American Civil War landmarks aren’t usually associated with Russian conceptual art. Yet the Antietam National Battlefield in western Maryland is precisely where artist Leonid Tishkov’s handmade, illuminated moon landed in early September. Tiskhov’s Moon evokes a strong sense of melancholy and whimsy on a site that was once home to the bloodiest one-day battle in US history. A series of photographs captures the crescent-shaped moon sitting atop a church table, resting in a pigsty and lying on the ground, blanketed by a US flag like a fallen soldier.
These photographs and more are part of Private Moon: America, an exhibition at the Hand Print Workshop International (HPWI) in Alexandria, Virginia, where Tishkov is artist-in-residence through September. Since arriving stateside, Tishkov and his Moon have visited major landmarks across Washington, Maryland and Virginia. The resulting images are the latest in his ongoing project, Private Moon, embarked upon in 2007. Since then, doctor-turned-artist Tishkov has travelled around the world photographing his mobile moon in locations as diverse as France, the Arctic and Taiwan.
Even a cursory glance at the exhibition reveals that Tishkov’s Moon is as much of an actor as the artist, who often appears in his photos as the straight man next to the celestial body. Important to note here is the question of gender: in Tishkov’s world, the crescent moon is a “she”. Taken together the photos form a love story — a narrative that explores geography and orbital science, peppered with a cinematic arsenal of emotive device. There’s comedy, melodrama, adventure, epic landscapes, film noir, and yes, sci-fi.
Tishkov’s Moon makes for interesting and often emotionally profound moments captured, in tandem, with a whimsy often reserved for Russian folk tales as well as the Silver Age of Russian poetry in the early 20th century. What’s more, it blurs the line between photography and the birth of cinema. A Trip to the Moon (1902), directed by Georges Méliès, follows a group of astronomers, also obsessed with La Lune, as they travel heavenward in a makeshift spacecraft. Tishkov works inwardly, travelling with it from the Antietam battlefield to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, and from the Washington Monument to the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia.
“Irony alone cannot reveal the world in its entirety. There must be elements of the absurd”
“Here is a man who met the moon and stayed with her forever,” Tishkov is fond of saying. “But it’s Magritte and his painting the Sixteenth of September that’s the origin story to the Private Moon.” The painting by the Belgian artist shows a crescent moon shining impossibly through the dark leaves of a tree at dawn. At the mention of René Magritte, Tishkov reveals his latest creation. It’s a hand-painted ceramic plate, entitled Thank You, Mr Magritte, a homage to the 1956 painting. “Dennis wanted me to make this one,” he admits.
Dennis is Dennis O’Neil, founder of the HPWI, professor of Fine Arts at the Corcoran College of Art, and a friend and collaborator of the artist. They met some 20 years ago in Moscow when O’Neil introduced Tishkov to printmaking and silkscreens — something virtually non-existent in the Soviet Union before then. Born in 1953 in the Ural Mountains, Tishkov studied medicine before discovering a love for art. He began his career as a cartoonist who was regularly censored by the Soviet government. “Back then in my early work I was dedicated almost entirely to caricatures,” he says. “The pieces in the MOMA collection are caricatures, full of humor and irony. But irony alone cannot reveal the world in its entirety. There must be elements of the absurd. And that’s what led me to Antietam.”
That and, of course, internet analytics for his widely read blog. As the moon project has grown, so too has his online following, although not in the way that one would necessarily expect. Based in Moscow, one might assume that it’s Russians who like to click and view his Moon’s latest wanderings. Using web analytics, however, Tishkov discovered that Americans outnumbered Russians by three to one. “It’s unexplainable, but it’s true and it’s why I’m here,” he says. “And also for the stories.”
While scouting locations in Baltimore, the artist made his way to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum where the famed poet lived, worked, and died in 1849. In his lyrical and stylised poem The Raven, Poe tells the tale of a simple, nocturnal knock at the door.
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘“Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this and nothing more.”
As he did with Magritte, Tishkov channels the work of another artist, showing up at Poe’s door, moon-in-hand, at 4am and with no one looking, he makes the finished piece uniquely his own. Mark Twain also gets the Tishkov treatment in Under the Shadow of the Washington Monument. In 1868, while visiting the nation’s capital as a special correspondent for the Alta California, a burgeoning newspaper, Twain described the uncompleted structure: “It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off,” he wrote, “cow shed around its base… [with] tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow.” Taking this as his cue, Tishkov assigns himself and his Moon to sleeping swine. “I especially like this one as it shows off both phallic and yonic symbols,” Tishkov reveals. “Completely unexpected.”
On top of literary references, visual, or otherwise, Tishkov can wax poetic about the shamanism of the Russian north, another important influence at work — he is after all, a trained doctor and recognises the healing power of art, the moon, travel and imagination. And he’s very much aware of the symbolism he’s toying with, going back to Méliès, and further yet to any given battlefield where soldiers slept, fought, and died under the moonlit sky.
“Russia had its Civil War a hundred years ago. America’s was 150 years ago. Syria now,” says Tishkov. “But the moon is personal, and yet it belongs to everyone.” Even wildlife, he says. Even fish. Shortly after the Poe House, the Moon made its way to the Baltimore National Aquarium to illuminate sharks, turtles, coral reefs, flora, and fauna by means of moonlight. Reflected through glass, the effect of This Is Not a Moonfish is as arresting as it is surreal. Sitting alone in the brush of a tropical installation, the Private Moon is equally at home in Moonrise in the Rainforest as it is frozenly protruding through Magritte’s leafy tree in the Sixteenth of September.
When asked if he’ll be doing more work in the US, our talk goes back to cinema and its genres. “Of course, I’ll be back,” Tishkov exclaims, “I’ve still to make my road movie.”