The exhibition “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” that opened this past February, simultaneously in two New York locations – the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center and e-flux – will certainly have an impact on the popular reception of Russian art in the United States. Curated by Boris Groys and presenting works by a very commendable list of artists (Arseny Zhilyaev, Keti Chukhrov, the Chto Delat? collective, Anton Ginzburg, Anton Vidokle, Alina and Jeff Bliumis, and ubiquitous as of late, but served under a different sauce – Pussy Riot), it offered a compelling take on the tendencies of post-Soviet art. Given Groys’s sway of influence over the hearts and minds of the American audience, and the persuasive nature of his rhetoric (often acquired at the cost of historic specificity), we should be prepared to contend with his version of events for a while.
The title of the show openly broadcasts its Derridean premise and is a direct reference to Derrida’s 1993 book The Specters of Marx. (Note that Groys’s refusal to veil his curatorial conceit was not just a deliberate gesture but to some extent an apotropaic one. For him, proclaiming one’s intentions, and rendering the limitations of one’s curatorial artifice maximally explicit, is an act of simultaneous self-assertion and self-irony that firmly posits the claims of the said fiction while inoculating it from external criticism.) Here, Groys reformulated and expanded Derrida’s inquiry into the legacy of Marxism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, interrogating how the collective imagination of communism continues to haunt Russia as well as the West. In this, key Derridean themes were preserved: lingering spectral presences of collective memories, traces of past passions and desires, repaying the debt to one’s ancestors, coming to terms with the complicated legacy that tears “time out of joint,” and doing justice to the past.
Of course, communism is an impossibly broad notion, much broader than Marxism. The framework for this encounter was thus commensurately wide. And the communal specters haunting contemporary Russian art are legion: from Russian Religious Philosophy with its vision of sobornost (the unity of the spiritually-transfigured material world) to Marxist philosophy; and from the revolutionary avant-garde to Moscow Conceptualism, which developed methods of flaying all of the above. An intuition that all participants of the show are bonded, however loosely, by friendship, suggests that yet another broader intellectual, affective, and professional commons is at work. (We saw, for example, Arseny Zhilyaev acting in Keti Chukhrov’s film alongside poet Dina Gatina whose intense face is readily recognizable for those following the Russian literary scene. And Chto Delat?’s videos featured several recognizable left-leaning Russian poets and artists who move within the orbit of this collective.) Perhaps one should add to this spectral assembly Boris Groys himself, whose shadow has for some two or three decades, loomed large over the Western reception, dreams, and desires of Eastern European art.
From his introductory essay, we learn that the displayed artworks were meant to be representative of what he has termed “Post-Conceptual Realism” – thus taking up the banner dropped by the Moscow Romantic Conceptualism (announced in 1979, also by Groys) – a movement that reached formal completion with the fall of the Soviet Union. From the Moscow Conceptualists, “Post-Conceptual Realism” borrows an interest in totalities and historical forms, along with its particular lyricism, irony, and a penchant for ruins (in which the sublime and domestic squalor often overlap). The preface “post” signifies not so much a triumph over an exhausted predecessor, but the logic of accommodating its inheritance. New is the drive to participate in politics and in life, to influence life outside of the gallery: “The new realism,” Groys writes, “does not passively represent the image of external reality but rather intervenes in the reality – and documents the results that offer an insight into its inner structure.” While conceptual art of the 1970s had used the medium of installation to reflect on the contexts and conditions of art, Groys continues, “contemporary art uses the same technique outside of art spaces to turn reality itself into a kind of artistic installation.” The “Realism,” therefore, refers not so much to any artistic practice of representation, but can be understood rather broadly as having “a stake in objective reality” – just as cheap and rough Mexican cigarettes in Bolaño’s The Savage Detective are described as a product “for those with a stake in objective reality.”
