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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Artist Turns Market Scrap Into Piece of History

He buried it under the ice in Patriarch's Ponds, illuminated it and asked the public to skate over it. He photographed it from a million different angles, displayed it and drew diagrams of it in magazines in the hope that someone might identify it.

But no one ever guessed the real identity of the miniature gem that artist and photographer Ignat Daniltsev picked up off the ground eight years ago at the Tishinsky flea market in Moscow. Measuring 3 centimeters by 2, it traps within two bits of plastic a glimmering object that could be a flower, a sun or a star. It became known as the sekretik, a reference to the Russian children's game of discovering objects buried under sand.

Now artist Ignat Daniltsev has finally made his secret public with his current and perhaps final work based around the tiny artifact. The object, as becomes clear at the "Figura" exhibit at TV Galereya, is nothing other than a chess pawn. It is the handicraft of prisoners, a remnant of gulag culture, secretly chiselled in a factory out of raw materials leftover from whatever it was the prisoners were supposed to be making.

Daniltsev himself has known this since 1994 when he saw pictures in the magazine Chelovek i Zakon of similar artifacts kept hidden at the MVD museum. But instead of revealing his secret, he continued teasing the public, carrying out a survey in which he asked hundreds of people the answers to the questions he once asked in vain of the lady selling bits of junk at Tishinsky: What is it and where does it come from?

Why is it that no one ever discovered the object's true identity or, more importantly, its place of origin, is the subject of Daniltsev's current exhibit.

In the main room of the gallery the pawn is placed in a small cabinet above a giant wooden chessboard made by the artist. Alternate squares are painted with illustrations of some of the answers friends and strangers gave to his survey: For some it was a miniature model of a tombstone, for others a miniature icon or an object for meditation. The viewer is invited to walk over the squares "mimicking the forward step-by-step motion of a pawn," as Daniltsev put it. This motion pushes the viewer to an understanding of the object's real identity just as he observes the more or less fanciful guesses of others.

Exhibit curator Alexander Panov had his explanation as to why the object's identity is so crucial: "For me, the inability of people to identify the object is a sign of the processes of unconscious repression."

Russians, Panov says, don't want to be reminded of anything to do with the zona, or prison camp, loaded as it is with the notion of the gulag.

Daniltsev is quick to elaborate on the theory. "This is undoubtedly true. So many zona trinkets have been lying around since perestroika that only the very youngest generation today doesn't see or recognize them." There is a collective need, Daniltsev says, to feign ignorance in the same way that people "love and listen to [bard Vladimir] Vysotsky without acknowledging to themselves that his hoarse voice imitates the voice of a prisoner from the gulag."

The chessboard at the exhibit works as an exact metaphor for this kind of self-deception, or "defense mechanism" as Daniltsev calls it: The fictions people invent are thus trapped in the 64 squares that the object was really made for.

Some of the guesses really do seem to come from the realm of the fantastic. One person told Daniltsev the artifact reminded him of a kitchen board for flies to be chopped on. Curiously, of all the people Daniltsev asked, it was an alcoholic psychiatrist who came closest to guessing: He said it might be part of a gadget for boiling water - the kind of gadget needed in prison.

For prominent art critic Fyodor Romer, the pawn has acquired the significance of an entire people, a metaphor for the Soviet citizen, "a hostage in the state's game," as he writes in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibit.

Daniltsev himself talks of his acquaintance with the object and all it signifies as a kind of awakening. "For me, this was a way of getting to understand my country and my own link with it, all that which I had not admitted to myself for the first 30 years of my life."

This installation is likely the culmination of Daniltsev's obsession with this miniature symbol. He seems weary of a project that has clearly drained him of so much emotional and intellectual energy. He says he would like to be done with it, but that new discoveries and eerie coincidences keep surprising him and renewing his fascination.

He cites a recent event as an example. When Daniltsev asked his wife what she thought it was, she said it was a podarok dlya damy, or a "present for a lady."

"She meant it literally," Daniltsev says. "But only the other day a chess-playing friend told me that this was also a chess term. It's what happens when a pawn becomes a queen."

"Figura," a joint project by Velta Gallery and TV Galereya, runs until March 30 at the Art Media Center TV Galereya at 6 Bolshaya Yakimanka Ulitsa. Tel. 238-0269. Open from noon to 6 p.m. Closed Sun. and Mon. Nearest Metro: Polyanka.