Katerina SidorovaMARTYRDOM BODY STATE MANIFESTING POWER
( Staging the Calvary in Russia: from Dostoevsky to contemporaneity )
With Nell Cardozo and Aga Paulina Mlynczak
Edited and Introduced by Isabella Shields
This publication is about responsibility and control. About how
responsibility involves the
protection of others. About how control involves the protection of the self.
It is about catch and release. About captivity and the corrupted freedom that results from it. About the results of manipulated information. About the internalisation and distribution of manipulated information. These acts are predicated on the conception of an instance (not a fact or a fiction), the myriad interpellations that affect the reception of that instance (subjective experience), and the resultant expression of the information about that instance (the objectification).
It is about the distended sense of reality that is painted by the brush with death. About the physical feeling of that brush. About being tarred with that brush. About that brush being unlike any other, and unlike the brush that paints any other person. About the way that brush is held. About death. About the people who hold the brush.
The work that follows is about the vectors these thoughts run along, and the pillars that uphold them.
This publication was made in tandem with A Pile of Ash, Sidorova’s exhibition at 16 Nicholson Street Gallery in Glasgow. The gallery is led by myself, and the curators of Sidorova’s exhibition, Aga Paulina Mlynczak, and Nell Cardozo, both of whom also act as contributors for this publication. It exists as a collection of research and historical accounts, a translation, a reflective work, as political criticism, abstract apography, poetry, prose, art-writing, and creative nonfiction.
Please don’t fail me in this final minute. Dear knees, stop being weak; dear
hands, stop shaking; my heart, stop pounding; my stomach, keep whatever’s left inside you; my eyes,
don’t tear; my throat, don’t tremble if I have to speak.
It is the last time that all of these organs, these limbs are held together. By my reason? By my will?
One minute – and the metal bullet will enter my body. There may be many bullets passing through my skin, through my flesh, terminating the happy process of my body functioning as one. This bullet will hit my organs, tear my blood vessels, my arteries, my veins, and at some point my mind, at first, blinded by the shock of pain, will freeze, will darken, will collapse. It will end. And from that moment, what was once ‘me’ will start to decompose. The molecules, once held together, will go their separate ways. But now, just now, we are still one, we are still working as one organization and I cannot think, cannot imagine being otherwise.
I see with my eyes the execution site, I see the scaffolds, I see soldiers with guns, I see my friends, now convicts. Some later than others, they all are to become just bodies, with molecules about to run away in all directions.
What has it been and what will it become, my body?
It’s still young. I am 27 years of age, healthy, youthful, not yet tired. But my body will be taken from me. Taken by the state, to whom it belongs. Does my body belong to the state? Does my body, alive, belong to the state? Does my body, dead, belong to the state? Who decides to change my body from being alive to being dead? These thoughts run through my head one nervous ending to another: the signals travel, the electricity sparks, but together they bring me no closer to understanding,
But now I am here, waiting to see the others’ bodies being killed. I am the second person of the second group of three. I will be able to see how it works for them, yet will not imagine how I will go, not even now. And all I’ve got is this waiting, this five minutes. They say I could live the eternal number of lives in these five minutes. Would I or am I stuck with just this one?
The one where I see all the people that fought for other’s happiness with me together die in front of me? The one where I am not even able to move, since if I do they’ll shoot me earlier, shoot me right away?
Was it that bad of me to say that people, other people, all people are equal to me? That I didn’t want to take advantage of someone’s oppression anymore but those with more power than me weren’t ready to give that up. Did they then have the right to kill me? Or better even, kill my friends in front of me five minutes before I’d have to go?
Oh, and the people, all the people. Please don’t forget, my dear body, that I am speaking of the public execution. My eyes meet the eyes of others, and there are many. My brain will keep their images forever, or for as long as I still live as one. Those people’s bodies, if they behave, if they don’t speak of what they think too loud, will be kept intact. Then you don’t know, life takes over, I assume. It’s not always the officer that has to shoot you. My case is clear though, it’s been decided, filed, and now, will be fulfilled.
My body will be taken from me. It will be moved around without my permission. But those who’ll move it will not notice the molecules that are already slowly moving back to nature. My body will fertilize the soil, and those who killed it will not know about that secret life. The life that lives outside the framework of my human existence.
What do you see?
As I can’t speak, I’m here to listen, I’m here to hear from you, I’ll listen as you watch me.
