Issue: №1 2005

Section: Situations

Conflict and Universality

Conflict and Universality

Vitaly Pushnitsky. From the series “Light”. 2001. Oil on canvas, steel wire, fluorescent lamp

Dmitry Golynko-Wolfson Born in 1969 in Leningrad. Essayist, poet and art critic. Lives in St-Petersburg.

In Russia, at the beginning of the 21st Century, ethical approach has become the primary criteria for the evaluation of art. Open public discussion as well as peanut-gallery chatter, about a given show, will always, undoubtedly touch upon questions of ethical soundness. In these first ten years of 21st Century, there have been a series of projects whose most competent aspect is apparent only through the lens of the ethical optic.

The contemporary ethical statement strives to achieve universality of character. The desire to delineate a universal ethical credo is most evident in large expositional projects, like Documenta 11, categorizing a multiplicity of cultural viewpoints, or the 50th Venice Biennale, advocating a return to visual truth. The universality of contemporary ethical displays is motivated, paradoxically, by its own internal conflict. The apotheosis of the conflict introduces a mechanism of self-determination. The universal nature of contemporary ethics is pre-determined by the tangible necessity for a willful effort, a way of overcoming oneself; this was not acceptable in relativist ethical climate of the 90's when ethics was a product of media-controlled image-making, nor was it recognized by the conventional ethics that were dictated by the institutions of global society.

The ethics of zeroism is different, with its exposed conflict that summons a loud, public resonance and brings media attention to the artistic project. Actual artistic gesture is identified with its zone of ethical provocation. Official power may suspect a concentrated threat and take repressive measures against it, but the artistic community sees in this the additional stimulus of self-identification    through irreconcilable disagreements. Often, scandalous projects serve as a reason for either fracture or consolidation of the artistic community on the basis of independent, new ethical orientations.

In the Russian context, such an "ethical stumbling block" turned out to be collision of Orthodox believers and contemporary artists in the 1998 Art-Manezh Fair performance piece by Avdei Ter-Oganyan (an artist working in his own invented technique of "blasphemous" desecration of the copy, the ready-made). This Art-Manezh event is often viewed as commercial and pretentiously respectable, so the clearly scandalous gesture of the artist-provocateur was even more shocking against a background of antiques and salon-style paintings. As an intentional epithet to the Russian Orthodoxy, Ter-Oganyan, for a nominal fee, invited guests to step up and yell at sanctified reproductions of an icon, and for 50 rubles, he would split icon with an axe—the icons were not, by the way, rare museum pieces. As a result of this aggressive attack on the faithful, he was accused of criminal incendiary behavior causing religious strife, and in order to save himself from the court proceedings, he had to immigrate illegally to the Czech Republic, where he was given the status of political refugee.

By the way, the ethical judgment of the artistic community was at times even harsher and more inflexible, than that of the militant church leaders and their blindly following masses. In the opinion of a certain part of the artistic community, agitated by principles of personal responsibility, the artist should have stayed in Russia, and in the event of an unpleasant verdict, served the sentence, whether deserved or undeserved, that resulted from his courageous attempt to "tease the Orthodox geese". His escape from responsibility, to this sector of the community, meant an admission that his outrageous act had been unethical. Other artistic circles, upholding the decision of Ter-Oganyan to protect himself from accusation and pursuit, saw a genuine ethical component in his expatriation complex (akin to a heroic moment of free will in the spirit of 19th century liberal-democracy).

Thus, the range of ethical positions arising from this performance varied from odious judgments to exultant lionizations of the artist-sufferer. With his the act, Ter-Oganyan demonstrated to the Russian artistic community his ethical indifference, inherited from the 90's, as well the acute necessity for a new ethical stance, capable of cementing the society and becoming its idea-product. When Ter-Oganyan defiled the icons, he challenged the axioms of tolerance and good-heartedness that are central Christian ethics, but his transgressive trespass awoke that paranoid intolerance that supports all religious ethics.

Another example: the persecution and trial of the participants (including the museum director Yuri Samodurov, his co-worker Liudmila Vasilievskaia and the artist Anna Mikhailchuk) in the exhibition "Caution! Religion!" which urged intelligent society to consider how an expanded or narrowed ethical frame guarantees immunity to the artwork, and, to some degree, allows it to manipulate the sacred authority of religious institutions. After an extended court process (which frayed the nerves of the accused and whipped the religious ecstasy into a diabolical hysteria) Yuri Samodurov and Liudmila Vasilievskaia where declared guilty of inciting religious hostilities and fined for a sum of 100,000 rubles, while Anna Mikhailchuk was acquitted and freed from responsibility. Closer observation shows, that prosecution of the exhibit organizers was essentially a poorly masked "attack" on authoritative societal center, and its high-profile presentation was supported not only by the public artistic event, but also by multiple rights-protected opportunities to ("make eyes" governmental power.)

