by Jaimie Baron
Beginning with the lightning bolt evoked by the title, Very Yellow-White Flash, Yulia Pinkusevich’s new exhibition revolves around the circulation and expenditure of energies. Although they derive from several different series and span more than a decade, Pinkusevich’s works trace how various forms of energy – natural, historical, mystical, disciplinary, activist – move through and across time and space: creating, connecting, dividing, destroying.
One piece in the show is boobytrapped. Touch it with your hand while stepping on an attached metal plate, and a jolt of electricity will make you jump and yelp, even if you’re expecting it. Made from copper wire, ceramic insulators and an electric fence charger, Sentiment of an Invisible Omniscience offers a visual and intensely physical experience of how humans have channeled nature’s marvelous energies into instruments of division, immobilization and repression. These materials – arranged like an aerial view of Bentham’s panoptic prison – are the same as those used in electric fences. Invented for warfare, electrified perimeters now corral both people and animals. Like other gifts of nature, electricity can be liberating or violently oppressive, though sometimes such violence is not immediately apparent. Maximum Capacity, a flat surface composed of the electronic components known as capacitors, is an approximate map of Silicon Valley. During an artist residency at Recology (the San Francisco recycling center and garbage dump), Pinkusevich spent many hours deconstructing old electronic devices to retrieve these parts. As she took apart discarded computers, VCRs and microwaves – reversing the gestures of the assembly line – she wore gloves to avoid toxic chemicals. In the double entendre of its title, which means to hold or store, this wall-mounted piece suggests that the Bay Area may have reached its limit regarding energy consumption and the amount of dangerous waste we continue to generate.
Interdependent Embrace, a hanging installation, shows nature’s energies independent of human aims. Numerous misshapen orbs painted a bright reddish-orange hang from the ceiling like festive ornaments; they are actually painted oak galls, abnormal outgrowths on plants akin to tumors. When a gall wasp lays its larva on a tree, it produces a chemical similar to the tree’s growth hormone, triggering it to produce more cells. The resulting protrusion becomes a nest within which the wasp can hatch and raise its young, evidence of the symbiosis between insects and trees. Similarly, in Spore Goddess and Spore Body 3, Pinkusevich uses the delicate, dusty undersides of mushrooms to print spores directly onto paper, around which she draws and paints. Humanoid figures emerge from within these fungal imprints, as if these mushrooms had transformed into a shape we can understand as sentient, as alive as we are.
This exploration of nature’s energies shifts into a spiritual register in three large vertical paintings – Mother Spirit (ije-kut), Spirit of Air, and The Path (Tree of Life) – all part of the Sakha Series. Pinkusevich was born in Ukraine towards the end of the Soviet period, but some of her ancestors were Sakha, native Siberians whose culture and religion were actively purged under Stalin, beginning in the 1920s. Attempting to trace these lost roots, Pinkusevich incorporates themes from Siberian shamanism into her work: petroglyphs, robed figures and spiritual references. Each painting channels the energies of Pinkusevich’s unknown and unknowable ancestors, calling back to them across generations.
Pinkusevich is also interested in the power of mind, the energy that travels through the brain to produce thought. Using imaging technology, she created the Mind Map Series to record her brainwaves as she meditated daily over the course of a month in 2011. This practice generated arrays of intersecting lines representing her brain’s energy flow. When rendered with a Sharpie, the results resemble a schematic drawing of a circuit board or an array of stars. Nearly ten years later, during the pandemic lockdown, Pinkusevich made her Quarantine Series by dipping a brush into water and automatically dropping her hand to paper with each breath, a process that resulted in circles of varying sizes. She then linked the circles with lines to produce a visual network. Both series suggest cartography without a clear referent in real space. However, in contrast to the mind maps, the quarantine images are reminiscent of the maps tracking virus cases that many of us had on constant refresh in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas the mind maps suggest exciting psychic potentialities, however uncertain, these newer works evoke the sense of the world (at least as we knew it) quite possibly coming to an end. Nature may inspire, but it also threatens and infects.
Humans, however, have proven to be our own greatest menace. In the Isorithim Series, Pinkusevich draws on iconography from a declassified Cold War-era manual demonstrating how to predict the effects on the civilian population of nuclear air blasts. In Pinkusevich’s rendition of such maps, the fluid lines indicating topographical variation are overlaid by thick black lines that seem to erupt from the page. By energizing these ostensibly neutral diagrams, Pinkusevich emphasizes the profound gap between our intellectual understanding of nuclear weapons and their actual impact. Like electricity, nuclear energy can raise humanity to new heights of technological achievement and scientific understanding, but it can also – in the wrong hands – just as easily end us. Similarly, Nuclear Sun 4, Pinkusevich’s lush charcoal drawing of a nuclear explosion milliseconds after detonation, captures the fearsome beauty and fascination of such destructive potential.
While most of the pieces in the exhibition focus on the harnessing, regulation or hijacking of power, the largest is a case study in competing energies. Silencing the Cacophony, an epic painting that extends beyond its stitched frame onto the gallery wall, shows Kyiv during the Maidan Uprising, which began in 2013 after Russia prevented Ukraine from joining the European Union. These protests transformed into the wider movement against the corrupt, Putin-backed government that eventually led to Zelensky’s democratic election, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and, of course, the current war. Pinkusevich draws on drone and surveillance imagery of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), dramatizing both the actions of the protestors and the harsh reactions against them. Dark smudges obfuscate details while diagonal lines function as “dazzle camouflage,” a technique developed during World War II to generate visual confusion for the enemy. This practice builds on the evolutionary strategies of the zebra, whose stripes conceal the animal by misleading the eyes of potential predators. The perspective positions us so that we look at the scene from above but cannot fully comprehend the target. Pinkusevich observed the Maidan protests from afar, experiencing them only through mediated traces: radio waves, pixels on a screen. Through this painting, which incorporates spray-painted anarchist graffiti and the format of the protest banner, Pinkusevich offers her own powerful gesture of solidarity across geographical distance.
The strongest piece in the show, however, is Manifold, a single-channel video in which multiple black-and-white images of ocean waves crashing are placed so that they seem to ebb and flow from a central vertical axis, forming an endlessly shifting pattern of light and dark as the waves expand and recede in both directions. At times the water, flecked with ice, appears like sand or oil, producing a textural collage verging on abstraction. This rendering of oceanic energy is disorienting, threatening to overwhelm and submerge us in its flow.
The energies circulating within, around, through and against us are never unidirectional. They move across time and space, for and against justice, propelled by nature alone or redirected by human intentions. This small but varied selection of Pinkusevich’s works urges us to make careful choices about how we deploy the powers at our disposal. Touch or refrain? Reveal or obscure? Remember or forget? Detonate or withdraw? To fight against one another or – like the gall wasp and the oak tree – find a way to coexist?
# # #
Yulia Pinkusevich: “Very Yellow-White Flash” @ Round Weather Gallery through July 23, 2022.
About the author: Jaimie Baron is a professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.