Russian Post-Conceptual Realism
by Boris Groys
(essay for the exhibition Specters of Communism at E-flux and James Gallery)
After twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet
Union, a new generation of Russian artists have taken a central position on the contemporary Russian art scene. Their artistic attitude can be characterized as post -conceptual realism. Like their contemporaries around the world, these artists shift their attention from individual artworks or artistic performances towards their social and political context. In the times of the historical avant-garde, and especially the Russian avant-garde, the slogan “art into life” was understood as an attempt to change life in its totality. As Marshall McLuhan has said: “the artists moved from the ivory tower to the control tower.”
Today, the artistic interventions into life are not aimed at achieving total control over life processes. Rather, these interventions have the goal of provoking reactions and responses inside the social milieux in which these interventions take place. Thus, the new
realism does not passively represent the image of external reality but rather intervenes in this reality—and documents the results that offer an insight into its inner structure. In this respect, this contemporary realism uses artistic means that were developed by conceptual art of the 1970s. Conceptual art had already begun to use the medium of installation to reflect on the contexts of art and conditions under which art functions. Contemporary art uses the same technique outside of art spaces to turn reality itself into a kind of artistic installation. Of course, such a life installation cannot be shown, only documented. So here one can speak about documentary realism because the unified realistic image becomes substituted by an arrangement of texts, photos, videos, and so forth that can be potentially extended, modified, or transferred to other media. The artistic form becomes variable and open. In this way, it is compatible with the internet and other contemporary information networks. The artists whose works are represented in the framework of this exhibition live in Russia (Arseny Zhilyaev, Keti Chukhrov, the artists forming the groups Chto Delat, and Pussy Riot) or in New York (Anton Vidokle, Anton Ginzburg, Alina and Jeff Bliumis). But even if these artists live in different places, they share the same cultural space. This space is defined by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Thus, contemporary Russian artists do not only react to the current social and political situation in Russia, but also undertake a reappraisal of the Soviet past. Indeed, such a reappraisal seems unavoidable because contemporary Russian culture is a haunted place—haunted by specters of its communist past.
These specters become especially active when somebody attempts to manifest leftist, critical attitudes in the context of contemporary Russian society. In today’s Russia, leftist positions in politics and art appear highly suspect and become almost instinctively rejected by the majority of the Russian cultural class. Namely, these positions become immediately associated with nostalgia for the Soviet Union—nostalgia that is compromised by its many unpleasant neo-Stalinist, nationalist, and xenophobic protagonists. The majority of Russian critics of the contemporary Russian political and economic system criticize it precisely for its “Soviet leftovers” (sovetskie perezhitki)—exactly in the same way that Soviet society in the 1920s and ’30s was criticized for its “bourgeois leftovers” (burzhuaznye perezhitki). According to these critics, all the problems of contemporary Russian capitalism are merely effects of Soviet leftovers like authoritarianism, bureaucratic control, and corruption. So the only remedy seems to be to introduce “normal capitalism” in Russia—even if it remains unclear what shape this normalization process should take and what its goal could be. Indeed,such normalization does not seem very promising if one looks at “normal” Western -style capitalism. The central problem of contemporary Russia is extreme economic inequality that resulted from post -Soviet privatization. But the growth of economic inequality and the gradual disappearance of the middle class are also characteristic of contemporary Western societies. Even if the Soviet Union was indeed historically unique, contemporary Russia is not. Under current conditions of Russian life, to be
on the left simply means seeing Russian capitalism merely as a particular case of global capitalism. And it also means being able to reuse the tools and methods of the critique of capitalism that were produced and accumulated by the intellectual tradition of the left throughout its long history.
Here one must say, though, that during the Soviet time this critical tradition was ignored
if not downright suppressed. The Marxist and, in general, leftist tradition has two compo-
nents that do not always correlate perfectly with each other: a critical one, and a utopian,
“life -building” one. Under Soviet conditions the life -building component triumphed. The goal of theoretical discourse was seen not to criticize the status quo, but rather to develop a vision of the communist future and prepare society for its arrival. If they wish to continue the leftist critical tradition, contemporary Russian intellectuals or artists have to go back in time to the first decades of the twentieth century or appropriate the Western critical tradition from the Frankfurt school to recent French philosophy. But at least in one respect, contemporary Russian artists can continue a much more recent tradition—that of Moscow conceptualism of the1970s and 1980s. The Moscow conceptualists, as well as so-called sots artists, practiced critique of ideology—not only of the official Soviet ideology, but of every kind of ideology. And they also developed artistic devices and methods that allowed them to reflecton the Soviet reality that surrounded them. In this sense their art was already realistic and critical. The protagonists of Moscow conceptualism combined art practice and theoretical writing because they did not trust any interpretation of their work coming from outside. The new generation of Russian artists also continues this tradition of self -interpretation.
