View of “Russian Performance: A Cartography of its History,” 2014.

View of “Russian Performance: A Cartography of its History,” 2014.

“Russian Performance: A Cartography of its History”

View of “Russian Performance: A Cartography of its History,” 2014.

Based on years of archival research, “Russian Performance: A Cartography of its History” provided a comprehensive overview of the subject over the last hundred years, from the artistic experiments of the early Russian avant-garde through the Moscow Conceptualism of the 1970s to the political post-perestroika work of the “New Wave” and Moscow Actionism groups, the apolitical collective performances of the early 2000s, and the renewed interest in activism and politics in performance in the 2010s. An enlarged photograph of the anti-Putin protest group Pussy Riot (by prominent Moscow photographer Igor Mukhin) was the not-so-subtle exit point of the exhibition.

Rather than articulating performance as a genre, through which questions are produced only by the medium itself, the exhibition embedded the medium in very a specific sociopolitical and cultural context, with its own questions, issues, and anxieties. This raises the question of how performance has been defined through art history: more often than not with a strong, if not exclusive, focus on a Euro-American context, associated with the transgressive, bodily, or identity politics of those artistic practices that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s. An exhibition of this kind can revise that history even as it is being written. Performance is a medium that escapes a stable definition, mainly because its manifestations are as varied as the artists practicing it. This wide range was reflected in the exhibition, and its organizers (Garage curator Yulia Aksenova and its head archivist, Sasha Obukhova) actively destabilized the definition of performance. The show’s first room featured some obvious examples, such as the 1913 Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. But then the focus shifted to the theatrical experiments of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Sergei Eisenstein—traditionally shown as part of theater history, yet now framed as Russian performance in a broader sense—as well as filmed and photographic documentation of mass revolutionary demonstrations and parades that took place in Russia in the 1910s and ’20s. Performance beyond any artistic intention, without any institutional framework, and solely designed for ideological purposes? The proposition may seem exaggerated, but it is certainly thought-provoking. And one only need recall the often extreme interventions of the Moscow Actionists to realize the fine line between artistic intention and public domain—most notably Alexander Brener spray-painting a green dollar sign on one of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1997, as documented in a previous exhibition at Garage.

A striking aspect of “Russian Performance” was its exhibition design, executed by FORM Bureau. Each room represented one decade in the chronology of performance history in Russia, with the zeitgeist of each chapter reflected in the room’s setup and styling. Thus the pre-revolutionary avant-garde had a salon-style installation, while a bridge, literally as well as metaphorically, spanned the four decades of the Communist dictatorial regime during which figurative art was the only possible artistic expression. The Moscow Actionists and their contemporaries of the 1990s were shown in a more straightforward, industrial manner, and the most recent performances were shown in a black maze occupied by flickering screens and light boxes. Some of the archival material and documentation was made available through ingenuous digital interfaces, which provided a lot of useful information but were at times also confusing rather than clarifying. Though FORM could be praised for their bold choices, the overall result also felt a bit incoherent and often overdesigned.

With this exhibition, a history of performance within a national logic led to significant insights into how art history is written today. It will be fascinating to see how artists will engage with the current political and artistic climate in Russia and how this will further impact performance practice at large in the years to come.

Hendrik Folkerts