Andrei Monastyrski, Self-Portrait 2001, 2012, C-print, 14 3/4 x 19 5/8". From the series “Self-Portraits,” 2012.

Andrei Monastyrski, Self-Portrait 2001, 2012, C-print, 14 3/4 x 19 5/8". From the series “Self-Portraits,” 2012.

Andrei Monastyrski

Andrei Monastyrski, Self-Portrait 2001, 2012, C-print, 14 3/4 x 19 5/8". From the series “Self-Portraits,” 2012.

All day long and half the night, Andrei Monastyrski and his dog wander through the city. It’s cold in Moscow, the ground covered with snow. To make his photo series “Self-Portraits,” 2012, the charismatic cofounder (with Nikita Alekseev, Georgi Kizevalter, and Nikolai Panitkov) of the Collective Actions (Kollektivnye deistviya) group inserted his own image into random urban settings, posing as stiffly as Pinocchio. In Self-Portrait 2001, he’s flipped up the visor of his fur cap and stares into the camera with wide-open eyes. Generically the gesture signifies fear, horror, or surprise, but Monastyrski makes it veer off into grotesque comedy and slapstick. With this ostentatious show of outrage, he responds to the repressive atmosphere of the Soviet era, when artists either withdrew to private apartments or headed out to the noman’s-land on the outskirts of the city.

The artistic chronology traced by these self-portraits begins in 1954 and reaches far into the future. But the dates are false, suggesting a temporal sequence belied by the unchanging appearance of the artist himself. From a historical distance and under changed political and social conditions, Monastyrski reflects once more on the Cold War and the era when “history became form,” to quote Boris Groys, describing that admixture of economic hardship and utopian potential driving the artists he called “Moscow Romantic Conceptualists.”

In the gallery’s main space, three historical videos (The Russian World, 1985; TO I. MAKAREVICH, Music of the meteorites, 1989; and ROPE, 2007) documented Collective Actions’ political and aesthetic discourse. Among their “Trips out of Town”—as the group termed their activities and related documents for more than thirty-five years—The Russian World holds a position of particular importance, as it features key figures of Russian Conceptual art, including Ilya Kabakov, Yuri Leiderman, Vadim Zakharov, and Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky. They all assembled on March 17, 1985, in a snowy field near the village of Kyevy Gorky, a good hour and a half outside Moscow and difficult to reach. Without being clear on where they were going and what was going to happen there, the artistic avantgarde set off into the unknown: an existential exercise bypassing the powerful Communist cultural apparatus that has prohibited assemblies of all sorts.

Monastyrski calls for a radical reduction to minimal structures (“empty actions”) as a characteristic element of the performances. Beyond this, he investigates space, time, and the interaction of author, participant, and viewer. In the absence of a larger audience, the artists and their friends organize themselves into an oppositional public. “We had our own world,” Kabakov recalls, “parallel to the real one, and this world had been created and compressed by the Collective Actions group.” Although performance constitutes the primary material of the work, “secondary materials” such as photographs, videos, texts, and drawings are collected and archived with a virtually bureaucratic zeal. Only reluctantly does Monastyrski part with his treasures even today.

For his show in Vienna, this influential virtuoso of participation reflected on the relationships between the analog and digital worlds. He loaded the documentation of his performance events from the period 1976 to 2011 onto a memory chip and placed it in a hippopotamusshaped jewelry box. The container, made in China, no doubt plays a similar role to that of the boxes and crates that once held the props for actions: a few ropes used in a work from 2007 or a pot of water in the ’80s, and now—thanks to the wonders of digital technology—nothing less than a life’s work.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.