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PRINT March 2010

MOTION STUDIES: THE ART OF OLGA CHERNYSHEVA

ONCE IS NEVER ENOUGH. Not, at least, in the work of Olga Chernysheva, whose imagery slowly unspools in time, elapsing via repetition or successive transformation. Indeed, Chernysheva is literally an animator. Trained in the discipline at the Soviet All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, she traffics in both static and moving pictures as well as the blurred region between them—with resonant implications for media, art history, and the larger cultural scenes in which they unfold. In the video Untitled. Dedicated to Sengai, 2008, for example, a woman stands in a crowded Moscow square, selling children’s magnetic drawing tablets. The camera is fixed on her lucid, almost beatific gaze; it also lingers on her hands as, trancelike, she demonstrates the pad for mostly indifferent passersby, incessantly sketching an interlocking triangle, circle, and square—the titular Zen monk’s symbolic depiction of the universe—before erasing the figure and beginning again. The scene might seem innocent enough. But Chernysheva also seems to be repeatedly restaging the end of easel painting (so triumphantly proclaimed by wave after wave of twentieth-century Russian artworks, from Kazimir Malevich’s black square to Aleksandr Rodchenko’s primary-hued monochromes) with a mystic doodle on a plastic, primary-colored toy. And so abstraction here takes on a second life as a wry shopping-mall spiritualism, whose absurdity is played up by the sound track’s twinkling new age Muzak.

Such impressions build upon one another in Chernysheva’s work with wit and serial force—in much the same way that the post-Soviet present layers and lingers over the Soviet past, recalling film stills superimposed above and beneath a cataclysmic social event. The artist seems to insist on asking once more: How might one continue making art in the aftermath of catastrophe? How does one imagine both a before and an after? These are questions that resonate not only in the dysfunctional spaces of present-day Russia but on a global scale, given our contemporary systemic crises. (It is also, perhaps, one reason that her reception has been increasingly international: In the past several years, she has exhibited at biennials in Istanbul, Moscow, and Sydney, and in gallery and museum shows on several continents.)

IN FACT, GIVEN HER WORK’S RESONANCE with our own societal quandaries today, it seems worthwhile to look again at the circumstances surrounding Chernysheva’s first exhibition, which took place in 1992, just one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The site was Gallery 1.0, which at the time was the focal point of the Contemporary Art Center, a modest association of galleries in the middle of old Moscow that were the first independent arts institutions of the new Russia. (Today, neither Gallery 1.0 nor the Center itself exists; the artistic community they limned remains in the annals of that turbulent period.) At the time, the foundation of the post-Soviet scene was just taking hold; Moscow Conceptualism—loosely defined by its subversion of both Soviet ideology and socialist realist genres such as easel painting, and most famously associated with such artists as Ilya Kabakov, Komar & Melamid, and others—was enjoying its heyday of international recognition. Amid this scene, young artists such as Dmitry Gutov, Oleg Kulik, and Anatoly Osmolovsky were making their debuts. Their works were stunning manifestos for a new epoch, evincing a total rethinking of modernism, postmodernism, and politics. Against previous models of Moscow Conceptualism and their tactics of parody and deconstruction, these artists formed a newly idealist counterpoint. It was precisely at the Contemporary Art Center that Gutov, with an exhibition titled “Sixties, Once More About Love,” swore allegiance to 1960s modernist romanticism; there, too, Osmolovsky mounted the exhibit “The War Continues” to promote the idea of direct action and Situationist resistance, and Kulik staged his performance Mad Dog in homage to Leo Tolstoy’s anarchist rejection of civilization and the state.

