Gordana Bezanov

Map of Two Rivers


Map of Two Rivers is presented as a video diptych and was completed on April 22, 2020. In each video, the artist Gordana Bezanov can be seen allowing two different shaped stones to fall to the wooden ‘ground’ inside of coiled up paper strips. The paper emits a soft sound as it unwinds, the stones make a louder sound as they ‘roll’ over wood inside of unravelling paper, the birds sing in the background where the performance takes place and there is possibly an airplane, or some sort of farm equipment at work that is present too. The piece is a multi-media performance that involves traditional materials like ink, water and the human body along with the newer media of video and sound. The ‘map’ was begun in Villnachern Switzerland, where Bezanov lives and works in a mountain home, developed further in Italy in a house the artist rented near Canova (MS) and was eventually completed outside her Swiss home.

Bezanov put together the website www.mapoftworivers.ch as both a way to permanently exhibit Map of Two Rivers and also give visitors a detailed understanding of the process that went into making the piece. What the viewer sees and hears throughout the process documentation is a strong focus on texture. So much so, that the artist asks viewers that visit the website to, “please use headphones for best experience”. It is clear, therefore, that Bezanov wants her viewers to also be listeners as a means to really hear the performance. Hearing the performance is an important way to ‘view’ the texture. Take the element of paper: when Bezanov allows the stones to be unraveled on her wooden deck one hears many sounds, but I’d like to begin by writing about the sound of paper unfurling. There is something extremely tactile to the sound. It is inviting, and one wants to touch paper when viewing the two performances. What is perhaps confusing upon a first viewing is the paper itself. First, the strips are paper that she has cut to 1.5cm wide. Second, Bezanov describes the process as “an exercise in patience” as she puts the strips together end to end “to see how long I can do that”. Finally, she describes putting the paper strips together as “A lesson”. The lesson signifies that she is both teacher and pupil: that the creative act is one where experimentation leads to the teaching of oneself as a means to understand the possibilities and perhaps limits to an artistic process.

The mapping of the two rivers, thus, begins in the “studio”. In any case, it begins inside and not in the river.Importantly and before this moment there is also a communication between the artist and a friend in Iceland where she has to see an ancient Japanese map of a road[1]. The message additionally informs Bezanov that the map is 20 books long and that there were no images of this map of a road. The artist is forced to attempt to ‘imagine’ what a map like this could look like. She then imagines a way to ‘map’ the flow of a stream with her paper strip along the bank as a way of ‘mapping its contours’.Needless to say, none of it works out exactly as planned in her head when she actually goes to do the actual artwork in the stream. The flow of the water itself forces her to follow its lead and the beginning of her first mapping of the river has begun.

The video of this first stream shows the artist at work in the water. Painting the strip with %100 natural ink that doesn’t harm the environment. No need to bring your water to dip the brush in when the stream itself can dilute the ink and wet the paper. Here the artist is in nature and also pulling the viewer into nature. The video documentation emphasizes this drawing process and demonstrates how Bezanov is both drawing on-site and performing. I would go as far as to say that at this point drawing is almost always performance for her. Of course, there are times when she draws for the sake of drawing, but there is most oftentimes an act of drawing. The video documentation emphasizes the importance of the performance.If the act of drawing were not important, then the artist could very well –exclusively - exhibit the drawing strip on a wall in a gallery. But if she did that, her process would resemble the plein air painter who goes out, paints a landscape and exhibits the work. As it stands, her process is not like that -  drawing is not the motivation for engaging in the creative process. What is rather more important, is the way specific methodologies of making art occur – like drawing – when Bezanov puts an idea into motion.

Needless to say, she can and might exhibit the drawing on a wall, but what is crucial is to view the act of drawing as part of the mapping. Perhaps even more simply put, her process resembles what people in the ancient past did – and children still do – when they measured in feet by using their own feet. The drawing process she is engaging in is similar to this type of measuring. She is not interested in other people understanding the map in a conventional way to measure distance, but rather to gain a better understanding of the stream and how it moves. I’ll go even further and say she’s trying to gain an understanding of what stream means. We call this water moving over the land a “stream” and we learn that as children. We quickly assimilate that word and use it for the rest of our lives as if we’ve truly understood the essence of the stream, simply because we learned the word at a remarkably young age.

Bezanov is going back to both the word stream and the idea of stream as an attempt to understand the meaning of stream through her artistic process. First Stream is, therefore, the initial attempt in her process to understand better what water moving over land really signifies. The strip she draws on while in the water is a trace of her movements that have been influenced by the water’s movement. Claude Monet is the world’s most famous painter of the visual effects of moving water. Paul Cézanne called Monet “only an eye” but famously added “but my God, what an eye!” Bezanov is not interested in capturing the way water moves over land through ink for the viewer to enjoy. She wants to map the water in a particular spot in her way because she is curious and also inspired to do so – she is again giving herself “A Lesson”.

In the process documentation titled Second River, Bezanov simply states “Today, at the river, the Map reached the end of the paper strip”. This comment is not followed up with another statement to the effect that she went and made more paper strips. There appears to be no intention of going back into the studio to make more strips because the river is longer. Equally intriguing are the documentation photos of her ‘mapping’ the river with the strip that is not taut. She places the strip on some vegetation near the river, in the river, and on a stone. Is Bezanov being precise or is she not being precise with her system of measurement? The viewer doesn’t really know. But what we do know is that she isn’t replicating the way most people in the world use a tape measure – to be as straight as possible as a means to obtain the most accurate measurement. Here there are no straight lines: only bends and curves in the strip. I can’t help but think Bezanov is saying that this is a much more accurate way to map something. It’s even tempting to think she’s snubbing her nose at all the order and rigidity we use to measure nature. Is she opposed to such ordered measuring? Is she saying we don’t need it?

