|An exhibition of contemporary
Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 2004
On their research trip to Moscow, Zagreb curators Tihomir Milovac and Leila Topic visited Oleg Kulik in his studio, and subsequently decided to call the exhibition System of Coordinates, after his recently completed video. Despite relating to a particular work, the idea of ‘system of coordinates’ proved to be a suggestive concept for positioning current tendencies in contemporary Russian art. In this sense, the poles could be identified as running from social activism to the autonomy of art, from brutal humour to poetic seriousness, and from the Soviet artistic heritage to Western advertising slickness.
The rough humour of the Blue Noses Group (Viacheslav Mizin and Alexander
Shaburov), who are represented in the show by numerous videos and prints,
targets both politics and the consumerism of contemporary Russian society.
The photographs in the Contemporary Siberian Artists (2002) series show
a Monty Python style collage with the cut out heads of Putin, Bush and
Bin Laden stuck on half-naked bodies, interlocked on a bed in variety
of embraces and contorted combinations. Their jokiness, embodied here
in the title of the work, undermines any consistent reading of their
work as political protest. Equally, their Requisite for Revolution (2003),
which pictures the artists dressed as Cossack revolutionaries waving
a pitch fork and pick
Dimitry Gutov practices a related brand of grimacing humour as a possible reaction to the problems and paradoxes of the contemporary Russian situation. Torture by Culture (2001) suggests the weight of Russian history and specifically kul’turnost’ as a recurrent preoccupation of Russian society. In a series of photographs, an aging couple are pictured failing to come to grips with various stereotypical ‘greats’ of Russian and universal culture. In Mama, Papa and the Champions League he again photographs his own parents, this time outlandishly playing football dressed in the branded kit of European football teams, placing them ‘in comic collision with the popular culture uncritically taken over from the West.’
In more active dialogue with the cultural products of the West are the group AES+F (Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovitch, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes), whose work is presented here with videos, sculpture and prints. While the prints Action Half-Life (2003) and the video King of the Forest (2003) deal with children and their representation in the media as alternately figures of innocence and eroticism, the Space Bedouin (2003) returns to their famous topic of Muslims conquering the world. The production values of their work match the slickness and superficiality of advertisements in fashion magazines.
There are telling correspondences here with the new paintings of Dubossarsky and Vinogradov entitled Pop-Art (2004), which seem to play on the Muslim dress code of Hijab, where only the eyes are visible; in this case though, ’pop art’ becomes the veil that covers the body. Here it is not a matter of hiding the body, but enveloping it in a constructed popular culture. Their other new work for the exhibition is a huge New Painting (2004), depicting flowers in vases in their trademark soft and bright colours, drawn from the pictorial conventions of Socialist Realism. While in the 1990s their work was appreciated by Russian critics for its success in reflecting the ‘spontaneous and schizophrenic post-perestroika Russian reality’ , more recently they have been attacked for pandering to the tastes of the increasingly consolidated art system, which, as Misiano remarks ‘does not want provocations but artefacts.’
The work of Vadim Fishkin comes at us from a totally opposite direction and deals with quasi-scientific knowledge and the tradition of East European intellectualism. In Sun-Stop (2003) he puts forward a paradoxical concept in which pseudo-science and artistic fantasy manipulate basic natural laws. In order to create an eternal day on planet Earth, he proposes the installation of a surrogate sun in the form of an impossibly large video projection.
Demonstration (2000) is the work of the Radek Group, which was founded by Antoly Osmolovsky in 1997, and emerged from the need for art to engage with society and politics at a time when they impinge increasingly on the artist’s life and freedom of action. This is related to the specific situation of Russia, the political evolution from the late 1990s, symbolised by Putin and the war in Chechnya, as well as the social consequences of shock therapy economics. At the same time, this artists’ political activism self-consciously relates to the Russian history of mass politics. ‘Demonstration’ is both an enactment of a ‘real’ utopian political protest, and a theatrical re-enactment of the forms of revolutionary protest, reliving the aesthetics of mass demonstrations that were characteristic of Soviet times.
A very recent trend in Russian art has been away from a concern with society in general and the art system in particular. Oleg Kulik ‘s System of Coordinates (2004) represents a dramatic new development in his practice after his performances of the late 1990s, and what Viktor Misiano calls the ‘zoofrenia’ of his New Paradise series of 2001. The System of Coordinates has been interpreted as a call for Russian artists to ‘return to the studio’ and distance themselves from the demands of the growing Russian art market and the desire to appeal to the media.
The young Russian art star Aleksey Kalima carried out a site specific work in chalk in Zagreb. Resting Place (2004) contains dark references to hostage taking and the War in Chechnya, creating an atmosphere of waiting and anxiety, and a scene in which faces are hidden, people eat food from tins, and heavily-armed gunmen stand guard. However, beyond the sense of menace, there is no clear political message in work that also contains decorative flourishes, such as the Adidas stripes that are Kalima’s trademark.
Olga Chernyshova’s work is personal, non-ironic, and refers to the real life of Russia, rather than the fictionalised space of post-Soviet fantasy. There are echoes of the painting of the early 1960s, when the smiling utopianism of Socialist Realism gave way to a gritty realism that acknowledged the existence of Socialist problems. Express (2003) uses a camera roving along a Russian train to evoke harsh social realities and the remnants of the Soviet past. At one moment, an interconnecting door opens to the deserted corridor of a grim institution that could be a mental hospital or run-down hospice, and this flash-forward makes it easy to imagine what the journey on a decrepit Soviet-era train could be a metaphor for. The photographic series Awkward Time (2004) is directed at the universal phenomenon of hugging, here between mothers and their teenage children. By capturing private moments of bodily communication and individual emotion she expresses a different kind of physicality to, for example, Kulik or AES, and is the only artist in the show to really reach out of the Russian context to the universal.
This substantial survey exhibition was unusual in that is was especially
curated by Croatian curators for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb,
which is the only place it was shown. Their stated aim was to present
the Russian art of the current moment, rather than to dwell on the representatives
and legacy of the Soviet past. The exhibition presents a heterogeneous
but constructed picture of the contemporary Russian scene, heterogeneous
because it presents a wide variety of artistic approaches, from Vadim
Fishkin to the Oleg Kulik, from Dubossarsky and Vinogradov to the Blue
Noses, but constructed in the sense that the picture they give is overly
familiar, a considered selection of a dozen names from the short list
of marketable Russian artists who circulate on the international scene.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes