Interview – Denis Forkas Kostromitin – Exploring Death Through Occultism And Art
When I came across the work of Russian artist Denis Forkas Kostromitin (1977, Kamyshin, Russia) something instantly ‘clicked’. His paintings and drawings took me to a place beyond time, a place different from this ordinary reality, but ever so familiar. His art radiates a unique language of symbolism and occult mysticism, which, so I’ve learned, are subjects close to his heart. I got in touch with Denis and asked him about his relationship with death, the connection between his dreams and the afterlife, and his fascination with dark historical accounts of divine revelations.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word “death”?
Denis: Mythology. Those fortunate of us who were not brought up in grief first stumbled across the threshold of death in fairy tales, heroic poems, religious parables and other mythological adaptations. I should think my early literary encounters inspired my philosophical inquiry when I grew older.
What are your own experiences with death?
Back in the days of my military service I looked death in the eye at least twice – in the fever of lobar pneumonia and in the hands of Dagestani bruisers after having been transferred to a ‘Muslim’ batallion in Novgorod. In both instances death appeared as a precious gift and I welcomed it. Of course it wasn’t granted to me so the ordeals essentially created an illusion of hell and death seemed so sweet because it promised the end of torment. You could say those were not experiences with death but rather experiences with the afterlife.
I have, indeed, lost a few relatives and close friends and my grief always brings forth this idea of a phantom limb sensation: you lose an integral part of yourself yet you are still attached to it emotionally, your imaginary interactions with the deceased are real and at odds with reason.
What are your beliefs on death and the afterlife?
For better or worse my philosophical hobbies have been doing a great job at keeping beliefs at bay. Afterlife as a subject entirely beyond intellectual analysis is a matter of ethical and aesthetical preference and speculation. So in order to discuss these things I’d have to first enter the domain of fantasy and conjecture. With that said, I’ll mention that I intuit a connection between my dream visions and the afterlife. This intuition is by definition something I could never verify or rationalize, so I guess it sums up my beliefs pretty well.
I never ‘die’ in a dream but I do often enter various hells and I reckon it is dream katabasis that inspires my ‘faith’. See, my dreams are like a lobby, a waiting hall for the descending hero; and the descent itself is always something I would describe as ‘religious experience’. To summarize, I do have beliefs after all but I’m not comfortable discussing them as they are but a flimsy scaffolding of odd mythological archetypes held together with finicky philosophy and poetry – not unlike the major world religions, apparently.
Trapped in the whims of Cartesian evil demon I think about death as a chance at transcendence – a chance we get to earn in the course of our life.
“Grief always brings forth this idea of a phantom limb sensation: you lose an integral part of yourself, yet you are still attached to it emotionally.”
Growing up in Russia, were you raised religious by your parents?
I wasn’t. I grew up in the Soviet Union and religious world views – even under the effects of perestroika – were still uncommon. My grandparents were both employed in the penitentiary system. Because of this they enjoyed some state privileges among which was the reservation of rare books. As a child I had access to the best Soviet editions – Greek and Norse mythology, Grimms’ fairy tales, museum art books, encyclopedias, etc. Through this I did have a bit of a metaphysical initiation, if you will.
Still it wasn’t until my university years that I discovered an article on the Memphite Theology. It describes the most complex concept of creation and the god Ptah, which ignited my interest in monotheistic religions. The Shabaka Stone offered me a dramatic new angle on the monotheistic principle and helped me understand Christian and Muslim symbolism better.
To what extend has Christianity influenced you as a person, and your ideas about existence?
Christianity is as good a tool at picking one’s mind as any – it is a matter of taste, cultural environment, bringing up, what have you. I believe that philosophy much like any other creative activity is not about tools but one’s ability to use them. Dante used Christian ideas to conjure his Divine Comedy; still the same tool was used by zealots and philistines to bring forth the Spanish Inquisition. As a professional artist and amateur poet I’m fascinated by Christian and Muslim allegories, their use of language and rich visual tradition. My problem is with the clergy.
Have you ever been in contact with a deceased person or experienced anything paranormal?
I think it is safe to say that most people come across inexplicable things at some point in life, with most of these encounters being assigned to childhood for obvious reasons. I’ve had my share of strange conflicts, like sleep paralysis and spectral conversations, but I think it is my memory of the events – not the encounters themselves – what scarred me.
I’ll give you a small example. As child I once ran into this monstrous species of a European beaver by the lake and it was so tall and graceful I fist thought it was a person. It stood upright – apparently it was gnawing at a tree trunk when I showed up at the clearing. It calmly turned its head toward me, nodded and I could swear it said something while I was still too shocked to process it properly. Now, did it all really happen and if it did – was the animal as large and anthropomorphic as I remember it to be? Maybe it was a person after all – some feral kid living in the woods; we used to hear stories like that at school all the time. Anyway, my point is it is not the facts that matter here – it is my twisted memory of the encounter and how that memory transformed me, my way of thinking and my art.
This is why I never discard people’s accounts of paranormal experiences. The unquenchable thirst for the occult distills memories into spiritual experiences, shapes our personal religions and I’m always eager to partake of these ‘mythological suppers’.
