Nathan Brusovani was born in 1956 in Leningrad. In 1978 he graduated from Leningrad University with a Master's degree. While studying there he also completed a course in scientific photography. For the next eight years under the influence of his elder brother, an artist, he has been studying photo art in his home laboratory. During the same period of time Nathan also taught Hebrew and was active in Jewish cultural life. He participated in various underground exhibitions in Moscow and Leningrad. While still in refusal he succeeded in smuggling out some of the negatives of his works into the USA and Israel and later the album of this works was published. In 1987 Nathan received permission for emigration from Soviet Russia and with his wife Hana and four children came to Israel where they are living now. In Israel Nathan participated in many exhibitions, among them the personal exhibition in Jerusalem Theater in 1997.

Tryst Interviews Nathan Brusovani

My thanks to Olga Grun for helping Nathan and me with the interview: Olga was instrumental in translating Nathan's Russian when he was "stuck". I have, to the best of my abilities, put together Nathan's interview, but there may be some answers that were lost in transmission. At one point I had five different copies of Nathan's Interview, and some of the text was not only garbled, but backwards! Overall, I am exceedingly, and I emphasize honored to have had this opportunity to feature, interview and get to know Nathan Brusovani. Admittedly I am sad that this is the last part of Nathan's feature signaling the end of his feature. I think of Nathan as an historian and friend. Nathan is a beautiful, breathtaking artist. My thanks to Nathan Brusovani for sharing his vision, his heart and his time. ~Mia

Mia: Nathan, you participated in various underground exhibitions in Moscow and Leningrad. Why were they underground exhibitions? Was your work not allowed to be on public display?

Nathan: My works from the beginning were characterized with some "clear" attributes of the unclear, blurred, multi-layered style. I use this style not as a technical instrument to create the "mood" stylish (that is so popular now!) but more as my vision to express the complex reality of human being in whole and the Soviet totalitarian being in particle. Obviously, this tendency contradicted the official simple concept of mobilized, "working toward bright to ensure the future" society. I say that was more private than underground exhibitions, because we didn’t aim to make a revolution or threaten the authorities. But, you know, in those times, every private feeling was looked as dangerous to the health of society. Practically, you had to get permission to arrange any exhibition and you had apply to be a member of the unity of …That was endless (and not safe) story.

Mia: You also smuggled out some negatives. What were the contents of these negatives? Did you experience a lot of censorship with regards to your artwork and why?

Nathan: The second phase in my development was my connected to Jewish themes. (Maybe as the result of searching for the most evidence of phenomena, endless, unbound and multi-layered human situation). Mostly, it was the negatives of my works on Jewish themes. Not the pictures of demonstrations for free immigration to Israel or struggle to learn Hebrew (despite that, I respected the efforts and courage of the those who participated and was involved in a couple of demonstrations myself, while learning and teaching Hebrew at the same time); but, for example, - "Letters from afar, from behind the curtain" or "Movement of letters" or "Clothed in the indelible signs of your native language" (they are in regards to Hebrew) – montages of Hebrew letters with images of "lost" Soviet Jews. It was not a question of censorship, because censorship means that you try to apply some materials and part of it is approved and part is not. I never tried to get permission or apply for my works, because it was absolutely clear to keep a separation: from them and us. I didn’t try to be accepted, because to be acceptable meant conforming. People like me preferred to live invisible and lead double lives to preserve the inner and unique word of vision. Of course, there is a price for that concept of being. Because, I think, that in the rest of my life I tend to regulate my artist’s life mostly in terms of "underground" and "private" works for the purpose of exploring my only artist's interests and not to seek commercialism.

Mia: What was it like living in Russia?

Nathan: To concentrate my answer on this so comprehensive question I prefer to divide it into separate points (but to put on the brackets some another points of view, from my today’s looking, because now it's clear to me, that despite the fact having lived in Russia in those time was a very unique phenomena, I can encounter the common base to my present (and future?) too. And to clear up my feelings I will refer to some works of those times that were included in the album "Images of closed space"):

As I said the most basic feeling was the feeling of total separation – them and us (or I). (Now it’s connected to me to sentence of Jewish modern philosopher, Rabbi Soloveichik – sometimes you can feel very lonely even in the middle of the crowd").

Every situation in life, even the simplest, was based on many conventional terms, but not clear rules. Every situation was not just a realization of your plans for today – to make shopping, being on the bus or train – but the whole experience of feeling, looking, hearing… Thus your everyday experience was transformed to much more importance, to symbol, to theater, to echo of something, to boomerang. ("Even in the most open spaces you can meet your fraternal twin, boomerang").

Today I can say that in an intuitive way I tried to mix very"unmixed" tendencies: my art imagery of living, Jewish sole theme and being completely involved with the rock music of those years. Thus each of them contributes a unique vision for my interpretation of a situation and serves as a tool for me to explore, navigate and, the most important, to express this experience. From many puzzles, from many reflections and sounds I tried to build a comprehensive picture, that has many aspects and layers, but simultaneously has a very unique base, which is hard to describe in a couple of words, but I could feel it every time, in every situation (even now!).

Therefore I was able to see the problem of human rights (like free immigration, refusal of free of press etc.) like scenes from a brutal theater, for example, to transform them as refusal to the image of different forms of lips, ("The theme of formal refusals. Bubbles of dissatisfaction. Spit. Shouting. Refusal") or the theme of Big Brother (or guard) to the bald Jewish-egg-head. ("The theme of the guard. Three ways of deciding your fate.) - But even then I preferred to describe it not in terms of, "Let my people go", but as "Three ways of deciding your fate". And now I think I was truthful with myself, because the time of struggle for free immigration from Russia is gone away, but the question of determination of our fates is still be here…Or to see in my father, who has a very classic, strong Jewish face, not only a figure to get from him the Jewish legacy (really he didn’t know anything about that as a result of Soviet policy toward Jewish culture, but he has an unmistakable Jewish face!), but mostly an eternal symbol of something not-only-human, but God-in-human being – "The word 'Jew' is carried like a grenade that is ready to explode. Closed white. Blinding snow. Scorched desert. Gray wall." (From this text that I wrote to plan the composition of the album I can define the mixing).

To see in Jim Morrison of the "Doors" not a pop-star, but feel his "Break on through to other side" as the motto of the whole situation. (I prevented by the communist party to see him or to hear him in the "live" concerts, but, paradoxically this non-seeing is converted to always-hearing. Even now, when I am living in the very open place, Judean desert, I feel this "Break on through to other side" – may be like the half-opened door at Rene Magritte.)

To resume I can say that my attempts to formulate a new (at least for me) direction in my imagination. My brother has named this trend – transrealism. Today, after I became acquainted with the music developments in those years, like Miles Davis or Mahavishnu Orchestra, I prefer to name it fusion. Interesting that despite the "iron curtain" we were influenced by the cultural events and art movements of those years. Of course it appeared very different from its original forms with completely different cultural context, but still had a very strong influence.

In general I have to say, that being in a closed space (Russia in those days) when your relationship to this situation is reality (it’s your only truth, because it’s not only your past or present, but, you believe, maybe the future too) was a very "good creative workshop". (Maybe like every difficult or extreme situation – on the condition, that you survive!) You concentrate your living, religious and cultural circumstances through the very special glasses (that I am trying to describe) and all this found on the feeling to dream, hope, that, despite this situation seeming permanent, it will be changed!!!

Without understanding this fundamental feeling you can’t understand it at all. Because it’s very contradicting, ambivalent and limited situation – everything is solid, unchangeable and permanent, but… simultaneously you have a suspicion that it will be changed! And because of that fact, you don’t know exactly when, where (or may be never?!) it will happen. You can permit yourself not only very special present (surrealist-transrealist-fusion), but (more important!) a very special future that you can color in any colors. You believe that all your problems, all your dreams that were not materialized yet – everything will be possible: you will be able to set up you economical situation, to reach the exhibitions in the museums and many more… It’s not stupid, because you can’t check it in reality, it’s not coming yet, it’s a really a "Break on through to the other side!" (And I can’t not remember my other Morrison favorite theme – "Strange days" – because it was very strange not days, but years!)

Can you imagine today this all-possible situation?

Today you can check your every step before you even start to move your legs. And may be you will decide not to step at all, because, you know, the results of preflight check may not satisfy the next-second-never-really-passengers.

Mia: I assume that you speak Russian very fluently, as well as, English?

Nathan: When I am writing this text I use three dictionaries: Russian-English, Hebrew-English and English-English at the same time. In addition I hear in my head "Doors", I see pictures of Dali, Magritte, Van Eyck or Velasquez and I carry out.

Mia: Which country do you consider your mother country, in other words, your home?

Nathan: I would not exaggerate if I say that my mother country is an artland of extended gray scale vision of flowing events. But Israel is the place where I live, raise my children. It feel more like a big family on a little piece of land. Is it mother land or father land, or nobody, or Holy land – I don’t know. But I am ready to fight to continue to live here. Otherwise it doesn’t matter – you can close your eyes in every place and see (or don’t see) the faces that you have seen already or not yet.

Mia: Did you have to leave behind many friends?

Nathan: There were three kinds of friends:

(1) The first are all these people that I participated with them being involved in all events of visible word, living in USSR. The events went to the end, when I crossed the boundary of Soviet Union in 1987, so the friends went to the end too.

(2) The second are all these colleagues-Jews, who I have struggled, survived and dreamed with them in Russia. In Israel we continue to struggle, to survive (less to dream) together.

(3) The last are my three closest friends that were equally involved in visible and invisible parts of my life-in-the past.

My brother – the first part of boomerang - stayed "living in the past", trying to live on the boundary, when the country was gone, when the people changed their faces. (Don’t convert your temporary quarters to a real estate!) It’s already not a strange, but crazy days.

My second friend was my permanent model for all my pictures. He symbolized for me something non-passed in a time. My first works in Israel were montages where I mixed the negatives with him into the landscapes of Israel.

He couldn’t find himself in Israel, he work around in Europe as the drummer and actor. We are speaking couple of times in the year by the phone.

The last friend was mostly involved in my "Jewish" affairs. He had an amazing beard and remarkable forehead. I mixed him with the Jewish letters on the one picture after the KGB carried out the rummage in the house we rent for summer and found and confiscate the Jewish books.

He lived in Boston, USA, convert to very orthodox Jew. We never speak from the time he got permission to leave Russia for USA in 1985, but we mailed each to another blessings of holidays.

Mia: Can we discuss your collection from the second part of your feature in Issue IX? One of my reviewers said your work reminded her of God. I think that was an odd response, but I wanted to run with her perception. To me they look very spectral, ghostly. In your first collection featured in March, I described your work as "otherworldly" – the artwork is almost ethereal, haunting. How would you describe your work as a whole and how would you perceive it as an objective viewer?

Nathan: As I described above, living in the period of my fundamental evolution as an artist in a very non-standard, non-clear, multi-layered situation, persuaded me to look for themes that lay on the boundary. I try to mark the contour of what may be happen, when one thing is going to convert to another. It is not fantasy; it’s illusion of co-existence of the contrary aspects of all-the-same-things. I work out the power of photography to present in a very realistic and convincing way those allusive ideas that are walking around in my head. So I prefer not to define it as the montage or collage or mixing, but a visual fusion, where the different parts of the material word come to co-existence for the task of expending our feelings toward the physical word. I try to build the visual surface, where the eyes of a viewer are wandering not only driving from one corner to another, but driving from highway to subway of multi-meaning too.

Mia: What do you think about my reviewer’s response that your work reminds her of God?

Nathan: I can only burst with envy, because I can’t even mind Him. But if I can remind other about His existence, to fill my life with significance.

Mia: Why did you choose this Jerusalem collection to represent Israel? Is it full of struggle that I sense? Hope, pain?

Nathan: I must to say that creation of this collection is (like most of our creative decision) a combination of many factors. Among them, there’s the opportunity to use the new camera in the field of "digital manipulated reportage" and a couple of free hours to arrange the shooting. And the fact that this was Friday, the day before Shabbat, and everybody in the Orthodox Quarter, Mea Shearim, were involved in their preparation to Shabbat. And it was a cloudy day, adding the feeling of hurriedness to their all-time-running people in a hurry to fulfill the God’s commandments. But, of course, their short-last factors were based on long-last ones - my fundamental vision of Jewish theme and seeking the eternal and wandering Jew in modern Israel. And, of course, in the dark perspective of terrorist attacks of the last years, it always comes with the sounds of shooters and the atmosphere of hurriedness and urgency.

So you live all the days and all the months with wide-open eyes and mind, collecting all the things I’ve mentioned above, to be ready to let them work in the second when you must make decision: where will you go with the new camera - to the safari or mall or walking around in the Orthodox Quarter.

When you already have the negatives, the documentary witness of your decision, you have plenty of time, hours after hours, to develop the vision idea of each shoot in individual direction and let the imagination do break-dancing all around. And now to you question - why I choose this collection, "Jerusalem on One Pixel," to represent Israel:

First of all - why "on One Pixel" There is a very famous maxim of Rabbi Hillel (he was living in Palestine during the first century): "When a heathen who wished to become a Jew asked him for a summary of the Jewish religion in the most concise terms, that should be said only during the heathen will be stay on his one leg, Hillel said: "What is hateful to thee, do not unto the fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary." So this aphorism - "on one leg" - is very circulated being Jews - to speak very briefly, but precisely.

