Larissa Zvezdochotov. Picking of Morning Dew. Installation. 1991
California isn't what it used to be. Neither is Rome.
There is no imperial city. There are no societies of lunatics left.
Where should we go? Berlin? Vancouver? Samarkand?
Thrice blessed be he who brings a name to song.
The Horseshoe Finder
Soviet art no longer exists. By now, it has receded into the realm of history together with the state after which it was named. However, this disappearance has left behind plenty of artists who enjoy the best of health and have plenty of strength left, artists who were considered Soviet until recently, artists who will have to solve the problem of self-identification in the nearest future. Incidentally, the demand for rethinking self-identification anticipated the official dissolution of the USSR. For an example, three years ago, in the catalogue of the exhibition "IsKunstVo", next to an article that utilized a rather canonical definition of "Soviet art", one could find another article in which the adjective "Soviet" was used far less frequently and with far less enthusiasm than adjectives such as "Russian" (meaning "non-German" in this case) and "Moscow" (i.e. "Moscow artists"), for an example. At present, we only have these two words at our disposal in order to identify what remains of artistic culture, if we aren't to limit ourselves to "contemporary art" and to throw spatial categories overboard altogether. It immediately becomes clear that the "Russian" identifier loses out to its "Moscow" counterpart. On the one hand, "Russian" is far too broad a term and hardly entails any kind of specificity. On the other hand, it is far too narrow, since it hardly satisfies any universal ambition. "Moscow art", however, seems ideal. Pointing at one's connection or roots in Moscow is a long-lived tradition. Just as the Soviet empire saw itself as heir to the state of Muskovy, Moscow understood itself as the epicenter of experimental statism. It is hardly coincidental that one of the latest aesthetic developments [of the last years] addressed the theme of "Moscow – the Third Rome".
Yet now, as Moscow's role becomes less obvious, the question inevitably arises: was Moscow really ever in the position of the Third Rome? After all, before Peter the Great, "Third Rome" only denoted a project in the context of a certain raison d'etat, and when this same reasoning moved the center to the banks of the Neva, Moscow was left alone for a few centuries. In turn, the restoration of Moscow's metropolitan rights after 1917 was accompanied by the breaking of many other legal norms connected with the Roman tradition. No one really knows what might have happened to the idea of the "Third Rome" in its late Soviet meaning, had events developed following a different evolutionary logic. But the gradual passage of time was broken; the mirage of the Third-Roman idea, which had suddenly appeared somewhere on the horizon, was dispelled just as suddenly as it had arisen, along with all the other hallucinations of the late Soviet era (if, indeed, only for a short while).
But if Moscow was never "Third Rome", what exactly was it, in fact? Perhaps we should think of it as a city like any other? No-one would ever dream of doing so. Isn't Moscow nothing but a big village, as they say? Well, in fact, those drafts that reign over its all-too-broad avenues can hardly ever be mistaken for the winds of freedom; they are even bereft of the aroma of the city-air that, as we know, makes you free. Instead, they are massive gusts of wind from the frontier. Moscow was always either a border-fort of the princes of Vladimir, or the residence of Muscovite-Russian-Soviet despots. Consequently, whenever we spoke of Moscow art until not very long ago, we did not actually mean the art of the city of Moscow, but the capital city's modification of the art of the Muscovite state. Even it took on all the qualities of elitism, this modification did not only answer for itself, but for the state as a whole.
The complexity of the present moment, however, lies in the fact that it is even more difficult to say anything coherent about the Muscovite state than about the city of Moscow. While the city's location, boundaries, and even its name are relatively stable, its surrounding territories were never a unified whole. The growing lack of clarity as to the territorial ramifications of the state was accompanied by increasing efforts to establish Moscow's autonomy with regard to the territories that were under its control. One could argue that this does not necessarily bear witness to the decline of the idea of the state in general, but provides evidence for the transferal of a multi-territorial power (imperium) to a civil structure (civitas), from an empire to a city-state, or simply a city.
