-Christian ideas began to be subjected to serious criticism. Criticizing or hiding its fears in relation to the Subterranean world, humanity rushed into the bowels of the Earth in order to extract resources for the development of industry, technology, and the construction of modern cities. The well-known modern opposition between res cogitans and res extensa appeared. That is, between the "thinking" human subject and "inert" nature — inert matter, from which it is necessary to wrest treasures.

In Russia, the enthusiasm for the conquest of nature and enlightened penetration into its depths reached its apogee in the Soviet era. In place of the batyr, shaman, and artisan came a new hero: the Soviet man, modernizer of nature. A selection of archival video materials about the Yakutsk Permafrost Research Station (YANIMS), as well as photo materials provided by the State Archive of the Sverdlovsk Region (GASO) show the Soviet rhetoric of colonization of the Earth's interior.

One can meet people who directly interact with the Netherworld not only in the epics, but also who are living among us. So the present-day Yakutian man of muscle Nikolay Vetter is known on the internet as "the man who bends nails and metal." Vetter says he feels strength as a heaviness, which suddenly overcomes him and needs to be released or discharged. In no small part, he receives this strength from his interaction with the Underworld and the spirits of the dead: Vetter is a caretaker at one of Yakutsk's cemeteries. He uses his strengths not only for muscle work, but also for healing.

Chelyabinsk-based artist Sergey Yudichev also finds creative forces beneath the Earth's surface. He has built a special underground space where he performs rituals for creative rebirth. For many creative people the loss of creative ability means death during physical life. You can regain this ability by going through a crisis, through creative death and resurrection. Subsoil is an environment where dying and resurrection take place in endlessly repeating cycles of creative nature. Interaction with it promises a reward, but it also requires a lot of strength and can be very dangerous: after all, the earth keeps various secrets.

A kraeved (local historian) from Petrozavodsk, Yuri Dmitriev for many years investigated the mass graves of victims of political repression of the 1930s in Karelia. The expeditions under his leadership returned thousands of human remains and materialized their memory. According to some traditional conceptions, people who did not die of their own death are restless souls, the wicked dead. They will fill society with negative energy until society takes certain steps. It is dangerous to interact with the remains of such dead. Apparently this is true, because Yuri Dmitriev has been persecuted by the Russian judicial system for several years.

Anatoly Moskvin, known as a kraeved and cemetery explorer from Nizhny Novgorod, gained fame after 2013, when 29 puppets made using the mummified remains of adolescent girls were found in his apartment. All the girls died sudden, violent deaths. Moskvin claimed that he came into contact with their spirits in cemeteries. These spirits could not be put to rest and stayed in this world against their will. The necromancer unearthed and mummified their remains to resurrect these poor girls in the future. Since 2013 Moskvin has been under compulsory psychiatric treatment. Modern society does not need independent shamans and necromancers. Necropolitics is a state domain.

Yuri Dmitriev. Sandormokh. Photo. 40×60 cm. From the author's personal archive.
Klaus Vetter. The Man Who Works With The Earth. Video. Photo: Maxim Sher.
Klaus Vetter. The Spiritual Sculptures. Installation.
Klaus Vetter. The Spiritual Sculptures. Installation.
Anatoly Moskvin. The Dolls. Operational shooting.
Sergey Yudichev (Chelyabinsk). A lament for Adonis. Print on foam board, 300х400
Anatoly Moskvin from the newspaper "Nizhny Novgorod News" No. 137, 2011. Collage of photos: Alexander Volozhanin.
Archival video materials about the Yakutian Permafrost Research Station. Courtesy of the National Archive of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the Ural Archive.
Archival photographs. Courtesy of the State Archive of the Sverdlovsk Region.

3. Techno-animism and Immortality in the Lower World

Today, various ideas about the world beneath the Earth's surface form a bizarre mix and an unprecedented assemblage. On the one hand, in the wake of the post-colonial rehabilitation of alternative knowledge systems, pre-Christian pagan and animistic ideas are being revived. On the other hand, the enthusiasm for the conquest of nature and the extraction of resources from the bowels of the Earth are still alive and even increasing. As a result, we get hybrid technoanimistic views in which the newest technology is not only a tool in the hands of a person striving deep into the Earth, but also a new dark environment that is able to connect to the Netherworld and is itself inhabited by spirits. For example, young Yakut artists use technology to look into the Underworld, which is full of spirits and mysteries, as a means to mimic the technique itself and its effects.

Extreme cold in Yakutia is associated with the advent of Ehee Diyla — a bull from the Arctic Ocean. This mythical animal embodied the features of both the familiar domestic bull and the fossilized mammoths whose remains are still found in the permafrost in Yakutia. During the ice drift on the Lena River, the body of the winter bull floats back to the Arctic Ocean sweeping away the souls of dead humans and animals. Dzhuliyana Semenova created "sneaky" photographs of the ruptured surfaces of snow and ice, with an elusive secret embedded within them: a formation or a trace of the past that is hidden underneath the surface. The signs and patterns of her photographs signify the manifestations of a hidden structure, both in the ruptures of the material ground surface and in the surface's image per sec.

Yegor Sleptsov, on the contrary, seeks to x-ray or scan this surface in order to present a hypnotizing mark of another reality and to expose it by translating it into a precise language of figures and geophysical scans. The artist uses the Oko-2 (Eye-2) ground penetrating radar (GPR) to make images of underground rocks in the area surrounding Yakutsk. These underground structures largely define the physical existence of buildings and networks above the ground.