While part of the same storm, Chernysheva’s initial show was a bit quieter. It revolved around the multimedia installation B/W Book, 1992–95, which was based on black-and-white illustrations from Soviet-era cookbooks but completely transformed the “book” of the work’s title. Snow-white dough molded into the form of a sphere or twisted into a cylinder, palms rolling the dough into a tube or cutting it into segments—such images were realized as actual porcelain objects that themselves resembled loaves and rolls, or were painted on canvases that were suspended in the gallery like movie screens. This narrative, even cinematic, unwinding of multiple stills yielded yet another form of animation, one that hovered between projection, motion, and solidity; communication occurred via physical or bodily manipulation, through sheer mass or number rather than words. Put another way, the world according to Chernysheva emerges not from language but from an intimate, tactile experience—like that suggested by the banal, hand-molded form on the kitchen table. This approach signaled a break with Moscow Conceptualism: For artists such as Kabakov, all phenomena could be unmasked as textual codes, as linguistic constructions, as ideology—and so the act of revealing these constructions amounted to something like a perpetual dying, a constant series of endings. (As Kabakov wrote in 1999, “Conceptualism is not death as a form of non-existence or an absence, but an existence of death, the arriving of death.”) For Chernysheva, however—entering the art world at the very moment that a society built on sweeping rationality had literally died—the investigation of reason and ideology led to a different discovery: an art centered on material, living form.

To better grasp this sense of animation in Chernysheva’s work, consider how she actively invokes a topological strain in cultural theory and philosophy—exploring what philosopher Gaston Bachelard called a “poetics of space,” a “material imagination.” Her picture of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia is built not on abstractions but on basic elements like soil, light, and water. Moreover, these elements are in a state of constant mutability and interaction. Light pervades and animates material in Inner Light, 1997; people seemingly grow from the earth and rise into the light in High Road No. 8, 2007; elements of everyday interiors, including pieces of furniture, find themselves repurposed in nature in the series of light boxes Dream Street, 1999; and a landscape, a row of church cupolas seen from a window, seamlessly converges with a row of ornate bottles on the windowsill in [Luk] at This, 1997. Astonishingly, in these works of photographic reproduction, light is no mere trace. It is mobile, agile, elastic. Similarly, humans, fauna, flora, and objects merge and morph into one another. In Kind People!, 2000, and Waiting for the Miracle, 2000, disparate items turn out to be kin: vendors and the diaphanous textiles they are selling, for example, or women’s heads and knit hats. Chernysheva’s settings are likewise distinguished by their flux and indefinability; it is often hard to determine the precise locale, weather, or time of year. Finally, the border between life and death itself is rendered porous. In Russian Museum, 2003, and Tretyakovka, 2002, for instance, the dynamic reflections of visitors are caught on the glass surfaces of classical portrait paintings, literally seeming to infuse and invigorate the inanimate visages on the museum canvases.

This unstable atmosphere—this free-floating permeability among conditions and forms, between singular and multiple—summons yet another kind of animation. It is a more nuanced and profound understanding of the term, one that closely aligns Chernysheva with the theorist of space par excellence, Peter Sloterdijk. The German philosopher’s key series of writings, Sphären I–III (Spheres I–III; 1998, 1999, 2004), themselves indebted to Bachelard, are in fact crucial to the artist’s thought, having arisen in near chronological parallel with Chernysheva’s artistic project over the past decade and a half. Sloterdijk’s notion of “spheres” and “shells” describes the world as a series of overlapping realms and interfaces, from the very small (the atom, the womb, the body) to the very large (the dwelling, the globe, the climate), each mingling and meeting with the others: What we normally think of as “empty space” is anything but. In this teeming ether, the difference between subjects and objects is effaced. Everything, even the air, appears capable of being animated, of possessing an anima—a soul. Like Sloterdijk, Chernysheva takes us into this animated, inter-subjective space and scrutinizes its historical divisions and consolidations. And what better destination than the spaces of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, with their relentless hardening, rupture, and dissolution?

