’удожественный журнал
digest 2005 Ц 2007

After the catastrophe

Boris Chukhovich
Boris Chukhovich

After the catastrophe

Elena Vorobjeva & Viktor Vorobjev. Photos as mementos. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed... Photo. 2002
The most significant factor in the story of the post-Soviet world's contemporary art has to be the rollercoaster ride of rejection and comeback, derision and recognition and denunciation and rehabilitation that it has been through. Even quite recently it was difficult to imagine that after the universal renunciation of "total aesthetic projects" and the dissipation into reality à la Oleg Kulik that a panoramic view of reality and wide reaching social metaphor would return to the arts scene. After what appeared to be a radical post-modernisation of the art community Ц an interest in the class approach and the study of Marx is being reborn. After the aesthetic enervation of some and the "heroic" gestures of others Ц an articulate non-conformism is coming in relation to those who are calling the shots.
The obstinacy with which these trends are interchanging with each other in the most disparate parts of the former Soviet Union brings to mind the theory of cycles that was so popular in art criticism at the beginning of the twentieth century. Of particular interest when applied to the situation today is the theory of "the progressive development of art" proposed by the Soviet art philosopher Fyodor Schmidt at the beginning of the twentieth century. What lent this progressive model its originality was the fact that the peculiarly positive role of "artistic catastrophes" had fallen out of the other theoreticians' field of vision 1. Schmidt turned his attention to the fact that during the thundering "collapse of a decayed microcosm which had been created with the greatest efforts", when art immerses itself into a movement along, what seems, a completely new circle, the accumulation of the previous cycle only at first seems to be completely rejected. Soon after the return back to "the starting point" it becomes obvious that the rejected accumulation of knowledge is by no means forgotten but instead "called to remembrance" by the art world not in its original form but as something completely changed in the context of the "new cycle". In other words, the catastrophe according to Schmidt helps to reveal the additional potential hidden behind the superficial self representation of the art of the past. Moreover, this very potential (according to the dictates of dialectics!) also contains within itself both the well spring and the main problems to be posed to the art of the future cycle, and this means that the retrospective nature of its discovery provides the means of moving forwards.

Elena Vorobjeva & Viktor Vorobjev. Photos as mementos. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed... Photo. 2002
It is clear however, that any catastrophe Ц is above all a traumatic and neurotic event. And this neurotic explosion can either become a permanently self-replicating dead-end or a break-through into a new reality. Among the self-replicating dead-ends that were so characteristic of art in the twentieth century, one can point to the desperate attempts made by the artists of the "second" and "third" worlds to jump on to the last train that could whirl them away to the west. Alternatively we can point to the utopia many found in returning to a certain patriarchal "authenticity" or a religious or "national" idea. What do I mean by "a breakthrough into the new reality"? One of the most obvious examples of taking a positive out of a traumatic experience is the creolisation of Latin America's culture. When the most painful trauma of all Ц namely slavery, the journey across the ocean in the hold of a ship, the castration of all forms of memory from the objective to the linguistic Ц has been instrumental in forming new personal abilities and the opening up of new cultural perspectives.

Soviet life itself with its utopian construction of a new Tower of Babel is already often perceived by the intelligentsia as a catastrophe, and it is not surprising that its catastrophic end gave birth in the nineties to a succession of traumatic self-renunciations and self-castigations. The "Soviet" became a synonym for collapse, falsehood, loss and ineligibility. Artists from the former "centres" of Moscow and Petersburg and those who had joined them from the former "periphery" of the Soviet Empire sketched out a feverish dialogue with "West", which resulted in their consequent merger. At this period the perestroika fashion for the Soviet and the arts market had not yet disappeared and the euphoria of the eighties had not cooled. But the main forces of the former periphery preferred to disavow the Communist Babel project and hurriedly stampede for a stake in the local property market. In that period society and the art world were seized by a nostalgia for a certain "golden era" that had been left behind in the distant history of the peoples of Eurasia. Moreover, unlike black African culture that had constructed a single image of the "race of a continent", and the Arab countries, which in the post colonial period had had such inherently integrational movements such as pan-Islamism or pan-Arabism, the countries of the former Soviet periphery are busy proclaiming their own individual national ideologies and doing their best to exclude Russian from their official vertical lines of communication. The breakdown of the horizontal lines of communication between the peripheral countries and the archaeology of local authenticities hidden under the seemingly superficial Soviet cultural layer are tangible. The tower of Babel, like the utopia it proposes, came to an end as a result of a failure of communications and resulted in its transformation into insular narcissism obsessed with the tower's former architects.

