Have you heard the term enouement? It is a neologism that refers to the bittersweet feeling of having arrived in the future to see how things turn out, without being able to tell your past self.
I discovered you in 2019, just four years after you left this realm. I remember eagerly telling my tutor about your book, The Future of Nostalgia. His response was—oh, classic. I wish he would have listened more deeply, because I was trying to let him know I had found a mentor.
In 1999, you visited Berlin, coining it the Virtual Capital. While there, you visited sites you predicted would form the Future of Nostalgia, mediating on their projections into the now. You categorised them as sites of reconstruction, and those of transience.
I had never been to Berlin, and I had never used a video camera. However, my tutor kept telling me that Eastern European female artists shouldn’t bother with painting. For the record, I’m from Canada but that is beside the point right now. There was more to say, and it needed to be said urgently. This I agreed with, however, I was never completely convinced by him, so I decided that if I was to pick up a DSLR, I’d look to you as my guide.
I took detailed notes on the places you visited in Berlin: The Schloss, the dance of the cranes, Kunsthaus Tacheles, The Berlin Story Museum, The Jewish cemetery, The Love Parade, Mr. Horst During, the synagogue, the wall, and the Info Box. I sought to reactivate and re-embody them—twenty years later. Do you reckon that is enough time for nostalgia’s fog to descend?
I refreshed on the Greek roots, nostos for ‘return home’ and algia for ‘longing.’ Your definition resonated with me, the way I felt about Ukraine and Saskatchewan: a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. It is an articulation of the complex interaction between the affects of belonging and the politics of entitlement in a Diasporic world, re-thinking and re-theorising the complex interactions between loss and reclamation, mourning and repair, departure and return.
I knew about your nostalgia, located it in my slowly dissolving relationship. One that had started from afar, yet always been a catastrophe in the present. Nostalgia is a loss and displacement, but also a romance with one’s own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship.
While reading, I realised I had been saturated in nostalgia my entire life, I recognised how it had tangled itself into all my relationships, and the way I think of the word home. Upon arrival to Berlin, I immediately felt nostalgia for my time living in Montreal: the heat, the protests, the layers of culture on top of one another. It took a lot to focus on where I was, and also how to focus the camera I had borrowed.
You see, nostalgia for me feels quite atrocious, a trait that I wish to suffocate. Anytime the sentiment bubbles up my throat, I usually become absolutely manic. I think about generations who have suffered through war—how could nostalgia possibly be romantic for them? After reading your book, I became more aware of its role in politics and architecture. How within the past century, it has existed in the plural alongside globalisation. How it is crucial to know more not only about the elusive objects of nostalgia but also about the elusive practices of power that use it.
I was practicing my camera techniques, and maybe, admittingly, it wasn’t going so well—I didn’t even bring a tripod. I was simultaneously speculating where your ghost would hover. Across from where I was staying was a line of stems taller than me with large heads that held delicate petals in an array of pinks, just like the ones my grandmother grew in front of her house in small-town Saskatchewan. I chose them as the lead actors.
The Alcea Rugosa, or hollyhock, stands tall along the river Spree, and along the trafficked bends of Berlin. From the family Maceae or Mallow, they symbolise the life cycle and are a reminder to always remember your home. If you plant hollyhocks beneath a black walnut tree, they will continue to grow as their makeup is tolerant to the toxic juglone that is permitted from the tree’s roots.
As I followed the hollyhocks with my camera from the Neuköln neighbourhood to the river, I started to get the hang of the triangular shape I could make with my body, a human tripod. A friend of mine was coming to meet me. He has deep nostalgia too; we talked about it when he got there to help me film the wreaths I had made to toss into the currents.
As I waited, I flipped back through your book and highlighted some lines that I thought would go well over the top of my footage, an introduction for viewers who hadn’t been blessed yet with your words of wisdom. I suppose I have nostalgia for you, Svetlana. When I made the first draft of the film, which I never ended up using, I corresponded with your estate to ask permission to refer to your words. Always by the book. No one responded – I wonder if you’d grant me this request? I decided, in the end, they were not worthy, the moving images, I mean.
Nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension, only it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes nostalgia is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways.
The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space; its allure is notoriously elusive. It sits between home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life.
The global epidemic of nostalgia is an affective yearning for a continuity with a collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world. Nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defence mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals.
For some, nostalgia is a taboo: it was the predicament of Lot’s wife, a fear that looking back might paralyse you forever, turning you into a pillar of salt, a pitiful monument to your own grief and futility of departure.
First-wave immigrants are often notoriously unsentimental, leaving the search for roots to their children and grandchildren unburdened by visa problems. How can we imagine the memories and events which we were not present for without violating those who cannot return because it is too painful?
At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time; a rebellion against the modern idea of time, of history, of progress.
The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.
The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. In extreme cases, it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Fantasies of the past determined by needs of the present have a direct impact on realities of the future.