In all appearances, it seems that contemporary art in Moscow will have to relocate to the hard asphalt of the city's pavements, leaving behind the dust-worn roads of statehood's vast expanse. By doing so, Moscow could become a sanctuary for urban art. Even if Moscow was never really a city in the full sense of the word, it could easily become one. After all, it combines a certain level of urbanization with an age-long tradition of free-thinking, a tradition with its own specific weight. However, art in Moscow cannot wait for the final urbanization to take place. It needs to outpace or anticipate the events that will lead to its city's final becoming, orienting itself toward a certain project of the City that it will have to realize rather than any real Moscow.
In his "Story of the Warrior and the Captive", Jorge Luis Borges describes the phenomenon of the City through its opposition to the non-city, the Pampa. In doing so, he finds an especially vivid way of expressing his idea of the symmetrical complementarity of the city and the wild spaces that surround it. One could draw the conclusion that City and Pampa only exist independently from one another in their pure forms on some psychological level, and that in order to reach this purity, one would need "an outsider". In Borges' narrative, one of these "outsiders" is a Lombard warrior who falls in love with Ravenna and then betrays his fellow Lombards in order to defend the city he has come to love. The other "outsider" is an Englishwomen; she is unable to return to civilization and to leave; the Pampa has taken her hostage.
In and of themselves, both City and Pampa are obviously bereft of any ontological meaning. The ontological effect only arises through their mutual equilibrium. In this sense, the respective allocation of the roles "City" and "Pampa" to Moscow and its surroundings could provide us with some hope of clarifying the relationship between them, eliminating their inherent misbalance, ontologizing or de-psychologizing their respective situations.
In doing so, it becomes important to clarify that we are not attempting to establish hierarchy but equilibrium. We should not misread Borges' model of the relationship between Pampa and City as a relationship of cause to effect, of barbarism to civilization, of the low to the high, of simplicity to difficulty. In fact, in a sense, the Pampa is more complicated than the city; it never vanishes tracelessly as civilization expands. One can assume that even the sweeping plains of the uncivilized Pampa are broken by punctual interruptions in its Indian monotony, by basic elements of the urban mindset. The entire extent of the Pampa's surface is riddled with the endless writing of roads and footpaths traveled by its aboriginal tribes. Its borderless reality is thoroughly saturated by the system of symbolic polyvalence developed by Indian consciousness. The dominance of signification that suppresses its subordinate reality ends wherever the calligraphic line of the Indian footpath runs up against a crossing with another footpath, traveled by another tribe.
However, the other tribe has its own system of signification, a system which is different and therefore meaningless, rendering the accustomed sign-system null and void. The meeting with the unforeknowable other amounts to an undesired collision with another reality, a reality that is intractable, undesignated, hostile. The first and most natural reaction is to respond with physical annihilation. Yet due to the lack of a means for physical agency, a mechanism of sublimation takes hold and the battlefield become an improvised bazaar or market-place, where deals are made and goods are exchanged. Here, the former enemy becomes a comrade; the other becomes a friend; the hostis becomes both host and guest, xenophobia is replaced euxenia (=acceptance of everything foreign), give rise to the feeling that prefigures the city's birth.
In the course of this exchange, the objects and armaments of utility lose the symbolic significance with which they had been loaded by mythological consciousness. Having slipped the symbolic hold of language, they once again become fragments of reality. In the pre-urban space of the marketplace at the crossroads, whatever was introduced to these objects above and beyond utility is now understood as beauty and temptation.
Yet perhaps it is actually this first meeting that marks the beginning of everything else. Maybe solitary wanderings through the pampa's vast expanse only come after the peaceful parting of the tribes that had met so unexpectedly. It could well be that the ordinary thing only gains symbolic significance above and beyond its quality as a thing in the course of this meeting by becoming a gift or an expiatory offering, embodying good will and, consequently, the will to survival as suggestion or temptation.
It is only later, in the metaphysical silence of the prairie, that the thing loses its initial seductive charm and is overgrown with the additional constructions of nomadic consciousness that "inner dialogue" will provide. Time and time again, the pampa will deliver yet another redundant tribe, a tribe that is not convinced of the rightness of its own cosmology enough to stand on its own, a tribe of castaways that sets out in search of itself, only to find some symbolic erotic act through which it shares the impotence of loneliness with the others, multiplying the forces of mutual survival (synoikism) by filling up the rifts in their cosmological convictions with corporeal-suggestive urbanism.
