Books

Nothing Happens

Collective Actions Group, Action 16: Ten Appearances, February 1, 1981, 1981, gelatin silver print on paper mounted on cardboard, 38 1/16 × 38 1/4". Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Photo: Peter Jacobs.

ELEMENTARY POETRY, BY ANDREI MONASTYRSKI, translated by Brian Droitcour and Yelena Kalinsky. Preface by Boris Groys. Ugly Duckling Presse and Soberscove Press, 2019. 328 pages.

ON FEBRUARY 1, 1981, a group of ten artists trekked off into the snowy woods outside Moscow. When they reached a clearing, they huddled around a wooden board studded with ten spools of white thread. Each participant—Ilya Kabakov, Oleg Vassiliev, and Yuri Albert among them—was instructed to take up the loose end of his or her thread and walk two hundred to three hundred meters into the forest, until they could no longer see the others or the field. The thread was not attached to the spool; once participants sensed that their thread had been fully unraveled, they gathered up the slack until they reached the opposite end, which was tied to a small scrap of paper bearing the particulars of the piece, including its title: Ten Appearances. At this point, the central action was completed, leaving participants stranded in the woods in a shared isolation.

Ten Appearances was part of “Trips out of Town,” a wider program of events (or sometimes, nonevents) conducted by the Moscow-based artist group, Kollektivnye Deistvye (“Collective Actions”). Heavily influenced by cofounder Andrei Monastyrski—his pseudonym tellingly means “monastic”—and his thoughts on the productive potential of emptiness, the group coalesced in 1976, during the Soviet Union’s “period of developed socialism,” a stretch less generously but more generally dubbed the “Era of Stagnation” for its debilitating bureaucracy. In the absence of a unifying figurehead (à la Lenin or Stalin), the Communist Party was forced to caulk its ideological power void with the rhetoric of officialdom. In a paper trail performance of a functioning state, the government announced its authority through myriad documents, declarations, and spravki, all rigorously structured but often, ultimately, meaningless. Collective Actions formed as part of the swell of Moscow Conceptualism, a movement that would appropriate this language to reveal its emptiness, effectively gnawing away the semiotic table legs of 1970s Soviet society. The “Trips out of Town” were specifically sited in the undeveloped countryside, in spaces that were nominally governed by Soviet power, but clear of any markers, measures, or mediators of that authority. In other words, quiet. In keeping with that silence, actions would be slight (occasionally even unnoticed by their audience) and deliberately ambiguous in intention. In her reading of the group, “Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art,” Claire Bishop observed that the collective diverged from the happenings of, say, Allan Kaprow, “by aiming to produce situations in which participants had no idea what was going to happen, to the point where they sometimes found it difficult to know if they had in fact experienced an action.”

Collective Actions Group, Action 16: Ten Appearances, February 1, 1981, 1981, gelatin silver print on paper mounted on cardboard, 38 1/16 × 38 1/4". Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Photo: Peter Jacobs.

In the documentation of Ten Appearances, Monastyrski and the other organizers note that eight of the artists eventually made their way back to the field, where they were each summarily presented with a photograph of a far-off figure emerging from the same section of the woods into which that participant had just disappeared. The photos were labeled with the participant’s name and the details of the action, and had been staged sometime earlier, with the figures purposefully rendered inscrutable, so as to be easily mistakable for valid documentation of the performance. This “factographic” layer of the action immediately undermined the individual’s own memory of the experience, ensuring that there could never be one definitive interpretation of the event.

The past few weeks have thrown a different light on the peculiar estrangement that takes place within collective isolation. “Trips out of Town” afforded their organizers and participants a chance to explore who they were as individuals outside the confines of societal dictates; the isolation many of us find ourselves in now arguably serves more to reaffirm our place within the existing social order, as individuals committed to the greater good, even if that good comes at the expense of our own comfort (and, increasingly, sanity). Still, Collective Action’s ability to seize upon empty space and actively brainstorm new rules (and thus new worlds) merits closer consideration amid the ongoing pandemic, which has so relentlessly exposed and inflamed the deficiencies of current systems across the globe.

Just days before our quarantine set in, I received my copy of Elementary Poetry, a freshly translated selection of Monastyrski’s poems. Prior to Collective Actions, Monastyrski made the rounds as a dissident poet, and his writing would play a pivotal role within many of the “Trips out of Town.” Like his colleague Kabakov (who intended his albums to be read aloud for an audience), Monastyrski preferred his poems to be performed. Those that were published were formatted as artist’s books with limited circulation, and few have ever been available in English. This may owe to the posturing of the poet himself, who declared that Poetic World, a grouping of five poems from 1976, “exists not for reading, but for ‘being.’” If Ten Appearances took a central reference point (the spool of thread) and followed it to its very limits, then Monastyrski does a similar thing with language, starting with simple concrete objects and ideas and slowly unraveling them until they have lost their tie to a material reality.

Andrei Monastyrski, Elementary Poetry (2020, Ugly Duckling Presse).

Elementary Poetry is deftly rendered into English by Brian Droitcour and Yelena Kalinsky. A preface by Boris Groys—who, in 2011, curated the presentation of Monastyrski and Collective Actions for the Russian Pavilion of the Fifty-Fourth Venice Biennale—provides some of the history and context of Monastyrski’s broader practice, but the real insight can be found in the translators’ introduction, which walks the reader through the structure of each piece and the decisions, both visual and semantic, made in its presentation. This proves essential in instances like the selections from the book’s title series, “Elementary Poetry,” which vary dramatically in form and content but all share an interest in pushing the bounds of what a poem can be.

