The Way Political Positions Turn into Form
A new epoch has come. The contemporary Russian art reached a new stage in its development. The signs of the new period are comprehensible and tangible: new galleries emerge, art prizes are founded, large periodical exhibitions are organized. These infrastructural changes are obvious, but it is not clear what kind of content should fill them. Technologies of scandal and mass-media provocations practiced in the time of actionism exhausted themselves long ago. Non-spectacular strategies have been acquired by the youth subculture and flash mobbers, so they have become boringly trivial for artists. The Russian artistic world is ruled by the quasi-esthetic of a stupid joke, idiotic amateur performances, irresponsible fun-making. Surely, this could not provide the basis for serious artistic work.
Painful Heritage of the 90s: Three Issues
Power has been the main stake for the artists of the 90s. The most famous artists of the decade were political revolutionaries in the exact sense of the word, art came second for them. The continuation of the XX century revolution project in the Russia of the 90s was almost exclusively associated with artists since no more or less large political party saw itself in connection with this project. Thus, political outlook has come to substitute esthetical distinction. The artists of the 90s which belonged to the previous generation differed mainly by leftist political preferences, esthetics came after that for them. No matter how microscopic was our revolutionary activity, it faced a number of unsolvable problems in the end.
The most important of them was in the following: by the end of the 90s it was clear that it was impossible to be both harmonious and efficient, and it was precisely the synthesis of these notions which formed the main Utopia of the political actionism in the 90s. A harmonious (efficient, heuristic) gesture is frequently not politically efficient. And, vice versa, a politically efficient work is always associated with the routine of political struggle comprising regular, repeated street actions, endless law suits, outreach efforts conducted among indifferent citizens, etc. We had success in avoiding this problem (artistically maneuvering between art and politics depending on the situation and passing one for the other) up to the moment when the life, freedom, health of the artist were in danger. For the true revolutionary activity, even when its political impact is miniscule, sooner or later draws the attention of law enforcement bodies. Thus, Deleuze’s Utopia of “queer resistance” which was the base point of the 90s was questioned by immediate practice.
The second issue is associated with the overcoming of the borderline separating life and art and with the consequences of this overcoming, with the deterritorialization of art (in Deleuze’s terms). Nobody doubted the progressive nature of destroying this borderline, moreover, every insignificant gesture was based on the absolute conviction that this borderline is conventional and hypocritical. Persistent attempts to cross it created the situation at last where a commonplace fight could be called a performance. Ethics was replaced with the substitute esthetics which justified any, even most outrageous, action. And the natural human indignation aroused by it was “packed” in the foil of quasi-esthetical speculations losing its critical power. Spontaneous manifestations of emotions (and life itself) were practically impossible in the art community of that sort. Frank violence which was justified beforehand bind together practically all dialogues.
And the third important point, at last. The esthetical discourse was practically totally eliminated. The esthetical goals, the system of values, esthetical criteria were replaced by cynical prattle concerning career growth, commercial success, clever management. The artist became, first and foremost, the organizer of his or her own career, and being a creative personality came after that. The decay of the political revolutionary project made Russian authors face the pragmatics of survival. A radical and irreversible renunciation of art was the underside of such survival. Nominally artistic activity of most “survivors” who are quite popular today presents a sad picture of their total esthetical degradation.
But the defeated (abortive) revolution finds a different manifestation. Here one should understand (and re-create anew) the methods of transforming the political project into an esthetical one. It should be remembered that the American Abstract Expressionism was interpreted by the critics of its time precisely as the phantasm of a revolution, the revolution which could exist only in imagination and was unable to realize itself in immediate social reality. Naturally, an adequate esthetical form can also be found for the revolutionary project of the 90s.
