Evgeniy Antufiev, Untitled, 2015, wood, amber, fabric, dimensions variable.

Evgeniy Antufiev, Untitled, 2015, wood, amber, fabric, dimensions variable.

Evgeniy Antufiev

Regina Gallery/Moscow Museum of Modern Art

Evgeniy Antufiev, Untitled, 2015, wood, amber, fabric, dimensions variable.

It’s hard to believe that Evgeniy Antufiev was born only in 1986, given the sense of timelessness typical of his work. His solo show at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, aptly titled “Immortality Forever,” was part of the parallel program for the Sixth Moscow Biennale. It attempted to map out “the essence of Russian culture,” placing objects linked to Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Anna Pavlova alongside items drawn from the artist’s personal history—among them drawings by his ailing grandmother of her childhood memories, and a video of his mother, Nadezhda Antufieva, chief editor of the Centre of Asia newspaper in Tuva, dancing at the launch of People of the Centre of Asia, an anthology of essays and interviews she publishes periodically and calls “the book of fates.”

Antufiev’s gallery exhibition “Seven Underground Kings or a Brief Story of the Shadow” shared with the museum show an attempt to examine and express the “essence” of such cultural abstractions as the idea of “Russia.” At MMOMA, he did this by isolating certain symbols—the birds and flowers common to embroidered fabrics, the dessert known as pavlova—and turning them into points on a cultural map. But where the museum show presented a personal history, “Seven Underground Kings or a Brief Story of the Shadow” uncovered a more ancient inheritance. This was articulated with impressive precision at the gallery’s entrance hall, where three doorways led to different rooms.

The main entrance was located in a cement wall constructed to close off the main space. Positioned on each side was an animal guard inspired by Scythian sculpture and carved out of wood. Through the doorway, an arrangement was visible: a photograph printed on cloth hanging on the wall—a hand holding a huge chunk of amber—and an ornate pyramid standing on a plinth constructed out of display cases. The view was precise: Amber and wood, after all, were the main materials—and subjects—of an exhibition that felt like a memorial “protected,” as the artist put it, “in an absolute eternity.”

The main gallery was filled with more wooden sculptures of various sizes, from a form with many breasts, to a growling hound, to a man carved out of a raw tree trunk leaning against a corner. These were grouped with arrangements of smaller objects made from fabric, ceramic, bronze, brass, wax, and copper—including a clay figure emerging out of a bowl filled with marble chips, placed on a spinning wheel, and a small bronze vessel with a blue-eyed skeleton head. There were a few drawings on the wall, including one of a snake coiled around a pencil—a symbol that contributed to the sense of having stepped into an archaic, autochthonous human history. (All the works are Untitled, 2015.) The installation felt at once like a museological presentation of an imagined prehistorical society (items included arrowheads and bowls filled with amber chips), an archaeological dig in a newly discovered site, and a temple. There was something primordial about these wooden sculptures, which were neither human nor animal, both otherworldly and familiar.

Amber and wood are materials connected to Russia in some way—woodcrafts are a major part of its folk culture, while amber, as Antufiev notes, was one of the first known polymers, coveted by the Babylonians, Romans, and Scythians, and one of the cheapest and most abundant materials in the Soviet Union. Bringing this vast narrative of consumption into the present was a video projection showing the sculptures being transported to the gallery, intercut with views of the work in the studio. In this historical overview, amber and wood are not only materials but also historical commodities that have remained in global circulation as both mediators and material witnesses. They are conduits through which nature and culture exist not so much in opposition as in eternal relation: a history without beginning or end.

Stephanie Bailey