Elena Vorobjeva & Viktor Vorobjev. Photos as mementos. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed... Photo. 2002
Then however, something strange began to happen. The "Soviet" became a striking image brought back to life by the very people who had most vehemently denounced it. In architecture Stalinist classicism prevailed under the guise of a return to national motifs. In the visual arts socialist realism is alive and well Ц singing the praises of the progressive figures of the pre-Communist past or the post-Communist present, and doing so in the good old "forms of life itself". And of course the political regimes having been assigned the task of deconstructing the inheritance of the Soviet period, almost literally reproduced the style and forms of government of the Communist Party. By the end of the nineties it had become clear that the Soviet trauma would not be forgotten quickly and that this very pressure to do so was accelerating its return to the active field of culture.

Evidently this realisation was one of the reasons determining the direction of contemporary post-Soviet art, which for some time had been characterised neither by a deliberate renunciation of Socialist Realist aesthetics nor, on the contrary, by a deliberate return to it, but by the use of the positive resources and practises that had been employed during the Soviet experiment. The incubatory post-catastrophe period had ended and revealed underneath the rubble, once it had been cleared away, were those potential qualities whose value had not been obvious twenty years previously.

For example, firstly, there is talk once more about multi-culturalism. At the end of the twentieth century many figures in Russian culture, championing the Slavophile's pet idea of Russia's special mission in the world, were asserting the idea of the country's "universal responsiveness", the idea that the Russians are practically the only people who are both "Scythian and Asian" (as Aleksandr Blok the famous Russian symbolist poet put it in his poem "The Scythians") and simultaneously sense their communion with the culture of the Latin world and Cologne that colossus of German philosophy. After the failure of the Communist experiment Russia's messianic vigour waned sharply. However, in the former eastern part of the USSR, without any loud self-proclamations and self promoting gestures, the appearance of new identities could be felt that tangibly included in themselves all the multi-valence of the slavophiles before them.
Elena Vorobjeva & Viktor Vorobjev. Photos as mementos. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed... Photo. 2002
For example, in many respects in terms of their cultural life Kazakhstan and Kirghizia are today completely European countries Ц a fact that is insufficiently recognised and brings a smile to the faces of those people from these countries who have watched "Borat". However, these stereotypes will in all likelihood soon come to an end. It is obvious that Central Asia has survived the twentieth century by being, along with the Soviet Union, a part of common European processes. Central Asia has implemented a European model of modernisation, Central Asia has taken part in the Communist experiment, Central Asia has become the object and subject of the extraordinarily idiosyncratic experiences of the Russian avant-garde, who are also practically unknown in the West. The truth, however, is that these are not only European countries. Within their post-modern mosaic a Soviet mentality co-exists with an Islamic, Buddhist or Christian identity, nomads co-exist with settled city dwellers, Turkish culture lives alongside Persian culture and so on and so forth. Therefore it is not only the characters in contemporary Central Asian Art that seem such a patchwork of different elements (such as the "Dervish" in jeans and robe carrying a hybrid "bass Gidzhak" to the strains of a Venetian adagio in the Kazakh artist Said Atabekov's film "Walkman"); but also the very collage-like view of artists towards these characters, and the multiplicity of their intonations from the epically poetic to the ironically absurd, that all sit together so well in one observation.

A second important example of the cyclical return of the "Soviet" is a very specific attitude towards the possibilities of collaborating together collectively and creatively. Basically, the whole of the history of Soviet unofficial and post-Soviet contemporary art is the story of certain communities setting themselves against, on the one hand Ц the didactic education institutions and on the other Ц the type of demiurge creativity in which the lonely genius is made incarnate in his work, which is then presented to the public but addressed to all eternity. Instead of obedient apprenticeship and the subsequent act of a maestro legitimised by the diploma bestowed by the educational institution, the experience of collaborative creativeness, collaborative participation and collaborative action is preferred. There are numerous examples of such studios and creative groups, from Andrey Monastirsky's "Collective Art Actions" of the seventies and eighties to Valery Podoroga and Viktor Misiano's "Studio of Visual Anthropology" of the nineties right up to today's "What is to be done?" Group or Dmitry Gutov's "Lifshitz Institute".

