I used to hitchhike in Russia and other countries, sometimes alone or with my friends, and catch rides with truck drivers at night. I think I had a lot of trust in the Universe back then.
One time, we caught a ride with a truck driver and he told us this story. It was about how he’d picked someone up and they rode together for twenty four hours. Toward the end of the trip, the hitchhiker confessed that he’d just escaped from prison and his plan had been to stop a car on the road, kill the driver and take the car to see his girlfriend.
But, over the course of the ride, these two built a relationship and the hitchhiker changed his mind. By the end of the trip, they came to appreciate one another. I doubt if it’s always like this in life, but that instilled in me a deep sense of trust. I still sort of feel like everything will work out if I’m an honest and noble person.
I was born in Russia in 1984. My parents were students in chemical engineering. Life back then in the Soviet Union wasn’t stable at all, but we had a family apartment on the outskirts of Moscow that was a very fixed point for me. When you spend your entire childhood in one home, you have this sense you can always go back. It’s strange to grow up and realize life’s not like that.
So much was happening when I was growing up in Moscow. There was the collapse of the Soviet Union, two putsches, and then the entire system changed. It was really a crazy time, people went in all different directions. I was a very introverted kid, but as a teenager I was a real mischief maker. I spent my time hanging out with friends, drinking and smoking. By the time I was fifteen I thought I’d experienced it all, so I decided to join a military club called, the Young Paratrooper.
Military camp in Russia was my first spiritual experience, it made me question the possibilities of the human body and consciousness. We were all pushing our boundaries to do impossible things. There were these times we’d walk for twenty four hours through the woods crossing rivers, getting lost, not sleeping. Naturally, we’d start hallucinating. At a certain point we all shared the fact that we were each seeing things in the woods that were actually not there. It was a very strange experience, it made me think differently.
I left military camp when I started University in Russia, but I did go back a couple of years ago to do a documentary project. It felt like coming home. All the camp leaders were still there, the training was in exactly the same spots, and since my parents live in Germany and I can’t go back to my family apartment, visiting the camp really was like a homecoming for me. This return was very controversial, scary and relieving at the same time.
In Russia, I studied mathematics and cybernetics. In the Netherlands, I did my doctorate in mathematics and computer science. But when I finished my PhD, I decided to work independently as an artist. That was a huge risk because the arts are less funded than the sciences. There’s less regulation though, so working in contemporary art allows for more crossovers between disciplines, that’s very important to me.
My artistic work sometimes looks scientific. It’s an organizing practice, but it also cultivates an interesting dynamic where histories and even fetishes begin to look scientific. One of the projects I’ve done for many years is a study of edible soils and how they exist across cultures. I started the project in 2011 and continued in 2013 with an artist residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam.
I myself have, since childhood, had an obsession with eating soil. My mother tells this story of how I used to eat sand as a kid. Growing up I wondered why we didn’t grind bricks into a powder we could eat. Later at University, I developed this strong urge to eat chalk, so I started a project about soil eating. Nowadays, I collect different types of earth, which are consumed orally, and bring their cultural origins into the studio. I hold workshops where people can learn about edible earth and try eating soil themselves. I have an event coming up at The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS-KNAW) and OBA Bijlmerplein (nias.knaw.nl/eating-earth).
Another project I was involved with recently is connected to the Mayan Calendar. It merges a scientific approach with spirituality through arts with the underlying goal of creating an emancipatory practice for a community whose traditions have been historically persecuted. As I learned from my friends and colleagues in Guatemala, Mayans have experienced genocide, cultural exclusion and the labeling of Mayan traditions as witchcraft. In collaboration with Branly López (Maya K’iche from Xela, Guatemala) we created a workshop that reinterprets the Mayan calendar through mathematical functions. In approaching the calendar as a scientific system, we were able to bring the calendar into the classroom and the university making a step towards the integration of the Mayan mathematics into the local education.
One of the goals in my work is to inspire people through art as a combination of culture and science. I’m looking for an alternative way of thinking about spirituality. In general, I don’t usually know what I’m going to do at the onset. I like to travel to a place, engage with communities, experiment and come up with ideas when I’m there. It’s a very freeing practice, but at the same time fear stops me from doing things.
I fear touching on something sacred in my work. I fear that my practice could be able to harm someone. At the same time, I want art to move energy and that means taking risks.
Interview with Masha Ru