CHERNYSHEVA BRINGS US to one such site in Panorama, 2005–2008, an installation of painted canvases that re-creates a famous 1960s Soviet cinematic attraction: the Circular Panorama, a cylindrical theater in which documentary travel films about the Soviet Union were projected on eleven screens in a 360-degree surround. Chernysheva renders these film images on canvas, using matte, warm tones of oil paint; they are luminous, as if having absorbed the inner light of the film projection. The images display scenes of walking tours and leisure trips, open skies and highways and oceans—in other words, they depict a nostalgic, harmonious unity of society and land. Yet the paintings are based on an actual set of films still being used in the original panorama, whose celluloid—like the heroic Soviet land it portrays—has warped and corroded. The individual panels no longer match each other as a seamless projection in the round. As Chernysheva herself has written, “On canvas, all the symptoms of the image’s technical decay emerge with greater clarity: the level of the horizon fails to correspond with that of neighboring fragments, which often display altogether different shots and camera angles; there are disjunctions in color and tone (each fragment looks as if it is on view separately, through a colored piece of glass). Black lines and blank zones between neighboring projections have become apparent.” And so the artist points to the historical source of this picture of the world, to the Soviet epoch, and affirms that picture’s exhaustion and disintegration. Panorama constructs a series of nested “spheres”— architectural enclosures that envelop the body of the viewer—only to shatter them. These spheres are animated by the utopian light of the past, but they are also suffused with the crisis of the present—the splintered identity and fractured spaces of the “last Soviet generation” (as anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has dubbed them), who characteristically experience a “phantom pain,” something that hurts even when it is no longer there. Yet the object of longing, the pastoral memory, is a mirage, another animated reverie.

Elsewhere, Chernysheva pictures the breakdown of collective spaces and the fissures of Russia today, its privatized and insulated territories nowhere more evident than in the rising barbed wire and chain-link fences of Sites, a series of light boxes from 2005. Extending the theme (often with unprecedented humor), Chernysheva’s recent images are studies of this fragmentation of the social commons, the atomization of space along ever finer boundaries and margins. In the video diptych Anonymous. Part 1 and Anonymous. Part 2, 2004, two individuals appear, engaged in inordinately intimate acts in public spaces. The woman in the first video stands on a blanket in a grassy park—the strict geometry of the white cloth parallelogram singling her out from the green surroundings. She begins to undress, and then one realizes that, hilariously, the accompanying sound track is actually an audio course in vaginal gymnastics: A hoarse male voice coaches anonymous female patients in how to achieve beauty and harmony through the tension of muscles. The culture of individual self-help and sexual prowess is heard as a disembodied voice and diagrammed as an increasingly hermetic, embarrassing act of isolation. Similarly, in the series of photographs On Duty, 2007, escalator attendants in the Moscow metro are severed from the social fabric by the geometric confines of their glass observation booths.

On occasion, the relation between these discrete individuals verges on formlessness. In Chernysheva’s extraordinary video The Train, 2003—comprising a seamless series of handheld tracking shots that move, Sokurov-like, through the carriages of a train—the stream of passengers is presented as an atomized, convulsing, disjointed wave. Any sense of spatial structure or narrative surrounding these figures dissolves into what Elias Canetti, in his diagnosis of the Weimar Republic, called “inflationary crowds.” And like Weimar Germany, post-Soviet Russia has witnessed the bad-faith attempt to restore state power through social rituals and orders, despite their incipient crumbling. In March, 2005, a parade takes place, seemingly sponsored by the military or the government, yet the cheerleaders move jerkily and sluggishly, and a group of participating young boys seem far more fascinated by the girls’ writhing bare midriffs. What’s more, as Chernysheva recounts, “It was nearly impossible to understand what exactly this parade of cadets was celebrating”: Signs and balloons were alternately inscribed with signs for Gazprom, Panasonic, and an athletic group. Likewise, in Hymns, 2007, fellow employees sing corporate hymns, mounting a new mode of collectivity but mercilessly snickering at the songs all the while. (Indeed, it is only through cynicism that any social and civic bonds are formed; we know, however, from Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason [1983] that cynicism cannot be a form of resistance when the governing regime itself is openly cynical.)

