PRINT March 1980

The Barren Flowers of Evil

Truly now, isn’t it a strange phenomenon? The Petersburg artist! An artist in the land of snows, in the land of Finns, where everything is wet, smooth even, grey, cloudy.
—Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospect

HOW DIFFICULT IT IS TO understand something you know nothing about. Leafing through the pages of books arrived from afar, it is pure torment to get inside a foreign text, to separate metaphor from reality. In order to form a mental picture of another world through the comparison of words and images, texts and illustrations, one must possess a truly iron will and a stubborn belief in the necessity of such an activity. Besides, such an endeavor requires that the researcher combine the acumen of Sherlock Holmes and the caution of Doctor Watson, particularly when countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain are concerned. A detective’s work is frequently unglamorous but is always exciting, at least for mystery lovers.

It is with nostalgia that we, the authors of this article, remember Igor Shelkovsky’s small studio which could barely hold our friends: Rimma and Valerii Gerlovin, Sasha Kosolapov, and several others. Ivan Chuikov was the only one of us who knew English, and we would gather and listen as he translated for us from the pages of the very magazine which you, dear reader, now hold in your hands. The articles of an art critic with the Russian name Kozloff, being structuralist in form and elusive in content, created special difficulties for the translator. And the others were no easier. However, we were not deterred by such difficulties. We pored over those glossy pages with reverence, scrutinizing the colored splashes of the reproductions, the self-expression of distant and unknown American souls, until our eyes blurred. Gogol once described us, Russian artists, in the epigraph at the beginning of this article. While living in Italy, he wrote of his distant homeland and came to the most pessimistic conclusions concerning both Russia, and the fate of Russian artists: “They (artists) often possess true talent, and if only the fresh air of Italy could blow upon them, this talent would undoubtedly spit forth as freely, widely and brightly as a plant which has at last been taken out into the fresh air.”

Much has changed since Gogol’s time; Italy’s artistic reputation waned, and the capital of Russia was moved from Petersburg to Moscow. Nevertheless, more and more often, as if on Gogol’s advice, Russian artists are leaving their country, sowing themselves about the world in order to blossom in the smog of Paris, Tel Aviv, Munich and New York. We ourselves settled in New York over a year ago. And what a surprise was in store for us! The participants of the Moscow readings of Artforum and still other of our Moscow friends came to lie on our American table in the chic gloss of a Western European magazine: A-Ya, Contemporary Russian Art, Unofficial Russian Art Revue. To work once again! Once more we set ourselves the task of divining already thoroughly forgotten secrets.

But how can you, Americans, how can you understand what this all means? Never fear, dear reader, we will help you to pass through the labyrinth of an alien and enigmatic culture.

Of course, it’s possible to doubt the necessity of this endeavor. However, mystery fans have been intrigued by this pretty novelty. The press of Europe and America has informed the entire world. A certain excitement is in the air, and not all for Hecuba. The magazine is baffling from the word go: the title is untranslatable in any Western European language (Ya is the last letter of the Russian alphabet as well as the pronoun “I”); the magazine is published in Paris, though it is printed in Russian and English; and subscriptions may be obtained by writing to Switzerland. The front cover is strewn with English and Russian words, incomprehensible signs, and the Russian word DANGEROUS, repeated four times. Are you expecting explanations? Much of the above cannot be explained. Only conjectures are possible, conjectures which might harm those authors living in the Soviet Union, bring down upon our heads the wrath of those who have emigrated, and fail to satisfy the editorial board of Artforum by turning from the path of pure art into the wilds of socio-political research. We will confine ourselves to what we do know.

The magazine is published through the selfless efforts of a few artists, recent émigrés from the Soviet Union, in particular Igor Shelkovsky, a sculptor who left Russia several years ago and who currently lives in Paris. It is almost entirely devoted to Moscow artists who began their creative careers or sharply changed their style in the 1970s. The section of the journal entitled “Studio” examines six of them and contains a large number of reproductions and texts in which (for the most part) the artists speak for themselves. In the “Gallery” section, biographical information on nine artists is accompanied by reproductions and, in some cases, short theoretical manifestoes. The remaining pages are divided as follows: “Critics on Art”; “Artists on Artists”; and the archival “Sources of the Avant-Garde” (K. Malevich, Diary “A”, 1922).

