The Political Poseurs of Contemporary Russian Art

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It is always a thankless task to review a show against the backdrop of current political events. But there are exhibitions that just ask for this approach. This goes for “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art,” a two-part exhibition split between The James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center and the e-flux gallery on East Broadway, that drew-in large crowds on its opening night. Both installations are curated by Russia-born prominent art scholar, writer, and curator Boris Groys. Peculiar and intense, with an abundance of narratives and concepts — reflected in the curator’s labeling of the exhibited works as “Russian Post-Conceptual Realism” — this rather fragmented representation of contemporary art in Russia is a thought-provoking event.

Taken together, the works displayed in these two galleries expose a major problem of contemporary art in Russia: its self-mythologizing escapism. In his curatorial statement, Groys neatly puts the works into categories and paradigms of the leftist tradition that “has two components that do not always correlate perfectly with each other: a critical one, and a utopian, ‘life-building’ one.” I tried to retrace the works in the show to understand which component each represents, but all I discovered was the widening gap between the two, which I re-interpret as a gap between criticism and disengagement. It appears that this distance is the actual “object” of the exhibition.

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One can get weary of the curator’s and Russian artists’ disproportionate dwelling on the past. But it’s the efforts to reanimate old myths as well as the proclivity to present Russia as, still, a pioneer of social-political utopias, paralleled only by natural phenomena (think: Sun), or conceptual artists of the 70s (think big: “land art”) that raise eyebrows. In a country where the economy tends to self-destruct and culture suffocates; where government control over cultural institutions is excessive (the recent — though only one of many — firing of the director of the State Tretyakov Gallery by the government administrators is an example); where the art scene’s dependency on all-mighty oligarchs, whose fortunes are based on fraud and close ties to Putin’s government, is all so overwhelming, it’s hard to see a dream world of social revolution. But the artists are dreaming and the audiences are invited to join them. As a part of the experience, there was even a session of hypnosis, helpfully provided by Anton Vidokle’s performance during the opening at e-flux gallery.

Among the “critical” works in the show at James Gallery, I particularly enjoyed the video projection of St. Petersburg-based collective Chto Delat entitled “The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger,” which, through a series of monologues, gives voice to the generational depression and lost hope Russians feel toward chronic injustices. Chto Delat’s collectivist but lonely reflections on the historical condition of contemporary Russia is discomforting. And this unease is immediately echoed in Keti Chukrov’s film “Love Machines,” which, like Chto Delat, employs all the techniques and apparatus of Brechtian theater (minimal scenery, long monologues sometimes sung, estranged acting by an unprofessional cast, the changing of sets in front of the viewers) in order to address the same generational discontent. In the video, which toys with the theoretical concept of “post-humanity,” a couple of sex androids land in Moscow to intervene in the life of desperate Moscowites. Interestingly enough, the film appears as a critique of the entire show as it revolves around the theme of powerless communities, which are dealing with the loss of meaning in their life and in their labor.

With respect to the complexity of these works, and with an eye to the fact that both are produced collectively, one should however wonder: is it enough to reveal a collective resignation, through the tactics of laying bare theatrical devices — the art of Brechtsploitation? — to make contemporary art “critical”? Would it not make more sense to direct this collective energy to producing an actual critical art practice, instead of indulging in lamentations and theorizations about indecisiveness and melancholia (“To be a cow is my fate, and I can’t change it,” – says one of the characters in “Love Machines”)? Or, wouldn’t it be better to enhance a utopian / dystopian moment?

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A significant number of works in the show tend to excavate the past in order to remind us of the lost potential of Russian modernity that would have privileged humanity over the needs of industrialization and technological progress had Stalinism not happened. Based on his own theoretical ramifications, Groys included a few works that supposedly reanimate old utopias repressed by the failed promises of Communism in the USSR. There is a peculiar video titled “Walking the Sea” by Anton Ginzburg that most art historians would love: it shows the artist traveling to the basin of the now dried-out Aral Sea, a part of the former Soviet Union industrial site located in Kazakhstan. This overly aestheticized journey seems to draw pictorial parallels with the famous proto-modernist and modernist artworks such as Gustave Courbet’s and Robert Smithson’s.

But the question that seems to be missing from the exhibition is this: How do we look at the past? Why do we cut slices of history for display, or trim out its utopian aspects in order to illuminate some of them and to obscure others? This inability to connect with history as a whole is clearly a symptom of repression. This is exemplified by the installation “Resurrection Museum” by Moscow-based Arseny Zhilyaev, dedicated to Nikolai Fyodorov (1829–1903) and his idea that some day the dead will be resurrected and fill up all of cosmic space. The piece consists of a plaster bust of Fyodorov next to a series of images showing smiling families that advertise the artist’s idea of “eternal life” — a kind of sarcastic, postmodernist interpretation of the philosopher’s idea as an attractive new product that promotes humankind’s future.

