Melancholic Collective Action
By Maria Lind
A group of young people are gathered in a small white room. They stand close to one another, like a troop of marching soldiers or a group of protestors, pre-COVID-19. In the front row, some hold red flags rolled up on heavy poles; others just stand there. All of them wear simple undergarments, mostly covering their bodies, and they lean forward, sometimes resting on each other. Their physical presence is palpable.
Suddenly they start to move forward, slowly, and those in the front row bend down, as if bowing. They tread upon the lower hems of the flags. The same movements are repeated again and again. The camera follows their gradual advance, keeping steady focus on the collective body, interspersing overviews with close-ups of feet and faces. The image appears bleached out, as if there is too much light to absorb. It is silent, apart from the sound of bare feet and the flagpoles touching the floor. An air of hushed patience envelops the unit as it moves ahead, step by step.
Who are these people, and what are they doing? Their movements look both like a slow effort toward a goal, and an eternal preparation. But for what? Once they reach the wall in front of them, the video ends. We might look to the “arable land” in the title for a clue. The land is not only being stepped on but also trampled, flattened. Perhaps disregarded and made unusable? The beginning of sedentary human civilization, when we began to cultivate plants and domesticate animals, also marks the end of the Holocene—an epoch when the land, the earth, was dominated and abused, and millions of people with it, to the point that the geology and ecosystems changed, bringing us into the current era: the Anthropocene.
The procession of young people in the film struggles forward, making slow progress. Their efforts appear at once archaic and futuristic. Art history offers some iconographic references: for example, Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers (1873), in which a group of destitutes drags a barge up the Volga River using shear physical power; and The Angelus (1857–1859), by Jean-François Millet. In the latter, two peasants, a man and a woman, pause while toiling on the land to recite the evening prayer, concluding the day’s work. In all of these, bodies perform labor, whether on arable land or not.
Then there are the many heroic Soviet monuments that depict soldiers marching ahead, and of course, the gigantic sculpture Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, from the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, forcefully striding toward the future. In comparison, To Trample Down An Arable Land is certainly not heroic. But it retains a sense of collective action—melancholic collective action, with all feet firmly on the ground.