The magazine is devoted to those artists who are called unofficial, dissident or nonconformist in the world from the Bering Straits to the Baltic Sea. At this point some clarification of these terms is necessary, based upon our not-so-distant experience of such artists. Turning the pages of this respectable publication, it is truly difficult to imagine in relationship to what these artists constitute an opposition. But wait! In accordance with Leninist dialectics, an action, and likewise its result, cannot be evaluated in and of themselves, but only in the context of their meanings. Whatever helps a good cause—is good; what doesn’t help—harms, i.e., it’s bad. Whether or not our action is good or bad is a matter to be decided by the plenipotentiaries for the separation of good from evil, who in the everyday parlance of socialist reality are referred to as officials.

Each official has his particular department which deals with a well-defined range of questions. Should something arise which does not fall under the aegis of existing departments, then a new one is created. Officials think and speak in a language of instructions and fulfill the role of censors. Everything produced in the Soviet Union, from buttons to milk cartons, passes through bureaucratic hands. Thus, if an artist has created a work of art and wants to exhibit it, he must approach the proper department and explain to the official, in officialese, what the work of art means, and into which category of existing instructions it fits. The department which handles art—The Union of Artists—is divided into various sections: sculpture, murals, and monuments; graphics; design; criticism; painting, etc. Therefore, if an artist were to draw something in pencil on canvas, it could not be exhibited, because that would be mixing the Graphics section (pencil) with the Painting Section (canvas), and there would be no appropriate section for the work. The same thing occurs with the artist who does not approach any departments and publicly shows his works. The artist who pursues such a path is eventually transferred to a section in an entirely different department, organized in the bowels of the secret police. Such are the artists represented in this magazine.

The journal A-Ya did not pass through bureaucratic hands. The authors of the articles speak freely. But just freely enough so as not to wind up in prison. Their language is at times evasive and it requires an experienced eye to draw meaning from the words. Take, for example, the dialogue of the two major contributors to the magazine, the critic Boris Groys and the artist Eric Bulatov: “You were saying that the space of authentic existence—is the space beyond the visible world, and now it seems the sense arises that this space is inside the painting.” Bulatov: “No, that space is on the other side. But how to get there, that’s the question.” Groys: “So, how do we get there?” Bulatov: “How do we get there? Through the painting. Once we say that the painting is a model of the world, then everything that exists in the world should be in the painting. All of salvation should be in it. It shouldn’t take place apart from it but inside it.”

As the outstanding contemporary Russian writer Zinovii Zinik noted: “Russians are tormented by the desire to have their say, and the fear of saying too much.” The name of this magazine, entirely devoted to the visual arts, consists of letters, and for that matter, of all the letters of the Russian alphabet, from the first (A) to the last (Ya). Apparently the editors have in mind words which remain unspoken, or cannot be pronounced, an important factor in contemporary Soviet art.

The magazine A-Ya differs from its Western counterparts in its goals. It is a dispatch, a coded communiqué, the whisper of someone crying in the wilderness, a secret sign to the world, the art critic, the curator, the art dealer. Reading through the magazine, we come to understand that the texts do not explain the works but create their meaning. The exterior is deceptive and frequently a sham. The painting is a covering, clothing which conceals and warms the author’s soul, and is linked to the sinful external world and therefore always either ugly or neutral. One could formulate a common rule of thumb for self-evaluation for the majority of these artists: “Everything depends on the content which is poured into the form.” (Joseph Stalin)

The Hegelian division of phenomena (including art) into form and content found fertile soil in the Russian consciousness whose duality was also noted by Freud—see Dostoevsky and Parricide. For this reason it is impossible to limit ourselves to an exclusively formal analysis of this strange art which is at the outer reaches of a specific mode of spiritual life. The social consciousness of the country in which we were born possesses a series of secret sore spots or zones which are both erogenous and pathologically hypersensitive. The value of cultural phenomena is defined by the nature of the zone and the manner in which the author touches it.

“I am not interested in problems of style and esthetics as such,” acknowledges Ivan Chuikov, an artist who is profusely reproduced in the journal. When Warhol makes this sort of statement it’s understandable; Andy is making money. But what interests this 45-year-old Russian whose work cannot be exhibited and who has no buyers? With wiliness worthy of a Russian diplomat speaking to Kissinger, the author avoids any direct answer, intimating that there exists a certain “context” which “makes any object placed in it something bigger, something more, invests it with a certain fiction. . . .” The clash between this fiction and reality occurs in his work.

As promised, we’ll try to make our way through this labyrinth. Let us turn to the artist’s biography and art. In early childhood Ivan Chuikov began painting landscapes in the Post-Impressionist manner of Socialist Realism. Gradually this manner became more individual, and finally in the ’70s the artist began to seek a way out of the traditional framework of the romantic landscape. He started combining planar elements and volume, laying pictorial and graphic images over objects and constructions.

The cycle “Windows” with its plastic pun worthy of an artist of the proto-renaissance is particularly interesting. The picture frame is the window frame. But in vain will you search for the illusory depths of a classical landscape within these frames. You’ll run up against the flat bottom of a shallow recess, more suitable for the touch than the eye. The relief of these window views forces us to recall the tactile principle of Braille. The blind window of Chuikov’s landscapes is a stage in a tiny theater, a nostalgic fiction of cosmic space, the cynical consolation of a prisoner for whom the sky beyond his prison bars long ago became a geometrical abstraction. Speaking of the “several levels of interpretation of an artist’s work,” the author admits that “the most important level of exegesis is the silent declaration.” In truth we have here a frightening theater, where mute actors perform before a blind audience. Chuikov’s trees most closely resemble the mountains of a relief map. What are their leaves rustling about? What is the author’s silent statement?

What does concern him, if it is not esthetics or style? This question can only be answered by an inhabitant of the Russian Empire who is skilled in the Aesopian language of Soviet culture. The author is concerned with a simple question: where is the boundary between falsehood and truth? His Russian audience seeks an answer to this question. Where are the social and ethical truths concealed behind a veneered theatrical setting rudely imitating space which cannot be entered? And the artist, balancing on the edge of silence and revelation, hems and haws, saying that “an artistic object is by its very nature paradox—is ambiguous,” reality and fiction simultaneously.

In order to explain to the patient reader just why it is that the Russian intelligentsia is so preoccupied with the search for some abstract truth and the logically hopeless task of its separation from an all-too-concrete lie, we must digress a bit from problems of “pure art” and venture on yet another historical excursion. The problem is that in 1917, no ordinary revolution took place in Russia. In 1917, a secret society rose to power in a huge country. The traditions and cultures of such societies remain remarkably obscure despite their “instinctive antiquity,” to which the presence of secret fraternities among pagan tribes and the games played by children of perfectly civilized parents attest.

It is impossible to understand contemporary Russian culture if one does not take into account the fact that the Bolsheviks came to power with no experience governing anything other than a secret society. They had their own laws and traditions. Thus it is not surprising that they gradually transformed the entire country into one enormous, secret society.

This is the key to understanding our homeland with its mania for secrecy, the Party’s doubling of governmental administrative functions and other such delightful customs. Having deciphered the pages of the magazine with the help of this key, you will understand that these artists, like all Soviet citizens, are part of a 260-million member secret society. This society contains different “lodges” and its members are involved to varying degrees of complicity. The consciousness of a member of a secret society is a schizophrenic Russian Bloody Mary of the legal and illegal. This is a theatrical psychology—it’s fitting to recall here that Lenin and his friends often had to disguise themselves and changed their identities as effectively as the trickster heroes of Russian fairy tales—the psychology of a participant in the social spectacle entitled “Soviet Russia,” where each person, from the cradle to the grave, without intermission, identifies with his role to the point that he cannot distinguish the lie from the reality.

He begins to confuse things. Where is the mask? Where is the face? Does the face lie beneath the mask, or the mask beneath the face? Content becomes form, and form content, and everything fuses in a strange carnival which actually resembles the organized boredom of military parades. The participants in this permanent happening perform their roles so sincerely and realistically that they are capable of deceiving such experienced Western spectators as Romain Rolland, Lion Feuchtwanger and even that old skeptic Bernard Shaw. Of course, people aren’t angels in any country anywhere—they are capable of deceit and are not averse to lying. But a ritual culture of lies, worked out down to the smallest details, has been created by this secret society, one in which a theatrical camouflage imitates the superficial impression of a normal state. The artist’s mask has also become an aspect of the camouflage in this curious society.