My friend showed up, we talked about his grandfather and how we both need to sort out how to get out of Glasgow and move permanently to Berlin. True nostalgics are never content with the present. I cast my wreath into the river and filmed it, and we went off to a friend’s studio to join in a festivity which also circled around wreaths, yet more in congregation, and much more Scandinavian.
I kept filming with my shaky hands and lack of ISO knowledge.
The differentiation you make between restorative and reflective nostalgia is the most climactic for me. In critiques and in convos with art people, if I talk about one or the other, I just assume that people know what I’m talking about. I hope they do, because it’s important to grasp when using the term. Sometimes we argue that nostalgia should be cancelled altogether because of its tendency toward restorative formats and the trauma attached to even the idea of it in many socio-political contexts. I sit on the fence, as you can see in the precarity of my practice, I still think there is value in the reflective. Let me re-hash, in case anyone else ends up reading this letter before it gets to you.
Reflective nostalgia dwells on human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. It inhabits many places at once and imagines different time zones. So basically, the internet if it wasn’t controlled by the government.
Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. It protects the absolute truth and is at the core of recent national and religious revivals; it knows two main plots – the return to origins and the conspiracy. So, the way the Russian government caused conspirational fear of the farmer and subsequent genocide in Ukraine, and the way that Trump has gained belief of the cosmic-rightists in his version of America. Make America Great Again—a revert back, your restorative nostalgia used as a political device. Good contemporary art veers from and critiques it.
Reflective nostalgia calls restorative nostalgia into doubt.
My Berlin friends were both asleep, however I am most alive in the morning. I woke up, sat on the balcony overlooking Lidl and again, referred back to your book. It was the day I would take the camera, venturing into the tangles of the city. I needed direction in more ways than one.
For the record, Lidl in Germany is bougie and contains nothing like the water vegetables and dirty coffee in the UK shops.
The physical spaces of city ruins and construction sites, fragments and bricolages, renovations of the historical heritage and decaying concrete buildings in the International style embody nostalgic and antinostalgic visions.
That day I was thinking about one line in particular: The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, she looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them. My spiritual address was you—a mentor that whispered in my language.
I thought a lot about how nostalgic manifestations are a side effect of the teleology of progress. I wondered if the progress had continued since you last visited the sites; I know well that the age of acceleration has.
On the day of the Love Parade in 1998, you visited the Berlin Story, a museum close to the former border between East and West that was a meeting point for the festival-goers. You reminisce of the weightless cosmic zone, shaking to a subdued techno beat.
Commuting from the ghost of the Love Parade to the Schloss, I had to find the original ballet of the cranes. Not the 1998 one that David Barenboim created for stage, but the one that continues today without his direction. A never-ending dance above the construction sites unceasing above the cavernous ruins. That, so you know, has not changed. The machines might be more advanced, but they continue on in their same advances.
The most haunting part of my journey was walking in your footsteps around the Jewish cemetery. Filming was allowed here, however I chose to not.
The first draft of the film was a long video-essay with mostly shaky footage. One of my tutors told me to tear The Future of Nostalgia apart. The other pushed me to repeat what you were saying without words. I did a bit of both.
When I returned to Glasgow from Berlin, I broke up with my fiancé, something that had happened before. The last time, years prior, I threw myself headfirst into a pile of snow in the freezing cold of Montreal winter. However, this time felt different. I wasn’t breaking up with him, I was leaving a hallucination of him, his mirage. I started to liken him to the way you spoke about Berlin:
Its identity cannot be reformed in the ruins of history or in the illusory reconstruction of an arbitrarily selected past. The new city comes together into life as a collage, a mosaic, a palimpsest, a puzzle.1
1 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 191.
Except our puzzle was missing more than a few pieces. We were a reflection of restorative nostalgia, peering in the mirror to a mask of cover-up.
Back to Berlin. Back to the Kunsthaus Tacheles. I was not sure what to expect, as it seemed already quite in a ruin when you last visited. It is now forever a ruin for the ruinophiles. Capitalising on dust. They have decided to keep its façade and build very expensive condos out back—can you imagine what the former squatters would think of that! I made friends with a construction worker who let me repeatedly film his pulley pail of broken concrete up and over the wall—making one hole in the earth and filling into another hole. I thought of your line:
Amidst rubbles of recognition appear phantoms of familiar faces and facades.2
2 Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, xv.
As I mentioned earlier, while I was in Berlin, I was visiting a dear friend who now works on the audio for my films—the narrative come full circle. At that time, he was working on a project called Cultivation. Crafting monumental sculptures out of plants that primarily derived from Holland, he called them monoliths, odysseys, microcosms suggesting the density of urban life in Berlin. Animism is to attribute a living soul to plants as well as all animate and inanimate objects including natural phenomena. If we compare ourselves to plants, then we are biodiversity, ecological networks spanning and connecting under thin layers of soil we cannot see.
Just like how the plants my friend works with do not originate in Berlin, neither do many of the people who make up its population.
During the European migrant crisis in 2014–15, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees of the Syrian Civil War entered Germany to seek Refugee status. However, over the past years, this welcoming has slowly begun to reverse in light of an increasingly right-wing government.