I’m on a stage. I’ve got the leading role: I was assigned to be a martyr, an example of how not to act. They said that I don’t love my country and there is no place for people like me in it. Yet I have been selected to play this role for you to see so you won’t be like me.
The staging’s perfect, the planning’s rigid, the research was done without a flaw.
So what is here to see? We have a stage, we have the seats, we have the actors, we have the decorations - beautiful resemblances of the power of the state. we have the plot - an old-as-history dichotomy of good and evil -, the pathos, and the lessons you, the public, are to learn.
There’s no escape, the play is organized too well. All that’s left is to play the part.
So here we are – you’re in a crowd, me at a scaffold, silent. I could look around, search for familiar faces or stare into the void. It’d make no difference. How am I portrayed? Do you sympathise or do I look like I deserve this? Why was I chosen for this part? Did They give you my backstory? Am I relatable? What can I do, when all eyes are turned on me?
You look around, but then again, you look at me. The guards are here, mere decoration: background civil servants, unidentifiable, unemotional. You can’t imagine Them having personal lives, or family or a favorite flavour. I, on the contrary, am a perfect subject to be looked at: a mess. Your eyes are directed at me and the last thing you’d like to be right now is me. You think already that you would have acted differently in the given situation - you wouldn’t take those brutal words or brutal actions. And all you do is look at me, like a horse with blinkers. You cannot look away. Can’t take your eyes off me. Impossible.
What are They going to do to me? You probably know, it’s been decided long before now. They’re just taking certain measures. Precaution as well as punishment.
And there will be many just like me. And you will keep on watching.
The state is a stage and we are the actors
The state is a stage and we are the audience.
The world is a carefully planned out grid and we have been assigned our place already.
Docile, obedient, impotent.
Author’s translation of Dostoevsky’s original letter to his brother
All is settled! I am sentenced to four years hard labor in the fortress (of
Orenburg, I believe), and after that to serve as a soldier. Today, the twenty-second of December, we
were taken to the Semyonov platz. There the sentence of death was read to all of us, we were told to
kiss the cross, our swords were broken over our heads, and our last toilet was made (white shirts). Then
three were tied to the pillar for execution. I was the sixth. Three at a time were called out;
consequently, I was in the second batch and no more than a minute was left to me to live.
I remembered you, brother, during the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind, only then I realized how I love you, dear brother of mine! I also managed to embrace Pleshcheyev and Durov, who stood close to me, and to say goodbye to them. Finally the retreat was sounded and those tied to the pillar were led back, and it was announced to us that His Imperial Majesty granted us our lives. Then followed the presentation of our sentences. Palm alone has been pardoned, and returns with his old rank to the army.
I was just told, dear brother, that today or tomorrow we are to be sent off. I asked to see you. But I was told that this was impossible; I may only write you this letter: make haste and give me a reply as soon as you can.
I am afraid that you may somehow have got to know of our death sentence. From the windows of the prison van, when we were taken to the Semyonov platz, I saw a multitude of people; perhaps the news reached you, and you suffered for me. Now you will be easier on my account.
Brother! I have not become downhearted or low-spirited. Life is everywhere, life in ourselves, not in what is outside us. There will be people near me, and to be a man among people and remain a man forever, not to be downhearted nor to fall in whatever misfortunes may befall me— this is life; this is the task of life. I have realized this. This idea has entered into my flesh and into my blood.
The best way to fill time is to waste it.
Yes, it’s true! The head which was creating, living with the highest life of art, which had realized and grown used to the highest needs of the spirit, that head has already been cut off from my shoulders. There remains the memory and the images created but not yet incarnated by me. They will lacerate me, it is true! But there remains in me my heart and the same flesh and blood which can also love, and suffer, and desire, and remember, and this, after all, is life. We see the sun! Now, goodbye, brother! Don’t grieve for me!
Kiss your wife and children. Remind them of me continually; see that they do not forget me. Perhaps we shall yet meet some time! Brother, take care of yourself and of your family; live quietly and carefully. Think of the future of your children.
Live positively. There has never yet been such a healthy abundance of spiritual life as now. But will my body endure? I do not know. I am going away sick, I suffer from scrofula. But never mind! Brother, I have already gone through so much in life that now hardly anything can frighten me. Let come what may!
And maybe we shall meet again some time, brother! Take care of yourself, go on living, for the love of God, until we meet. Perhaps some time we shall embrace each other and recall our youth, our golden time that was, our youth and our hopes, which at this very instant I am tearing out of my heart with my blood, to bury them.
Can it indeed be that I shall never take a pen into my hands? I think that after the four years there may be a possibility. I shall send you everything that I may write, if I write anything, my God! How many imaginations, lived through by me, created by me anew, will perish, will be extinguished in my brain or will be spilled as poison in my blood! Yes, if I am not allowed to write, I shall perish. Better fifteen years of prison with a pen in my hands!
Write to me more often, write more details, more, more facts. In every letter write about all kinds of family details, of trifles, don’t forget. This will give me hope and life. If you knew how your letters revived me here in the fortress! These last two months and a half, when it was forbidden to write or receive a letter, have been very hard on me. I was ill. The fact that you did not send me money now and then worried me on your account; it meant you yourself were in great need! Kiss the children once again; their lovely little faces do not leave my mind. Ah, that they may be happy! Be happy yourself too, brother, be happy!
But do not grieve, for the love of God, do not grieve for me! Do believe that I am not downhearted, do remember that hope has not deserted me. In four years there will be a mitigation of my fate. I shall be a private soldier—no longer a prisoner, and remember that some time I shall embrace you. I was today in the grip of death for three quarters of an hour; I have lived it through with that idea; I was at the last instant and now I live again!
If anyone has bad memories of me, if I have quarreled with anyone, if I have created in anyone an unpleasant impression—tell them they should forget it, if you manage to meet them. There is no gall or spite in my soul; I should dearly love to embrace any one of my former friends at this moment. It is a comfort, I experienced it today when saying goodbye to my dear ones before death. I thought at that moment that the news of the execution would kill you. But now be easy; I am still alive and shall live in the future with the thought that sometime I shall embrace you. Only this is now in my mind.
What are you doing? What have you been thinking today? Do you know about us? How cold it was today!
Ah, if only my letter reaches you soon! Otherwise I shall be for four months without news of you. I saw the envelopes in which you sent money during the last two months; the address was written in your hand, and I was glad that you were well.
When I look back at the past and think how much time has been wasted in vain, how much time was lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in ignorance of how to live, how I did not value time, how often I sinned against my heart and spirit—my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, each minute might have been an age of happiness. Si jeunesse savait! [If youth knew!] Now, changing my life, I am being reborn into a new form. Brother! I swear to you that I shall not lose hope and shall preserve my spirit and heart in purity. I shall be reborn to a better thing. That is my whole hope, my whole comfort!
The life in prison has already sufficiently killed in me the demands of the flesh which were not wholly pure; I took little heed of myself before. Now privations are nothing to me, and, therefore, do not fear that any material hardship will kill me. This cannot be! Ah! To have health!
Goodbye, goodbye, my brother! When shall I write you again? You will receive from me as detailed an account as possible of my journey. If I can only preserve my health, then everything will be right!
Well, goodbye, goodbye, brother! I embrace you closely, I kiss you closely. Remember me without pain in your heart. Do not grieve, I pray you, do not grieve for me! In the next letter I shall tell you of how I go on. Remember then what I have told you: plan out your life, do not waste it, arrange your destiny, think of your children. Oh, to see you, to see you! Goodbye! Now I tear myself away from everything that was dear; it is painful to leave it! It is painful to break oneself in two, to cut the heart in two. Goodbye! Goodbye! But I shall see you, I am convinced—I hope; love me, do not let your memory grow cold, and the thought of your love will be the best part of my life.
n December 22, 1849, Petrashevists were brought from the Peter and Paul Fortress (where each of them spent 8 months in solitary confinement) to the Semyonovsky Platz. Their amnesty was known to the officers carrying out the punishment, but not to the convicts themselves. A mock trial, a cruel theatre, held with the purpose of delivering a message to the convicts, and the general public.
What happened exactly, minute by minute? Let us trace the execution site as a stage for political action. In recreating the theatricality of such execution sites, we will try to uncover how repetitive reinforcement of the state’s power is traditional in Government’s manifestation in public. The minimal sculptural and decorative means are used to reach the highest impact directed at the convicts, but moreover the audience, directly present or reached by word of mouth and mass media. Yet, the only difference here is that human life is at stake.
Petrashevists were woken up around 5-6am, put into carriages at 7am and must have arrived on the platz around 8am, still in darkness and morning fog.
It was an early winter morning.
It was a gloomy winter morning.
It was a cold winter morning.