We hope that by now the reader understands why it is that the Russian viewer seeks an answer to this naive question, “Where is truth?” This question is the sore spot behind the unoffensive mask of Chuikov’s and Shablavin’s landscapes, with their play on conditionality and illusion.

Boris Groys is the most prolific contributor to this magazine. His introductory article, “Moscow’s Romantic Conceptualism” on four artists, and his interview with Eric Bulatov occupy a third of the entire magazine. In speaking of Chuikov’s works, Groys defines quite precisely the belief of his circle that “the visible world has become a deceitful veil of Maya covering alternately the void or matter.” In such conditions “the works mentioned remain ambiguous in part,” since the picture is transformed into “something not identical to itself.”

Calling on artists to “liberate themselves from ambiguity,” Groys writes, “the positive view of art as an autonomous sphere of activity has always been alien to the Russian mind. . . . Romantic Conceptualism in Moscow not only testifies to the preservation of the integrity of the ‘Russian soul,’ but is a positive attempt to make known the conditions under which art may go beyond its borders. . . .” Though we do not consider such an approach to art the exclusive property of the “Russian soul,” the author is correct in everything else. The work of art, as is the case with every phenomenon in Russia, is fatally unable to disengage itself from its context of social and religious ideas. It becomes an ethically heroic deed on the part of the creator—the visible form of an invisible ideological content, a flat mask which conceals an inexpressible depth.

The dialectical duplicity of Russian culture is a tradition with a much longer beard than those of the founders of dialectical materialism, Marx and Engels, and is vastly longer than Lenin’s short little beard. This tradition has its origins in the country’s geographical situation, located as it is on the periphery of Western and Eastern civilizations. In the visual arts this duality is reflected in the struggle between two- and three-dimensional treatments of space and color. At the time of the Petrine reforms, the strictly regulated, flat decorativeness of Russian icons came into conflict with proto-renaissance painting which arrived from Western Europe. The interaction of the two continues to this very day to define the development of Russian art, just as the well-known disputes of the Slavophiles and the Westernizers in the last century directed the development of Russian social thought.

Dialectical reminiscences of this conflict can be found on the pages of A-Ya. We have already given a sample of the dialogue—worthy of the Theatre of the Absurd—between Groys and Bulatov. We now quote another typical fragment from this interview. Groys: “. . . in your paintings there is always a certain ambivalence for the people living in the painting—it seems that they have either frozen on this plane, or that they might expand into space. . . .” Bulatov: “I can understand surface to be depth as well. . . . I understand social existence as surface. Everything visible is surface. And if we penetrate beyond that which is hidden, then we only see an inner surface anyway. . . . Space itself, in my understanding, is not distance. The concept of space as such is of course linked with spiritual life—with liberation for me. The absence of space—is prison.”

One needn’t be a profound thinker to detect that very same duality in this statement. Freedom (space) vs. non-freedom (surface). The West (democracy) vs. the East (Siberia). Bulatov: “ . . . . . Rilke has a definition: the beautiful is the terrifying to a safe degree. So you see, for me, this is not to a safe degree. I constantly perceive this as danger. I feel only a constant terror in relationship to this. And once there is terror, there can be no esthetic relationship. . . . Perhaps this is also terror in relationship to today.”

Look carefully at Bulatov’s work on the magazine’s cover. The optic depth of this serene landscape, created by linear perspective, alternately engulfs and repulses the alien, flat, “red banner” words: DANGER, DANGER, DANGER, DANGER. This very same flat color, now in the guise of a ribbon from some medal or trophy, covers the sea-sky horizon in the painting Horizon. This work could serve as an illustration to the biography of the sculptor Sokhanevich (see the Gallery section). Not content to wait for opportunities made by détente, this artist escaped from the Soviet Union by crossing the Black Sea at the end of the 1960s, in a flight that was full of dangerous exploits. As far as we know, despite the existing possibility, Bulatov does not wish to emigrate into “space.”