Viewed together, the projects of Semyonova and Sleptsov allow visitors to reflect on the limits of Enlightenment processes. Is there a need to preserve some kind of mystery and only hint at its presence under the surface, or should we do our best to shed light on invisible structures? Today it is clear that the result of this deconstruction and critique may seem no less complex and enigmatic than their starting point. And, scientific imagery sourced from radar may turn out to be a skillfully made artistic "fake" with an artist making minor but important modifications to the document, which raises a question about the legitimacy and verifiability of the criteria of our scientific knowledge.

"Objective" science has often stemmed from utopian projects or dreams, such as the Soviet space program, which emerged from Nikolai Fedorov's reflections on how to send the dead, who he hoped would be soon resurrected, to other planets. A number of recent modernization projects turn out to contain an animistic unconscious, for example, the project of the founder of Soviet permafrost science, Mikhail Sumgin, who in the 1920s proposed the creation of a subterranean museum of eternity. In this museum, artifacts and bodies would be preserved forever, that is, they would gain material immortality. As a man from Mordva where pagan beliefs are still widespread, Sumgin combined in his museological project the utopian enthusiasm of the early Soviet period with archaic unconscious ideas in which the underworld is closely associated with death and immortality.

Moscow-based artist Irina Filatova revisits the ideas of the 1920s by placing portraits of the founders of permafrost science into the Institute of Permafrost's underground lab in Yakutsk and by arranging a video stream "up to the surface." To create these representations, the artist resorted to a medium that is primarily associated with reflections on eternity - oil painting.

The frontier of extractive capitalism and the consumptive secular attitude towards the planet continues to expand steadily in all directions, including deep into the Earth. This has already put humanity on the verge of ecological catastrophe, which today is expressed in the problematics of the Anthropocene. But the earth's interior is still associated with the resources needed by mankind, including those to defeat death and gain immortality, for example, in the mummified bodies of a mammoth and an ancient man that can be cloned.

Charlotte Alexandra Wrigley, a British geographer and researcher of "permafrost ontologies," has witnessed an autopsy of a 42-year-old fossil horse. A DNA sample was taken at the lab of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk by a blacklisted Korean scientist who wants to clone this horse. Charlotte herself develops the concept of discontinuous thinking, by analogy with the fragmentation of areas occupied by permafrost today. As global warming progresses, life starts to become increasingly associated with negative temperatures, giant refrigerators, and cryobanks through which humanity is trying to control the future.

The documentary Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy (2014) covers the 2013 discovery of the best-preserved body of a mammoth with soft tissues and blood-like liquid in Yakutia (the so-called Malolyakhovsky Mammoth, nicknamed Buttercup). The film was shot by visiting researchers obsessed with the idea of cloning mammoths. The displayed frames show the permafrost as it starts bleeding with mammoth blood, a pivotal and shocking point in the story when what appeared to be dead suddenly seems potentially alive. Cloning the long-dead body can potentially shatter the conventional boundary between the living and the non-living, between the subject and the object. The passive stratum of matter, the thick frozen rock in which holes are drilled, turns out to be alive and bleeding. Nature and culture, subject and object, the male and the female thus swap places.

However, none of this is new from the point of view of archaic beliefs. The underworld in pre-Christian thought was alive like all those "natural objects" that are considered inanimate in modern secular culture. Moreover, the mammoth has long been the personification of chthonic powers in the Urals and Siberia. Historian V. N.Tatishchev recorded this legend in the 18th century. It is as if a mammoth beast lives underground, his food is this very earth, and he walks in the subterranean space. And because of this, the ground rises, forming hills, and deep ditches remain behind, and forests and entire cities collapse. The project of the Nizhny Novgorod-based artist Evgeny Strelkov is based on this. Were not the indigenous peoples right that one can find mammoths beneath the Earth's surface and that the underground forces are mysterious and strong?

Contemporary shamans warn that we should not disturb the dead for fear of resurrecting these Old powerful forces. The supporters of alternative, non-anthropocentric ontologies reiterate the same, but in a positive way: the Earth and its internal forces should stop humankind in his predatory attitude towards the planet. Eco-progressive geological feminism believes in the animate nature of the Earth and calls for a return of the need to respect and negotiate with the spirits/forces of the Earth and with the spirits of our ancestors. At this point, animism joins with the problems of the Anthropocene and acquires progressive ecological meanings.

Today we need to radically reconsider our attitude toward death and immortality. In any case, the achievement of human immortality is impossible without the forces/spirits of the Earth. That is why, in the end, the Ural-Batyr epic from Bashkir rendered the Earth immortal, not people. His body acquired immortality by becoming the Ural Mountains. The question is what exactly will this new death and immortality be?

Juliana Semenova. Hide deep in the snow. 9 photographs on foam board, object. Courtesy of the author. Photo: Maxim Sher.
Egor Sleptsov. Eye-2. 6 photos on foam board. 30x20 cm each.
Photo: Maxim Sher.
Irina Filatova. The Underground Museum of Eternity. Video installation.
Broadcast setup: Alexey Romanov.
Irina Filatova. The Underground Museum of Eternity. Video installation.
Broadcast setup: Alexey Romanov.
Irina Filatova. The Underground Museum of Eternity. Video installation.
Broadcast setup: Alexey Romanov.
Irina Filatova. The Underground Museum of Eternity. Video installation.
Broadcast setup: Alexey Romanov.
Charlotte Alexandra Wrigley (London). Autopsy of a 42,000-year-old horse Photograph on foamboard, 400х300
Evgeny Strelkov. The Mammoth Effect. Paper, printing, video with sound.
Photo: courtesy of the author.
The Woolly Mammoth: autopsy. A fragment from the film. Courtesy of the Mammoth Museum, Yakutsk.