Second, why this Jerusalem represents Israel. Because it describes my recent feelings toward what’s happening in Israel today. And a story of a new camera and a cloudy day too. In my first years in Israel, I tried to combine the landscapes of Israel, (they were very new to me), with images of my lost friends that I had brought from Russia

Mia: Your work is dark to me with your use of colors and perspective; but I noticed points of light, like rapture as an opposing force to imply tranquility. I am trying to understand how this happens. For instance in this image of a sleeping child, I noticed that the baby is enshrouded by dark colors. But the baby itself looks very peaceful and what I sense is a contrast between life and death signified by "autumn" and birth. I know that above you described your work as humanscapes, but what are primarily the themes behind your work? Isn’t there some statement you’re making consciously or subconsciously?

Nathan: You’ve started to interpret it and almost explained it completely. Because the range between life and death could include everything. But the image can speak universally only when it "plays" according to special visual roles. For this, I bring together opposite concepts you’ve mentioned. Playing my visual melody must be very individual and only my approaching can create for the spectator the feeling of curiosity, the feeling of not understanding till the end, to force him to search and look around. For what? I guess, for a universal base of our human existence. My own and our existence. To build a bridge between these two points, I need to rent actors (baby, leaves, ball of glass, mirror and other almost endless sprites), to dress them up (or undress, or fold, or embrace, or enshroud as you said), and point out the spots of light to reveal one and to hide the other. It seems to be like a theater. But the difference is that my drama includes only one act, this very short, almost as brief as the time of spectator’s glance. And it might be the last act, or it may be an everlasting act, too. To make the latter happen, I must impress the viewer enough, to address to his sensations and emotions, stimulating him to continue the journey, to give him grounds for expectations, to make the very first impression lead him from "mine to ours." And I leave him alone to navigate in visual space, trying to do this space complicated and multi layered, because there’re so many ways and directions to reach "ours."

And why humanscape? I use the word "human" because the only real base for reaching the "ours" is our common human being. It seems to be trite, almost trivial, as we have a lot in common with our different material and spirit environments. But I tend to refer more to the past being and less to the present being. Regarding the "human" part of "humanscape," I appeal to the most archaic, virtually imprinted points in our consciousness. From subconscious, hidden in the very first glance at the image to navigation toward the images imprinted in our consciousness. What are the concepts I am speaking about? I’ll specify two that are the most important for me.

Light. I think that the power of impression of lighting in visual space emanates from the light of Genesis. I don’t speak specifically about great effects like atmospheric phenomena, but about light in general, about all the nuances of gray that exist on the scale between white and black. I don’t talk about religious or physical aspects. I only try to understand why the vision power of light and shades is so touchable, so total. And I find no answer other than to relate it to imprinting light of Genesis.

Woman and Men. The Jewish tradition explains that the power of relationships between both of them is based on unconscious aspiration to inherent beings of Adam and Eva. Further, it speaks about "inbuilt" being: first, Adam even included both himself and Eva!

And at last, I’ll explain why I use the part "scape" in "humanscape." I need a scenery in the theater, to build enough spaces to remind people about the things everybody once knew. It also might serve for an escape from the present which stays between us and our remembrances …

Mia: In this image of a woman,, I noticed that her right arm/hand is largely disproportionate to her body and that it is not going in the right direction. I think this is an example of a montage of layering or superimposing one photo over another. Is this symbolic, and how so?

Nathan: Actually, almost everything in her body is not shown in the right position to cause the feeling that she is rather moving than staying. It is a good example of my attempts to make illusion of occurrence that has more then one time-dimension. As if it is superimposing of what has happened before a minute and is lasting now, and for sure is not stopped yet. For me, the word "image" means "imagination." As I’ve already mentioned, imagination (=illusion) of being in motion toward the other side (break of through) is a fundamental component of my mental imagery.

Mia: Let me just say that I am a huge fan of your work, Nathan. I could stare at these images all day and I always walk away with a different sense of what I have seen. Where are you exhibiting your work and where would like to see it go? Are there any plans for large exhibitions, galleries, museums?