As if they had come straight off a Soviet political poster, the red letters “No Entry” barricade the sky blue “Entrance” in another of Bulatov’s works. We do not wish to reduce the problem of perspective and flatness in the painting exclusively to the problem of crossing the well-guarded borders of the Soviet Union. To do this would be to oversimplify, and to impoverish the complexity of the material we have analyzed.

In the troubled mind of a frightened spirit, the image of the Western “other world” splits and takes on religious overtones of “paradise” and “inferno.” The relationship to the West (that “machine for the production of things and ideas”) has changed throughout Russia’s history, but nevertheless it has remained the cornerstone of the intelligentsia’s world view. However, neither those who saw in the West an “earthly paradise,” nor their opponents, the Slavophiles, could foresee the paradoxical consequences of the 1917 Revolution, when the idea of socialism, borrowed from the West, transformed Russian culture into one of the most original phenomena in history.

Today Soviet Slavophiles understand that any individual Western phenomenon, when brought into Russia, finds itself in a different context, and begins to shine with some Holy Light, in the way that Edison’s electric light bulb became Lenin’s light bulb when it crossed into Russia.

Groys is a typical representative of this “neopatriotism.” He has set himself the goal of pouring old vodka into modernist wine skins. Sometimes it seems that a drunken mix-up occurred in the printer’s shop where the magazine was typeset, so obvious is the lack of correspondence between Groys’ arguments for Russian originality, and the thoroughly ordinary performances of artists such as Francisco Infante and the group “Action.” The photographs of these works might have come from the pages of Avalanche.

Try as one might, it is difficult to see any mystical national originality in the restrained elegance of Infante’s kinetic games. We see how his triangular mirrors, like some unexpected neo-Cubism, decompose the reflected landscape into illusory planes, containing the world in a utopian diamond whose geometrical edges refract tree trunks, grass, a river sandbar and the sky. These artifacts could, with equal success, reflect the skies of Russia or Spain, as well as the skies of any other country or climatic zone.

Unfortunately, the magazine did not print, as they promised, the texts which are an integral part of the performances of Alekseev, Monastyrsky, and others. This blunder endows the visually most “Western” work in the magazine with a purely Russian air of mystery. Groys manages to see a certain magic innate to Russian art in these works as well. Not afraid of contradictions, he acknowledges that “this group is less concerned with social issues: it is oriented toward problems which face art as such”; i.e., the group possesses a quality which is not inherent in the “Russian mind,” if we are to believe the propositions laid forth in another of the critic’s articles.

The same absence of Russian dialectics can be seen in Infante. The reality of his artifacts is “free from suspicion insofar as it does not require any penetration beyond its form.” But nevertheless (this is dialectics for you!) “Infante’s performance differs significantly from Western (performances),” since in the West there’s no way on earth you’ll find “technological reveries recalling a distant childhood.” Note that the erudite author compares the familiar names of Moscow artists, not to concrete Western names, but to no less than the entire West! This global gesture intended to resolve concrete, individual problems is incredibly typical of the apocalyptic mind.

At this point it must be said that we, the authors of this article, also have contradictory feelings. Of course, at a safe distance, it is easy to speak ironically of the judgments of a provincial patriot who isn’t here to defend himself. But what if a real surprise is ripening in Russia—one of the many at which the world has not yet ceased to wonder? Groys is not alone in his conviction that Western art “in one way or another speaks about the world,” while “Russian art, from the icon to the present, wants to speak of another world.” This “other world” lies at the crossroads of religion and art, whose relations “are extremely tense in Russia.” Similar ideas are expressed by V. Patsyukov in his article on the landscapes of Sergei Shablavin. Shablavin’s “magical” realism is for some reason ascribed to hyper-realism and photo-realism.

The sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, a participant in the infamous argument with Khrushchev, once very wittily called Russian counterculture “a catacomb.” And who knows, perhaps a new paradox will bear fruit in the third Rome. Religion is beginning to play the role of a “left” opposition, using the avant-garde forms of modernism, an “ism” genetically and spiritually bound with socialist dreams of the destruction of the old world. In this regard, the incomparably bolder experiments of Polish and other Eastern European artists are of great interest.