This interpretive framework allowed Groys to “kidnap” even Pussy Riot from actionism, situating the group instead within the context of a conceptualism defined by an installation-drive. Their infamous performance in Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior, now visible s a floor-to-ceiling projection on the three walls of the e-flux gallery, appeared as a reclamation of sacred space in the service of new religion, the religion of art, much in line with the “totalitarian ambition” of the avant-garde as discussed Groys’s 1988 book Total Art of Stalinism.
Anton Ginzburg’s film “Walking the Sea” (2013), regarded through Groysean optics, became a tale of how the Soviet ambition to rationally subjugate nature, produced not only an environmental disaster, but also a gigantic “sculpture park” for art-historical ghosts and references. In his piece, Ginzburg takes a stroll in the basin of the Aral Sea, now almost entirely dry thanks to an aggressive Soviet irrigation program. What’s left is a landscape of death, devastation, and primal lunar beauty: dry plants encrusted with the toxic residue of agriculture pesticides and military tests, bones of dead fish, the carcasses of rotten boats and abandoned mass apartment complexes. Accompanying him in this terrain evacuated by life are any number of art-historical trace associations: Land Art, Malevich, the excursions into empty wilderness by the Moscow Conceptualist “Collective Action” group, Thoreau’s essay on walking, and Andrey Platonov’s novella Dzhan.
The narrative of Conceptual Realism, built around a convenient formula of conjoining two essentially irreconcilable notions, does not necessarily presuppose a sequence from conceptualism to realism and can be turned around if necessary. In the cases of Groys’s presentation of Pussy Riot and Anton Ginzburg’s piece, the movement is not from the concept to its realization, but from a real event (act of offence – against the corrupt Patriarch and Putin in one case, and against nature in another), towards ghostly de-politicized conceptualization and aestheticization.
This totalizing approach to art inherent in Groys’s “Conceptual Realism” can, in the Russian context, be traced back to the writings of Nikolai Fedorov (1828–1903) – an idiosyncratic ascetic figure known for uniting religious metaphysics with naturalistic realism. Considered the father of Russian cosmism, Fedorov believed in colonizing space; that universal justice requires the resurrection of all dead ancestors; and that the universe could be transformed into a museum of “transfigured” nature, where the entirety of life would be united by principles of harmony, responsibility, and beauty. Famously, Fedorov juxtaposed the mimetic art of false realism (which he called the “Art of Resemblances”) and the true sacred “conceptual” realism of transformative practices (the “Art of The Real”).
However, while Fedorov was interested in technological and military advances that could have made his aesthetic and philosophical ideas come true, his name as it appeared in this show risked reading as mere shorthand for a specifically Russian, domestic, kooky brand of thinking in totalities, for which the sky is a limit. Perhaps no works in this exhibition better supported Groys’s narrative of “Conceptual Realism” and his conceit of “total installation” than Anton Vidokle’s film “This Is Cosmos” (2014) and the installations of Arseny Zhilyaev – both of which take Fedorov as a leitmotif and which, like Groys’s strategy for this show, also seem to substitute the political with a kind of conceptual environmentalism, where the weight of the cosmos tramples history and transforms it into one large celestial artwork. Communism in this interpretation is very distant from any political movement and for the most part refers to biological and cultural totalities. (Perhaps relevant here: Vidokle is a founder of e-flux, which has served as a main mouthpiece for Groys for many years; so the synchrony of their approaches is not surprising.)