Nathan: The question about the exhibitions is a rather painful question. Until now, I didn’t really present my works. Why? It is the result of a number of causes. First of all, as I’ve mentioned above, I started my artist activities in irregular and may be atypical way. I was and still am a nonprofessional artist. For me, it means that, despite the fact that I spend most time of my life dedicated to creating art, I have no time and reasons to care about the results of these activities. The process of creating images is so thoroughly magnetic that when I reach the end, I don’t have enough strength to push it further. Second, I don’t get involved in the "world of artists." In the time of Soviet past, there were reasons I’ve already talked about. However, now, in Israel, I have also other reasons. I don’t need to describe it to anyone, who is involved in "artist affairs." I think that I am not a unique example of this kind of artist. My past experience has taught me to live a double life. It causes pain, it is hard, but I am still living in the past. Then I thought it was an anomaly, now I think it is an anomaly too. But that is what I have and I hope it will change sometime in future. From time to time, I have an opportunity to present some works on the Web and the presentations on Tryst is a good example.

Mia: What is the average time you spend on each piece? How do you set aside that time and still make room for family?

Nathan: The principal phases in the process of creating images haven’t changed much when I’ve moved from the traditional print to digital manipulation.

Imagining a future image: The phase when I am thinking about the direction, in which I want to go. I don’t plan any details, but mostly it’s a type of vision mediation, when I try to evaluate in the intuitive way the possible interesting direction.

Shooting: In the past, I was surrounded by several creative friends, which were my permanent models and I didn’t miss any opportunity to set up shooting. We were young (or younger), full of creative energy, hopes, and vigor. Now I think that participation in different situations for shooting, sometimes in strange enough conditions, was mostly like creative way to challenge against oppressive atmosphere in those days.

Manipulation of images. Earlier, it was an entire printing process which included all the effects and methods I tried to develop to emphasize the directions that were created during shooting. Now all this has been moved toward digital manipulation.

Now about timing. Today I shoot less, doing it rather rarely. Since the large archive which I have from those days contains such a tremendous emotional potential for me, I can hardly find any new themes that I can compare with it. Today, most of my efforts I dedicate to combing the new feelings and emotions with my previous experience. I confess that it might be more eclectic than the direct navigation in those days. On the other hand, I feel happy and satisfied when I see the linkage between such different times. Furthermore, in many causes, I find inspiration for digital manipulation just from the very early negatives.

So the phase of "imagining of an image" now is the most important and long last part. I look through the archive of negatives; I touch the old prints, or simply concentrate on them, aiming to start imaginary navigation. Then I put aside less interesting and intriguing and choose more provoking which have the great potential to further creation. For the reason of the lack of time and facilities, I need to do it precisely. So when I feel that I am ready, I pick up the camera and spend a couple of hours, may be a half of the day shooting several films to finish what I need in order to start the image-making. In the past, I worked almost every night, making endless variation of prints. In general, it was one felicitous print for a couple of sessions. Now, when I don’t have an opportunity to spend on it night after night, I should prepare everything; finish the "imagining of an image." And when I have a chance to concentrate myself against the computer, I spend about 5-10 hours to complete the idea.

I am aware of the fact that the photographic process and computer manipulation process depend in a large degree on technical issues and might disturb the process of free creative work. So I console myself by the fact that the lack of time and facilities, as well as irregular shooting and printing (but regular thinking and imaging) might save me from pictorial routine?

It is painful and becoming more painful still. Actually, it’s such a crazy way of existence that I start relating to it as if it were normal, but everybody surrounding me still thinks that it isn’t.

Mia: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss that I haven’t touched upon or mentioned?

Nathan: Actually it’s the first time I have been speaking so much. It was very important for me to place the spots of light as the principal concepts of my creative process. And it is especially significant for me to make it for people, who have found my works important enough to peer in them, listening to me.

Mia: I only had one more question to add, and that is this: Is there a particular story, memory of Russia as a child that you'd like to share?

Nathan: A memory of Russia.... You give me an amazing task - to concentrate it into the one child’s story, to reflect in his eyes the whole-white-snow-world. I’ll try to do it. When I close my eyes looking through the thickness of years, I see the past like the roll of the overexposed b/w film, where the negatives are not contrast enough to be separated each from another to tell a single story. But when I apply one of my favorite effects of Photoshop the miracle comes true: on the one of them I see the child in a tram or a bus (may be in a car or train too) tightly pressing his nose and lips to the frosting windows. Till the ice crystals frosted the glass began to disappear, turning to a three rugged spots. And the outer world, noisy and colorful, starts to flow into the spots, until the ice crystals will cover the window again. The way to school, winter, unclear touch or may be unclear negative?