Elegy for Lyosha (and others)

July 2, 2021

Emergent Pandemic Strategies among Disabled Adults in Long Term Care

An elegy for one disabled artist’s death from COVID-19 in Russia, as others seek alternatives to institutionalization.

In July 2020, Alexei Dymdymarchenko, Lyosha or Dym-Dym to his friends, an artist whose work I had been following, died of complications from the COVID-19 virus in St. Petersburg, Russia. His death, devastating for his community, is too easily characterized as one death among many stalking adults living in long-term care facilities. The pandemic has accelerated the slow emergency of disability incarceration affecting communities across the world. Anthropologists in Russia studying the question of deinstitutionalization are finding that the pandemic has shifted the possibilities for redesigning social care in postsocialism.

I learned of Dymdymarchenko’s artwork when I wrote to Sasha Ivanov, a curator and art studio manager in St. Petersburg, asking for samples of works by artists with disabilities for a gallery show in Toronto. I was immediately taken with Dymdymarchenko’s works. Untitled, they are typically an amalgam of seemingly random marks on the blank rectangles or European standard printer paper sizes. Ivanov described the work as “somewhere between sound art and performative practice” in a write-up for the international media art festival CYFEST, where the works were exhibited. Dymdymarchenko created each work by taking a bin of pastels (or crayons) and dumping it out over the paper, repeatedly, ceremoniously, as a tactile, gestural, and auditory process. In this way, each paper is a trace left over from a ritual sound performance, evidence of the repeated sound: the rush of small objects falling onto paper on a wooden tabletop. Dymdymarchenko himself was minimally verbal, and Ivanov typically represents him and other artists in the studio to the broader public. The studio itself is a program run by a nonprofit organization and housed in a small annex connected to a residential institution (called an internat in Russian) for adults with neurological and psychiatric disabilities near St. Petersburg.

I reached Ivanov via video chat for an interview about Dymdymarchenko’s passing and the broader impact of the pandemic on the studio community. Ivanov looked down for a moment, gathering his thoughts before describing Dymdymarchenko to me. He was, Ivanov recalled, light and willowy, tall and thin. He didn’t talk or hold conversations, but he had a unique kind of resolve and special focus and creative concentration in the studio that inspired others to consider their own work in new ways. He would sit quietly and turn the crayon bucket over, over and over again, with careful attention. […]

Read the rest of this article on the Anthropology New website.