Igor & Svetlana Kopystiansky

I’d forgotten just how loudly the noise of outside traffic used to echo in my Manhattan apartment. But when I walked into Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky’s exhibition I felt like I was back there overlooking Broadway: Lisson Gallery’s downstairs spaces were permeated by a roar of the streets such as I’ve never heard here in London, where drivers use the horn considerably more sparingly. What I’d always tried so hard to ignore had taken on aesthetic significance in the sound track to the pair’s two-channel video projection Incidents, 1996–2002, and was just as appropriate to the second (otherwise silent) work whose space it invaded, The Day Before Tomorrow, 1999. The latter was a slide projection sequence whose two adjacent screens showed always similar yet never identical shots of banal SoHo street scenes. It’s a demonstration of how a collaborative project can be built out of two near but distinct viewpoints: The couple stood next to each other snapping the same views, so the differences between what appears on the two screens are entirely the product of small differences in position and the speed with which each artist pushed the shutter button. One’s attention is engaged partly by the ghostlike presence of passersby fading in and out of view and partly by the even more intangible presence of the two invisible people who registered their movements.

A similar method must have been used to make three untitled diptychs of color photographs showing quantities of paper piled up for recycling, also clearly on the streets of New York. But it’s harder to tell if the same is true of the two sequences of video clips of rubbish being blown around by the wind—cups, cartons, bags, cans, and newspapers whose movements seem almost balletic—that make up Incidents, since the same compare-and-contrast structure is not evident here. What is clear is that the Kopystianskys are concerned with a lyricism of the discarded and the insignificant. That this has been a constant in their work since the beginning of their collaboration was made clear by the pieces exhibited in the upstairs spaces here, all dating from the late ’70s and as focused on overlooked or negligible sights of Moscow as the more recent works were on those of New York. Two black-and-white films from 1979 (presented on video), Steps Sole Sound and 16x, concern nothing more or less than the simple acts of looking up or down. In the former, fluid camera movements follow random traces and footsteps in the snow, while in the latter, a series of brief shots with a stationary camera present the graphic patterns of electrical, telephone, and cable-car lines against an overcast sky.

Also shown were production stills from several other films made in 1978 and 1979; the films themselves mysteriously disappeared from the artists’ Moscow studio in 1984, but the stills alone are powerfully enigmatic. Images like that of a typewriter buried among fallen autumn leaves (from White Glow, 1978) or some numerals painted, worn away, and repainted on a wooden surface (49, 1978) are strikingly self-sufficient yet pregnant with suggestion. The two camera-based bodies of work shown here, for all the similarities that leap across more than two decades, may seem strikingly different from the work that first garnered the Kopystianskys Western attention, in the late ’80s—work that was, broadly speaking, tied to the traditional arts of painting and sculpture. Yet their thematics of the abandoned or destroyed object have remained remarkably consistent.

Barry Schwabsky