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Geometric Geography
Digital Vision 2005
University of British Columbia

text: Elisa Tjin and Sylvia Borda

A context for work During the 1970s, the Soviet Union permitted its citizens to immigrate away from the country after imposing restrictive policies that had dominated the last five decades1 before. In 1971, over 23,000 Soviets, the greater majority being Russian Jews, immigrated to the United States2. The number of émigrés leaving the USSR peaked in 1979 at 50,000 people3. Alina and Jeff Bliumis consider themselves to be representative of the Third Wave of Russian immigration 4 to the US. This last wave of immigration consisted of Soviet families leaving in the 1970's, 1980's, or through the Soviet Union's collapse in the early 1990's to come to the States, escaping from Soviet political ideology and anti-Semitism5.

About the artists Alina and Jeff Bliumis are multidisciplinary artists who paint, create videos, animations, sculptures, installations, and related mixed media productions. They are both originally from the former Soviet Union now residing in New York City. Jeff Bliumis and his parents left Kishinev, Moldova, USSR, when he was fourteen years old6. His interest in art grew in the United States and he went on to pursue a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University in Mathematics and Art and then continued to graduate school at Berkley University in California7.

Alina (Lukatsevich) Bliumis was born in the early 1970s in Minsk8 and immigrated to the United States in 1993, graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Computer Art9. Alina explains that her and Jeff's emigration experience to the States impacted their artistic development and subsequent artistic productions10. Alina and Jeff started working as an artistic team in 2000 and have since collaborated on several projects. This paper will focus on their joint projects, Geometric Geography. It will explore how this piece relays concepts related to the artists' personal memories and experiences of emigration from the former Soviet Union to the United States.

About the work Geometric Geography consists of five independent works titled Example1, Example 2-4, Example 5-6, Example 7-11, and Example 12. Geometric Geography is charge with personal content relating to the live experiences of Alina and Jeff Bliumis. Curator, Olga Kopenkina, invited the two to participate in the exhibition, "Post-Diasporas: Voyages and Mission", a project at 1 Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, where Geometric Geography was first exhibited12. Geometric Geography is autobiographical, portraying the artists' reflections on their personal history, memories, experiences, and emotions13 of leaving the Soviet Union. Geometric Geography relates through sculptural elements a visual and tactile story of the Third Wave of Russian immigration to the US. Of interest, Alina mentions that although Jeff and herself emigrated to the United States twelve years apart, both consider themselves to be part of the Third Wave of Russian immigration14.

In Geometric Geography, Alina and Jeff co-opt geometrical shapes, children's paper art, and cultural materials common to the former Soviet Union to represent their homeland. The materials selected are mostly industrial and manufactured forms such as plastic, rubber and metal objects15. Alina and Jeff explain how their education in the Soviet Union was mainly based on the use of 'examples' or 'objects' to illustrate lessons. For instance, certain state figureheads were used as 'examples' of 'good' and 'ideal'16. Thus, the two artists have appropriately titled this series Example, reflecting their past educational experiences. The artists incorporate diagrams to in their series to illustrate themes of geometry and geography. The numbers associated with each 'Example' also bear significant meaning17. For instance, Geometric Geography: Example 1 is a visual image of a fingerprint representing the first step in the immigration process. Alina and Jeff also attempt to use visual symbols understood by a diverse set of viewers who many have different cultural backgrounds than their own. Nonetheless, the introduction of classic Russian motifs which may be unfamiliar elements to their viewers are used as a strategy to educate audiences about their cultural, national and political heritages. The artists feel the viewer should wonder and ask questions about what is being presented and in doing so. The artwork succeeds in offering a new understanding of different cultural experience18.

In Example 1 (see fig. 1), a large graphic appears representing a fingerprint. Typically fingerprints are collected when applying for a driver's license, citizenship, or are used for other government-related applications19. When the viewer moves closer to the graphic image, it becomes apparent that the fingerprint is constructed from a series of rubber shoeprints. As mentioned earlier, the fingerprint represents the first step in the immigration process wherein the rubber shoeprints arguably indicate that first step into the new country20.

Example 2-4 (see fig. 2) is a self-portrait of Alina and Jeff. Their faces are illustrated through a series of hand-painted dots, denoting a significant amount of invested artistic labour. Each dot is a unique unit or signature but in unity creates a portrait. According to Jeff, the dot technique illustrates their fragmented souls caught between two cultures.