Taking into consideration the judge's desire that the accused be sentenced to a some years in a hard labor colony and be forbidden to participate in societal functions, the sentence could be deemed light and conciliatory. But rights-watchers and the liberally oriented sector of the intellectual elite disputed the decision of the court. In essence, this was a dangerous precedent: approving the powers of government to use cartel methods as a way of resolving ethical disagreements and dilemmas. If the insulted faithful hadn't run to the assistance of the political criminal justice machine, putting themselves in the mix with the patriarchal pursuers of new and progressive society, but had instead joined the artists in discussion or argument, then they would have had several convincing ethical points.

In the 1990's, new art was able to make clear, effective, exultant statements—we need only recall the work of the famous "Moscow actionist" Oleg Kulik, who slaughtered a piglet in the gallery "Regina," or the public sacrifice of the cock by the Kazakh artist Kanat Ibragimov. By rushing into morally "forbidden" realms, actionist artists fought for the slipping attention of the contented, financially satisfied consumer. The unstable system of art attempted to claim its own segment of the market, controlling its own section of the clientele. Everywhere, in both politics and economics, as well as in art, the catastrophic chaos of ethical norms and assumptions ruled. Understandably such chaos has not completely disappeared with the advent of the 21st Century, but, essentially, it has passed. In the era of the notorious Putin stabilization, ethical honesty, rather than brilliant bravado, was required of the artist—though the era really did not provide the ideological basis necessary for the practical realization of this demand.

In the show "Caution! Religion!" the artists depicted Christ in comic-strip style on a background of Coca-Cola symbols, with the words "This is my blood" (a poster by Alexander Koslapov) or put a gash in the icon's face in the shape of a stand for beach photography (Alisa Zrazhevskaia's piece, "Don't...idol) and, most likely, they were aware that their thoughtful, critical and often brilliant statements would offend the less educated, godfearing public. Thus the question: are these pugnacious escapades idea-driven—or are they just self-advertisements, a way of drawing media attention to oneself in order to lobby for one's own interests? The court dispute and the societal agitation that arose around the show "Caution! Religion!" emphasized an interesting nuance: intense ethical search often occurs in a regime of harsh self-criticism. But is this good or bad? Should the social pull towards solid ethical norms be reduced to the coercive renunciation of the artist? Or are there more tolerant, responsive ways to incorporate ethical discipline into art?

I see the turn towards ethical (self)analysis in contemporary Russian art as a symbolic counterpoint between conceptualist (or post-conceptualist) strategies and the poetics of reality, as espoused by many young artists. Moscow conceptualism, associated with Ilya Kabakov, Victor Pivovarov and Vadim Zakharov, and with the installations of the group "Inspection    Medical Hermeneutics," which speak about of communal "death" of soviet social conscience or about the hallucinatory fantasy of mass consciousness, barely touched upon ethical problematic. The brutal actionists of the 90s (ushered in by Alexander Brenner, Oleg Kulik and Anatoly Osmolovsky) with their affected, corporeal practices signaled the ethical dissolution of the Russian social conscience. In the years 2000, the priority of the ethical search will become for and important indicator of their artistic manner of the young artist. (One example would be the work of Alexei Kallima called "Metamorphosis," in which a battle between Russian and Chechen soldiers resurrects the decrepit heroism of the hammer and sickle.)

Curiously, brave and unexpected ethical decisions are often made by artists who work in traditional media (like oil painting) and who do not intend to make harsh, social criticisms. Thus, in the collages, ready-mades and sculptures of the Petersburg artist Vitaly Pushnitsky paradoxically, on the one hand, the avant-garde cult of the artist-demiurge, and on the other hand, the post-modernist reflection or the transcendental source of creativity. In his series "Light", paintings that illustrate certain piqued moments in human existence; the birth of a child or the execution of a rebel—are "barricaded" into iron cages and perfectly penetrated by the glow of halogen lamps. For Pushnitsky, the ethical horizon reveals the form of transcendence "after the transcendental," in the place where metaphysics recognizes its own finite limits.