It’s difficult to foresee what the character of the coming cultural revolution will be, not to mention whether or not it will be the result or cause of a social revolution. As we were taught at the Moscow Institute of Art and Design, a revolutionary situation arises when new content, quantitatively growing inside an old form, comes into contradiction with a form and destroys it, resulting in the appearance of a new form, a new quality. Of course, it may be that we confused everything, or have forgotten, and it’s possible that Hegel imagined all this not quite as simply as our professors presented it to us. Still, it’s an interesting question; can the renewal of modernism from the inside, that is, the search for content, give birth to new phenomena, or more promisingly, continue purely formal searches which have lost their revolutionary content and become fully respectable traditions? This is the question which, at the beginning of the 1980s, concerns not only us.

The husband and wife team, Valerii and Rimma Gerlovin began working separately and now work almost exclusively in collaboration. They give us their own solution to this problem, and it differs significantly from that of the rest of the artists in this journal. Their works contain words or are accompanied by texts. In their opinion, conceptualism “is the most topical and fruitful stage of Russian art.” Their extensive philosophical treatise is published in the magazine. Numbers in the text refer to separate descriptions and reproductions as if underlining and explaining the authors’ ideas. One has the impression the Gerlovins are afraid they will be misunderstood, or not taken seriously. Here we have an opportunity to compare “talking” works with the “speaking” authors, to see how and to what extent desire is transformed into reality. They begin their treatise straight away by separating form and content, proposing, with the help of content (given their “indifference to the formal perfection of the work”), “to resolve moral, religious and social problems on the basis of our philosophical viewpoint.” Such an approach is said to be “a characteristic tendency of contemporary art” in general and a fundamental principle of Russian art in particular.

At one point in their treatise, the Gerlovins suggest that we engage in play to solve the above mentioned problems. They refer to Rimma Gerlovin’s work, Cubes. The work consists of cardboard cubes which are covered with cloth and open on one side. Inside some of these cubes lies one or more smaller cubes. Some of the large ones are empty. Some of the cubes, large and small, bear labels describing their particular qualities, either from the author’s or the cube’s point of view. For example: the cube’s pronouncement, “This is—me.”; “Mongolia”; “This cube is 5 centimeters closer to the Moon than this one.” Still others remain silent, but are accompanied by captions. The first thing that comes to mind when we see the pile of cubes scattered at Rimma Gerlovin’s feet is that we could build something with them. But no! For then they wouldn’t be able to open and we wouldn’t be able to read what’s written in and on them, and this clearly was not part of the artist’s intent.

Gerlovin’s cubes really resemble more precisely the music boxes of our grandmothers’ time. Reading the label on the top, we open the box and see a label inside. When the melody is over we close the top. You can’t play with music boxes, and you can’t put anything in them; Grandmother might get mad. You can only listen, opening and closing them.

What do they say? They speak in ambiguities. Box: “There’s a sphere inside me.” The inside of the cube: “He’s a sphere, I’m a cube.” Box: “You think.” Small cube inside: “But I am.” This is not a dialogue, but a monologue in which the inside plays the role of an inner voice. Here we are face to face with the dichotomy of Homo-Box’s consciousness. As the Gerlovins see it “with the aid of play, mastery and accessible knowledge of the world occur; internal and external conflicts of self-orientation are overcome and self-analysis takes place.” An indisputable, widely accepted statement.

But what are we supposed to play? Is listening really playing? No. In the case of cubes, we cannot be led to self-analysis. We must employ analysis quoting the Gerlovins once more: “The author is not in opposition to the object.” The implication is clear: we have been listening to Gerlovin herself. These are her boxes and her voice. The cubes are covered with beautiful materials, they are clothed alternately in pajamas and in evening dress. The only woman in contemporary Russian modernism exhibits a profound inventiveness in designing a wardrobe for her soul. Rimma Gerlovin’s soul, if we are to believe the accompanying texts, yearns for freedom, to go out into society, but her place is on the shelf along with other idle knickknacks.

