PRINT December 2016

Books: Best of 2016

Daniel Baumann


Midway through the show at Moscow Museum of Modern Art featuring the New Blockheads, a collective of artists from Saint Petersburg who were active from 1996 to 2002, I wondered if the group really existed or if this was an exhibition mimicking an exhibition about a laconic art practice lingering between absurdity, politics, and metaphysics. The small but inspiring catalogue The Brotherhood of New Blockheads (1996–2002) by Peter Belyi, Lizaveta Matveeva, and Viktor Misiano does clarify things—and extends the mystery. Introductory articles provide context for more than a hundred events taking place in streets and parks, at clubs, Saint Petersburg’s Borey Gallery, biennials, and festivals, often without leaving any trace. These performances included frying eggs and sausages over a bonfire on Liteyny Prospekt (Fried Eggs, 1998) as a metaphor for how artists stupidly search for their own niche (as one of the comments in the catalogue puts it), and filling plastic cups with water and guppies, some of which were drunk during the night by visitors to Olbi Jazz Club (Guppy, 1996). Organized, performed, and documented by Vadim Flyagin, Igor Panin, Sergey Spirikhin, Inga Nagel, Vladimir Kozin, Maksim Raiskin, Oleg Khvostov, and Alexander Lyashko, the New Blockheads developed their collective practice out of no apparent necessity and without looking for any exposure. Yet as this catalogue makes clear, their performances reflected—with disenchanted commitment and great contempt—the general dismantling of post-1989 Russia and the latent optimism of Western culture, while resisting offering any marketable alternative. The core of the publication consists of deadpan descriptions of about half the performances, mostly written by the artists themselves. Like short theatrical texts pithily reinterpreting the New Blockheads’ activities, they extend the spirit of the collective’s performances into the realm of the catalogue. You can’t ask for more.

Daniel Baumann is Director of Kunsthalle Zürich.