Baron A. E. Wrangel, an observer, and later on Dostoevsky’s friend:
My uncle invited me to go with him to the parade ground. [...] The day was cloudy, a gloomy St. Petersburg morning, about six or eight degrees, and occasionally snow fell.
The convicts saw the crowds gathering, the soldiers and the officers ready to carry on their punishment. They saw their scaffolds too.
Petrashevist D. D. Akhsharumov writes in his memoir:
[...] there were 23 of us all [...]. We were led to the scaffold, but not directly at it, but by a detour, along the ranks of the troops, closed in a square. Such a detour, as I learned later, was intended to edify the troops, and specifically the Moscow regiment, since among us were the officers who served in this regiment - Mombeli, Lvov...
This might seem like an overdramatizion of the event of capital punishment. Public punishments were not common in nineteenth-century Russia. The aforementioned Decemberists were executed (by hanging, as a more demeaning measure, since only noble persons were worth a bullet) in Peter and Paul Fortress without any public presence and buried the next night secretly in a mass grave. The show punishment of December 22,1849 was different. It contained all the elements an intricately planned performance would need: the stage (Semyonovsky Platz) and the props (scaffold, poles to tie convicts to, fences to distance the public). But it was indeed a mere performance.
When we arrived at Semyonovsky Platz, a huge field that was still undeveloped, we saw in the distance, in the middle of the parade ground, a small group of people, a square of troops, and in the middle of them some kind of building, a platform of planks on high log posts; a staircase led to the landing. [...]
Looking around, I saw a familiar area to me - we were brought to Semyonovsky Platz. It was covered with freshly fallen snow and surrounded by an army in a square. Crowds of people stood on the rampart in the distance and looked at us; there was silence, the morning of a clear winter day, and the sun, which had just risen, shone in a large, red ball on the horizon through the fog of condensed clouds.
The stage was set, and the performance unfolded. The present aim of this performance is convincing young men that these are their last minutes alive.
The confirmation of the death sentence was read to Petrashevists;
Then we were given white robes and caps, shrouds, and the soldiers who stood behind us dressed us in death dress. [...] The priest, with a cross in his hand, stood in front, behind him we everyone walked one by one through the deep snow. [...]
Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his brother:
[...] a priest in a black robe came up with a cross in his hand, broke the sword over the head of the nobles; everyone except Palm was wearing white death shirts.
The contrast of white and black in the clothing is spectacular, metaphoric and utterly theatrical.
[...] We were placed in two rows perpendicular to the city rampart. One row, a smaller one, which began with Petrashevsky, was placed on the left side of the scaffold. There were: Petrashevsky, Speshnev, Mombeli, Lvov, Durov, Grigoriev, Tol, Yastrzhemsky, Dostoevsky. [...]
Petrashevsky, Mombelli and Grigoriev were blindfolded and tied to a post.
Soon our attention turned to the gray pillars dug in from one side of the scaffold; As far as I remember, there were a lot of them ... We walked talking: What will they do with us? [...] - What are the pillars at the scaffold for?
For the Russia of that time, deeply Christian, another strong symbol was the three poles themself, highly reminiscent of Calvary, projecting onto the convicts the biblical story of the martyrs, who have to fall for a better future of the country.
The officer ordered the soldiers to aim ...
[...] then a group of soldiers - there were about sixteen of them - standing at the very scaffold, on command directed their guns to the sight at Petrashevsky, Speshnev and Mombeli ...
(N.B. Dostoevsky’s and Akhsharumov’s memories on who were the first three don’t match. As mentioned previously, some Petrashevists were not close with one another, which could be an explanation for this. I tend to agree with Dostoevsky’s evidence, as it was written on the day of execution, but we might never find out.)
The count of the infamous minutes in-between life and death, so vividly described by Dostoevsky, then began. The purgatory when the verdict has been announced, but not executed yet. The five minutes beginning when the first three sentenced to the death penalty were tied to the poles in front of the firing squad; ending at the moment the amnesty was announced.
Only one of the convicts, Kashkin, to whom the Chief Police Officer Galakhov, who was standing next to him, managed to whisper that everyone would be pardoned, knew that all this was just a ceremony; the rest said goodbye to life and prepared for the transition to another world.
For these five minutes each of the convicts was under the impression that the time of their death was certain, final and inevitable. What relationship can humans have to death when there is no escape from it, no more denial? When ultimately you’re faced with being and nothingness, what do you become?
