Yuri Albert. Kunst Macht Frei (Art Makes One Free). 2006
Plastic, neon tubes, electric transformers. 220x70 cm
The phrase Kunst Macht Frei employed in the artist's work, is a modified quotation. Signboards with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free) hang above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Similar phrase, Through the Work, To Freedom! was also used as motto in the Soviet GULAG.
While irony, including explicitly cynical one, is quite typical of Sots Art and the Moscow conceptualism, yet it has never taken nationalistic, especially pro-fascist, overtones. There are no such tones in Yuri Albert's work, either. For this conceptual artist, art is primarily a system of links between authors, movements, ideas and works, rather than the creative effort itself resulting in a certain body of artwork. Therefore, the role and importance of an individual artist is defined by the way he positions himself in relation to the system and its parts, the way he defines and interprets them. Much like any other system of relationships, the "system of contemporary art" speculates on the ideal of freedom, while actually being a machine based on rigid causation. Or, to use the author's own words: "The signboard is the same, but, once you enter, you feel frightened: it's a cheat, it's something totally different, even though it may look similar, like a gas chamber may resemble a shower cabin." According to Yuri Albert, the art system of our day is so depraved that even the aesthetic activity itself turns in its context, in most cases, into dull physical work. That's why the substitution of Kunst for Arbeit doesn't change the meaning of the cited slogan: the promise of freedom is still perceived as a mockery.
Yuri Albert. Image of a Caricature of Yuly Ganf (Monkeying). From the series Caricatures of My Childhood. 2001
Acrylic on canvas. 200х160 cm
For Yuri Albert (as well as many of his colleagues), acquaintance with the contemporary art began with studying books denouncing bourgeois aesthetics and the perusal of caricatures depicting the horrors of "abstractionism." It was a time when the recent Western art would appear good in our eyes only for the fact that it was criticized in official Soviet media. Later it became apparent, of course, that things were not that simple. "Being an artist was my dream from childhood," the artist says. "I used to draw (rather badly) plaster casts of classical sculptures, still lives, visit museums, I sat entrance tests to the Art Institute... Now that I grew up, it turned out that there is no art anymore, nor there will ever be, and the only common matter that the things that actually are there have with real art are words: 'exhibition', 'gallery', 'museum', etc."
The mixed tones of love and disillusionment permeate the entire artistic creation of Yuri Albert. They took a perfect expression in the series of painting dedicated to those very Soviet caricatures that the artist saw in his childhood and later began to collect. Reproducing them in a monumental format, Yuri Albert gets something much more complex than the original itself. Such copy represents a strategy typical of contemporary art, its critique and a nostalgic image from childhood, all at the same time. Eventually, is also reflects the artist's irony towards himself as a trivial copyist of things that are not even masterpieces, but run-of-the-mill satirical images from the remote past.
Yuri Avvakumov (with Yuri Kuzin). Red Tower. From the series Temporary Monuments. 1986-88
Wood, metal, plastic figures. 67x50x50 cm
Yuri Avvakumov dedicated his Temporary Monuments series to the Soviet constructivism and its key protagonists. The title of the series is an oxymoron: its objects depict temporary structures (such as construction scaffoldings and industrial cranes) that are removed after the monuments are erected. Besides, their sizes are not at all monumental, and their location – unlike that of real monuments – changes all the time.
One shouldn't also overlook the fact that the title of the series continues the logic of the term "paper architecture" coined by Avvakumov earlier. The term referred to projects of the author himself and his colleagues who participated in international competitions of conceptual architecture and were receiving numerous awards during the 1980s. However, unlike the "paper" projects, the "temporary monuments" were not ordered by any customers but were, rather, created by the author as fundamentally unrealizable conceptual models.
The Red Tower is dedicated to Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953). It is a special device (constructed of scaffoldings and fire escapes) for safe testing of flying machines (of the Letatlin type). The Tower was designed for amusement parks.