The Gerlovins have other, more global ideas as well. “In the work, The Big Dipper, we see people as astral bodies.” Where are people to go? Must they either conceal themselves on a shelf or soar into the heavens? Thus, in resolving world problems, the Gerlovins propose that we leave this world. The logic of their work led them to emigrate from Russia several months ago. It is easy to suppose that their image of another world, which consciously or unconsciously was associated with the real world of Western Europe and America while they were still in Russia, will prove to have been an illusion, as has been the case for the majority of Russian emigrants. For them, the other world will move to Russia, and along with this, the understanding will arise that every “other” world (be it social, religious or whatever) is hell. Thus Russian modernism, and world modernism are deprived of yet another fundamental of their illusions—creation in the name of the betterment of mankind. For us, the authors of this article, recent émigrés from Russia, it is obvious that the world is not only monotonously bad, but that changes in it have no meaning.

Likewise, change in art is meaningless. Art ceases to be a movement from and to, and becomes only a reshuffling of what exists. Dragging in ideas from all over the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Eastern Socialism, African art, etc.—European artists of the last 200 years have created an illusion of progress. However, the quantity of combinations of the existing, though large indeed, is nevertheless limited. People who have been through two worlds know this.

It is imperative to mention Joseph Beuys’ recent show here. Though Beuys has not emigrated, he has experienced life in two worlds. Beuys is an antifascist, reared on fascism, just as some Russians are anti-communists, reared on socialism. They have ideas which they take for convictions. The complex of a “normal” person, who believes in certain truths, torments them, and forces them to put on various masks—of prophets, philosophers, political activists and God knows what else. But in their heart they know that this is all bullshit. They have to lie, dodge, make art—in order to be like everyone else. Their art displays certain common characteristics:

1. Conscious or unconscious deceit.

2. The division of art into form and content, with the latter reigning supreme. (Which on occasion results in a tragi-comic effect.)

3. The lack of correspondence between the proclaimed goals and the things created, according to the principle that the end (content) justifies the means (form).

4. Anti-estheticism. The placing of the work of art in a non-artistic context. (The “negative” image of Duchamp’s anti-estheticism where an object from another realm was placed into an artistic context.)

The artists represented in the magazine A-Ya, as we have already mentioned, were creatively formed in the ’70s. Their predecessors, the “left-wing” artists of the ’60s, struggled with the “remnants of the personality cult” through artistic means: Cezanne’s tradition versus the academic formalism of Socialist Realism. Like their Western colleagues of the same period, they believed that to alter form is to change one’s world view. There is good style and bad style. But according to a Russian proverb, “the bad is only a step away from the good.” Lev Rubinstein takes this step in his brilliant texts. Unfortunately, he is given very little space in the magazine—only small excerpts (and those without English translation). Rubinstein is the author of small, typed books, three of which are mentioned: The Catalog of Comic Innovations, New Intermission, and A Working Program. To look at, his books are typical samizdat (underground self-published works)—poorly typed pages bound in cardboard. The Catalog of Comic Innovations is a masterpiece of spiritual bureaucratese. It consists of numbered aphorisms, each one sentence in length and each beginning with the words, “it is possible to . . .” The range of possibilities is vast, and according to Rubinstein there are 122 of them.

The first possibility: “It is possible to do something.” From this starting point—activity—possibilities ascend by overcoming the “pale cast of thought.” And the fifth: “It is possible to classify possibilities according to the degree of their comical qualities.” The following paragraphs classify comic possibilities.

It is possible to mystify, eliminate, speak about, represent, disregard, consider, and most importantly, as the last, 122nd paragraph declares: “It is possible to not think about the consequences, they will be comic in character.” We are hearing the voice of a doubting prophet, who utters indisputable truths. “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12.) Read, for example, beginning with the words, “Many take refuge in silence at certain moments,” etc., up to “The author thrives in silence.” (New Intermission: 4.) A possessed bureaucrat, a prophet, a silent Moscow prattler, a samizdat author, a candidate for the crazy farm, and a subtle lyric poet—everything is mixed together in Rubinstein’s image of the author of his books. Perhaps this is Rubinstein himself. Who knows?