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The installation did not convince me, however, that the artist attempted to dig into the complexity of the idea of resurrection itself, which is, first of all, a result of spiritual labor. Fyodorov, who was the founder of Russian cosmism, that in turn influenced Dostoevsky and other important Russian thinkers, did, in fact, search for scientific proof of his theories. Anton Vidokle, an artist also interested in Fyodorov (his work “This is Cosmos,” in which he investigates the roots of Russian cosmism, mentions the Russian philosopher), offers up a clue to such theories in his film “The Communist Revolution was Caused by the Sun,” in which he explores the process of atmospheric ionization. But is it really possible, after all of what mankind experienced in the 20th century, to imagine “resurrection” as pure science without taking responsibility for mass atrocities committed in the 20th century? Can we dismiss, for instance, Walter Benjamin’s concept of historical redemption that not even the dead will be safe if the enemy (Fascism, and, one should add, Stalinism) wins? Fyodorov, who died in the beginning of the 20th century, would not be able to answer this question, but we could attempt it. Instead, Zhilyaev’s work trivializes the philosophical idea into a pop-up installation, justifying it with the reference to Fyodorov’s dream of resurrecting the dead archive “from its grave.”

The inability to deal with philosophy is reflected in an inability to deal with political realities. The second part of Zhilyaev’s “archive,” which is presented at the e-flux gallery, consists of press images of President Vladimir Putin, in which his antics (namely, his media appearances showing him kissing a tiger, flying with cranes, fishing, or painting) are displayed as the work of a conceptual artist. The display also suggests a reference to the legendary artist group from the 70s, “Collective Actions,” to which Groys has dedicated a lot of his scholarship and curatorial work over the years. The group is best known for its mysterious, self-isolating performances realized in natural environments and documented in a voluminous archive known as the “Journeys to the Countryside.” By ironically equating Putin with a conceptual artist — display of the images of Putin’s actions resembles the documentation in Collective Actions’ archives — Zhilyaev aims to draw attention to the political numbness of the general public in Russia. It is Putin, indeed, who writes the scenario, not Zhilyaev.

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The stunt, as Groys points out, also alludes to the Sots artists who used images of Brezhnev and Khruschev in their art, making them look like characters of their works in their comments on the Soviet public sphere heavily mediated by ideology. But Sots art was, in some ways, a reflection of the stiff political environment of the 70s, when there was no room for public debate. Today, contemporary artists are working in a different political setting, and seem to be making a deliberate choice to disengage with the public debate and struggle, even while a war continues to escalate with the Ukraine. They, unlike artists before them, have resources and funding, but don’t use them as an opportunity to voice out criticism.

This lack of political imagination leads to the blurring of boundaries between puppets and puppeteers, artists and professional politicians. The artist is animated by the imagination of those in power and with whom he is endlessly fascinated (the video of Putin’s spectacular inaugural procession to Kremlin is included in the gallery display as a part of Zhilyaev’s “archive,” and almost looks like a self-sufficient work.)

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There is an “elephant in the room” at e-flux gallery, and it is wearing a balaklava! The large projection of Pussy Riot’s performances is hidden behind the curtain that separates the space from “Putin section.” Given that Pussy Riot’s work has been seen so many times by so many people, it’s hard to say what role the now-familiar videos play in this exhibition. Groys suggests that they represent the agora or commons that has been formed in Russia by politically active young people and activists dissatisfied with Putin’s presidency. Again, Groys draws a parallel with the 90s generation of Russian conceptualists who used access to public media previously absent in the Soviet period. It’s a justifiable argument, especially if we take into account that Pussy Riot’s performances became known due to the virally circulated YouTube video edited in the aftermath of their mostly unrealized performance at the Church of Christ the Savior. But this reading ought to include the understanding that their enormous reputation was formed by their later imprisonment.

If the exhibition is at all representative of this “agora,” President Putin takes up most of its space. Is this a sarcastic misinterpretation of the word, or a bitter acceptance that an “agora” today is inevitably dictated by overt power, just like in the days of the good old Soviet Union?

Despite the curatorial claim that the works on view represent a new, mature phase in Russian conceptualism, the exhibition does not create a logical historical genealogy for this varied work. But — much to its benefit — “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” addresses certain societal conflicts. However, the exhibition problematically makes the conservative politics that it seeks to criticize a modus operandi of its own criticism, falling into the abyss of self-effacing sarcasm, or impotent escapism. Or, is it just a Russian love for the universe, vocalized by a crying woman in Keti Chukhrov’s play: “I have a typical Russian quality: I know how to love the universe, being childish and naughty”?

“Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” continues at The James Gallery (365 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) and e-flux (311 East Broadway, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 28.

Tagged as: Anton Ginzburg, Anton Vidokle, Arseny Zhilyaev, Boris Groys, Chto Delat, Contemporary Russian art, CUNY Graduate Center, James Gallery, Nikolay Fyodorov, Pussy Riot, Sots art, Vladimir Putin