Here again Chernysheva’s work resonates with our contemporary global context and sheds a different light on the sorts of artistic practices that have lately arisen. This decomposition of the Soviet social space echoes a broader phenomenon described by Sloterdijk: a new order, unique to late capitalism, that replaces the archaic, harmonious geometry of the shell and sphere with that of “foam.” The bodies and spaces of the world have become more and more disaggregated—now only connected indirectly, unevenly, and chaotically, like bubbles in an indeterminate froth. Chernysheva seemed to respond directly to these conditions toward the end of the ’90s. It was then that the artist, like so many others during the past decade, decided to use the format of documentary video—only she embarked on an idiosyncratic mission, to search for ways in which the distinct bubbles of self and other might still interact, to explore the ways in which multiple bodies and spaces might yet be animated.

IN 1999, CHERNYSHEVA CREATED what can be considered both the artist’s and Russian art’s first documentary video work. The hero of this piece, Marmot, is an elderly woman, a participant in a Communist demonstration, who is observed by the artist on the streets of Moscow as a peripatetic face in a crowd. Since then, Chernysheva has created an entire series of video works dedicated to such anonymous individuals, often happened upon by chance. Like Walter Benjamin’s flaneur but with a video camera in her hand, she records situations in her surroundings, imbuing them with, to borrow a phrase from Benjamin, “profane illuminations.” Chernysheva seeks revelatory, intoxicating interactions with other people. She gazes at neighbors from her window, attempting to see the warmth of their bodies, their animated spaces, or simply, as in an old Soviet song, the “ever-burning light of Moscow windows.” “Profane illuminations” cannot be rationally planned; they are unlikely to arise from a mechanical routine. They are, as Benjamin remarked, born of unexpected situations, of the random glance or view. In a 2005 essay, Chernysheva wrote of one such situation: “Unity comes through as a result of uncoordinated phenomena.” Indeed, it is through this path of experience—from encounter to encounter—that she attempts to reinvigorate, however fleetingly, the severed ties of the world.

But this is not collective experience as initially conceived by Benjamin (or even as subsequently interrogated by Moscow Conceptualism). Instead, Chernysheva’s works emphasize the fundamental contingency of such encounters, over and above the possibility of their explosive, revolutionary consolidation. In the early work Open Lesson, 1994, Chernysheva showed just how such an “illumination” might operate, with an almost didactic use of visual aids. She constructed a three-dimensional model of a classroom with student figures standing at their desks. The work is an example of the stable iconography of the group photograph, a socially determined tableau. For a separate series of photographs, she cut out individual figures from the model’s group photographs and then placed these fragments in other settings—for example, on a post in a parking lot—thereby deliberately destroying spatial proportions. The human figure is torn from context and becomes newly visible, a unique and incommensurate microcosm. This montage replays the very rupture of scale and spatial continuity that characterizes the inchoate post-Soviet world. At the same time, however, it collapses these disparate registers, galvanizing them with movement and bringing them into makeshift contact.

For Chernysheva, the face of the other is the main catalyst for these moments of intimacy. Faces are what impress us most of all in works where the center of attention is not a distinct hero but a post-Soviet crowd. Yet individual features do not interest Chernysheva. Rather, it is the relation between faces that is of importance. Thus, in her lengthiest video work, Steamboat Dionysius, 2004, she shows a group of travelers on a ship coursing along a northern Russian river. The atmosphere is one of louche chaos. Dance-hall music is playing loudly; a ballet quartet dances in multicolored leotards on the upper deck; the passengers drink vodka from plastic cups. But the camera ultimately draws our attention to two individuals who stare intently at each other. Steamboat Dionysius shows us a meaningful, if mediated, geometry of gazes—the gazes of two lovers and that of the artist looking at them through her lens.

This joining of gazes, of faces and surfaces, appears irrational and without motive. It recalls the eccentric, lowly characters adrift in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and in the stories of the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, both touchstones for Chernysheva. But far from enacting anachronistic or futile impulses, the artist’s search for tenuous connections between the one and the many—despite the ever-increasing gaps in between—might be more fitting for our time than it first seems. Here, animation is an act of belief in the wake of crisis: a leap of faith.

Viktor Misiano is a critic and curator based in Moscow and Cegile Messapica, Italy.

Translated from Russian by Troy Selvaratnam.