After all, the city is a body. Its walls and enfilades are riddled with apertures and orifices, gates that lead down the boulevards and alleyways of seduction. Speaking of seduction, we should note that the city is also an enclosed garden, a garden-city, a garden per se, and, if you will, the Garden of Eden, both the archetype and the antipode of the barbarized forest-steppe, the semantic beginning of all beginnings.
At any rate, it is impossible to understand what exactly came first, City or Pampa. Perhaps we simply need to admit that human existence has long since fluctuated between these two nostalgic images. The City is associated with the dream of the forbidden fruit, of seduction, of the erotic freedom of choice, of the free right to ignore the call of reality and to rise against it through the suggestive invention of artistry, while the Pampa gives rise to the hope that reality might reveal its secrets to the imacculate nomad, pushing his subtle consciousness' expanding possibilities to its very boundaries and polishing his language to the impossible ability of reading and symbolically producing the entire chain of the inexhaustable pampa's polyvalent phenomena. Yet both city and pampa are nothing but imaginary projections, at least ever since the surface of the world was covered by cities and all territories became subject to civilization's agency. They exist inseperably from one another, alternately emerging victorious, caught in the mutual tension of an irresolvable antagonism. Yet still, the free city does not refrain from exploiting the energies of its surroundings. The surroundings (village, province) are enchanted by the City's technological spell, but at the same time, they seek revenge for having been humiliated. This is why they try to swallow the city, paralyzing its freedom under a net of provincial prejudices and ideologies, imposing its physicalism and driving off the artistry that is the city's foundation of foundations.
Rome has been lucky, of course, even if it has not escaped the fate that any city is subject to. Rome was founded by young men in an excess of youthful energy; Rome immediately started kidnapping women from neighboring tribes once the city-walls had been drawn up. From the very moment of its foundation, Rome displayed a urban spirit that was so indomitable that neither the burden of the empire nor the envy of its barbarian provinces, neither corrosion through alien, esoteric ideologies nor the blazing fires of physical destruction could ever deprive it of its prototypical renown as the urbis aeternae, the eternal city. Rome was and still is "the home of all human souls", as Gogol put it. One might add, that it was also the home of all artistic souls, although, as we know, jeder Mensch – ein Künstler.
However, as we can see from the epigraph of the present text, this is hardly clear to everyone on the territories of what used to be the Western Empire, where the perception of Rome hardly corresponds to the high appraisal that the outsider from the state of Muskovy will inevitably supply. But to be honest, the theory of simulacra has little meaning for us Muscovites. Whenever we travel to the West, everything seems extremely authentic and correspond to what we imagined it would be. Our disappointment does not stem from the recognition that everything around us is a simulation, but arises from the fact that here, in the West, we encounter reality, although this reality is essentially exactly what we left at home. On the other hand, when we return to Moscow, we encounter the presence of something that does not exist anywhere else. This state of affairs does not bear witness to the inadequacy of the self-image of the Western intellectual as much it belies the real crisis of the global-village-ideologies and their optimistic dream of a world-empire of information-flows. Conversely, it also shows that it is here, in the depths of the Moscow Pampa, the real dream of a new City is beginning to break its way to the surface.
This is exactly why Moscow, which was never in fact a real city, has deserved the hope of becoming one. Rome, which once broke free from its captivity in tribal monotony, survived republican, imperial and papal evolutions, as well as blazing, razing revolutions. Moscow will have to make all of these experiences in reverse. After undergoing the evolution from princely state to great power, after being humiliated by revolutions both Czarist and communal, Moscow will now need to reach the point of involution. It will need to curl up and tighten into a bundle of urban energy, indifferent and disinterested to all of the Pampa's pretenses, regardless of whether they come from the West, East, North or South. The plastic arts, or to use a term of Gadamer's, the statuary arts will need to play a central role in this process. In doing so, they will need to remember their ontological responsibility.