All the “Pravda” (Truth) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR. 1974
Newspaper, color pencil on paper, collage. 28.5x36.5 cm
From the series Naked "Pravda" (Thuth). 1975
15 parts. Newspaper, color pencil, typed text, collage on writing paper. 43.5 x 30.5 cm each part
Bakhchanyan is an artist-writer, or, as he defines himself, an "artist of the word." Using this language cliche in a purely ironical fashion, the author demonstrates his favourite trick of turning pompous drool into elegant language formulas. In other words, he is a superb master of the technique and discipline of "deconstruction", or "language critique", to use the slang of the contemporary art theory. Explaining away any of Bakhchanyan's tricks would be tantamount to killing its essence, reducing a marvel of art to a technical triviality. The artist uses for his legerdemain his inexhaustible wit, which, as any wit, is based on spectacular economy of means. An imperceptible replacement of a couple of letters in a word, a change of context, an "identification parade" of a text with a picture, bringing a metaphor back to its literal meaning – these essential methods are always at the artist's hand.
From 1967 to 1974, Bakhchanyan worked at the humor section of Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Newspaper), a publication that was very popular among Soviet intellectuals, produced collages for other media and, after his emigration to the US in 1974, worked as a freelance artist. The sheets of graphics displayed at the exhibition were produced right after the emigration. Here the artist uses clippings from the central communist newspaper Pravda, mixing them with "capitalist" pornographic images. As a result, titles of articles taken out of the context become direct comments to sexual scenes.
The obscenely comical effect is further intensified by the fact that the official Soviet culture remained de-eroticized to a maximum possible degree, so any erotic connotations of the words and expressions used by people were simply ignored. In the colloquial speech, jokes and other examples of folklore, on the other hand, such meanings were emphasized and played upon in all the ways possible. So, when the artist brings together an image of a girl with naked genitals and the logo of Pravda in one of his collages, the term "organ" acquires a purely medical meaning, and the title of the press publication changes its meaning from a generalized and figurative to literal. Bakhchanyan employs the same trick in all the sheets of his Naked “Pravda” (Truth) series.
Gor Chakhal. A Poet and a Pistol. 1990
Mixed media. 120x160 cm
Gor Chakhal began his career in 1980s as a poet seeking to overcome the boundaries between poetry, the visual practice and the lifestyle and perceiving this process as a non-stop performance. His creative activity and behavior were considerably influenced by the romantic stylistics of the Soviet 1960s. The diptych shown at the exhibition is part of the artist's major exhibition project entitled A Poet and a Pistol. Here Gor Chakhal turns himself into a character. The project combines staged genre self-portraits, poems (written in emphatically handwritten graphics), drawings and bright monochrome canvases in the form of a pictorial and poetic diary of a young poet, a fancy dan and romantic.
The right-hand part of the diptych features the following poem:
He went out quietly and pulled the air with his nostrils,
Deeply imbibing all that midnight:
The spring wind, the sky in large stars,
And the rustle of branches, and the sighs of grass.
The arch of the crescent moon is growing pink above the ocean,
Lying almost horizontally.
Lights of ships are seen far away.
And black palms glint mysteriously.
February 26, 1990
Ivan Chuikov. #3. From the series Fragments of a Newspaper II. 1996
Oil on canvas. 118x178 cm
The artist reproduces in his work a fragment of newspaper text. In the center of the composition there is a blank white field expanded so widely that not a single letter can fit its limits. It doesn't mean, however, that Chuikov is interested in working with abstract form. Nor is he at all interested in analytical interpretation of text (newspaper or any other one), although he belongs to the Russian conceptualist school, which treats the newspaper (as a focal point of social and ideological connotations) with special and close attention.
Chuikov looks over and above the specific signs and forms. His main subject is the "relativity and conventionality of any image. There is something else hidden beyond the external shell of the outer world and its images, something we don't know and are unable to name. I am surprised at the very possibility of depicting something, while I realize at the same time that such depiction is inadequate. There is some mystery beyond the things we see, something whose nature doesn't lend itself to any depiction."
In the piece shown at the exhibition this mystery is symbolized by emptiness. In this particular case it emerges as one of the effects of fragmenting. In other works of the artist it becomes an independent story (as in his Apparatus for Observing Void and Infinity, 2000).