Zhilyaev’s installation at the James Gallery, “RCC YHV Resurrecting Museum at Home” (2014), stood as a fictional version of a provincial museum dedicated to Fedorov and his theories of cosmic resurrection, combining references to Fedorov’s ideas and activity in Voronezh (where the philosopher was involved in the operations of a local museum) with memorabilia from the time when this town was a center of Soviet UFO-research, and ironic advertisements of a firm selling immortality. Beside icons depicting the second coming of Christ, Zhilyaev displayed various items “borrowed” from this non-existent museum, like the drawings of alien-sightings in which visitors from outer space suspiciously resemble hunch-backed, felt-boot wearing workers taking a stroll through a snowfield in low-visibility conditions. Zhilyaev’s work is witty, however it was not at all clear what its “realist” transformative drive could possibly be. Aside from perhaps some wistful nostalgia for Voronezh (also Zhilyaev’s hometown), the installation offered an otherwise self-sufficient, and to a large extent self-mythologizing narrative. Matters stood similarly with Zhilyaev’s piece at the e-flux gallery downtown, where he provided photographs of Putin’s multiple media stunts (kissing animals, diving for ancient amphorae, flying with cranes, etc.) with commentary interpreting them as conceptual art actions. All of this is smart, entertaining, and well executed, but “domesticating” Putin by including him as part of the conceptualist’s privileged inner circle is a far cry from confronting politics. This is rather puzzling, as Zhilyaev’s rhetoric otherwise is full of political pathos: Identifying as a socialist, he actively calls for an art of the masses that would stand in opposition to “post-modern” self-aestheticization and posturing – a formulation that, from Voina to Eduard Limonov, has so far proved the most effective strategy in Russian protest art and politics.
The pathos returns with Chto Delat?. Their 2014 video “The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger,” featured the students of the collective’s (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation funded) School of Engaged Art, tells the story of the Bildung of young political subjects. Among the techniques set forth in this rather didactic but compelling film, is the mapping of personal experience in history, and the identification with personal political heroes, while simultaneously criticizing the temptation to side with famous martyrs and losers. “Collective,” here, is both a medium and an object of study – an exploration of a group for which the affective and the political are indissolubly intertwined, and for which participation in political life can be a shared emotional event of multivalent significance.
Also featured in this exhibition, Keti Chukhrov, a remarkable poet, critic, theorist, and performer, whose work pointed to other aspects of the political potential of this, “theatre of co-producers.” Unlike Chto Delat?, however, Chukrov’s work does not rely as much on a Brechtian mode of political entertainment, and rather than representing the collective transformative potential of theatre, it aims to enact it. Offering another form of communist activity, Chukhrov’s work, deftly wields a most cruel and sober critique of contemporary life and class relations tempered by emotional depth and compassion. In her 2013 video “Love-Machines,” for example, she probes the contradictions of life in contemporary Moscow through a work that has ingrained notions of the communal on several levels: practically, as a collaboration between Chukhrov, the videographer and the actors; and thematically as the play is about relations of inter-species seduction, exploitation, and, love, involving the relations among people, a pair of robots, and a talking cow). In many ways a Dostoyevskian work, “Love-Machines” casts all of its characters – robots and cow included – as political subjects in a collective vision of responsibility that far extends the anthropocentric vision of history.
The “Post-Conceptual Realists” of Boris Groys’s show appeared as Hamlets. Compelled to set things right in their rotting kingdom, they were urged to victory or perfidy by a chorus of ghosts made up of the early revolutionary avant-garde, Moscow Conceptualists, contemporary Marxist discourse, nineteenth-century Russian Cosmism, and the imagined totality of life on Earth. Derrida and Fedeorov, meanwhile, joined voices talking into these artists’ ear. Groys’s narrative of conceptual realism of transforming life by turning it into a large-scale work of art, lent itself better to those pieces, that, despite their brilliance, stood the risk of appearing too formal and too negligent of history and the specificities of its lived experience. From the point of view of political realism, by contrast, I found the projects oriented towards theatre much more compelling. Both Chto Delat?’s and Keti Chukhrov’s pieces grappled with the topic of the emergence of political subjectivity, not in an anthropocentric way, but without bypassing the human altogether.
As Chukhrov writes in her manifesto on “Mobile Communist Theatre,” theatre requires “[learning] to speak in place of many others. This has to be done to understand […] what is happening among us, in our country, in our state, in the world, to understand how to be in it.” And, she asks, “Wasn’t it with this goal that Hamlet launched his ‘theatre’?”