Medical Hermeneutics

Shedhalle / Galerie Walcheturm

The most important element in Die Schweitz + die Medizin (Switzerland + medicine, 1992), an installation by a group of young Moscow artists calling themselves Medical Hermeneutics, was not so much the work itself as a 90-page text that the group has written, a document that lays out the group’s phantom image of Switzerland, a country they had never visited before this exhibition. But only a fraction of these writings was presented here. The three members of the group—Pawel Pepperstein, Sergej Anufriew, and Wladimir Fjodorow—are obviously less concerned with transmitting facts than with demonstrating radically subjective antiideological thought structures. By combining various narrative and discursive strands, they created a mental topography and a mobile network of relationships that allowed them to situate their own identities.

Like Ilya Kabakov’s installations, Die Schweitz + die Medizin primarily played the role of catalyst for associations, memories, and discussions. In reaction to the Western cult of the star, these artists conceal their creativity as individuals in the anonymity of a group. And as was normal in Moscow before perestroika, they focus their artistic activities on a circle of personal acquaintances.

The show at the Shedhalle was subdivided into six “theme corridors,” the themes being Lenin in Switzerland, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, 1924, Sherlock Holmes, Shtirlitz (a popular Soviet detective series with one episode set in Switzerland), several hotel doormen (the Russian word is shvaitsar, from Schweitzer, the German word for “Swiss”), and Kabakov’s exhibition at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1985. In these works the group reached general conclusions about the role of the artist as agent, sleuth, and interpreter, and about art as a therapy allowing survival in an anonymous environment. At the same time, the artists postulate that Lenin caught an ultimately fatal dose of syphilis in a Zurich brothel, so that the Socialist utopia was a series of deliriums.

One corridor contained photos of scenes from The Magic Mountain, scenes tracked down at different sanatoria in Davos. These scenes became matrices for the life of an isolated group, where mathematical notions of time and space are irrelevant, and travel is only possible on a mental and linguistic level. A central-winged altarpiece set the Swiss Cross and the Red Cross in opposition to one another, the two flags overlapping in an erotic and ideological red unity.

19-91, 1992, the parallel installation at the Galerie Walcheturm, likewise analyzed personal dealings with images and utopias. Here, the visions and dreams of a 91-year-old man were contrasted with those of a 19-year-old girl. The rule of communism—the 74 years from 1917 to Mikhail Gorbachev’s retirement from office—was compared to a human life. The artists made it clear that this ideology never aged. The senile old man’s relationship to the communist utopia corresponds to his perverse dreams of naked young girls, here visualized in photos and paintings; but the 19-year-old girl’s pictures are equally naive—paintings of torture instruments and religious worshipers with distorted sensory organs, all seeming to indicate a pathological egocentricity. As in earlier exhibitions (in 1990, for instance, at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle), the “wedding” and solution took place in the central object: the sterile couple (the 19-year-old and the 91-year-old), lying in separate coffins, were lowered under what looked like white mountains of snow, or else of bubble bath.

Claudia Jolles

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel