Sergei Bugaev

Splash-painted in oil or tar onto a white gallery wall, the title of Sergei Bugaev’s installation Stalker 3, 1996/2002, could be that of a low-budget slasher film, but it soon became clear that a different kind of terror was being evoked. The cinematic reference is to Andrei Tarkovsky’s densely allegorical 1979 film, Stalker, in which a tormented guide, or “stalker,” leads two hapless seekers through the treacherous terrain of the mysterious Zone (Tarkovsky called it “a diseased area”) in search of a room where one’s ultimate desires might be realized. The distributed version of that film is said to be the second, after the director destroyed the original. So Bugaev (aka Afrika) made a third version, inspired by Tarkovsky’s statement that “the ideal cinema is a newsreel.”

Inside the large dark center room of this three-room installation, a strange kind of newsreel was projected: a fifty-three-minute videotape recording the ambush of the Russian army’s 245th Motorized Infantry Regiment by a small band of Arab mercenaries (led by a Jordanian Al Qaeda operative) in Chechnya on April 16, 1996. The military convoy, formed mostly of young, poorly trained draftees, was returning home two weeks into a cease-fire; the tape, made by the Arab guerrillas, was intended for later use as propaganda.

It takes some time to determine what one is watching in this furtive, menacing tape. The interference of both image and sound produces an atmosphere of dark foreboding, as the convoy slowly rolls into the valley below. Suddenly, the roar of heavy artillery fills the air, and the images become erratic. Trucks at the head and tail of the convoy are blown up, trapping the other vehicles. Then missiles, grenades, and gunfire rain down until every soldier in the column is dead. The tape picks up later, when the Arab fighters go through the torched vehicles to pull out incinerated bodies and parade them around in a grisly celebration. The propaganda video ends with footage of a funeral for Chechen fighters, lingering on the faces of the dead and their mourners. The message is clear: Our dead deserve respect, theirs do not.

Although the tape (recovered by Russian security forces from a dead operative) is darkly compelling, the real power of the piece arose from a room on the other side of the screen. The artist had thrust a length of PVC pipe through the screening wall, impaling the images. In the room behind the screen, this pipe had spewed what looked like crude oil against a wall covered with white rabbit skins. Images from the tape, printed onto enamel plates and stuffed into specimen trays, were strewn on the floor in what looked like a makeshift lab; Plexiglas rods wrapped in rabbit fur leaned against the walls. What we were seeing was the aftermath of the artist’s attempt to transform the brutal images of war into something less toxic. But this hands-on, Beuysian approach to symbolic exchange is fouled by the thick oil that contaminates everything and obscures distinctions.

Bugaev’s work has long dealt with the underlying psychic disturbances of the new Russia, treating its politics as psychopathology and its psychopathology as politics. The artist’s installation in the 1999 Venice Biennale centered on a tape of a man being strapped to a table and given electroshock treatment. (Drafted into the Russian army to fight in Afghanistan in the mid-’80s, Bugaev refused, and was incarcerated in a mental institution for a month.) The visceral shock of the images threatened to overwhelm the artist’s attempt to aesthetically transform them. But in this latest work, the attempt at transfiguration carries its own charge; the artist operated more like the stalker in Tarkovsky’s film, who guides others through the Zone, where the old order has collapsed and chaos reigns. Bugaev is a thoroughly Russian artist, but he works in the zone between worlds (the old “first” and “second”), trying to innoculate others against what he has called the “semiotic terror” coming from all sides (and promising to fulfill all desires). One of the only defenses against this terror is to bring covert ideological images out into the open and to radically, aesthetically, transform them. In this installation, the attempt itself becomes a memorable image.

David Levi Strauss