Where you and I might wilfully omit a few harmless details concerning the precise contents of our carry-on upon returning to Australia’s borders, the last time Stanislava Pinchuk filled out her customs declaration form, she resolved to do so with utmost honesty. Anything otherwise would invite “unwanted karma”, and so the artist, whose work places a respect for land above all, readied herself for the anticipated interrogation awaiting her. She scrubbed up, she says, in an effort “to look like a real, human woman”.
Had she been in Africa in the past five days? Yes. In fresh water? Yes. Did she have straw products? Yes. Bee products? Yes. Had she handled livestock? Yes. “You’re a quarantine bonanza”, they told her at customs.
Pinchuk was returning to Melbourne from Morocco, where she spent time beekeeping through the Sahara, travelling down “the honey highway” with two other apiarists. “They’re magic,” Pinchuk says of the insects — a tattoo of which features on her upper left arm. “Beekeeping is immersive, almost yogic in the way that it demands devotion and, in its single-mindedness, it can induce a state bordering on meditative,” she says. International air travel, however, well, that’s slightly more fraught. Pinchuk, her luggage laden with honey and other items worthy of the “quarantine bonanza” title, approached a second quarantine officer, who ushered her through onto Australian soil. It was something of a miracle. Pinchuk’s astonishment at her uninterrupted passage was only compounded by what had preceded the final leg of her journey. Each of the nine flights she had caught before arriving back in Australia had entailed a degree of difficulty for the artist and her precious cargo. She had been grilled in Paris and Casablanca, in Agadir, Tangier and Madrid. “Of all the countries that I got in trouble, to go through Australia is pretty wild,” Pinchuk muses in disbelief. “I had 24 hours at home and I just walked out [thinking], ‘Have I accidentally walked out of the wrong exit?’,”
There was a time when Pinchuk, who also works under the moniker Miso, took for granted the ground onto which she stepped. No longer. Underfoot, Pinchuk’s earth is fragile, amorphous, reactive; very little of it is constant, passive, a given. The land retains memory, its contours providing testament as much to the experiences that play out on its surface as those hidden from view beneath, concealed between layers of sediment. Her gratitude for whatever terrain she happens to find beneath her is the result of a seismic shift in her homeland. “The shock of seeing Ukraine invaded, being from the border, not knowing what passport you were going to have and all the new topographies created throughout the country as well was completely disorienting — or re-orienting, I should say, as far as thinking about ground,” says Pinchuk, who was born in Kharkov, in the country’s northeast. “It was a huge shock for me, and a huge paradigm shift. I started mapping not so much myself as the war and my understanding and feeling of what it’s like to have your home invaded.”
Though Pinchuk has since returned to the country many times over the years, the idea of ‘home’ proves to be slightly more elusive for the peripatetic artist. “How long do I live anywhere?” she ponders aloud, trying to account for a significant amount of time spent living above the fault lines of Japan, a place that had a profound impact on her. In July, Pinchuk travelled to Hong Kong for her inclusion in Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list, before sling-shotting back to France, where she is based for much of her time. At 29 and a half, Pinchuk dismisses the accolade as “a pity entry” — her self-effacing dismissal of the honour indicative of the humility that permeates so many aspects of her practice.
“I started mapping conflict from mapping myself living in Tokyo, going out and having fun [in my] early 20s,” Pinchuk recalls of the circumstances that gave rise to the research question that is now so integral to her body of work. “I made all of that work really instinctively and very quickly, before I realised what I’d made. It made me think a lot about the other conflict zones and big political events that have happened in the countries where I’ve lived and worked in or called ‘home’.”
Artist, apiarist, tattooist, cartographer, quarantine bonanza. The borders between the facets of Stanislava Pinchuk’s practice are as fluid as those that we use to stake our porous claim to the earth beneath us. Even in a strictly practical sense, there are very few boundaries to Pinchuk’s process of mapping terrain and lived experience alike. Every single one of her fine-art projects has been constructed using different types of non-traditional data. When Pinchuk mapped Reactor Four in Chernobyl, for example, where photography is not permitted, she had such limited time and access that she employed what she calls “a completely old-school string grid system and a geigometer [to create] data, which was then made into 3D meshes” using AutoCAD software. Later, Pinchuk would transpose her textiles onto that data to give it the work its enigmatic contours. “Given the nature of working in war and conflict zones, you don’t always have the same luxury of time, access, air space or help on the ground,” says Pinchuk. “You have to be quite reactive … and attuned to what the land is telling you, because you’re not looking for a narrative or you don’t go necessarily expecting something— you have to be quite open to what you actually absorb and what’s going on in the land, which is why Calais took me quite a while to return to.”
The Calais Jungle — a sprawling migrant camp that took root over years on vacant land in northern France within closest reach of the cross-channel trains, trucks and ferries to Britain — was the final destination for those hoping to settle in the United Kingdom. Arriving at the Jungle marked a tipping point for the tens of thousands of Somalis, Pakistanis, Afghans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Iraqis, Syrians and countless others who had risked everything to flee the unimaginable horrors of their homelands. It was burned to the ground over three days in October 2016. The Jungle camp proved compelling to Pinchuk as a site for mapping not just for its geographic coordinates, but also for those whose histories aligned with her own background as an immigrant.
“The conditions of being in that camp are more negotiable,” Pinchuk says. “What was really interesting to me about Calais is that it’s all these migration paths which come from so many geographic locations and … where people are also trying to be relatively invisible or low-impact in crossing the continent. It’s the one spot where all these journeys can’t help but leave a physical impact on the land before they’re dispersed again. The kind of weight and lineage of all these journeys has to fundamentally create a memory of itself. That’s why I was really interested in Calais: what does that look like and then what does that evacuation look like? … What does the ghost of 17 years look like?”
Pinchuk took six months to map Calais, beginning in the June after the evacuation. The process was completed in February 2018. It was also the first project where she received airspace access, something she considers quite the game-changer in relation to data gathering. As such, she expanded the areas she was able to map using drone imaging, a grid of plot points and height fields, which she then used to create a 3D mesh equivalent to one-by-three kilometres — the size of the camp. Once Pinchuk contemplates the data, she binds her blueprint bond stock to paper and to the table. Then begins the hard, ascetic work: she hammers her bookbinding awls into each layer, the brute force of the gesture absorbed by her body and a linoleum mat underneath; she hammers her heart out, day in and day out, for often painful, indeterminate stretches of time.
In her mapping works, Pinchuk figures as the inheritor of a legacy of women who have recorded their experiences of conflict in textiles throughout history. “It’s this incredibly rich, visual language that we have developed,” she says of the work that exists at the intersection of corporeal labour and devastating beauty as expressed through the emerging vocabulary of data. “What I really love about this history of women making things that we would historically call ‘women’s work’ is that it’s so dismissed as being decorative and vain or frivolous — fashion, lace and embroidery — but they are so, so difficult to make and they take so much out of you physically, [in your] eyesight and hands.” The works Pinchuk made from Calais serve a double function, nodding not only to the city’s history as a lacemaking capital, the fences that enclose the campsite and the medical gauze applied to wounds endured within or in transit, but also to her own background. The artist is descended from beekeepers on one side of her family and from lace-makers on the other.
“That kind of labour and physical pain and tension to make something quite decorative, beautiful and very desirable is incredibly painful and physically demanding work, wildly,” she adds. “Hopefully that draw to make sometime beautiful that has a double bluff that you’re actually looking at something very difficult and very confronting — I hope that it’s a very powerful way to engage people to think about the nature of conflict in a different way.”
As Pinchuk worked in Calais, she compiled a survey of the objects that she saw and found herself returning to the idea of presenting that catalogue in a manner that preserved its contents properly. As soon as she finished her final mapping, Pinchuk began excavating and collecting 20 kilograms of earth, and extricating the human flotsam preserved within — the concrete mosque and kiosk tiles, SIM cards, toothbrushes and toothpaste. The razors, bits of plastic and plumbing, Pepsi and Nutella lids, shotgun shells and tent poles. The tar road and the burnt earth. “This is the absolute last of it,” says Pinchuk, gesturing to the gallery space around her. “The last 20 kilos of anything.” In Borders (The Magnetic Fields), the resulting body of work that Pinchuk presented in a sell-out show at China Heights, the artist expanded her vocabulary to include sculptural works for the first time.
“It’s the first time I’ve worked with somethingness instead of nothingness”, Pinchuk says of her terrazzo works, which also function as archaeological cross-sections of the earth’s trampled sedimentary layers. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what was in the ground”, she says of that six-month mapping process. “How much of a testament that ground in particular was to the memory of what had happened on it in such a strong and direct way.” Pinchuk resolved to cast in monochromatic terrazzo the fragments of her newly-chartered topography. From afar, they appear like slabs of nougat. It’s only upon closer inspection that they reveal themselves to be the discarded shrapnel of a migrants’ desperate resourcefulness cast in precise rectangular forms resembling architectural samples – any other sculptural flair would be a distraction from how much tension there is in the process and the material.
Perhaps the most tragic irony at play in Pinchuk’s sculptures is that, before they were cast, they first had to endure a second perilous journey. “To go back to Calais and make another recording was not possible,” says Pinchuk, who at first intended to send everything she collated back in increments, but decided against running the risks of the globe’s postal network. “I decided to take it all with me.” In Paris, she used her final hours in the city to clean everything in a bathtub using vinegar and detergent; the shotgun shells in particular were cut up in a precursor of what awaited the remainder of the haul. “It’s pretty nerve-wracking to finally get everything into the country and the first thing you do is just destroy all of it,” Pinchuk recalls. “I recorded every single object and shot them almost like a scientific photographer would. We colour coded and pulverised everything; made lists of every single object in each block and threw it all in a mix that you can’t get it out of, and cast it all.”
In all her work — drawings, mapping, tattooing — there’s an unmistakable air of permanence, of practice doubling as an act of penance for some imagined wrongdoing. The terrazzo is no different in the physicality it demanded of its maker, in the sanding and patching and coating; the problem solving and rigorous documenting and finally, a slicing away to reveal how the remnants have settled in their final resting place beneath a new surface. “It’s all physically demanding work,” Pinchuk says, her easy recollections belying the many hours and miles she herself has covered to end up here, if only for a week at a time.
“There’s so much sweat and blood to look completely effortless,” she says. “I absolutely love that tension.”
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Tile image: Samuel Blanchard
Cover image: Calais ‘Jungle’ Topographic Data Map II-IV, Pin-holes on paper, all 57 x 75cm/Courtesy of the artist