In German, the word Heimkehr is a return or coming, the act of circling back.
Berlin received around 5% of all refugees coming to Germany; in 2015 well over 50 000 asylum seekers were registered in the city. This number sharply decreased to 16 889 asylum seekers in 2016 and 6 770 asylum seekers in 2017 and 720 in January 2018.
In 2017, Germany began to reverse its leadership role in approach to the EU’s asylum and migration policy. In 2018 and 2019, it decided that it would welcome fewer refugees while there was a reported 627 attacks on these refugees and 77 attacks on shelters.
Today, in 2021, Berlin stands in a complicated position alongside the war and ongoing occupation of Palestine—the news is calling it a Moral Triangle. They recently opened a spiritual centre that is meant to join all major religions from the book as well as anyone else who needs a place of worship. To me, this feels like their response to a conflict that they are too sheepish to interfere with. However, I would never compare Berlin to the likes of a lamb.
Although the welcoming looked like a reconciliation with its brutal past, xenophobic attacks on people perceived as ‘non-german’ have unfortunately continued.
When I spoke to my friend on the phone a few months ago, he told me that businesses in his local area of Neukoln run by immigrant families had become a point of attack. There were thousands at anti-masking protests riddled with anti-semitic skinheads. There has been a global pandemic, which is another story for another letter, Svetlana. What I am getting at here, is that it seems that the extremist right sentiment has boiled over yet again. My friend has moved back to Canada; he is a visible minority.
Métis artist and academic, David Garneau, teaches that re-conciliation cannot exist if there was never conciliatory relationships. When he speaks about the colonial condition he discerns that there is no halcyon moment to recover; only the ongoing colonial condition to become conscious of and resist.
Reconciliation is only possible if there was once conciliation.
The halcyon is a moment in the now interrupted history of the world where idyllic versions of what we think we know existed. If humans can imagine this never established moment, it floats somewhere intangibly.
The city seems to be too concerned with rewriting the past while the life that aspires from it wilts.
If we consider the slower paces, the end of dogma days is imaginable.
The consideration is to halt construction and consider these sturdy structures with their weak foundations. Unpack the bricks laid and read what is scratched into their surfaces; now fit them back together.
In the words of Boaventura de Sousa Santos: how can you not see what lies ahead of us is not set plans conjured by our particular enlightenment with how things work and interconnect—the un-compromisable ruin and decay of what occurred while we were too busy thinking to act.
Too busy rebuilding the past to support the builders present and capable of working with the shards to construct something undefined by constrictions ruled by past mythologies.
When visiting your sites of the Future of Nostalgia, the future of healing and regeneration transcended—what emerges both socially and ecologically surrounding the monuments and construction sites is what became most legible. Re-examine, re-visit, re-render, re-member, re-read, re-turn, re-frame, re-main, re-act.
There are scientific critiques placed on the Anthropocene as a movement attempting to connect social frameworks to natural frameworks.
Appropriating the Vinok ritual taught to me at Ukrainian School in Berlin during the Summer Solstice alone with my camera on the river Spree, I was invited unexpectedly to join another celebration.
In my friend’s studio yard, we gathered in white to celebrate what I knew as Ivana Kupala Day, Midsommer for the host from Scotland, Lucia Day for guests from Scandinavia.
We all wove wreaths and feasted together, discussing rituals’ placements as only enacted symbolic edifices in our upbringing.
Without a community, traditions cease to exist in their original forms. They become a repertoire.
To weep copiously purifies the sins of the dead; but how can one see what is in front of themselves with puffy, swollen eyes?
This text has been published as part of Ayla Dmyterko’s “Pour the Fear: Solastalgic Synchronicities,” exhibition in Glasgow, hosted by Lunchtime Gallery, 29 September–17 November 2021.
Ayla Dmyterko is a Ukrainian-Canadian artist based in Glasgow, Scotland. Upon completing her MFA from the Glasgow School of Art (2020), she was awarded a Fellowship at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios and is supported by Creative Scotland, The Shevchenko Foundation, Glasgow City Council, Hope Scott Trust and the Eaton Fund. Previous exhibitions include The Tale Began with a Beet (It Must End with The Devil) at Projet Pangée (Montréal), Ritual & Lore at The Art Gallery of Regina , Hush Hush at the Hague Gallery (Canada) and Intermittence at Gallery Aux Vues (Montréal). Her work was recently featured in KAJET Journal (Romania), written about by Dr. Ranjana Thapalyal in MAP Magazine (Scotland) and interviewed by Caitlin Merrett King for Young Artists in Conversation (UK).
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-analytics||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Analytics".|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-functional||11 months||The cookie is set by GDPR cookie consent to record the user consent for the cookies in the category "Functional".|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-necessary||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookies is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Necessary".|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-others||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Other.|
|cookielawinfo-checkbox-performance||11 months||This cookie is set by GDPR Cookie Consent plugin. The cookie is used to store the user consent for the cookies in the category "Performance".|