PRINT December 2008

Keti Chukhrov

THE DREAM OF AN IDEAL FUTURE has always been a leitmotif in Ilya and Emila Kabakov’s “total installations.” But this theme was particularly poignant for Moscow’s artistic fortunes when it came to the appearance this past fall of the duo’s Alternative History of Art, 1997, a twenty-three-room “museum” exhibited as a single work to inaugurate the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. (The Kabakovs’ Red Wagon, 1991/2008, was also shown.) Occupying the landmark architectural edifice that is currently providing the GCCC with a temporary home—a structure designed by the Constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov in 1926—the artists’ imaginary institution was a sterile and serene labyrinth filled with paintings, sculptures, and the like. Reminiscent of socialist-realist and postsocialist-realist imagery of the 1950s and ’60s, all of these works were attributed to three fictional artists, named “Charles Rosenthal,” “Ilya Kabakov,” and “Igor Spivak” and portrayed here as deceased, unsuccessful, and unknown, respectively. And yet it was immediately clear, as philosopher Boris Groys pointed out at a symposium on the occasion of the exhibition, that these constituent elements had no autonomous role in this context. What mattered were not the individual tableaux on exhibition but rather the space itself as a political sphere.

For if the Kabakovs reenacted a fictitious history of creative development, staging it as the myth of provincial artists searching for truth through art, at the same time they scoffed at the futility of such an effort against the institution of the museum and its timeless, heterotopic space. Indeed, Groys’s observation about the politics of the space had greater implications than he might have intended. On leaving the Kabakovs’ museal warren on the evening of its opening, spectators no longer found themselves in one of the worlds the artists so masterfully construct—conjuring in the process an imaginary community and collective whole—but rather in a huge hangar, where a press conference and festive vernissage were running simultaneously: a place inhabited by oligarchs, bureaucrats, and bohemians. And so while everything at the GCCC signified cultural progressiveness—the revolutionary architecture and engineering of Russian Constructivism, the Kabakovs’ conceptualist reflection on art and exhibition practices—the question of the politics of space nevertheless lingered on an even greater scale because, it seemed, none of these individuals had anything to say to one another. The venue was positioned and produced for the public, yet it merely formed a crowd whose fundamental social, political, and cultural incompatibility and segregation were not interrogated but rather artificially “lubricated” by posh event planning. Spectators seemed like so many discrete and isolated consumers. And serious viewers, in turn, had a hard time getting rid of the feeling that the Kabakovs’ installation was not terribly radical but instead a simple summation of the past fifteen years of their production in the mode of a solo show.

How could this be so? Was it because the museum as such, chronicling an artist’s oeuvre, is self-referential by definition? Or was it because there is a fatal contrast between Kabakovian idealism and the economy that finances it? (After all, the GCCC is sponsored by oligarch and collector Roman Abramovich and directed by his girlfriend, Daria Zhukova.) Both are probably the case. But the latter is all the more pertinent because the past year in Moscow has been driven, on the one hand, by the question of whether Russian contemporary art can legitimately be regarded as part and parcel of the global system of art production; and, on the other, by the question of whether the financial backing for the art can produce something beyond mere self-promotion, beyond the motto of “the best for the best,” which aptly describes a situation in which elite Russian artists have emerged to answer the appetites of the new Russian cultural elite. It is this logic of superlatives (and not only the issue of “tainted” money—if anybody still believes that there is an “untainted” form) that undermines the very core of Moscow conceptualism: an aesthetic based on the universalization of things that appear thoroughly unimportant and banal.

SINCE THE SECOND MOSCOW BIENNALE took place in March 2007, every development in Russian art has seemed part of a dynamic effort to establish, promote, and expand its presence on the international scene, from the newly established Kandinsky Prize (won by Anatoly Osmolovsky) to this fall’s opening of the Gagosian Gallery at the Red October Chocolate Factory; from the New York shows of the Guelman collection at the Chelsea Art Museum and the Blue Noses group at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, both in the spring, to Paris’s Éspace Louis Vuitton show dedicated to contemporary Russian art and the Sots art show at La Maison Rouge (curated by Andrei Erofeev for the Tretyakov Gallery); from the emergence of new institutions, such as Igor Markin’s museum, the Era Foundation, Contemporary City Foundation, and Ekaterina Cultural Foundation, to the (misnamed) “museum night” of May 17, during which a cluster of new commercial galleries in the Winzavod (Wine Factory) Contemporary Art Center attracted an unprecedented number of contemporary art fans—twenty-four thousand people, mainly under the age of twenty-five.

