Elena Khurtova


“Truly nothing is sterile” 1

Clays of the North Sea’s kwelder and the Meuse’s riverbed flowing to each other; flowing from one to another - we to I to we.

“Critters are at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile. We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities.“ 2 Entangled with my imagination, Donna Haraways’ Terrapolis, as a chthonic under/world, her compost as a figuration of living and dying in a multispecies symbiosis, flow from inspiration into my process.

A handful of soil from Amsterdam and Hornhuizen, The Netherlands.

A handful from Samara, Russia.

A handful from Rustrel, France. 

A handful from Montperrin Psychiatric Hospital, within the middle of its’ terrain at the 3bisF Contemporary Art Centre. That's where I bring my soil. In my mother tongue, soil is female. How does she feel, separated from her original landscape, placed inside the residency studio, the former female patients’ isolation pavilion? 

By EU legislation, excavated soil is considered waste. All movements of excavated soils (contaminated and clean > 50m3) need to be reported to a national register. The national register informs the competent authority and the national environmental guard. 

In the Netherlands, a grondbank is an organization that regulates the logistics of soil flows released during excavation work, receives and classifies batches of soil on the basis of environmental hygiene quality in accordance with Soil Quality Decree.

4 trucks bring 45 tonnes of displaced soil to the garden of 3bisF. Clamshell grapple scoop rapidly moves tonne after tonne. Hot air blends with red soil particles. I welcome the soils. 

During two months of long lasting intimacy with soil, I touch, I turn, I re-turn, I rotate, I roll, I care. With my hands in the soil, I entangle, I feel …  It is meditative and yet exhausting. The red soil is amazing, the particles are so fine, I breathe them in.

In Meeting the Universe Halfway 3 Karen Barad states “All bodies, not merely “human” bodies, come to matter through the world’s iterative intra-activity—its performativity. This is true not only of the surface or contours of the body but also of the body in the fullness of its physicality, including the very “atoms” of its being. Bodies are not objects with inherent boundaries and properties; they are material-discursive phenomena. “Human” bodies are not inherently different from “nonhuman” ones.” 

As children we play with sand, dust, mud, we touch, we imagine, we understand the world first by sensing things with our mouth, then by touch. Between boredom and play we stay close to the ground for quite long. Starting from a handful of soil, I gently roll a sphere. 

First impressions of purposefully digging clay are from when I was about six years old: in the art classroom there is a very large bathtub, it is full of humid clay, a landscape. I put my hands into it and try to fetch large chunks. It is wet and cold. 

I like it, I don't like it …

I put my hands into a landscape but there are wires from old sculptures biting into my hands. It is ever-humid, I repeat it weekly. Lesson ends, clay chunks join clay landscape in bathtub. We didn’t fire.

There is a blue clay pit around Samara, it is a bold spot on the body of thick forest.Another dug out shape on the edge of a small forest used to be someone’s home – zemlianka. Although not very common, traces of such homes can still be found on the fringes of forests. 

I get enthusiastic, I go fast, first she is in my hands, and very quickly, I find myself rolling around her. The sphere is pretty big, while embracing her, I can’t reach my hands. I add another handful, something feels strange … she starts falling apart and I can’t bring her together anymore. Every particle matters. Time matters. She teaches me to take my time. I slow down, make it my practice. 

Dried balls on soil on the gallery floor

Displace exhibition, photograph by JeanChristophe Lett

I think of together-apart and diffracting described by Karen Barad as “cutting together-apart (one move) in the (re)configuring of spacetimemattering” 4. Employing the scientific process of diffraction, she rethinks the notion of difference. or her entanglements are not about unity. “They do not erase differences; on the contrary, entanglings entail differentiatings”. 5

Space also matters: external landscapes become internal, we cont-roll, we care. A rolled up piece of paper creates a register. Cont-roll comes from a medieval method of checking accounts by a duplicate register: from Latin contra “against” and rotulus, rota “wheel”. Without rolling, spheres don't grow, gravity pulls them down too fast. I keep rolling. 

Dried out soil in the shape of balls of varying sizes on the floor of the gallery

Displace exhibition, photograph by JeanChristophe Lett

Legislation controls soil displacement and remediation - process of soil healing, curing, repairing. All focusing on removing contaminated parts, soil remediation techniques include:

  • Soil washing: separating different constituent parts, gravels, sands and other fines, with the majority of contaminants usually found in the fines. 

  • Thermal desorption uses heat to remove, most commonly hydrocarbon, contaminants  

  • Containment: whenever contaminated materials are to be buried or left in place at a site. 

  • Stabilisation: adding immobilising agents reduces contaminants’ leachability and bioavailability. 

  • Soil vapour extraction induces gas flow through the subsurface, collecting contaminated vapour

  • Vitrification uses heat to melt contaminated soil to produce an inert glass product. 

  • Bioremediation: a biological degrading processes where microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi use the contaminants as a nutrient 

Contaminant comes from Latin contaminare - to deteriorate by mingling, originally - to touch together, blend, mingle, corrupt. Contaminated by touch, cared for by touch. Every bit of soil is cont-rolled, is cared for. 

I keep rolling. Yellow soil of max 20 mm grain is 40% enriched with compost and complies to the mandatory quality standard NFU 44-095 and the EU End-of-Waste criteria. It sticks less good. I keep rolling, trying to entangle its particles and pieces together: 60% NFU 44-551 & 40% NFU 44-095, clay, sand and compost. I dig out a half sphere in the white lime soil of the garden of 3bisF, spread two layers of Montperrin hospital bed sheets. I turn the soil with my hands, over and over, I bundle. I keep it together. 

Many keys to many doors, every one of them got to be closed. “When you open the gate, be careful, wasps live in the lock.” I push my key in the slot and immediately pull my hand back. Too late. Trying to suck the venom out of my finger, I doubt it works. How could I forget? The garden is full of wasps, lots of them hover around the same mysterious spot – a small opening into the under/ground. Alike, I drift from one soil heap to another, guided by the shadow. “Staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all.” I hear Donna Haraway’s words. 6 There will be more stings, yet we are together in this everyday intimacy. 

Zooming in on communication between bees, orchids and Darwin, the essay of Carla Hustak & Natasha Mayer - Involutionary Momentum 7 - demonstrates interdependence of seemingly unrelated lifeforms. The authors’ formulation of involution favors a coevolution of organisms that act not on competitive ground but on affective relations. In the process of becoming with soil, the underground of the wasps merges with my ground: we are busy at work together, with hands in the soil, kneading it endlessly.

1 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble_ Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016, p 64 

2  Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble_ Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016, p 97

3 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke University Press, 2007

4 Karen Barad, Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart, 2014, Parallax, 20:3, p 168 

5 Karen Barad, Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart, 2014, Parallax, 20:3, p 176 

6 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble_ Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016, p 4

7 Carla Hustak and Natasha Myers, Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters, 2012, differences 23, no.3 

Elena Khurtova (born in Samara, RU), is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Amsterdam, NL. Reflecting on the interplay of fragility and resilience of human and environmental conditions, Khurtova’s work investigates notions of care and control. Through sensitive performativity, she looks for a primaeval understanding of the world around us; lead by an intuitive interaction with matter wherein she does not stand on the world but strives for an interaction from within. In her work, Khurtova aims to become an insider to worldly processes, building poetic relationships with concrete and fluid materials and mapping the transience between human and nonhuman agencies. By doing so, she detours the Western origins of domination, speaking of a world, wherein one only knows something through an eloquent process of self-discovery.