Combining the good and the bad, Rubinstein has the wisdom not to reject anything—that is, to remain himself. Fragments of holy truths, the permissible and the taboo, float about in the head of any intelligent person on either side of the Atlantic. A comic effect results when they come into conflict. This is obvious in the Gerlovins’ works and is hinted at in Bulatov’s canvases. Frequently, irony as a form of the paradoxical is invisible but is present in many of the works reproduced in the magazine A-Ya. The critic Groys says, “There is an entire tradition (in contemporary Russian art) of separating oneself from the world we live in through jest or satire.” And truly, there are such artists in Russia today. The work of Vagrich Bakhchanyan, who emigrated a few years ago and now lives in New York, illustrates this trend. The problem of jest and irony in art is much more profound than Groys imagines. We ourselves belong to this group of “ironic” artists.

It is hard to judge all of new Russian art on one 55-page issue of a journal. A-Ya is not the “alpha and omega” of Russian art. Russia is large and has many artists. However, in a journal which is “not the mouthpiece of any particular group (and whose) pages are open to everything new, bright and independent,” it is pleasing to see such a fully defined and distinct tendency. The magazine deals with postmodernist, or in our terminology, post-totalitarian Russian art. There are no more than about 30 such artists in Russia as far as we know, and what they do is a miracle. The reader must imagine for him or herself the situation in which they live and work. Dreary, boring, terrifying Moscow, whose inhabitants are oppressed by a monstrous fear. We mention this, not to stir pity in the reader, but in order to explain the peculiarities of this new art.

We are linked by friendship with the majority of artists in this magazine. We met some of them when we were only beginning our work in this new direction. We have worked side by side with some of them. For this reason, it’s hard to say what part of our review is about them, and what is self-portrait. Many of our accusations in regard to these artists may seem horrifying. But if our philippics are understood, not as a condemnation, but as a statement of stubborn facts, and if they are believed, then this could be regarded as something like an artistic platform (laid out by points above), a certain original esthetic. Of course, from the point of view of American esthetic norms, post-totalitarianism seems hideous, both artistically and morally. But this has been the accusation leveled at every new movement in art.

The most important part of the magazine opens with an article by a contemporary art critic and closes with a version of a 1922 essay by Malevich. Here we can see how far Russian artistic thought has progressed. Groys is undoubtedly an intelligent and penetrating critic whose ignorance of the world around him prevents him from seeing certain things, a fact that becomes particularly evident when you read his article in the West. But it is difficult to say anything serious about Malevich’s asinine scribblings. We can only point out that not only was Malevich an illiterate philosopher and the inventor of the artistic movement Suprematism—think about the name a bit: super + mat (mother in Russian)—but he was also an active Commissar, one of the first of the Soviet bureaucrats who concerned themselves with the separation of good from bad in the realm of the arts. His bureaucratic heirs, having exchanged Malevich’s bad form for their own good uniforms, left his content untouched, and currently reign supreme in Russia. Recognizing this, Russian artists discovered that Lenin’s avant-garde and Stalin’s academism are essentially only two different sides of the same socialist utopia. With the failure of this utopia its art too was discredited. Indeed, if stylistic opposites are bad, then there’s no point in discussing subtleties.

Having just learned, with great difficulty, the modernist ABC’s from the West, Russian post-avant-gardists unexpectedly revealed the full and horrifying power of that which is now called the avant-garde. These artists began their education during Stalin’s lifetime and completed it after his death. In the 1970s they realized that it is impossible and unnecessary to struggle against Communist reality, for we ourselves, individuals, citizens and creators, are both its main ingredients and its leaders. It became apparent that time does not exist in Soviet reality and yet space submits to it.

In contrast to their Western colleagues, who think in terms of color, line, etc., and who can be evaluated in comparison to each other, if only because there are many of them, these new Russians turned out to be much more radical. All their subterfuge, dialectic blather and stylistic exercises clearly demonstrate the complete and senseless void of dead European culture. Sacred European traditions have been laid to waste, and the scabs of dead forms flake off from the extremities of Europe. Malevich’s squares, though they did bring something “new” with them, turned out to be empty in all respects. However, to understand this, Russian artists had to go through Stalin’s academism—the last attempt to stop European time.

The artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid began working together in Moscow in 1965. They now live in New York City.

Translated by Jamey Gambrell