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Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art

Review by Laura Herman


Curated by Boris Groys, ‘Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian art’ features at two venues: The James Gallery at the CYNY Graduate Center and e-flux’s space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Saturated with intense thoughts and concepts, the exhibition explores the present social and political reality of the situation in Russia, haunted by specters of its communist past. Seven artists and collectives, based both in Russia and New York, are brought together to address the context of Russia with an angle otherwise unaccounted for in news coverage and the political realm. Denominated as “Russian Post-Conceptual Realism”, the exhibited works, according to Groys, “continue the tradition of the Russian avant-garde as well as the critical analysis in the works of Moscow conceptualism of the 1970s and 80s.”

Groys’ exhibition text is enlightening: he sketches the ambivalence in contemporary Russian art, consisting of artists on the one hand grappling with ideological critique and on the other with the utopian, “life-building” components of Russian leftism, whilst arguing the need to complicate international conceptions of communism, often too easily identified with Soviet authority.

The rediscovery of the utopian project of Russian cosmism, for instance, plays at the entrance of The James Gallery. ‘This is Cosmos’, a video by artist Anton Vidokle reflects notions of Communist futurism in Russia, inspired by the writings of Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov on the promise of indefinite life extensions, immortality, and resurrection. Fueled by a radical belief in a new cosmos on earth, free of violence and inequality, Russian cosmism is a philosophical movement that survived communism and resonates with contemporary ideas of transhumanism. The medium of the film itself enacts the cosmic energy as an irradiation treatment, alluding to the transhumanism altering and improving the human condition by virtue of scientific research and technology. Shots of landscapes alternate with violent red screens, which assert that the screening is not a film, but a form of therapy that will improve the viewer’s health.

Even if utopian projects were neglected under the Soviet Union, the potential of Russian modernity has seeped through the cracks of history and is now being reassessed through the work of contemporary Russian artists. The tension between the old utopia of advancing and altering the material conditions of human existence and the failed promises of Communism under the Soviet Union is equally addressed in ‘Walking The Sea’, a film by Anton Ginzburg on view at the e-flux location. Formerly one of the largest lakes in the world, The Aral Sea, between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has steadily dried-out after the rivers that fed it were redirected by Soviet irrigation projects to water the surrounding cotton fields. History has irreversibly marked the area, creating a barren desert landscape where both fish and fishermen have disappeared. The seabed the artist traverses throughout the film is dry and beige. Ghostly, empty and devoid of life, The Aral Sea how it appears today is symptomatic of a time that has obscured and repressed imaginative aspirations for more hopeful futures.

Whereas Ginzburg and Vidokle draw upon utopian moments to reanimate alternative avenues, leaving the political status quo, other artists directly intervene in the political arena through performance and theater. ‘The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger’, a recorded theatre performance by the collective Chto Delat (What is to be done?), assembles actors in space in Brechtian fashion, to discuss contemporary urgencies, moral concerns, and to take up the generational malaise. Perhaps even more theatrical, is the staged anti-Putin performance ‘Punk Prayer’ by the feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot, in which the group appropriated Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour as their theatre — a stage as problematic and delusory as Ginzburg’s depleted Aral Sea. A piece by Arseny Zhilyaev, presents President Vladimir Putin’s media appearances as artistic performances and political activism adding an ironic note to the exhibition: perhaps ultimately it will be Putin who will, through his controversial actions, continue to draw all the world’s attention toward his persona.

In “Specters of Communism” narratives and paradigms, which were envisaged in former times, and that now reemerge as “specters of communism”, are far more compelling than one might suspect. Probably much more has been obliterated, but it’s the potential of the broad repertoire of artistic strategies and forms employed by Russian post-conceptual realists to connect the world to the unknown, the forgotten and the contemporary urgencies in Russian society, precisely by allowing the specters to return.