The Literati and their Clever Machines
Yuri Albert, Konstantin Zvezdochetov and Andrei Filippov belong to the artistic circle of Moscow Conceptualism. From which it follows by default that, for them, “Art is the power of the idea, and not of the material” (Joseph Kosuth). Admittedly, the formula is somewhat different in the Russian version: “Art not for looking at, but for thinking about” (Yuri Albert). Albert’s version does not contradict Kosuth’s, but it contains something specific. Kosuth fixes the act of will, by which the author makes his definition, and the active position of the “art of the idea”, setting it in the present. Albert, on the contrary, presents this position as passive and objective: art is made in the past, as a completed fact, a work and not a creative process. Moreover, Kosuth’s formulation supposes the presence of artist and theorist in a single person, whereas Albert the conceptualist artist portrays himself as an educated viewer and in no sense a practitioner. Lastly, the stylistic difference between their utterances has importance: in the American version, we have a slogan, while the Russian version offers an essayistic articulation — not so much a theoretical text as literary irony.
This is as it should be, since, beginning from the 1970s, the Moscow conceptualists were representatives of a specific stratum of the Soviet intelligentsia. Their works were almost the distillation of a permanent “home philosophizing”, of an endless discussion of interconnected themes, from art to the current state of politics and the economy. The “literariness” and “bookishness” that marked these discussions was fully reflected in the aesthetic make-up of the conceptualists.
In principal, the whole of Soviet society at that time was literary or bookish. At least, the ideological thesis was constantly maintained, according to which the Soviet people were the greatest readers in the world. It is hard to say how far that corresponded to reality, but the cult of the book was indeed ubiquitous, and the literature-centric nature of both official and unofficial Soviet culture is undeniable. However, the conceptualists stood out, even in this context. Not necessarily by their greater erudition or bookishness compared with other people; but they were literati in another sense, which is more elusive and more complex: for them books, texts and literature were there not only to be read, thought about and discussed — what most people did. The conceptualists were both artists and members of the intelligentsia. They were creators of text-objects. Most of them were connected with text in its visual presentation by their education or by official profession: they were trained as philologists, poets, printers, and book illustrators or they worked as theatre artists and monumental artists. So it is unsurprising that the personal, unofficial activity of the conceptualist literati spawned artistic production, in which texts, representations and objects were a continuous whole.
The concept of thought-forms, which was popular among the conceptualists, served to signify the confluence of virtual and material elements. It was used to refer both to a fragment of the stream of thought and to an aesthetic object, designating a certain subtle structure of the thing — a “clever machine”. An extended series of models arose on the basis of such a machine: a multiplicity of personal “clever machines” localized in both mental and real space, and uniting these spaces into a common field of conceptual creation. Three such models constitute the present exhibition.
Yuri Albert is exhibiting works from two of his projects. One of them consists of monochrome abstract canvases (each the same size as the author’s body, height-wise and across the shoulders) painted in the ash of burnt books from his personal library (My favourite books). The second is a running line of writing that reproduces a work by Philostrates the Elder (170–247 A.D.) where he describes works of art from antiquity that are long lost and may never have existed (The Pictures). Together they form an apparatus of circular pursuit, an endless transmutation of assimilated (loved) texts and alienated visual objects. Or, put differently, they are a secular-aesthetic analogue of the philosophical elixir, which can function at once in two modes — personal transformation (a body-size picture) and the conversion of words and things.
Konstantin Zvezdochetov has created a wall installation for the exhibition, entitled Adventures of the Fez. It consists of a large number of graphic and artistic representations of subjects wearing fezes, connected with one another by various lines and arrows. As the wittiest story teller among the conceptualists Zvezdochetov knows that an absorbing narrative — whether oral, written or in pictures — is its own “smart machine”, and he frugally limits himself to an illustrative-graphic construction. The construction is certainly reminiscent of a traditional family tree but, more than anything, it is a generalized and exemplary text book from the Communist era with its inspirational-bureaucratic formalism, but with a single and decisive difference. Zvezdochetov’s representational pallet comes directly from caricature: he borrows his visual style from the illustrators of Crocodile, the satirical magazine beloved of many generations of people in the Soviet Union. Adventures of the Fez is not merely a visual caricature: the cheerful absurdity penetrates the very structure of the installation, so that all of its connections have a formal, grotesquely simulative character. The mechanism works unfailingly and its only product is the silent “rustle of language” described by Roland Barthes — the pure matter of aesthetic pleasure.
Andrei Filippov has built an installation for the exhibition consisting of dynamic objects with the title Rolling Blackout (the Russian term translates literally as “fanlike power cut”). In this case we literally have a machine, a genuine mechanical construction: large fans with a representation of the sky, which are opened and closed by electric motors. A rolling blackout is a complete or partial shutdown of power supply for technical reasons. But for Filippov the shutdown is associated directly with the end of the world in its Judaeo-Christian version, or, more precisely, with one of the events of global culmination, in which “the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together” (Book of Revelation, 6:14) or when “the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll” (Book of Isaiah, 34:4). The biblical comparison of the heavens with a scroll is transformed by the artist into a coincidence of scroll and heavens or, rather, he swaps the scroll for a fan, which he presents as a book-map of the heavens. Picture, book, scroll and fan are for Filippov invariants of a single thought-form, whose historical origins are to be sought, not in the European tradition, but in the Eastern, and more specifically the Chinese tradition, where scroll, fan and screen have long served both for the inscription of texts (essentially, as alternative book formats) and as a support for painting, and this is perfectly natural, since writing and representation in Chinese culture grew from a common root and were therefore easily united. If we then remember that Chinese culture has always been important for the Moscow conceptualists and that they felt a certain kinship with the thinkers-literati-artists of ancient China, the logic of creation of Rolling Blackout becomes clearer still.
The “transmission” of Filippov’s smart machine turns out to be much more complex and longer than that of his colleagues, since it extends from the language play in the name of his work through word-representation-book-picture to mechanism, or from thought to word and act. But, of course, “act” for him is not the equivalent of real action, but is an exemplary model, an installation. Fans open and close, the clever machine works, and yet its operation is not linear (time will not exist after the end of the world), but cyclical, and its action has the nature of a paradoxical still-shot or of static time. It is infinite multiplicity concealed in the singular moment, a form of eternity which is accessible to us — which is exemplary.