Example 5-6 (see fig. 3) appears from a distance as a Star of David, however, it is constructed from more than 1500 Soviet Union-issued gold star pins from the former communist country21. The Star of David is emblematic of the mass Jewish emigration from Russia to the States. Of particular interest, each pin displays the child portrait of the founder of the Russian Communist Party, Vladimir Lenin22. It is significant to note that these pins were worn by Soviet elementary school children and are well remembered by the artists. To Alina and Jeff, the pins resonate with the mandatory membership in the "Oktjabrjata" party (children of the October Revolution) and thus were issued as a way to demark citizens alliance (October refers to Lenin's Socialist Revolution, which began in October of 191723). The artists used state-issued pins to further emphasize their relationship to the former Soviet Union. Jeff rationalizes the pieces further by stating, "the radical transformation from a Soviet school child - under a symbol of a five corner star to a member of a Jewish emigration - under the symbol of a six corner star is the idea behind Geometric Geography: Example 5-6. The work emphasizes the transition from the socialist reality into a nationally and politically based movement"24.

Example 7-11 spells out the acronym, "U.S.A", and is constructed from more state-issued pins depicting Lenin. The two artists relate that when a person immigrates to another country culture shock is one of the first reactions experienced. However, with time, a new immigrant can adapt to this adopted homeland. According to Alina and Jeff, Example 7-11 reflects this process of adaptation.

According to the two artists, the U.S.A. was a, "destination point of the current journey, where one's identity goes into the melting pot and comes out reshaped by the new reality"25. The placement of this ready-made, Soviet icon spelling the three letters of U-S-A symbolizes this processes of cross-assimilation of two countries and ideologies melding together26. Therefore, Example 7-11 stands as a symbol of settlement and assimilation in the and ironically plays off the 7-11 food store chain. The artists explain that '7-Eleven' is a brand that all Americans recognize, thus 7 and 11 are used as the symbolic numbers for assimilation and for the title of this work27.

Example 12, is composed of three black panels with twelve black boats adhered to it. This vignette displays an early form of transportation used by immigrants in arriving to the United States. The three black panels are symbolic of the Black Sea, which separates southwestern Russia from the Western World28. The successive reduction in boasts displayed from one panel to the next symbolically illustrates the journey and the boats lost at sea. In viewing the whole pictorial place, three panels have a total of twelve boats, which according to Alina and Jeff is a number that corresponds to "the geometric idea that twelve represents a full closed circle"29. Both add that the number twelve also represents the twelve tribes in the Old Testament of the Bible20. Some of the twelve boats are not displayed statically, some are depicted submerged implying a symbolic sinking or disappearing from old communist ideologies to new cultural phenomena.

The rational behind why people move to a new house, school or even country vary from socio-political to economic or religious reasons and freedoms. Regardless of reasons for immigration, what remains certain is that both identities and individuals are mutable over time and shifts in experiences from newly adopted environments and geographies. Those who experience emigration are faced with dilemmas of being torn between old customs, new ways, and unfamiliar geographies to negotiate. Thus, Alina and Jeff Bliumis's Geometric Geography is a mixed media installation ultimately illustrating where one leaves behind familiar cultural geographies in search or new futures and experiences.

Footnotes:
1 Jacobs, Dan N. & Ellen Frankel Paul (Eds). Studies of the Third Wave: Recent Migration of Soviet Jews to the United States. iii.
2 Ibid. 11.
3 Ibid. iii
4 Interview. March 18th 2005
5 Ibid.
6 Alina and Jeff Bliumis.
7 Ibid.
8 Interview. March 18th 2005
9 Pink and Pong: Biography
10 Interview. March 18th 2005
11 Alina and Jeff Bliumis.
12 Interview. March 18th 2005
13 Ibid
14 Ibid.
15 Interview. March 18th 2005.
16 Ibid
17 Interview. March 28 2005.
18 Interview. March 18 2005.
20 Interview. March 28 2005.
21 Ibid
22 Interview. March 18 2005.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Interview. March 28 2005.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 Interview. March 18 2005
29 Interview. April 5 2005
30 Ibid.