Yet what appears illegitimate or odious in Moscow itself doesn’t differ very much nowadays from the ethics of art in general. If a decade ago art was still able to create provocative zones beyond the legal and the illegal, now, quite conversely, it aspires to affirm its power through self-legitimation, asserting its own status as the “best” of contemporary art—merely seeking recognition from those cultural, financial, and governmental powers that might sustain its symbolic value. In post-Soviet society, unfortunately, that art often becomes a tool for legitimating profound injustices in public life. Therefore it comes as no surprise when strange symptoms emerge on the margins of Russian art. Take, for example, the trial that curator Andrei Erofeev is facing for “religious offenses” regarding his 2007 exhibition in the Sakharov Center, “Forbidden Art—2006”; or the latest performance of the Voina (War) art collective in Moscow’s Auchan mega store, in which the group acted out the hanging of three Central Asian migrant workers and two gay men. These twin phenomena mark the deep crisis of political thinking in Russia today. Many artists are indifferent to Erofeev’s plight because, as they say, he curated a “weak,” inarticulate exhibition reenacting out-of-date liberal political positions from the ’90s. But interestingly, the motivation (for both the trial and the artists’ disregard for their colleague) is not rooted in any real religious or cultural censorship: On the contrary, the suppression of certain projects and promotion of others is steeped in an attempt to get rid of certain institutions and certain figures that might put art’s symbolic value at risk. As for the subversive affirmation of violence in the work of the Voina group and its nihilistic reenactment of right-wing extremism, such a cynical mood, to my mind, is bound to predominate in the work of younger generations. Direct affectations of this sort are the signs of despair, caused by artistic and civil impotence in the wake of the collusive mixture of authoritarianism, clericalism, an underdeveloped economy, and cultural “modernization” authorized by the governmental forces at work in Moscow today.

Perhaps such world-weariness explains why, in light of so many new initiatives, individuals who are nostalgic for the ’80s and ’90s and the artistic enthusiasm of those times (which persisted even in the absence of financial support and stable institutions) are often declared “losers.” And indeed, what is there really to recuperate from the ’90s? A couple of public street events by Anatoly Osmolovsky and Oleg Kulik, several rather innocuous performance pieces at the Regina Gallery, and one critical art journal (Moscow Art Magazine)? Even so, to imagine a future for contemporary Russian art—particularly in light of the fragmented public at the Kabakovs’ GCCC opening—one might best look again at models from the past.

AS IT HAPPENED, throughout this past summer and fall there was also a veritable marathon of exhibitions seeking to reassess the impact of Soviet art, inspiring reflection on idealistic aspirations in twentieth-century Russian art as a whole. Serving as a kind of conceptual prologue to this group of shows was curator Ekaterina Degot’s retrospective of early Soviet art, “Struggling for the Banner,” which was installed at the New Manege in June. Here, the curator’s aim was to present a specifically utopian and protocommunist alternative to the legacy of Western modernism. In fact, Degot has recently argued for the critical merits of Russian “realism”—which she sees as emerging in the nineteenth century and reaching its climax in the Kabakovs—while insisting on the existence of a genuine “Communist art” in 1926–36, that short period between the early Russian avant-garde and Stalin’s artificial, propagandistic socialist realism. In the young Soviet Republic, Degot maintains, this period posed a singular model of artmaking—one that rejected both modernist formalism and previous avantgarde practices as well as Stalin’s totalitarian project, since these resulted in either the fetishized work of art or the fetishized icons of ideology. Rather, early “conceptual realism,” as Degot calls it, adopted the cultural politics of Lenin and Trotsky and their distinctive theory of realism as a modes of collective creativity.

Degot’s analysis of an alternative dimension of Soviet culture (reflected as well in the curator’s spring 2007 exhibition “Thinking Realism” at the Tretyakov Gallery, in which she juxtaposed the works of nineteenth-century Russian realist painters and contemporary Russian artists) paralleled the investigation of “Sovietness” in Viktor Misiano’s four-part “Progressive Nostalgia” exhibition last summer (shown outside Russia in Italy, Estonia, Greece, and Finland). Both exhibitions testified to a crucial demand of present-day Russian culture: that art reflect on the unrealized possibilities of the Soviet period. They reconsider the hidden, progressive potential of social solidarity in Soviet culture, a political experience that was both diametrically opposed to bureaucratic state ideology and then completely eradicated in post-Soviet Russia. Yet the difference between Misiano’s and Degot’s efforts to address this previous form of Soviet consciousness was significant. “Struggling for the Banner” looked to the past, retrospectively searching for the latent promise of the Socialist project—as if the style and poetics of the early Soviet republic could be regarded as the only real artistic alternative to the luxury objects of art today. “Progressive Nostalgia,” on the contrary, allowed contemporary artists to comment on Soviet culture by means of their own existing formal and conceptual languages.

A number of these younger artists—Olga Chernysheva; Dmitri Gutov; Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya and Olga Yegorova’s Factory of Found Clothing project; Dmitry Vilensky and the Chto Delat? (What Is to Be Done?) group—purposefully mine the anachronisms of Soviet and post-Soviet life even now. They view what is regarded as “culture” in Russia as a firmly middle-class aesthetic and instead train their sights on the remaining margins and fragments of social space, arenas rejected by elite culture, new money, and the state as the miserable and unprofitable remains of the former Soviet Union: the places that are profane to the arbiters of Russian technology, capital, and art. It is in these zones, built on splintered remnants, that whatever possibility for an ideal future, cohesive community, or creative emancipation resides.

Accordingly, the Factory of Found Clothing has made video works based on historical archives of perestroika, or the lost workers’ utopia in an abandoned garment factory; Chernysheva’s recent videos and paintings unravel the heroic potentialities in the wretched environs bypassed by new economic development; Gutov works with the documentary archive of Mikhail Lifshitz, a Soviet-era theorist of art. Such works address the barrenness and dissolution of post-Soviet spaces and the people in them—a subtle mirroring of the atomization that was so palpable in the vast hangar of the Garage Center.

Keti Chukhrov is a critic and philosopher based in Moscow.