In his installations, Arseny Zhilyaev documents suppressed aspects of Russian and Soviet
history but also comments on the functioning of a contemporary Russian media space in
which sensational news about UFOs and meteorites circulate together with depictions of
Putin’s quasi -artistic actions, like kissing a tiger or finding antique amphorae at the bottom of the sea. Of course, by interpreting Putin as one of Russia’s contemporary performance artists, Zhilyaev produces an ironic effect—similar to the effect Russian artists of the1970s produced as they interpreted Stalin as an artist. But at the same time, this treatment shows the difference between the two leaders: Stalin acted behind the scenes as a hidden puppeteer whereas the contemporary leader takes center stage as a showman, a hero of mass culture. Thus, Zhilyaev’s installations allow Russian spectators to grasp their own time in relation to the previous, Soviet time. Here it is important to say that Zhilyaev is not only an artist but also a curator and writer. He writes on artistic and political topics in left-wing magazines and the appropriate websites, and curates exhibitions of other contemporary Russian artists.
The same can be said about St. Petersburg’s group Chto Delat, which comprises not only artists but also philosophers and poets. The group works primarily in the medium of video. Every video the group has produced functions as a documentation of a theater performance. The individual pieces thematize the cultural and political issues with which the left is confronted in the contemporary world in general, but more specifically in Russia. Here the theater functions as a substitute for the absent political agora. Characteristically, every performance is structured as a succession of monologues in which different personae present their world views, moral concerns, emotional motivations, and political attitudes. One can situate these videos in the tradition of Brechtian theater, though they are less didactic. One can say they are not only Brechtian but also Bakhtinian: every protagonist’s monologue presents his or her own “truth” that is contradicted but not negated by other monologues. At the end of every piece, the spectator has an impression
of having acquired a certain knowledge—the knowledge of the contemporary situation
of the left and the existential options that this situation offers to its potential participants.
Keti Chukhrov is also interested in theater—her poetic and poignant video Love Machines also looks like a documentation of a theater performance. Chukhrov works as a philosopher, writer, poet, and art critic. She writes not only theater pieces but also theoretical texts on theater and performance. However, her artistic and theatrical performances are not so much presentations of certain ideas and attitudes. Rather, they demonstrate a gap between the intellectual attitudes of the Russian leftist activists and their real social behavior. In a certain sense her video is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s novels that thematized the conflict between the progressive ideas to which the protagonists of these novels were publicly committed and their deep, often conflicting psychological makeup.
But if these artists create the political agora by means of the theater, the group Pussy Riot
turned the whole of Russia into the stage for their performance Punk Prayer, with which they became internationally famous. In many ways, Pussy Riot continues the tradition of Moscow actionism of the1990s. At that time independent Russian artists and curators had access to the public media, which they lacked during the whole Soviet period. They began to organize their performances in the most publicly visible places, including Red Square in Moscow. These performances were politically provocative and often obscene. However, nobody went so far as Pussy Riot did when they staged their Punk Prayer in the country’s most prominent church—the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The Cathedral has a long history. It was initially built in the nineteenth century to celebrate the victory over Napoleon. Then it was destroyed in Stalin’s time because the leadership had planned to build the Palace of Soviets in its place The Palace was never built—and the Cathedral was restored after the end of the Soviet Union. In other words, the Cathedral functions in the contemporary, post-communist Russia as its main symbol—and also as a symbol of the restored power of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is precisely this alliance between the Orthodox Church and the new Russian state that Punk Prayer was directed against. The leading members of the group were put in prison for sometime, but the court procedure gave them an opportunity to publicly make their point and start a discussion about the new role of the Church in contemporary Russia—a discussion that was long overdue but avoided by all potential participants. Here the political conflict was not merely staged but also powerfully unveiled.
The New York artists Alina and Jeff Bliumis are also looking for an audience beyond the art
system. But they do so not in a politically provocative manner, but rather an intimate way.