Abilsaid Atabekov. All Quiet in Baghdad. Photo. 2007
One should not forget to point out that this practise of creative collaboration was of particular relevance and significance in the Soviet and post-Soviet periphery, such as Central Asia, where Avant Garde experiments have been carried out since the twenties. For example "The Shock Art School of the East" in Ashgabat, "The Master of the New East" and "The Volkov Brigade" in Tashkent and Daniil Stepanov's circle in Samarkand. All these groups were essentially communes where certain artistic concepts were collectively worked out. What distinguished them from the Higher Art and Technical Studios or Bauhaus was their fundamental precept not so much to search for abstract modernist forms but to seek for the dialogue and hybridisation of these forms in relation to the local art. It is unsurprising that both local artists and representatives of the Russian Avant Garde who had settled or were visiting Central Asia worked together in these communes. This tradition was echoed in its own way in the nineteen eighties and nineties, when the main centres of creativity were small art campaigns for "institutionalising friendship" 2 in order to create joint or collaborative artefacts. In the 2000's this trend is gathering momentum and "globalising". Local groups of artists "are joining together in accordance with their interests", as a result of which we are seeing large scale regional and then international exhibitions. Among which for example are "Etcetera..." or "In the Shadow of Heroes" in which several established art campaigns from the countries of Central Asia meet with those of Russia and Slovenia, each time producing new ideas during these unexpected and productive meetings. And this is basically what distinguishes this type of horizontal collaboration from traditional types of production, even those dedicated to "pluralism" or a "dialogue of cultures".

The third example that needs to be stressed is the current interest among post-Soviet artists in the social. On the one hand, this interest in the social plays a particular role, which is allocated by these artists as a political and social metaphor. For example, Vyacheslav Akhunov's video project "The Corner" (2004) and Aleksandr Nikolaev's "Fish" (2004) and Ulan Japarov's photographic series "I hear nothing, I see nothing" (2004), clearly express the problem of a spiritual vacuum and the new totalitarianism relevant to the socio-cultural situation in which artists found themselves. However, the vehicle of the metaphor itself, which is used here, makes playful images polysemantic. The fact that in contemporary Russia or Central Asia this is perceived as an obvious hint at the relationship between the artist and the totalitarian authorities, acquire a different intonation, say, in North America, where in these same works spectators are inclined to see a reflection of the impasse and the lack of direction of today's democracy. Moreover, these works even gain something from being transferred into a different context, where the associations generated by them preserve a social articulation that is free of any direct references. Having been conceived as these artists' specific reactions to universal problems, they are transformed in an alien context into universally working images that touch the particular existence of the viewer to whom they are addressed. And moreover, they look, because of this contrast in relation to contemporary western art, which to quote the radical idea of the recently departed author of "Simulacra and Simulations" Ц "it demands insignificance, negligibility and the lack of any thought whatsoever, it achieves this insignificance and moreover it has been insignificant in of itself for a long time" 3.

Abilsaid Atabekov. All Quiet in Baghdad. Photo. 2007
These works can stand shoulder to shoulder with those that are once again bringing into reality the concept of "an artistic truth" and "class art", where one can sense a fresh interest in the persona of the "small man" (Gogol) and in the world of the "insulted and the humiliated" (Dostoyevsky). This classic Russian theme has spread as much throughout the post-Soviet region as it has among the works of such artists as Dmitry Gutov ("The man on public transport", 2002), Muratbek Djumaliev and Gulnara Kasmalieva ("The trans-Siberian Amazons", 2004) or Olga Shagautdinova's "Interiors" (2004-2006).

