PRINT December 1999

Boris Groys

1. “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932” (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1992) Even before the Revolution, the artists of the Russian avant-garde dreamed of giving the new century an at once entirely new and unified aesthetic form, analogous to the styles that marked the Gothic, Renaissance, or Baroque periods. In this case, however, the new style had to be a matter not just of historical development but of conscious, systematic planning. After the Revolution the dream seemed to be within reach, at least in Russia, but ultimately neither the political powers nor the democratic consumer wanted to give the artists the freedom to design the world around them according to their own taste. Now, at the end of the century, a relatively uniform aesthetic style has established itself, but its origin is anonymous—and one doesn’t even know whether this style is pleasing to the masses, in whose name it was established. And how does the beginning of the century compare to the end? Well . . . it’s difficult to say. Malevich’s late-’20s Black Square is certainly as impressive as ever, but the McDonald’s sign doesn’t look so bad either.

2. “‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991) In the last decade of the century, modern art bears witness not only to its earlier hopes but also to its historical traumas: for example, the antimodernist exhibition under the title “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) organized by the Nazis in 1937. Of course, the art the Nazis attacked received later recognition from art institutions, though maybe not so much from the general public. But if its contemporary relevance seems based more on moral than aesthetic grounds, that shouldn’t be taken as a deficiency: It demonstrates that moral contributions remain admired, even if aesthetic preferences change.

3. Holocaust Memorial, Berlin Probably no artwork in this century has been so extensively discussed by so large a public—even before its construction. Above all, one asks the question, To what extent can a modern, nonfigurative work, as it was proposed by Peter Eisenman, represent a historical event of such magnitude? To its advantage, an abstract form holds open all possible interpretations and, therefore, isn’t unnecessarily divisive. Still, one decided to resolve the lack of clarity by building a documentation center next to the memorial. Will this whole discussion flare again after the monument is constructed? Presumably not.

4. Ilya Kabakov If the last decade was for many a time of weighing the various experiences of the twentieth century, Ilya Kabakov’s work in the ’90s has carried out the task of remembrance most impressively and without compromise. Not just a reflection on the Communist experiment in Russia, his installations meditate to a much greater degree on the history of modern art, here told as a story of personal trauma, insecurity, and lonely dreams. One is reminded that this century is replete with intelligent modern artists who were unsuccessful and went unrecognized.

5. Documenta X (Kassel, 1997) Over the course of the postwar period, Documenta was always conventionally conceived of as a hit parade of the newest trends. The most recent installment, however, under the direction of Catherine David, was more a space of remembrance—a reminder of ascetic, Conceptualist art positions (like those of Broodthaers or Art & Language), whose contemporary representatives seem mostly pale and ghostly. But we certainly shouldn’t hold this fact against them—especially if one takes seriously Derrida’s latest writing about ghosts.

6. “Illusion-Emotion-Reality: 100 Years of Cinema” (Kunsthalle, Vienna, 1996) Harald Szeemann’s grandiose history of cinema, which originated at the Kunsthaus Zurich, was thoroughly symptomatic of a new way of dealing with the medium. Namely, thanks to increasingly user-friendly digital video cameras, computer processing, etc., film is reduced to a medium available to anyone, not just to large studios. In fragmenting movie classics and reordering them in sequences so that thematically related segments from different films are compared with one another and lead to the formation of particular paradigms, Szeemann demonstrates a thoroughly contemporary manner of dealing with film.

7. Peter Fischli & David Weiss (untitled, 1994–95, Swiss Pavilion,Venice Biennale, 1995) It is certainly an agreeable effect to observe a video work without having to stand or sit in the dark, and Fischli & Weiss’s installation is reminiscent of the atmosphere of a train station’s waiting room or an airport departure lounge. Watching the artists on their trip, the viewer even feels that he himself is on a trip.

8. Jeff Wall (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1996, co-organized with MCA, Chicago, and Jeu de Paume, Paris) Jeff Wall’s photographs strike a subtle and stylistically precise balance between the painterly image and the photographic or film image—a balance that seems unlikely to occur again, since one doubts that the next generation will be as willing to approach the tradition of painting with such care and empathy.

9. The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) The heroes are a Buddhism-inspired group of new-age freaks who want to expand their consciousness through the virtual reality of simulation and interaction but are constantly endangered by their immobile bodies’ exposure to “real reality.” Perfect commentary on the situation of today’s media spectators.

10. Net Art The platitude is that the Internet will change all our visual habits and handed-down attitudes toward art. That seems plausible in the face of the abundant offerings of Net artwork in galleries, exhibitions, and art fairs. But it is when the visitor has no time, energy, or interest in becoming acquainted with what’s on offer—programs are difficult to use, often incomprehensible, and always crashing—that he encounters an interesting aesthetic experience: the bodies of other visitors, sitting and standing in melancholic, somnambulist poses before the monitors, strongly reminiscent of the good old days of European romanticism.

Translated from German by Elizabeth Felicella.