Grigoriev, who was already somewhat damaged in his mind from solitary confinement, in those minutes completely lost it. But then they hit the retreat; those at the posts were untied and the verdict was read in the form in which it finally took place. Then everyone was sent back to the fortress, with the exception of Petrashevsky, who was immediately seated on the parade ground in a sleigh and with a courier sent straight to Siberia.
The ultimate definition of tableau vivant, the mise-en-scene, only with human life and sanity at stake. The main participant of this spectacle is, undoubtedly, the audience. Why play this trick if no one would see it, no one could take a lesson from it? Why work with mathematical precision in staging a feeling? The performance would not exist without the audience. Playing a scenario of what would happen with those who disobey, who think differently, who dare to be different, even in the privacy of their friendship group.
I have to say, the play was executed brilliantly - from creating tension, to establishing the atmosphere of inevitable end, to catharsis and the ultimate relief seeing the mischievous youth pardoned by the almighty Tsar. All achieved with the minimal requirements - the scaffold, three poles, a few soldiers with guns and a priest.
Only the main actor played his role in absentia - Nikolai I, the Tsar himself, the demiurge. He is not here, but he sees you, he heard what you said in private. And it is up to him to not only decide whether you may live or not, but he also decides when your life would end, who would end it, and how.
He is the state. He is power. And you will remain a mere toy at his disposal, even if you’re given mercy. For now.
‘The Three Graces’ poem is inspired by the letter ‘Dear Friends’, written by Sidorova, that forms part
of this publication and of her performance ‘As a Pile of Ash’. However, it propels us away from the time
and place of the events this letter treads the floorboards of, moving us from Russia in 1849 to present
day Belarus. I wanted to unpack the nature of protest, both timeless and timeous, as evidenced in its
many proliferations across the globe in this present moment and in moments past. Protest is often
specific to situated politics in certain states, and erupts as a response to definite restrictions on
certain freedoms, such as the recent crimitnalilsation of abortion due to foetal defects in Poland, or
the brutality of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin during George Floyd’s arrest, resulting in
Floyd’s death. In this sense it can be extremely localised. However, the tools, the nature, the events
of protest - and more often than not its outcomes - are rooted in a long history of repetition. Specific
sites and moments for protest function as nodes of a network, tools at the disposal of anyone seeking to
resist the global swing of the Overton window towards the right wing and the resultant resurgence of
In Sidorova’s ‘Dear Friends’, in the last moments before death, the speaker illustrates how the threat of death or pain, and how limitations on our physical freedom place us in an embodied, specific, and political space. Conversely, this expresses our relationship to the sea of general human experience. This push and tug appears in the words describing “the moment of a dedicated contemplation of how to be human, if I must, but moreover the understanding of me having a place in the world”. This movement between general and singular relates to the function of protest. It illustrates a being at the crux of death and dissipation, a moment in the marrow of dissolution. This to-and- fro between being, and being more than we are reveals what we constitute and what constitutes us.
This phenomenon takes effect at the front lines of protests. ‘Dear Friends’ calls on the empathy at work in protest movements required to make personal issues political, to provide us with the ability to stand side by side with those affected even when you yourself are not. Local protests spark global movements - waves that touch further shores. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ‘a one-stop source for following crucial trends in the most significant anti government protests worldwide’ gives the following list of countries which are experiencing active, organised protest movements at this very time (November 2020): Belarus, Bulgaria, Colombia, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Iraq, Israel, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritius, Russia, Sudan, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States. Those who stand as stagnant onlookers may think that protestors are moving in isolated waters, but eventually the taint of authoritarianism will reach us all, as regional specificities become worldwide.
‘The Three Graces’ poem was inspired by three activists from Belarus I met in the streets of Edinburgh. It deals with this sense of push and pull. The name ‘The Three Graces’ refers to the title given by the Belarussian press to Svetlana Tichanowskaja, Weronika Zepkalo and Maria Kolesnikowa, three female leaders of the opposition. The mythical Three Graces symbolise qualities of grace, beauty, and celebration; they are Thalia (youth/beauty/bloom/festivities), Euphrosyne (good cheer/mirth/joyfulness) and Algaea (beauty/ splendour/elegance). The original attribution of this nickname was sarcastic and derogatory but has been re-appropriated by the opposition, which has had unprecedented support from the women of Belarus. I wanted to explore how these typically female (read weak, soft) qualities fit into a revised template for the purpose of a resistance movement. The poem traces how these classical muses exist extemporally, echoing in political satires, in found internet images such as the one by amateur photographer Igor Skibuka cited in the poem, and in the way in which allegories live many lives. I was interested by the reappropriation of the famous neoclassical sculpture in marble by Canova too. The poem incites the past in order to urge change, as does adoption of the ‘three muses’ mantle by the opposition, the neoclassical period from which the sculpture was born, and this publication itself. ‘The Three Graces’ attempts to sound the hard - soft - hard that time, change, sculpting, and history modulate between.