Alexander Djikia. Selected works. 1988-1996
Indian ink, felt pen on tracing paper. Diamensions variable
Text is an ever-present element in Alexander Djikia's graphics. Rather than just complementing or explaining the visual image, the word is part of the very formal structure and imagery of the work, refining its tonality and simultaneously partaking of the succinct understatement of the image. This art uses the white color as its dynamic foundation. Alexander Djikia produces most of his works on tracing paper underlain with a sheet of embossed paper, which lends this white void an airy and vibrating quality and a very gentle haze of chiaroscuro. Besides, the artist draws on both sides of the tracing paper, which makes his gradations of void still more varied.
Yet, the choice of the graphics technique is a mere consequence of the visual message whose sources are hidden in the author's subconscious. Some images come from dreams, others take their origin in semi-abstract forms emerging from thoughtless drawing made during a telephone conversation or some other similar activity (in which case they are left by the author on the reverse of the tracing paper sheet and made a part of the end work). Then the drawing phase comes, that the author himself compares to viewing clouds or examining an old wall by touch, when the "geometry" grows from within itself a story, transforms itself into a "ball" of meanings. It is at that moment that symbols evolve, the mythology takes its form and the visual field is marked up with meaning. The left side of a sheet and the blue color are associated in the artist's mind for the realm of death, of everything hostile and negative, while the right side (and the red color) represent life with all the positive, friendly and affectionate things.
It is true, this degree of elaboration of the space and image solutions only came about in the mid-1990s. Djikia's pieces from the previous decade are more straightforward, with fewer layers of meaning and shortened improvisation trajectory. So, while the artist's early works are dominated by social, everyday and autobiographical themes with minimum mythical component, in his later oeuvre it is the mythology (mainly the ancient Greek and Biblical themes) that serves as an axis for the formation of meaning and absorbs other elements of the content.
Dumb Idiot. From the series Lessons of Calligraphy I. 2004
Oil on canvas. 80х100 cm
Hegel. From the series Portraits. 2002
Oil on canvas. 80х60 cm
Oil on canvas. 70х50 cm
With Gutov, there are no rigid boundaries between a word and an image. Nor are there any such boundaries between the thought and the feeling, the art and life (indeed, one of the artist's series is called: "Words are deeds, too"). Everything he knows is directly transported into his artwork and defines its form. Gutov works in most diverse media, yet, reserving a special place to painting: "If there is something miserable, castaway, meaningless and useless in today's world, it is painting. I take this term in its classical meaning. (…) One feels a spontaneous impulse to intercede for something pitiable, rejected by everybody. It's not easy. Serious theories say: painting is where is deserves to be at the moment. It has already depicted everything of any value that it could discover. (…) It is impossible to contradict that, and yet, somehow, one shouldn't agree, either. There is no law saying that we have to put up with the circumstances and adapt our action to them. (…) It opens a space for some creative effort. There is a chance here for re-experiencing the possibility of painting as a fascinating adventure."
The earlier period of Gutov's oeuvre is filled with his love for the 1960s. Although his pictures from this period invariably reproduce the ornamental and design stylistics of the time, they are not marked by any unreflecting nostalgia or aestheticist's stylization. For this committed artist-marxist, the 1960s are the time of the "reverberating unwillingness to put up with the circumstances that are assuredly stronger than we are, and setting of tasks that don't know anything about preset limits." In other words, everything that is typical of his art as a matter of principle.
Gutov's painting procedure is always dedicated to the translation of personal experience and attitude into the "meat" of color. In 2000s he produces small-size paintings where the text and the image turn into an evocative calligraphy. These paintings look as a dance of a hand with brush and a recitative at once. The artist's interest in handwriting – most often in that of great personalities of the past (Marx), but sometimes in his own (Dumb Idiot) is therefore anything but accidental.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Charles Rosenthal. A Woman with a Shawl. 1929. From the installation Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal. 1999
Canvas, oil, wood, fiberboard, light bulb. 162.5x137.5x17.3 cm
This picture-object represents a case of "story within a story", so typical of Kabakov. The artist attributes it to an imaginary person and dates it with 1929. The picture constitutes an element of a major installation Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal (1898 – 1933), imitating a posthumous museum retrospective of the works of this Kabakov's character. Later this installation was incorporated in an even larger-scale three-part installation 'An Alternative History of Arts.'
In the first half of the 1970s Ilya Kabakov, a leading figure of the Moscow Conceptual School (who has been working together with Emilia Kabakov since 1989) creates a program series of albums entitled Ten Characters. Based on the rules of book illustration (a genre in which he worked until the second half of the 1980s), the artist develops in it the main principles of his later-day artwork. It is here, in particular, that we first encounter the figure of an "artist-character" (as well as an author-character); here Kabakov also develops his polysemic symbolism of concepts that will become central to his work: those of the white, the void and the light (which arise from a rethinking of the very basic foundation of the craft of a book artist, the surface of a blank sheet of paper). All these principles will migrate in Kabakov's work from these albums first to pictures and, later, to installations. The latter, in effect, constitute a three-dimensional, monumental form of an illustrated story, the very space in which real viewers meet fictitious characters, and which Kabakov himself refers to as a "total installation."
Hero of the installation-story of Charles (Sholom) Rosenthal is an imaginary Jewish artist of Russian origin who graduated the Schtiglitz School in St. Petersburg, apprenticed with M.Shagal and K.Malevich in Vitebsk and left Soviet Russia for Paris in 1922, where he died in a car accident in 1933 (the year of birth of Ilya Kabakov himself). Through his artistic effort, Kabakov's character tries to discover "the place of the past in the new situation that has arrived", in other words, to combine the realistic representation with the principles of abstract art, Malevich's suprematism. Kabakov presents Rosenthal's problem as not just an artistic, but, primarily, as an existential and mental one. Even as he was taking lessons at the art college, when "asked by the professor, why he couldn't move with the paint towards the middle of the canvas, keeping the painting in this state for a whole week, Charles answered: 'The more I paint, the more I sort of hear a prohibition 'on the destruction of white surface.' The more I 'advance' on the white, the more the 'white' resists and doesn't let me in." And, what is most amazing, my eye sees this white surface as increasingly active and important, and the things that I bring in and paint next to it, as increasingly insignificant and unimportant, as something quite omissible."
Rosenthal's white struggles with the real world with ever increasing tenacity, displacing it. It doesn't only act as plane, but also as luminous space. Indeed, Rosenthal speaks of two types of light: the one that comes from behind the artist's back and illuminates the surface of the canvas, making it a "mirror of light" reflecting the external world, but also of another light, the one that, from the late 1920s on, begins to distinctly "shine through" for Rosenthal from the depth of the canvas, from behind the picture, revealing another, invisible space.
In the picture A Woman with a Shawl Kabakov's character applies a technique already employed by him before to represent this flux of light – namely, setting lamps behind the canvas. Rosenthal is unable to "convey that light, its power and its warmth coming to us from the infinite space; at any rate, it is so many times stronger than the light of the day and all the things illuminated by sunlight." Therefore he resorts to electricity, makes case-like paintings, where the light doesn't only shine through the image, but also creates a geometrical light field in the corners or at the edges. This field transforms the image into a delicate film that only partially covers the luminous space going into depth.
Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Still Life with Marx and Engels. From the series Nostalgic Socialist Realism. 1981-1982
Oil, tempera on canvas. 182.9х137.2 cm
A piece from the most famous series of the inventors of Sots Art created by in 1981-1983 in the USA. To cite Alexander Melamid: "Stalin is a mythical figure. We are not trying to do a political show. This is nostalgia." However, nostalgia, so natural with émigrés, mixes here with equal proportions of irony and myth-building. It is this mixture that conveys to the project its originality that hasn't melted away after so many years since the collapse of the world communist system. As sworn conceptualists, Komar and Melamid are never bound by a single formal manner. Stylistics of each of their projects was determined by its core idea. In Nostalgic Socialist Realism, for example, rather than using the language of Soviet socialist realism, they employ the pompous style of the international official academic painting that is easily recognized by the American public. One should also keep in mind that the beginning of 1980s, when the project was created, was a period when the whole world was experiencing one of the first "renaissances" of painting, along with a revival of the formerly emasculated romantic ideals. Komar and Melamid reconstitute in their series a tempting illusion of high aesthetics, while at the same time disavowing its essence.
Still Life with Marx and Engels is probably the most reticent work in the series. The image represents a typical architectural and sculptural background of a socialist realism picture, in front of which some ritual act (such as a speech of a party leader) usually takes place. In this case, however, there is no action or its "living" characters; the only thing left is the sculpture group - in other words, "dead nature" (nature morte). This background still life was produced using the method of grisaille (a French word deriving from "gris", meaning "gray": a kind of ornamental painting using various gradations of the same color), that, in itself, gives the picture a dead, abstract and idealizing nature. The only "live", color detail are the flowers and fruit laid on the pedestal. But they, too, are just a replica of the still lives decorating Soviet canteens and restaurants in the Stalinist era. Komar and Melamid's irony is based upon the confusion of the literal and the metaphorical, of live and dead, of an original and a copy, of truth and falsehood. To be sure, it doesn't only apply to the visual elements of the picture. The title of the picture, Still Life with Marx and Engels (rather than Still Life with a Sculpture of Marx and Engels) replicates the characteristic tongue-tied bureaucratic speech, in which the meaningful elements are often omitted, making the message an insoluble riddle. On the one hand, the classics of Marxism appear in the picture as "living" characters; on the other hand, they belong to the elements of "dead nature."
Steel, beechwood. 265x85x30 cm
Wall Aggregate. 1992
Metal, wire on plywood. 120x120x12 cm
Wall Aggregate. 1990
Metal, wire, plaster on plywood. 100x75x8 cm
Wall Aggregate. 1992
Metal, ropes, plaster on plywood. 120x120x8 см
Fascinated with technology and design from his childhood, Vadim Kosmatschof made them the central theme of his artistic activity. Each of his sculptures is a game-like construction composed of a number of organic and mechanical elements. All the parts are ingeniously fitted together and work as a single unit. “I design my sculptures like machines“, the author says. “My machines are a complete opposite of the producing machines.” Indeed, the elements of Kosmatschev’s works are connected more like words in a sentence than parts of some mechanism. They are reminiscent of the legacy of Soviet constructivism in the same degree as of biomechanics and surrealists’ automatic writing. Kosmatschev ‘s word-parts easily form some unbelievable hallucinatory agglomerates. Artist’s signature becomes an element of an absurd steel-and-wood construction, while his wall-mounted machines crucified on the picture surfaces, seem to be immersed in the energy field generated by them.
Alexander Kosolapov. Pravda (Truth). 1987
Acrylic, canvas, wood. 41х142х23 cm
One of the pioneers of Sots Art, Alexander Kosolapov has remained faithful to its basic principles for thirty years. Moreover, he is one artist who gives these principles an appearance of a straightforward and universal formula, bringing the language of the Soviet Socialist Realism and the American Pop Art, propaganda and advertising, into a sharp conflict in every particular piece he produces. And, while for Komar and Melamid, the "fathers" of Sots Art, this "style" was an intellectual project, with Kosolapov it becomes a personal version of immediate realism. Having moved to the US in 1975, the artist saw the products of Western mass culture with the eyes of a Soviet man. That is why Coca-Cola slogan turned so easily in his hands into a quotation from Lenin, while the name of Kazimir Malevich, the leading Russian avant-garde artist, easily and naturally replaced the word "Marlboro" on the pack of popular cigarettes.
In his work Pravda Kosolapov uses these Sots Art's bilingual tricks to comment on the phenomenon of Gorbachev's perestroika with its utopian dream of a return to "genuine communism." He combines the logo of the main Bolshevik newspaper with a tentative replica of the counter-relief by Soviet constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin, a symbol of state propaganda with a symbol of free artistic effort subsequently driven underground by the Stalinist regime.
Vladislav Mamyshev (Monroe). Christ. From the series Life of Magnificent Monroes. 1996
Black and white photograph. 57.5x47 cm
The term "artist-character" emerged in Russian unofficial art in 1970s-1980s. Such fictitious "artists" (often with striking resemblance to the real ones) appeared in the artwork of many authors. In 1990s, when an artist, rather than the work of art, definitely comes center stage, the meaning of the term changes considerably. Artists turn into entertainers appearing in various roles and their artistic practice turns into a non-stop performance. Vladislav Mamyshev was one of the most prominent artists-characters of the 1990s-2000s/ He took for his pseudonym the name of Marilyn Monroe, in whose guise he often depicted himself or appeared in public. Monroe, as well as the film star of the Stalinist era, Lyubov Orlova, become favourite, although not exceptional, "role specializations" of the artist. Mamyshev builds his strategy on continuous change of roles, appearances of his characters and material forms of their embodiment (photography, video, performance, high life, etc.). Life of Magnificent Monroes is one of Mamyshev's best-known photographic series, where he appears as characters from various historical periods, from Buddha and Christ to Lenin and Hitler, each time achieving striking likeness.
Boris Orlov. Imperial Bust (Sailor). 1975
Wood, enamel, plaster, podium. Podium: 112х41х41 cm; bust: 87х70х30 cm
One of the pioneers of Sots Art, sculptor Boris Orlov likes to refer to himself as an "imperial artist." It is, of course, only a role in an ironic game played according to his own rules: in real life the artist has never taken governmental assignments. Living in the Soviet Union, a state that was too shy to call itself an "empire", Orlov designed a universal language of ceremonial sculpture based upon the plastic models of the great historical styles, from the Ancient Roman through Baroque, through constructivism.
Imperial Bust (Sailor) is the only finished sculpture from Orlov's early unrealized project An Alley of Heroes. Its centerpiece is a plaster copy of a classical Roman portrait of Julius Caesar, where, however, the head of the Roman Emperor is decorated with a peakless hat of a sailor of the Aurora cruiser (the symbol of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising) and his torso is "draped" in a sailor's tel'niashka and criss-crossed with ammunition feed belts. This work already shows the general outline of the visual construction so typical of Orlov's later sculptural pieces. The face (which in later works becomes an altogether schematic element of the composition) conveys to the work an abstract and heroic sense, and the whole emphasis shifts to the area of the chest. This disproportionately broad chest becomes a field completely reserved for all sorts of symbols (decoration ribbons, distinctions, insignia of particular uniforms, etc.). This is, in effect, the main social and ideological "text", that will later incorporate, apart from symbols, snatches of phrases without any coherent meaning, used just as carrying media of sheer pomposity. The torsos of Orlov's works, unlike their heads, are always painted, but only on the front side: their butts are left untouched, demonstrating the original plastic material.
Anatoly Osmolovsky. Hardware. 2006
11 parts. Bronze. Diamensions variable
Objects composing the series represent models of tank turrets without gun barrels. The number of the turrets corresponds to the number of countries with tank manufacturing industry. There are ten such countries in the world, and the additional eleventh model represents the turret of the brand new Russian tank "Black Eagle." For all their specificity, Osmolovsky's objects (cast in bronze, a traditionally "artistic" material) have a typical appearance of abstract sculpture. In this way the author, a pioneer of Russian neo-formalism, revives the strategy of "double language" (which was also referred to as "double coding") that once had much currency in Moscow Conceptualism and Sots Art.
From the series Northern Trace of Leonardo. 1996/2009
3 parts. Color photograph mounted on dibond. Diamensions variable
Surfacing at Fontvieille Port in Monaco. 2008
Graphite and water color on navigation chart. 163,2x108,4 cm
The artist launched his work on the Utilization of Packs, his most ambitious project, in 1996, with an artistic event entitled Northern Trace of Leonardo. Ponomarev painted in bright colors a submarine of the Russian Northern Navy and set sail, together with its crew, in the Barents Sea. He dedicated this act or artistic conversion to the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, who was the first to suggest an idea and a design principle of a submarine. Inspired by the creative spirit of the great Italian, Ponomarev returned to submarine a function of an aesthetic object and put it at the service of the international artistic community. Since then, Ponomarev's multi-colored submarines have been emerging in different regions of the planet, surfacing in Loire and in the fountain of Tuileries Garden in Paris, in Moskva River and in lake Baikal, in the Atlantic Ocean and close to Antarctica. According to the project's author, "this invulnerable armada of drunken ships emerges in areas of artistic activity, in most diverse and unlikely places, demonstrating the power of the art." Surfacings of Ponomarev's submarines are accompanied with exhibitions featuring artistic documentation from the previous stages of the project.