Recent Past: 2001-2004. Period of Gradual Transition
In the Russian context the esthetical transformation of the revolutionary project of the 90s began with the exhibition titled Subject and Power (Lyrical Voice) (curated by Roger Buergel) at the Art Moscow art fair in 2001. It was an extremely sophisticated curatorial work (1) which remained practically unnoticed by most participants of the Moscow art milieu. At this show I displayed a thoroughly painted white panel titled Condition of Walls Critique. At the same period some of my friends and myself realized a program of non-spectacular performances (2). At that moment non-spectacular art was regarded as a way out of the political impasse. It retained in itself both the esthetical gesture and elements of political performance. Yet non-spectacular art was nothing but the last emanation of the political project of the 90s. The mass-media scandal accompanying actions of the previous period was replaced by the principle avoidance of any contacts with representatives of mass-media. This avoidance immediately became extremely popular. Its popularity was so great that even the jaw-breaking word “non-spectacularity” was victimized by journalistic chatter. One cannot say that non-spectacular art gave nothing to the achievement of its main goal – re-creation of the Moscow esthetical context – but all its achievements were accidental rather than consciously planned. And this esthetical practice retained deterritorialization of art, one of the main vices of the 90s.
A second important milestone for me was the work I planned in connection with The Horizons of Reality show in the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (curated by Bart De Baere, Viktor Missiano). There I presented my own slogans and aphorisms most of which were composed during the implementation of the Mailradek project in 1996-1998. They were posted on walls in ordinary dust. Eventuality was the theme of that work together with spontaneity, ephemeral emergence of thought. The work turned out to be so successful that I repeated it many times changing only my statements. Then, at last, I displayed a “strip of dust” at the 2004 Art Moscow liberating this idea from any ideological content.
While all above-mentioned works were, in fact, by products of my work to achieve various artistic goals, this does not refer to the Art With No Excuse show at Moscow State Museum of Architecture conducted in May, 2004. This curatorial project which I realized in cooperation with Alexander Shumov was planned as a manifest of the new attitude to art. All the social, ideological, provocative and other meanings which are external to art were reduced to their minimum in it. The viewer was given a rare for the Moscow situation opportunity to participate in an esthetical event, to try and re-invent art anew. This was the first show where I displayed three art objects from my Beetles series on which I focused my efforts during the last eighteen months.
The true esthetic perception cannot be verbalized. There is nothing to understand in an esthetical artifact if you treat it with ultimate seriousness. All its explanations reveal certain approximation and insufficiency. Yet contemporary theoretical discourse uses an exquisite system of terms to create a false illusion of understanding art which, in its turn, begins to form the esthetical context. A huge number of artifacts appeared under the influence of this false understanding in recent years. One should be aware that the thought about art is not harmless, that it has considerable influence on the development and perception of art. At the same time it would be wrong to fully denounce the positive impact of the esthetical theory: knowing the limits of its use, theory can play the beneficial role of a catalyst of the esthetical process.
Below I shall try to provide my own version of an adequate description of my new works outside any connection with the real esthetical process (persistent linking to the mythological reality is another relic of the 90s).
In its theoretical explications any esthetical work can be divided into three components: method, form, content. Clarity makes method different from formal issues, while issues of the form proper are more complicated and are often understood by the author at the level of feelings. One should state at once that the implementation of an artistic method is not the achievement of these works. They rather reveal an attempt to avoid the domination of method which is so important for the XX century art (3).
All presented works imitate abstract (objectless) imagery. The discussion of Abstractionism (4) which I provoked is not quite correct since these objects (sculptures) are not objectless in their base. Each of them has a concrete enough mimetic base fenced from immediate viewer’s recognition by technological painting. These works utilize various well-known Pop Art methods, such as formatting, series, simulation. Yet the use of these methods is exclusively instrumental since one of the main goals – to achieve the effect of abstract art – is not directly associated with the utilization of a certain method. Images seem to “hang” between the objective and abstract worlds.
Explication of formal esthetical goals is, perhaps, the most vulnerable spot of the Russian author. Formal achievements could find adequate assessment only inside the system of values shared by the artistic community. But this system disappeared long ago. The empty action, the zone of invisibility, the author personage and other esthetical categories which provided bearing points for several generations of Moscow conceptualists are known today only to rare experts in art science. A huge discursive “continent” sunk before our eyes. Surely, all these categories (and the system of values itself) were associated with the late Soviet regime and its specific intellectual atmosphere (5). The situation is further complicated by the fact that the theory of Moscow Conceptualism paid little attention to the material nature of pictorial art because Conceptualism is, first and foremost, in ideas, while it is precisely the materiality of an art object which, from my point of view, seems to be the most important aspect of pictorial art as such.