From now on, the fate of Moscow itself and the art that calls itself "art from Moscow" can no longer be indifferent to one another. It is symptomatic that one of the last texts of the Moscow Noma circle is entitled "The Battle for Moscow". One can only hope that now, after Noma's dissolution, artistic praxis will no longer accentuate the the aesthetic export of exotic specialities from some elitist administrative district in the imaginary empire of art (such is the art of Egypt), but that it will focus on the artistic development and the aesthetic urbanization of the place from which these practices draw their name. This would signal great changes in these practices and would bring about a significant reevaluation of traditional categories, aesthetic categories par excellance, categories such as beauty, artistic quality or artistry. At the same, it could slow down the tempo of the process of aesthetization, which has speeded up to an extreme of late, leading to a social reflection of entities outside of traditional aesthetics, such as sociality, ideology, language, consciousness etc. The fact that aesthetics swallow everything that is intially foreign or hostile to their order of things expresses a will to beauty that is urban in origin.
But the City needs pure forms of beauty. Pure beauty in many forms, including the forms of art. We should remember what Gadamer wrote: "Even if aesthetic consciousness has become autonomous, it cannot deny that art is something more than just its own consciousness of the ability for perception." (1). It is this "something more" that we need. We need art, beauty, and even decoration, decorum, "an ancient notion that it would be advantageous to reconstruct", as the same Gadamer suggests (2), liberating it from its artisan associations with handicraft, finally recognizing its artistic and ontological essence.
This is especially true for urban art, where decorum is the immaterial conclusion of material urbanization, rising above the walls that fill urban space with architecture. According to the needs of the city, it is the ability to decorate, to suggest beauty that is awarded the status of art. However, at present, it is still customary to reduce all non-aesthetic realia to aesthetic reflections of language systems. It is important to realize that the results of these reflections do not become art automatically, but take on meaning as a special kind of mental material that can be used arbitralily or not used at all, for that matter. Needless to say, this does not mean any refusal to enage in these kind of explorations on the whole, since such refusals would entail a refusal of any artistic search for the use of artistic material in general. But like the general study of material, the forms of its refined aesthetic are autonomous in relation to art itself. As such, it becomes an auxillary discipline more closely connected to the toolkit of the artist than to the immediate artistic result that this instrumentarium produces.
Incidentally, there is nothing strange about the fact that aesthetic reflection and art have been equated to one another for so many decades, beginning with the avantgarde. Art could be nothing other than this at that stage of the battle between the City and the Pampa, when the city did not yet recognize its own superiority a priori, when the city did not yet understand itself as the center and the source of the universe's Being, when it was still caught up in the imaginary nets of imperial, ethnic, social, physicalist ideologies, when it was still fighting for ways to break free of these fetters, fully recognizing the real presence of power in all kinds of ideologies, in logic, in language on the whole. Of course, this battle for liberation is, in fact, a war of attrition with no exit, since it rested upon a reality that was false and full of lies from the very beginning, a reality in which any victory over all the ghosts only leads to more certain confirmations of their existence.
This battle is now drawing to a close. The reason for this closure is not to be found in some shift in the balance of power. Instead, it is connected to some external event, some asteroid or catastrophe. The result is that the grand antagonism of the past now appears as a strange, crawling heap, in which the two opposing sides can no longer be differentiated from one another. It has suddenly become clear that the empire of evil no longer exists and that its transformation into part of the world-wide empire of good (Baudrillard) was marked by a series of irrational catastrophes. These catastrophes are not only natural or technological cataclysms, but social and aesthetic distasters that which ideology finds itself incapable of explaining. If people once saw "language, not death, in opposition to life" (3), it is now only death that opposes life and nothing more. Language and discourse, once considered as the source of all troubles, find themselves at loose ends. In this situation, the seizure of language – deconstructing its system by charming language, by speaking in tongues – now only makes sense as a form of pedagogy; other than that, it has lost all meaning. From now on, it becomes important to use language to make concrete statements; all linguistic reflection entails an apology of the Pampa and its archaic magic of the word.