“My images are occult in the sense that they hide things I’ve stolen from the fire and reward those who find them. This way I engage in an exchange with my viewers, and without a doubt will continue to do so after I’m gone.”
You often make references to your dreams in relation to your art. How strongly do you feel a sense of inspiration and guidance from the astral plane?
I feel dreams and the afterlife are linked in some inexplicable fashion and my visions are, in fact, glimpses of conditions, which are opposed to life as we understand it. Thus you could say I’m haunted by spirits, and this haunting indeed infuses everything I do. Sometimes the visions come in surges, even while I’m awake. Burdened by their message I either hastily sketch them or I call my son – he is nineteen and does the same with his dreams, which seem to come from the same place as mine – and tell him everything down to the smallest detail so we can pick the scene apart afterwards.
Such morbid compulsion could be interpreted as me taking guidance from the plane for the lack of better explanation, I imagine. But what I am guided by and toward? I can only find one entry point for speculation here – the very same idea of perceiving dreams and the afterlife as related realms. Could it be an immensely prolonged dying, a slow transcendence with dream scenes overwhelming my perception little by little and eventually blocking the waking world from me altogether? Now that would be the ultimate katabasis!
Do you ever think about the body of work you will leave behind when you die, and how important is it to you to create this material legacy?
For the sake of clarity let us assume that we are finite entities – we assume that from the external knowledge of other people’s deaths and that is a shaky assumption at best. In that case our only hope of transcendence would be creating something in our lifetime that would contain a part of ourselves and ‘succeed’ us. This part of ourselves would change the known world according to our design and sometimes produce further artifacts inspired by the blueprint of our creation.
Now, if we assume instead that we have an immortal soul – an assumption every bit as shaky as the former one, of course – we wouldn’t need to create anything at all as we await our guaranteed transcendence.
Yet some people feel the irrational need to make art even without the promise of immortality. The Stone Age cavemen took great pains to render animals on cave ceilings while their clever and practical tribesmen used their nights to sleep, eat and mate. Most anthropologists define this urge as a form of dominance – a demonstration of unique skill as a means of acquiring power and authority but I doubt that was always the case. Yes, an artist needs his audience and I can easily imagine awestruck tribesmen marveling at buffalos and tigers rendered by their inspired friend or relative and him getting his kick out of it. Still there’s so much more to it – the sleepless nights of aesthetical intoxication, the colour and the rhythm – that plane separated from all social interactions, an intimate meditation on the patterns in the fire of one’s mind. I imagine this is how our ancient confreres invented symbols for the things that ignited their imagination and learned to hide those things within the symbols.
My images are occult in the sense that they hide things I’ve stolen from the fire and reward those who find them. This way I exchange with my viewers and without a doubt will continue to do so after I’m gone.
“You could say I’m haunted by spirits, and this haunting indeed infuses everything I do. Sometimes the visions come in surges, even while I’m awake.”
Throughout your research of alchemy and occult studies, what have been your most remarkable findings in relation to death and mortality?
As a dream hunter I’m naturally drawn towards historical accounts of divine revelations and prophecies, especially the medieval European ones as they use tricks of imagination not unlike yours truly. Visio Tnugdali is, of course, the most influential text of that period – the Irish knight’s grotesque visions inspired both Dante and Bosch and largely defined Christian iconography. I couldn’t resist its charms either and did a few studies of the tartaruchi and the damned. Still, there are many earlier manuscripts describing infernal and heavenly realms, which seem to rely on pagan understanding of the afterlife in one way or another. They reveal the fantastic anatomy of the Christian hereafter. The Revelation of St. Paul (circa IVth century AD), for example, features a rather sinister description of the ‘pit of Hell’ and it immediately brings to mind the image of the Greek Tartaros:
“When the well was opened, therefore, a hard and very evil stench immediately arose there out of it. It surpassed all the other torments; and I looked into the well and saw masses of fire burning on every side, and anguish, and the mouth of the pit was so narrow that it took only one in at a time. The angel turned and said to me, ‘if any are thrown into the well of the abyss, and it is sealed over them, there will never be any recollection made of them in the presence of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost or of the holy angels.’”
This enduring idea of an iron prison below the underworld resurfacing in various cultures – and the finality of the dungeon of Titans – is the most striking afterlife concept I have come across so far.
Are you afraid to die?
I’m not. Most likely thanks to my natural curiosity – but I’m afraid of my death wish, which kicks in now and then.
How do you envision your own funeral?
Quite frankly I don’t. I’ll probably end up with my muzzle printed on those “missing” leaflets – the ultimate katabasis, remember? To quote the infamous Hard Dying by Thomas Lovell Beddoes:
“…I will burst
Damnation’s iron egg, my tomb, and come
Half damned, ere they make lightning of my soul,
And creep into thy carcase as thou sleepest
Between two crimson fevers. I’ll dethrone
The empty skeleton, and be thy death,
A death of grinding madness. – Fear me now;
I am a devil, not a human soul.”