I mean here that it is necessary to re-invent the notion of an “artwork”, to describe its important parameters, to follow all the stages of its emergence from the idea to commercial use. This task clearly runs counter to the non-spectacular trend which was popular among experimenting artists as recently as a year ago. Yet non-spectacularity also provides something. First of all, the works I presented are difficult to photograph and to publish in mass-media. The genre of the relief sculpture on walls is the worst as far as reproduction of mass-media copies is concerned. It is not a circular (full-fledged) sculpture where one could look for the most effective point of view and perspective, not a flat picture implying obvious methods of reproduction. The sculpture on the wall seems to partially “hide itself” in the wall. It is difficult to choose a correct point of view, first and foremost, for the simple fact that the wall is a constituting part of the artwork. Such works are hard to perceive in reproductions, they require a physical presence of the viewer at the show. The immediate presence of the viewer at the show is one of the main sociological conditions for the perception of pictorial art which gives it an extremely important halo effect, dictates its specific form. This form is made up of three equally important substances: the surface (not the depiction!); its material carrier; the wall (the floor) for its display (6). In all presented works (just as in “dust” ones) formal goals are born by the lack of balance between these three substances.
Eighteen months ago, when the cycle of these works was only planned, I believed that one should avoid content by any available means. At that moment this purely avant-garde Utopia seemed to be the most honest and consistent to me. Actually, the historical avant-garde strove to reduce the content of an artwork to its minimum, and one of the most popular methods of such minimalization was in the radical renunciation of an artwork. The Untitled label usually accompanies every truly avant-garde work. Yet today this pretence (renunciation of the content) looks quite naïve to me: any artistic work (from the worst kitsch to the hyper-ascetic avant-garde gesture) stays at the point of the maximum viewer’s attention which doubtlessly rapes the esthetical object investing it with a certain content. This fact cannot be ignored. Although the most sophisticated connoisseurs of pictorial art would find such a striving somewhat trivial, the traditional silence of the artist seems to be a bizarre eccentricity today.
When I opened the Art With No Excuse show this May and presented my new works (from the Beetles series) at it, I examined various viewers’ “interpretations” of them. An ordinary walnut provided a mimetic base for my works. The very first viewer cast a look on them in passing and immediately gave me an “adequate title”. Later I accumulated quite a lot of such “titles”. There were “brains”, “bicycle helmets”, “heads of Aliens” and even “burnt heads of terrorists” among them. Perhaps, such an uncontrolled production of content is one of the tasks of a true artwork, but one should not forget that the true avant-garde strove to ultimately narrow the viewers’ potential in this sphere.
It is absolutely obvious to me that any works, no matter how silent and formal they could be, would necessarily be invested with certain content. And here content is something that is in the mind and heart of almost every Russian, it is the Caucasian terrorism. This content is thrown over an artwork forcing a certain point of view upon the viewer. There is sowmething from public opinion, civil consensus in it. The creation of an atmosphere of a hidden, obscure danger and aggression (the content aspect of these works) could, perhaps, suppress all the other aspects (for mass-media at least). But one shouldn’t swallow this bait. It is necessary to realize that true art creates the time of its own and stays in the profound calm in respect to external events. The political aspect of art has never been in its content, its “message”. It fully stayed in the sphere of objectivity, materiality of an artwork. But this is a different issue.
1. Nameboards, for instance, carrying names of authors and titles of works, were glued to the floor in such a way that any viewer who was interested in it had to actually make a bow to it.
2. Basic publications on this topic include ArtChronika #2, 2003, pp. 48-57; Moscow Art Magazine #..., pp…; Iskusstvo #..., pp…
3. In the XX century the discovery (or rational conceptualization) of a new esthetical method often gave birth to a whole trend in art. The psychic automatism, for instance, was the main method of Surrealism, and seriality, increased formatting – of Pop Art, etc.
4. See the catalogue of the Art With No Excuse show. Moscow, 2004, pp. 14-76.
5. It does not necessarily mean that Conceptualism remained only in its period. On the contrary, perhaps, the art of Conceptualism is precisely that little thing which would provide the basis for the new esthetical theory.
6. This differentiation could fit many other works of contemporary art. Describing the meaning of the surface, of the material carrier and conditions of display doubtlessly presents a tremendous field of analytical activity.