The sensation described in ‘Dear Friends’ is personal and global, an effect at work in much of Sidorova’s writing and performance pieces. The moment of dual situated and un-situatedness, the essence of protest and change, is explored in ‘The Three Graces’. The poem latches onto an instant that exposes the nature of history as cyclically leaving and returning, which is most vivid in events where protest erupts at the fault lines. As is evidenced in ‘Dear Friends’, the time at which we are most embodied is that at which we are also the closest to disembodiment. By wielding the threat of corporeal violence and death, authoritarian governments fail to see that they are creating a strong, adaptable organism that will reconstitute and regrow, that will become a body, over and over again.
saw these trees many times while driving from Minsk to Brest.
Only during early foggy spring they look such [sic] exceptionally graphical and irresistable,
that it wasn’t possible to pass by without stopping*
I meet these Three Graces outside the national gallery.
They stand, alive in red and white,
it wasn’t possible to see without asking
they ask about Canova, about the white marble three,
about the answer, ‘A women will collapse, poor fellow’ -
how grace becomes an act of resilience
I thought about naming and knowing
(name your enemy and therefore know them)
about sculpting as change that then becomes solidified
The process of change: soft - hard - soft
Is this a particularly womanly process?
the push and pull between change and fixity in the labour
I thought about sculpture, about memorial,
about strength and resistance and change
about Thalia (Bloom), Algaea (Splendour),
Bloom (as in those held at the crest of the wave)
Grace - the dance of boot on body
Joyfulness, a body moving together
Soft bodies, cast your eyes on these, not marble.
When I closed my eyes, their small, isolated figure appeared as though I
flew above them, submerged in the black space of my imagination. I singled them out and watched them
rise up in a public city street - captivated by the tsunami of gazes. Then, I had them move in a
one-person procession down the grey cobbles.
I pictured people standing along the pavement on either side. Their heads kept squeezing tighter together and, once static, began to turn with fragile synchronicity. From overhead, I saw some who walked alongside, matching the speed of my central figure, like grains of sand trickling down both sides of an hourglass.
‘The Apology of Socrates’ written by Plato was a defence and justification of those of Socrates’s ideas that appeared to be wrong, in public. Socrates was charged with propagation of corruptive ideas among the youth and hence stood before court pleading not guilty by the way of delivering a philosophical clarification of the impeccable morals behind his actions. Up until the 17th century ‘apology’ was officially a non-apology and, if I offended you, I am sorry. Apology and mea culpa have not always been tantamount. Neither have justice and punishment.
The spectators stood in two opposite, the pooling sands. Gazes crossed over but the crowd did not approach or step down from the pavement to see ‘the bad man’. From the middle of the road the scene presented itself as a tunnel made of an invisible but solid web of vectors. The citizens had been rehearsing for weeks. The event had been drafted by the urbanist and carved into the relationships of the locals — local business owners, local infrastructure and local authorities. The area had been locked off. The phones had been taken away at various checkpoints; TV and CCTV cameras were wrapped in black veils moved only by the breeze. The black-wearing, somber film crews stood waiting on street corners. This was between us - intimate. One journalist whispered covertly into a hidden mic underneath his face covering. All of them moved haltingly, intrusively voyeuristic.
I kept a unilateral distance from both sides of the procession as the point of view edged around downward. The city horizon marked by chimneys and rooftops was skewed and formed a spiral — window sills, flags, placards, eyes and hats grew bigger. I kept my back turned to the red stone facades; the sporadic reflections in the glass buildings planted into the gaps of the old city like gold teeth. I crouched and drew closer until I could see the central figure. The soles of their ancient bare feet peeled off the grey cobbles. Their gait was slow; slower than a sleeping heartbeat. They carried a burning torch and wore a plain mask that framed their eyes, otherwise covering them forehead to chin.