However, "the social" Ц is not only a step beyond the bounds of the artistic to meet the spectator but also the artist's spontaneous reaction to the new relationship with power, which is expressing itself in a "new hermeticism" of encoded and not always intelligible messages. When describing the Italian poetry of the Mussolini period, Joseph Brodsky provided a formula that could explain this quality of post-Soviet artistic culture: "This is almost a rule: in order to survive under the constraints of totalitarianism, art should work out the density directly in proportion to the size of these constraints" 4. In a similar situation a hermetic way of life itself with its "asocial behaviour", the return to mockery or intellectual pictography, alongside resorting to absurdity and nonsense is an act of resistance in relation to the cohesiveness and self confidence of new ideological discourses. And we can see the ubiquitous use by artists of these and other components of this palette of "sociological gestures".

Fourthly, when we talk about the art of the post-Soviet "centre" and "periphery", it has to be noted how much language and text play different roles in each of the above. It would seem that the "centre", as previously, is living above all by means of text, theoretically calibrated tactics and strategies and by means of a conceptual gesture that goes before the creative act. However the relationship between the "centre" and the "periphery" has radically changed.

Abilsaid Atabekov. Betashar. Video. 2007
The Babel metaphor ends with the collapse of the community due to the impossibility of communicating with one another. After the first centrifugal wave of migration, the post-Soviet artistic periphery is recovering and in its own way is renewing itself. The periphery is now even attracting many contemporary artists from Moscow and Petersburg, whose position has become marginal within the framework of Vladimir Putin's state. This new land of the periphery, unlike the Caribbean islands, is generating not only a new language but also the same type of theoretical texts with which the culture of the creoles of Latin America is making sense of itself. Conversely, poetic and epistolary texts and also fragmentary utterances, the linguistic chaos of internet forums and chat rooms and the lack of any attempt to impart to them a form of communicative linear discourse are more characteristic for this "periphery". The dominating meaning here is acquired by the spoken word in all its various forms and guises, which unlike the written word is incomparably more dynamic and consists of not only the intonation of the literary constructs themselves but also the whole ensemble of non-written and even non-verbal media that adds to and often deputises for words. This spoken word penetrates even into professional art journals, which more and more often publish internet correspondence between critics and artists. The most radical example of this trend was the proposal of a number of Kirghiz artists to put out CD journals in order to allow those authors who don't feel comfortable expressing themselves in written form to "recount their texts" rather than write them, thus overcoming the consequences of the trauma of Babel 5.
It appears there are two components in the above described phenomenon that are paramount. On the one hand one can see in it the rejection of the universal "correct" language ejaculated at some time into the provinces for general use. In the correspondence between the former "peripheral countries" a multitude of different "Russian language dialects" were legitimised that were formed a long time ago in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Ukraine and so on and so forth. By entering into collaboration with the local verbal environment, the language of the former metropolises finds new possibilities which are formed spontaneously on the basis of the spoken word Ц and hence the problem of writing in the classic language of the empire and the attractiveness of spoken acquisitions made within the framework of these "other Russian languages". On the other hand, with the repudiation of linear text there emerges a rejection of the monologic type of utterance full stop. The lack of a theoretical programmed text in the countries of the "periphery" Ц is above all the non-acceptance of the didactic and totalitarian authority of discourse, against which are set the polemic "variations on a theme" made in the form of free and often paradoxical comments. And in this "death of the discourse" there is a prospect of a possible "renaissance of the author" acquiring freedom in the creative exchange with others.


1 Fyodor Schmidt, Iskusstvo: osnovnye problemi teorii I istorii, Akademiya, Leningrad, 1925.
2 Formulated by Viktor Misiano addressing the significance of "the institution of friendship" in the development of the contemporary art of the post-Socialist countries (see: The Institutionalisation of Friendship, Transnacionala (catalogue), Ljubljana, 1999, pp. 182-192, and in: Moscow Art Magazine, n. 28/29, 2000, pp. 39-46.
3 Jean Baudrillard, " Le complot de l'art ", dans Liberation, le 20 mai 1996 (Original quotation in French: "Toute la duplicite de l'art contemporain est la: revendiquer la nullite, l'insignifiance, le non-sens, viser la nullite alors qu'on est deja nul ")
4 Joseph Brodsky, "V Teni Dante", Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, 1999, p.106.
5 Ulan Japarov, Gamal Bokonbaev, "Vidoobraschenie redaktorov", Bulletin " ±@b ", ¹3, 2006.

Boris Chukhovich
Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Art historian and curator.
Lives in Montréal, Canada.
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