Their project of offering an artwork in exchange for a dinner nostalgically refers to the apartment exhibitions during the Soviet 1960s and ’70s organized by unofficial Russian artists for their families and friends. Here the art economy is brought back to its pre-market state—the artwork loses its status of commodity and becomes a gift met by a counter -gift. The artists cease to be isolated from the art consumers by the cold, impersonal machine of the art market. It is this return to intimate reactions and relations to art that the artistic practice of Bliumis provokes, demonstrates, and celebrates.
However, these contemporary artists rediscover not only the critical and realistic but also
utopian and life -building traditions of the Russian left. This utopian tradition should not
be too simply identified with the official communist promise of economic equality, collective
well-being, and realization of the principle of everybody “working according to one’s abilities and consuming according to one’s needs.” This promise was, in fact, often accused of being too consumerist and petit -bourgeois. And it was especially criticized by many Russian authors at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for, as every consumerist ideology, ignoring the problem of death. Indeed, how can a society be called happy if it is still reigned over by death?
At the end of the nineteenth century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov proposed
the project of the Common Task. According to this project, the goal of modern society must be to achieve victory over death, including the artificially produced resurrection of all men who lived in the past. Only liberation from domination by death can make the society of the future truly happy. And the promise of immortality should also be extended to previous generations, because otherwise the present society would be based, as every other society before it, on inequality between the living and the dead. According to Fedorov the resurrected dead should be spread all over cosmic space—so that the cosmos can become the true home of immortal mankind. Here a political and technological project is substituted for the transcendent Paradise promised by the Christian faith. Russian Cosmism is utopian but its utopia is materialist, realist. The ideas of Cosmism deeply influenced many writers and artists of the Soviet avant-garde.
At the beginning of the1920s there was even a political party—the party of Biocosmists-lmmortalists—whose goal was to make official the right of every Soviet citizen to rejuvenation, immortality, and free movement in cosmic space. Alexander Bogdanov, one of the creators of the Bolshevist Party, founded an institute for rejuvenation through blood transfusion, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky planned for the first Soviet rockets to bring the resurrected dead to other planets. Today, Anton Vidokle rediscovers in his videos the radical utopian projects of Russian Cosmism and looks for the traces that these projects left after the end of the Soviet Union. Indeed, even if these projects themselves were abandoned, they consciously or unconsciously motivated the Soviet space program and the fascination with the cosmos that was especially characteristic of the Soviet 1960s.
The same attempt to change and reshape the material conditions of human exist-
ence also motivated the huge late -Soviet irrigation projects that aimed to reverse the
course of the great Siberian rivers toward the deserts of Soviet Middle Asia. In his videos,
Anton Ginzburg finds the remnants of the gigantic “earthworks” of the Soviet era and
compares them to works of American land art.
The artists in this exhibition continue the tradition of the Russian avant-garde as well as
its critical analysis in the works of Moscow conceptualism of the1970s and ’80s. Already
this artistic genealogy brings these artists into conflict with current official Russian cultural
politics. This politics is deeply conservative. It appeals to the values of pre -revolutionary
Russia and condemns all forms of liberatory aspirations and movements as ultimately leading to bloody revolution, collapse of the state, economic misery, and political terror. Time becomes ideologically suspect again. In Soviet times, Russian avant-garde and unofficial artworks were suppressed or ignored for being politically unreliable and aesthetically non-conformist.
Today, they are condemned again by the dominant conservative ideology for be-
ing too pro -communist or too Soviet. The current cultural conservatism brings Russia back to 1913—to the historical period preceding the wars and revolutionary upheavals of the twentieth century. But the denial of communist modernization also leads to the denialof
modernity as such. Indeed, the Russian avant-garde was an integral part of the global modernization process of the twentieth century. When contemporary Russian conservative
ideologues are confronted with the history of Western modernization they discover worker
movements, Western communist parties, avant-garde art influenced by Malevich and
Tatlin, and literary writing and philosophy influenced by Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. In other
words, in the West they find all the things that they hate in the history of their own country.
And so they begin to hate the West for, as they say, “imposing on them” Russian and Soviet modernity. Thus, contemporary Russian intellectuals and artists can enter the contemporary international cultural context only if they welcome the specters of their own past. The artists presented in this exhibition did precisely that.