PRINT September 1990

Alessandra Mammì

RAUSCHENBERG A NOI, Noi a Rauschenberg” (Rauschenberg to us, we to Rauschenberg) is the title borne by the Soviet Pavilion at the 44th Venice Biennale, the site of an extremely timely exhibition that focuses on an (obviously beautiful) piece by Robert Rauschenberg, around which rotate the works of six young Soviet artists (Guram Abramischvili, Andrej Jachnin, Aleksandr Jakut, Evgenij Mitta, Ajdan Salachova, and Sergej Volkov). Self-conscious in its irony, the show conveys the new political situation and mood, the détente that has occurred, the (cold) peace that now has swept away every suspicion of cold war.

“Robert Rauschenberg in the Soviet Pavilion? A dialogue with the young Soviet artists? Is it a paradox or just a new phenomenon in the art world? It is not easy to answer. . . ,” writes the commissioner and curator Vladimir Goriainov. But to our mind, in this case the question is extremely easy to answer. Indeed, what else is this show if not a homage to the West, a cry of freedom, a confirmation of the central position Pop art (and in general our avant-garde movements) holds for the younger generation of Soviet artists?

In other words, an assumption that is more political than theoretical. And this is where the true paradox resides. Once more an ideological risk burdens Soviet art. It may be opposite in approach to the earlier (Socialist Realist) burden, and yet it is equally insidious—different in form but perhaps not in substance. Even the revival of a Dialogue with Malevič, 1989, as presented by Jakut, seems to refer more to Western artistic investigations of the ’60s and ’70s and to our interpretations of the Soviet avant-gardes than to an internal reflection in the wake of an absolute symbol of Russian culture. Jakut’s bucketfuls of white paint that cancel out the Malevichian cross, or Mitta’s Devouring of the Red Horse, 1989, which, with its use of feigned silk screen and photographic technique (rendered in oils), sets out a metaphoric decomposition of the image of Socialist Realism, appears to us like a confused mixing of formal languages, launched in the service of all-too-evident and all-too-didactic messages. (Not even Volkov, an artist who demonstrated much greater depth in his installation last spring at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Prato, comes off well here.)

And so it is too bad that the young Soviet artists emerge from the comparison with Rauschenberg decidedly crushed and banalized: like descendants of a culture that is not their own, imitators of techniques that they don’t possess (the anachronistic use of oils on Warholian themes),voracious consumers not of the products that Pop art made so symbolic for our time, but of information about those products and those works. And what’s more, this is happening at the moment when European and American art is feeling the full weight of the crisis of its innermost values. Thus while the play of Pop symbolization, the conceptual self-analysis, the mysticism of arte povera, the minimalist radicality are all revived by the youngest Western artists, with manneristic or, better, mannered accents, the foremost paths of research are leading art into more profound social arguments, as demonstrated, specifically at this Biennale, by the presence of Jenny Holzer, or, in the “Aperto 90” section, by that of Gran Fury and the Border Arts Workshop.

This was perhaps the comparison that should have been proposed: two societies attempting to revive a lost identity, two cultures facing the breakup of their own artistic languages. Only in this way would one be able to construct that “tangle of dialogues,” the subject of which, as Commissioner Goriainov writes, is “the sociovirtuous structures of society on the whole.” Unfortunately, in “Rauschenberg a Noi,” the potential “dialogue of generations” was less an exchange than an oratory discourse (Rauschenberg) versus a confused babble.

But one by no means wants to dismiss new Soviet art. On the contrary, it’s only necessary to criticize an inopportune exhibition choice and to point out a risk that, in any case, threatens present artistic investigations in the USSR. And, in fact, two considerably more vital presences in “Aperto 90”—Konstantin Zvezdochotov and Larisa Jurievna Zvezdochotova—demonstrate the potential of new Soviet artists as something quite different than the Soviet Pavilion would lead us to believe. In their work the relationship with the West is resolved in a much deeper analysis, in a discourse of method rather than of image. The method is that of questioning their own role and the role of language itself, playing with all possible contradictions, going beyond the limits of the space, using irony, and avoiding all ideology.

But, for us, their images are completely unusual: niches, carts, rickety structures that present surreal juxtapositions of objects and figures, Dadaist puns told in a popular, almost naive language. According to the Soviet critic Victor Misiano, “Zakharov, Zvezdochotov and others are part of a strategic picture that might be called the poetics of the imponderable. . . . The new poetics emerges from the desire to bring back ideas that have lost all connection and to give a foundation to an existence that has lost every support.” And this is the right approach, at the edge of a culture that is barely able to find itself, that only now is facing a world frightened of its own changes, that speaks of the insecurities and the doubts with playful and yet fearful words and with an ingenuous and innocent spirit.

This is what impels Zvezdochotova to embroider in painted cross-stitch, with lucidity and even greater obsessiveness, her landscapes, her still lifes, and her portraits. She repeats this imagery on various scales, from small to large, covers them with heavy black velvet drapes, to hide her craftsmanship or, perhaps, to require the visitor to expend at least some effort in finding out why they are concealed. And the simple (and to our eyes vaguely exotic) trimmings, the handmade embroideries that are the models for her work, speak to us of an everyday Russia, of a culture that is as ancient as it is tranquil, that in its submissive existence has (and will) survive the uproars of History. With exquisitely and marvelously feminine humility, Zvezdochotova seeks to revive this culture, those traces and those memories, which the facile enthusiasms and fervors of the West risk sweeping away. Risk destroying, moreover, without so much as pausing to consider what the consequences might be of such a loss.

Alessandra Mammì is a writer who lives in Rome and contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.