COVER
Location:  Russia, Greece
Year: 2003-2005

BYZANTINE SNOW

Anna Lengle

In the year 910, in the Church of Blachernai in Constantinople, Andrew, Fool of Christ, and his pupil, Epiphanius, saw the Virgin Mary spread her maphorion over the praying people. In memory of this event, a Feast of Intercession or  «Pokrov» - Russian for «cover» - was established. Many churches, villages, and towns were named after the feast, and it infused the word «cover» with special meaning.

Artist Aleksander Konstantinov refers to this meaning in his project of the same name. The first part of the project was realized during Christmas time in the Russian village of Ferapontovo, famous for its Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, painted with frescoes by Dionisius. Konstantinov «borrowed» phelonions from the saints on the frescoes, creating gigantic rhythmic repetitions of the phelonions’ patterns and covering the earth around the cathedral, the monastery, and the village with them. Light and the semitransparent material that he uses as a base permits one to distinguish barely visible shadows from the pattern – created with colored tape – on the ground. Synthetic sheets covering many square meters are saturated with three layers of meaning: the idea of «cover» (protection and patronage); the intellectual asceticism of polystaurions (phelonions bearing a pattern of many crosses); and the purity of snow and frosty air (the work was realized at a temperature of – 30 degrees Celsius).

From the beginning, the feast of Pokrov was connected with the first snow that covers the earth with a white canvas, purifying it from the gray nastiness of late autumn. It is this snow that covers the white backgrounds of suprematist paintings of the Russian avant-garde, symbolizing infinity. Undoubtedly the artists of the 1920s were also enchanted by the phelonions' crosslike patterns, and combined their geometry with the infinity of the snow-covered steppes. Embodying in their paintings utopian ideas meant to change the world, they affirmed a confidence and optimism reminiscent of Christian faith and hope. 

Konstantinov, on the other hand - an artist who regards 21st-century utopias skeptically - leaves for himself the modest role of a yard-keeper who, incapable of performing an elementary cleaning, instead spreads a plastic cover over the world. He is obviously ironic about that pretentious claim: the viewer understands that the artist is aware of the impossibility of fulfilling such a task, and hopes only to receive praise for the attempt. This one-man happening is captured by a camera, which transforms it into a document - a document portraying covers that, having penetrated the walls of cathedrals and binders of ancient manuscripts, came to blanket any surface with a claim to being horizontal. The penetration of these covers into the contemporary world is facilitated by the artist, who went not only to Ferapontovo in northern Russia, but also to Greece in order to spread his copies in close proximity to the originals and not to jeopardize the relics to the dangers of a long journey. They were not taken far, but just put out to be aired.

The purity of air, snow, sea and early memories - these things, as well as Byzantine tradition, unite Ferapontovo in northern Russia, Greek island Paros, and the village Mostovskoe near Moscow, where the artist spent summer months of his childhood. In Mostovskoe, shadows from fence have been transformed into specific long crosses that the artist copied from the northern paintings of Obonezh. 

The crosses violate the quietness of rural existence with the staccato of a contrasting pattern. In Paros, the blue waves and black abysses of the Aegean Sea pour, after reflecting from the Greek sky, over the roofs of the medieval town and fill up the streets with a stream of Byzantine discrete geometry. In Ferapontovo, two neighboring snow-drifts, covered with differently colored and patterned sheets, resemble a slide projection of a fresco on which figures of saints clothed in crosses follow one another.

In ancient Russian painting, with all its balance and harmony of composition, polystaurions stand out remarkably. In the irrational space of icons and frescoes they look like envoys from the world of rational thought, like products of human intellect. But after going through the prism of contemporary art, the viewer's perception of them changes and their role becomes just the opposite. In the space of real towns and villages, Konstantinov's covers, which never become a tangible part of our world, look like transcendental phantoms descending from God knows what skies. Even after all kinds of assurances, the confused passersby do not dare to step firmly on them - as one might fear to step on a cloud, on snow, or on water, whose deepness and reliability are not quite known - but the surface is tempting for a walk, a walk with weightless foot over unsteady propylene.

The article was written specially for this edition. Tatlin. xxx