As the empire of evil disappears, it becomes clear that that there are, in fact, no empires at all. It also becomes clear that we are surrounded by nothing but Pampa, buzzing, twinkling, and honking as far as the eye can see. The time has come to seize the moment. We need not fight for freedom. We need to defend and gird ourselves, to build our fortifications, to draw up and decorate our walls, here and now, in Moscow; it doesn't matter what's going on elsewhere, that's their affair and none of our business; if need be, they'll invite us on their own, no need to make a fuss, but don't put it off, don't dilly-dally, don't wait around until the Pampa gives birth to new specters, even more verisimilar than those that have haunted us to date.
May Moscow only think of itself! May it forget that it was once attributed with the quality of a Third Rome, the capital of the world-wide Olympic games and whatever else! Moscow doesn't need all of these presents from the pampa, these flattering expression of the pampa's provincial-imperial sycophancy. Moscow's much bigger than that. After all, Moscow is an entire Cosmos unto itself, a center and source of the universe's being. It is the only urbs. Neither caput, nor oppidum nor municipium: there are many of those around. Let anyone who like follow Moscow's example, if they can. Moscow won't mind, but it also won't care. It will have given itself away to the lightheaded joy of its first meeting with the artist so completely that it will hardly notice anything else.
The City isn't afraid of the pampa, come what may, even if the fates of all cities are one and the same. The City is young; the Pampa is old. It comes down to age: the Pampa is the city as a senior citizen, degraded, demented, falling apart. Just like old age seduces and kidnaps youth, the pampa kidnaps the city's women. The City, turn, is youth; it owes its inception to the strong hands of young nomads that have broken free from the embrace of the pampa, traitors one and all. After all, it was Droctulft's treacherous enthusiasm that supplied Ravenna with its youthful city-charm, though we might wonder if Ravenna even deserves to be called a city, if it isn't simply a provincial imitation of Rome? So what if it's an imperial residence? Is this what the empire has come to in its senility?
To be come into being anew, Moscow can rely on nothing but the artist's youthful exaltation; only its unfathomable, irrepressible will to beauty can compensate feeling guilty for that hidden act of treachery against the tribe's forgotten laws. This will is no more and no less than the spirit of passion, engulfing its willing subject to the point of self-sacrifice. The artist must be more than he is. He really needs to fall in love with beauty, to become its lover. It is this category of people – philosophers, artists, musicial and loving natures – that takes first place in Plato's stratification of souls. They are more than just philosophers: their souls have wings. Most artists, in fact, only inhabit the sixth or seventh level of the scale that Plato uses to describe the candidate-soul's struggle for salvation in "Phaedrus".
Much has been said of the salvation that the world's beauties could bring. But no-one has ever payed to much attention to the fact that beauty and world, comsos and decoration are synonyms: ornamentum, mundus. To speak of their mutual salvation only leads to tautologies. Plato points toward the dedication to beauty and falling in love as the only guarantee for salvation. Plato doesn't mean anonymous beauty, but the beauty of someone like Phaidrus or Alkiviadis, Laura and Beatrice in their Neo-Platonist variant. But behind these images of Platonic love, there is plastical kalokagathia or the inspired physicality of the Hellenic polis or the rennaiscance town. Art is a variety of Platonic love. It is consumated in the decorum of the town, which, in this case, is Moscow. For now, Moscow is little more than its own possibility, no more than a participant of the mystical copulation in the course of which mutual ejactulation is bound to occur, thanks to the assiduousness and dexterity (artistry) of the artist, whose goal will never be blinded by the perspective of premature ejaculation. The only way of attaining salvation is by saving, . Everyone remembers the myth of Orpheus. What was his mistake? Everything was at his beck and call, so he should have mustered some patience; he should have led his inamorata from hell by placing his trust in his own agile fingers, in the sonority of voices and strings. But all he was missing was patience as well as sensitivity, trust and belief in himself, so he turned back. And so, here we are again, at the very bottom of this underground, this dungeon, alone with someone who we have no hope of seeing through all this fog. We have to get up and to sweep away all the sublimated forms of seduction away with us, away from the murk of non-being to the light of life. The road that lies before us is possibly far longer than the path that Oprheus travelled.
Moscow, January 1992
Born in 1956 in Dnepropetrovsk. Artist, art critic. Member of the editorial board of "MAM".
Lives in Moscow.