The ninth phase of the project Utilization of Packs to be hosted by the 53th Venice Biennale is entitled SubTiziano, as a homage to the great Venetian Renaissance painter. The exhibition accompanying the next surfacing of Ponomarev's submarine comprises photographs from the first phase of the project (Northern Trace of Leonardo), as well as the authors drawings on navigation charts.
Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov. Kabakov. 2004
Ballpoint pen on newspaper. 118x84 cm
Prigov is one of versatile artists of the Moscow Conceptualism: he is a sculptor, a graphic artist, a writer and an author of performances, artistic objects and installations. Indeed, the author himself defines his own position with maximum clarity: "I am a poet and an artist, and I try to synthesize both these spheres in my works." In other words, the specific realm of his activity is the boundary between text and image, the space where phantom hybrids emerge. Yet, Prigov defiantly renounces any kind of "artistic magic", reserving for himself a role of a magician-illusionist who openly proclaims the rational nature of his tricks. His task is to "expose any viewpoint not as truth, but as a type of conventionality." He calls himself a person of "language behavior", who struggles against the typically Russian passion "of mystifying literally all the things that need to be clear. There is a level of mystery, to be sure, but one should be honest enough to rationalize all the things that should be rationalized (…) The mystical fog used by people to envelope even the simplest of acts, justifies their spiritual and intellectual laziness."
One of Prigov's favorite artistic techniques is drawing on a newspaper with a ballpoint pen. While a blank sheet of paper looks mysterious, suggesting that there may be something hidden inside its whiteness, the newspaper is intrusively banal, packed "up to the gills" with texts and images of referring to the everyday. Prigov refuses in principle to start "from scratch", from a blank sheet, but is always willing to work with pre-existing verbal and pictorial mass, taking a pragmatic attitude of a rewriting editor. The ideological "noise" of a newspaper is a space where he looks for some magical super-word that would "fall out" by itself, as a crystal out of an oversaturated solution. This transparent word-image is enveloped in a dark halo, and the surface of the newspaper shows through it. However, there is no mystery in Prigov's Word, and in this particular case "Kabakov" is not a Great Artist, but just a name of one of Prigov's colleagues.
Larisa Rezun-Zvezdochetova. A Carpet with a Deer. 1989
Fiberboard, carpet, enamel. 122x202 cm
A cheap plush carpet hanging on the main wall of a Soviet compact apartment, was not only an aesthetic symbol of everyday popular life. It was a model of the impoverished life, half-urban and half-rural, where the space itself was in no less shortage than household objects, where worn-out things were not thrown away but repaired or recycled as stock for other things with other functions. New things were added to old ones, layer upon layer, compacting the space to the utmost degree. Here, “much“ and “colorful“ represented a joint criterion of wealth and beauty.
The wall carpet used by Rezun-Zvezdochetova as a basis of her work compels the artist to strictly observe the rules of her “aesthetic game.” She only makes it a little bit more “showy”, sewing in several round patches with fragments of the same image and superimposing enamel medallions with “film stars“, resembling ensigns and badges often pinned on carpets by their owners. The Carpet with a Deer is a part of a series of four similar works.
Leonid Sokov. Glasnost. 1989
Wood, lead, neon tubes, transformer. 121х61 cm
Sokov is one of the pioneers of the Russian Sots Art. Unlike Komar and Melamid, inventors of this trend who worked with intangible ideological signs, Sokov is interested in the corporal nature of his object ("many informal artists earned money by illustrating children's books, while I modeled animals for mass sculpture workshops and designed children's playgrounds"). In his oeuvre, the artist interprets ideological clichés in comical and folkloric spirit. Sokov works at the boundaries between propaganda myth and children's toy. In his works the idea is embodied in a brutally-specific manner and reduced to an elementary, contagiously funny visual formula.
However, the outward simplicity of Sokov's art is nearly always deceptive. One example of this is the work Glasnost showcased at the exhibition, which is a real puzzle. The author makes the viewers look at the word "Glasnost" from the other side, repeating his own perspective on his native country from New York (where he has lived since 1980). The word is given in Latin ("Western") transcription and glows with red neon light. However, the red here is not only a color symbolizing the Soviet state, but also a sign of danger placed in front of a lead slab. Lead, again, is a material that conveys a double association with the "iron curtain" and the need of protection from the nuclear threat coming from the disintegrating USSR. Beyond the neon inscription, one can discern another one, in Cyrillic letters: "Что делать" (What is to be done?). It is turned upside down and therefore belongs to the world seen "through the looking glass", on the other side of the lead foil. The expression "What is to be done?" is not only pertinent to the situation of the Soviet Union of the perestroika period, but also contains a reference to a title of an utopian novel of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, classic of Russian democratic literature. This novel became a Bible of many generations of Russian revolutionaries, and its title phrase was one of the painful "Russian questions", to which the history could never give a clear answer.
Leonid Tishkov. From the series Deep Sea Divers. 1996-98
12 parts. Indian ink on paper. Diamensions variable
The figure of a deep sea diver has emerged in Leonid Tishkov's work as early as late 1970s, when he was actively working in the field of caricature. Deep sea divers, along with aviators, seamen and representatives of other, typically modern professions, had become heroes of the Soviet pop culture since 1920s. By the 1970s, when the romantic halo around these supermen of the sea bed whiffed away, they gradually evolved into absurd and comical characters. In 1980s the deep sea divers appear in Tishkov's artwork ever more often, while their nature undergoes appreciable changes. They turn from caricature and parody characters into mythological creatures. Their world becomes ever more involved, developing its own cosmogony and history. It grows from within itself numerous contradictory stories, where layers of the Soviet adult culture or children's folklore are mixed with rudiments of classical Russian archaic stories and a science fiction of explicitly surrealist kind. The works shown at the exhibition belong to the big Deep Sea Divers cycle created in 1996-98.
Vadim Zakharov. Bauhaus Thora. 2002
Print on paper, wood. Case: 63.5х31х18 cm. Scroll: 31х1500 cm
Apart from art, the range of diverse interests of the conceptualist artist Vadim Zakharov includes collecting, book publishing and organization of exhibitions, as well as archiving activities. Indeed, his collector's interest is not limited to information about the Russian artists who belonged to unofficial art of the past. For example, when Zakharov was in Tel-Aviv in 2002, he spent one and a half months shooting with his video camera (using an old-style filter) some 70 buildings built in Bauhaus traditions. The buildings were designed by Jewish architects of German origin who emigrated to Palestine from Nazi Germany. The artist selected shots with the most important architectural objects and printed their images on a 15-meter-long paper scroll. In such a way, he produced a form directly reminiscent of ancient Jewish Torah. Taking this logic of images still further, Zakharov did with his scroll exactly what was traditionally done with sacral texts in Biblical times: he put it in a specially manufactured case (the case, however, was made in a typical Bauhaus style).
In this way, the lines of imagery associated with modern architecture and Judaic tradition were linked together, turning into a comment to the historical tragedy of the 1930s-1940s. Zakharov demonstrates us such comment not as parallel texts with illustrative images, but turns them into a single object with a synthetic name of Bauhaus-Thora.
Konstantin Zvezdochetov. Che Guevara. 1990
Oil on canvas. 100х100 cm
A portrait of the legendary revolutionary Ernesto Guevara has been made by the artist in a folkloric-fictional stylistic manner typical of his work. The story here, as is always the case with Zvezdochetov, is nothing but a pretext for a detailed visual narrative full of amusing and colorful details. The principle of repetition with variations is the basis of such narrative, it is this such repetition that brings about a long line of associations and additional stories. The artist quite naturally surrounds his macho-like Che Guevara with images of half-naked girls. Their figures grow into a conventional flower design and their heads are decorated with caps reminiscent of Russian churches' domes. The theme of the masculine and the feminine is supplemented by a silhouette image of a young lady and an officer with a drawn cavalry sword. This image, in turn, is placed in a circle that is repeated on the picture three times. The red star from Che's beret is likewise repeated in the image of an eagle from an Albanian state emblem (appearing here, in fact, just for the fun of it), which, again, has a bosomy babe in its center, who is, again, encircled. Besides, the star is multiplied in form of five-petalled flowers spread over the pictorial field. The Albanian double eagle, in turn, resembles the Russian one, which further reinforces the national theme already introduced with the ladies' dome-like caps, etc…