I followed them through the sharp midday shadows. They were dressed like a politician, but the clothes looked excessive – too large and unbreakable. I wondered if monarchs wore crowns when approaching the scaffold, whether a democratic state should grant such decorum to our inadvertently appointed dictators; whether we owed them this final luxury. There was a placard on their back that said ‘tyrant’ in a slick corporate font.
In front of the library, the figure paused and dropped to their knees again. They raised the torch – lifted it up to the open sky like an apology to nothing at all. The spectators shifted to the side and a couple of formal hosts came forward. As the tradition demanded, someone brought a chicken to ritually wave above the guilty person’s head. Even though it was concealed, the convict’s grimace bit into the crowd pervasively, the first cold draft of winter.
Kneeling, the tyrant leaned over a text written in chalk on the pavement. Reading this text, they invoked books they owned but had never read. Beneath their clothes, their skin, not the fabric, tore like paper — markedly right under the kneecaps. As they straightened up, we could see the darker stains on their tar-coloured Armani suit. The librarians guarded the tyrant like priests and almost spontaneously handed them a book for them to reverently kiss. The march resumed.
Finally, they turned a corner and the sun released its grip on the street and stroked the brick walls instead. Ahead of us, in the middle of the street, stood a loosely spaced group of people, with the light only just kissing their left cheeks. They had come in great numbers and seemed to have nothing in common apart from their standing there in a bizarre formation, completely still. They were holding clipboards turned face out. A herald balanced atop a street food van and delivered the text of the impending sentence: ‘We are gathered here to re-enact a regicide as a gesture of justice...’ He went on. The formation of people waited for the end. ’Death to tyranny.’
I did not know where to put my hands as I walked down the street; in my pockets? Or along my sides? They wandered as my eyes did. At this point we were walking hand in hand, I saw the tyrant’s bloodshot eyes. The blood coming to the surface was a symbol — believable, but only in the imagination. I watched the figure in the centre of all our attention. They picked up a stone from the ground, weighed it in their hand, then put it back. The masked politician moved with attempted freedom in the narrow space between the pavements.
The tyrant seized the formation ahead of them and chose the first party to the right. They approached, coming to a halt once eye to eye. Then they proceeded to kneel in front of each of the accusers with mechanical precision. The convict read out loud from pieces of paper, bowing their head each time they finished addressing each participant: ‘With great shame I stand before you to tell you I have betrayed your trust...’ Each time they spoke, they pressed on an elaborate keyboard composed of hundreds of minuscule round buttons on the torch handle. A small piece of paper rolled out like a receipt through a slit right above their index finger. It said, ‘I hereby apologise for ...’ and then, depending on the combination of buttons they had pressed: dispossession, displacement, exploitation, family separation, racism, hate, marginalisation, abuse, misogyny, lack of grief, ignorance, etc... The herald punctuated each apology with a nod. The city followed his example — they wanted to sleep well that night.
One of the reasons for the gradual suspension of public executions was the growing tendency to associate genius with crime and media coverage with glamorisation. Convicted thieves, frauds or killers were likely to become heroes of the people after their shrewd crimes became publicised and heralded on street corners. What reached the living rooms through the open windows had a way of undermining the power of the state. Meanwhile, the unglamorous, unrecorded, and untelevised events became our revolutions.
In the background of the execution, one could hear a splash as someone’s phone fell and broke the smooth, black surface of the fast-pouring river. Nothing else disturbed the scene. A condemned person could ask for a respite before mounting the scaffold in order to share their final truths and revelations in the face of inevitable death. We waited. It became clear we had all been waiting for this. Some fists were held in the air, some knocked a steady rhythm on hollow breathless chests. I heard the rhythmic sound phasing in and out of the silence and I wonder if that was the beat of my own body. Standing above me, one foot on the platform, the tyrant looked around them. The sun glimmered red on the edge of their grey eyelashes.
Publication produced on the occasion of
"As a Pile of Ash", a solo exhibition at
16 Nicholson Street, curated by Aga Paulina Mlynczak.
Original text by Katerina Sidorova
With original texts by Nell Cardozo
and Aga Paulina Mlynczak
Edited and introduced by Isabella Shields
Graphic design by Zineb Benassarou
Web development by Rush Johnstone
Illustrations by Katerina Sidorova
Printing and binding by Stencilwerck
Made with the support of Mondriaan Fonds, Creative Scotland and Stroom Den Haag