I don’t actually know the answer to my two questions. But what I do believe, is that she is not engaging in this process in a reactionary way. She’s not going out into nature and ‘mapping’ the river to show everyone they should do it her way. I believe it goes back to my point about her interest in having a better understanding of what a river or stream is. And knowing how long it is in kilometers just isn’t good enough a tool. Importantly, the mapping is not about borders. Nor is it about showing the physical features of the river to demarcate it. What Bezanov does need, however, is art as a tool to engage in her mapping process. So she utilizes drawing and new ways of measuring (drawing strips coiled over stones) to gain a personal understanding of the river. That’s an aspect of her process. Another aspect is time and what I’ll call personal length. She elaborates on these two aspects by writing about them in this format:

It takes

7 minutes

and 20 seconds

to walk the length of the

Map of Two Rivers


Over grass, gravel, and earth.

227 of my footsteps, heel totoe.

I quote Bezanov in her words and format to give the reader a sense of her attitude towards the Map of TwoRivers as a whole – a zooming out from the details of texture I wrote about previously.

There are two sections regarding the process of Map of Two Rivers titled Sound Enters and FirstUnfolding that provide useful information regarding the final version of Map ofTwo Rivers. Sound Enters took place on October 9th, 2019 and FirstUnfolding on November 20th, 2019. Sound Enters is crucial as it was the day when Bezanov realized that coiling the paper around a stone was abetter way to keep it together and carry the paper strip than her previous method of using roots to tie it. She then asks herself an important question“now that the ink and water work is finished on this project, how is it actually going to unfold?”. She then goes on to state that this is how sound enters into the larger work Map of Two Rivers. Video documentation is provided of this process. And what is curious is how different the sound is of the uncoiling strip and stone on an Italian stone surface rather than on a Swiss wooden surface. On November 20th, 2019 the artist lets the visitor know that her nephew was born on this day and goes on to state that “if one stone sings a song as the Map unfolds, what would two stones have to say?”Fundamentally, then, the process videos provide clarity for the visitor interested in knowing more about what ‘mapping’ means to her.

It’s worth going back to the final version of Map of Two Rivers, in any case, to rethink the map without all the documentation. Because here one only sees the video diptych and no actual river – a visitor effectively sees a ‘map’. Just like when we see maps of roads we are not always on the actual road. There is an abstract element to the map, and it becomes a concept that we ‘read’. The primary difference between reading a road map and ‘reading’ Bezanov’s Map of Two Rivers is that we are more familiar with road maps. We accept it as “natural” as it were. Bezanov’s work, on the other hand, is not easily read and takes time to decipher. It is both an artwork and a map that invites the viewer to ask questions about what we think we know. The term map, therefore, is important as an indication, yet simultaneously slippery, as a viewer can’t necessarily rely on a common understanding of what a map is. ‘Map’ is more helpful as a term as it calls into question the very definition of the term. Nonetheless, I would suggest that both map and ‘map’ need to be thought of when watching the diptych. The word in parenthesis allows the viewer plenty of room to interpret the word inits more familiar form, which in turn can open a space in the viewer’s imagination while looking at the piece as art.

At this point, I’d like to make a reference to the afterward of a version of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s essay on Japanese aesthetics In Praise of Shadows that I own. Specifically, the reference is to Thomas J. Harper telling the story (as told by the writer’s wife) of an architect who had read In Praise of Shadows and his encounter with Tanizaki. Harper writes, “The architect arrived and announced with pride, “I’ve read your In Praise ofShadows, Mr. Tanizaki, and know exactly what you want.” To which Tanizaki replied, “But no, I could never live in a house like that.” Harper adds,“There is as much resignation as humor in his answer.”[2]I like this story because it demonstrates very clearly what artistic license really means in a concrete way. Tanizaki writes an essay praising Japanese aesthetic architectural traditions and their relationship to shadows as opposed to the well-lit modern movement of Western progress and technology. Then, an enthusiastic architect pitches Tanizaki’s apparent dream house to him, and the writer quickly says he couldn’t live in a house like that. It’s a contradiction, and if you’ve read In Praise of Shadows, it’s actually quite a shocking statement. Fundamentally, because a reader assumes that a man who wrote an essay dedicated to traditional Japanese aesthetics, such as Tanizaki wrote, would enter into a deep conversation with the architect about how best to build a traditional Japanese home.

I bring up the story, because I could also imagine Bezanov not being impressed with a mapmaker using her methodology to, say, map a tree or perhaps a mountain. She might be horrified by such a person wanting to use her methodology in Map of Two Rivers. The point I’m making, is that artists make art to get us thinking about the conditions of the environment we live in. Tanizaki wrote an homage to shadows and traditional Japanese aesthetics to help people understand what Western technology changed in his culture. He was inviting people to really look at the world in which they lived in by pointing out what they had lost. Likewise, Bezanov created Map of Two Rivers to get us to notice the river and to better understand its presence. I would add that she made it so that we notice more. A good artist helps us to see better through her work, and I believe a significant achievement of Map of Two Rivers is how Bezanov both heightens our sense of awareness in relation to rivers or nature; and simultaneously invites us to be more cognizant of our immediate surroundings in order to fully comprehend life’s infinite possibilities as they unfold before our very eyes.

[1] (Nakasando Way, featured in “Joanna Lumley’s Japan” (2016) episode 2)

[2] Jun’ichirō Tanizaki In Praise of Shadows trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (Leete’s Island Books 1977), 48

Text  © Andrew Smaldone, 2021

Still from Map of Two Rivers, 2020 © The Red Earth Society, Gordana Bezanov

Still from Map of Two Rivers, 2020 © The Red Earth Society, Gordana Bezanov