Monastyrski does not have a trademark style, as the translators admit. Reading him under the current conditions, you get the sense of watching someone tinkering in the quarantine kitchens of language, tweaking memorized recipes ingredient by ingredient based on whatever happens to be at hand. Elementary Poetry is full of visual elements, diagrams, and conceptual one-liners. Interspersed among the larger works are short “instruction” poems that describe simple experiments with household items: “Clouds,” 1973, entails rubbing together two empty antacid bottles; “Pile,” 1975, prompts an accumulation of random items on a wall-mounted plinth; while “Finger,” 1978, offers a kind of tiny, onanistic glory hole, directing the viewer’s index so that it points back at its owner in a moment of sheer corporal estrangement. Intended as an extension of the book’s title series, “Cap,” 1983, takes particular delight in its inscrutability. The piece labels the top of a nondescript newsboy cap with the words podnyat’ (“Lift”). Once the viewer has lifted the object, they are confronted with a second text—polozhit’ mozhno, ponyat’ nel’zya—translated here as “You can put it down, but you won’t get it.”

A similar warning might apply to the book: You can pick it up, but you won’t necessarily understand it. And yet the translators accept the limitations of their project with grace. Beyond Monastyrski’s frequent departures from traditional grammar, they must make do without the convenience of Russian suffixes as built-in rhyme schemes (“draughtsman” and “serenader” don’t deliver quite the tongue-twister of risoval’shchik and raspeval’shchik and “rest/pony” is no lezhi/loshadka). They must also endure a scrambling of syntax (Russian tends to weight the last word as the most important) and grapple with the lingering question of where to lock some floating possessives (which could be pronominal or postnominal, depending on the inflection). Droitcour and Kalinsky make a valiant effort, managing somehow to keep in stride even in instances like “Composition of Seventy-Three,” 1973, a free-form froth of consonance (particularly in section 29.4, where words dissolve into waves of sounds, cresting into amalgams like “indepthliness” and “unhereliness,” then receding back with the recurring nonsense refrain “nsn”).

Spread from Andrei Monastyrski’s Elementary Poetry (2020, Ugly Duckling Presse).

There is also a lot the book cannot do physically. Many of Monastyrski’s poems, as mentioned earlier, were originally released as individual artist books, with structures too complicated to replicate in a single volume. Together with designer William Bahan, the translators preserve Monastyrski’s habit of X-ing out whole stanzas as well as the graphic elements that come to the fore in “I/We,” “Excessive Tension,” and “Elementary Poetry No. 1,” all of which were previously unpublished (one suspects for these very obstacles). “Elementary Poetry No. 2 Atlas” requires the replication of carefully plotted diagrams and star charts, but “Elementary Poetry No. 3 Paraformal Complex” is perhaps the most demanding of all. The artist’s book had originally mobilized multiple senses in its attempt to describe Monastyrski’s conceptual tool of false maneuvers, or “paraform.” The artist excerpted illustrations from a popular cookbook, showing anonymized hands using kitchen knives to carve various cuts of meat. These images are accompanied by a list of nearly two hundred questions on composition, distance, and paraform printed on cornflower blue pages. A list of succinct (though often obtuse) answers follows, printed on white. Monastyrski originally partitioned the text from the images with what he called the “distance,” a sheet of sandpaper intended to wear away both sections simultaneously. This book includes a sandpaper bookmark, to the same effect.

Another kind of erosion takes place in “Nothing Happens,” a sprawling poem included in the 1976 Poetry World. In the original, each of the stanzas commanded its own page, which numbered over a thousand across five volumes. In this version, the stanzas tumble Jack-and-Jill style down the page, as the author bounces from boundless joy to despair and suffocation in contemplation of nonexistence. This format thankfully spares you from being left alone on a page with stanzas like this one:

I like this feeling
it wears me down
more than ever
I’m here in my place
indefinitely
and I feel awful

“Nothing Happens” tracks an experiment in a radical stillness. In the times of a pandemic, however, too many of the stanzas read like potential mantras of the unsparing madness of the apartment-bound:

this brand new feeling
somehow it seems wrong
maybe this didn’t happen
it came without warning
you’re always waiting for something
but there’s nothing to wait for

And:

this inertia
is good for concentration
there’s nothing to concentrate on here
emptiness everywhere
there’s no everywhere here
there’s no meaning in anything

Yet even within this rush of conflict and contradictions, Monastyrski tucks some hope. “Emptiness can have something in it,” he declares at one point. Just like the open field in the woods where Collective Actions would site their happenings, the artist is clearing spaces in the realm of language. In his preface, Groys argues that this should be seen as a utopian gesture; the translators view it as reflexive, describing Monastyrski’s approach as “creating distance to look inward.” But this interiority should be understood as collective, rather than individual. As with the photographic souvenirs handed out at the end of “Ten Appearances,” the figure doesn’t have to be exact, it just has to be. Indeed, even after spending a few weeks with Elementary Poetry, it’s hard to imagine Monastyrski’s interior life. (His one semi-biographical gesture in the book, “Elementary Poetry No. 5: I Hear Sounds,” introduces the figure of the poet as a setup for a joke.) Like the countryside clearings, his “empty zones” are explicitly impersonal, but this is what makes them a place of promise. Rules can be broken because they could never really be enforced to begin with: They are just words, after all.

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