The enormous canvases from the series "Human project", by another Petersburg artist, Kerim Ragimov, replicate the glossy images and journalistic photography of popular magazines. Represented in these works are mainly quotidian or revolutionary scenes from the history of Latin America and the Third World (for example, the hackneyed, stereotypical portrait of Che Guevara with his military brigade, reproduced in the standard painting style of a Cuban painter) Being couched in the theories of Baudrillard and Virilio, and knowing that mass-media effects reality, with its fabricated illusions, the artist nevertheless, proposes that media itself (and specifically those magazines that lie so pleasantly on the coffee-table to be leafed though while sitting on a comfortable sofa) should formulate today's humane—and ethical—experience. The positions of both artists are debatable, but it is precisely in this exaggerated debate that one sees the strength of the contemporary ethical pursuit.

In contemporary ethical theories, for example in the programmatical book by Alenka Zupancic "Ethics of the Real" it is explained that elemental ethical decisions are only possible in a situation when all choices are impossible, when any decision will be criminal and shameful. It seems that today the ideal ethical decision is connected with the escalation of violence and terror. In context, ethical righteousness immediately comes into question. Concerned with the agitated responses to terrorism and the measure of personal responsibility, today's Russian artists inevitably put themselves "under the gun", in the eyes of the powerful institutions or the reactionary public. The ethics of zeroism really does not induce melancholy calm or Philistine comfort. It seems that ethical truth can be achieved in a place where the democracy of the ethically permissible has been destroyed, where the ethical underpinnings become wobbly and dangerous.

The Practice of ethical diversity

If, in today's market of artistic worth, the art of "political design" (art in which the political statement is more significant than the artistic performance) takes the lead, as Boris Groys suggests, then art which practices ethical diversity would receive a fairly high rating. Thus, topical political analysis sounds convincing only in combination with a responsible ethical position. In order for ethical statements to be more honestly described, not only among group of evaluators, but also in public media, it must be socially open, and must make direct contact with various social languages and groups. In order for ethical messages to be interpreted with real credibility, it is necessary to achieve the emotional involvement of the viewer, his direct, factual interest. It is unlikely that boxes packed with time-mechanisms (elements of the work "This is not a Bomb" by David Ter-Oganyan) and scattered about the Lenin Museum just before the opening of the Moscow biennale could leave the viewer unmoved. When, in front of his eyes, a tame, little museum lawn has been transformed into the possible location for a terrorist attack.

Or consider, in the international context, how, in the international context, viewers attach similar social openness and emotional involvement, to the work of the Mexican artist Santiago Sierra. In his statements on the themes of gender, race, and ethnic discrimination, Sierra attaches cardinal importance to the question of the professional ethics in the epoch of globalism. If one notes that Sierra enlists homeless people, unemployed people and prostitutes as volunteers, then it becomes clear to what extent the role of the viewer-participant in his performances is in fact double-edged,  slippery, and uncomfortable. For Sierra, contemporary art is an apogee of the capitalist exploitation of hired labor.

The social bent in contemporary art pushes the Russian artist to take a distinct interest in the sphere of political activism and chronological documentation. Here it is fitting to recall the activities of the Petersburg-based group "What is to Be Done?" (Dmitri Vilensky, Olga Yegorova, Natalia Pershina-Yakimskaya, Alexandre Skidan. Artyom Magun, and others). In the year 2003, this group created "Stop Maschina", an act documented in Dmitri Vilensky's film, "Human-Sandwich." The impulse for this performance was the realization that in St. Petersburg, outside the metro stop "Ploschad Vosstaniya" pensioners and other unfortunates of society, often wear advertisement boards that announce the addresses of businesses or display the logos of mobile phone companies. In response, the artists presented questions about the forms of labor exploitation in today's Russia, and about the optimal strategies for liberation. The choreography of the action lead toward a specified moment when the activists gathered together at the metro station forming a kind of flesh-mob, a "human-sandwich", enclosed on both sides with advertisement boards. The front board was blank, and on the back were such crucial questions as, for example, "Do you exploit?" "Are you exploited?" "He who doesn't work, doesn't eat?" "Is exploitation inescapable?" etc. This artists and intellectuals staged "Dreyf"— another action, this one in the flaneur tradition—in 2004 at the Narvskaya gates located on the working-class outskirts of St. Petersburg, a place with a glorified, revolutionary biography. Here they staged a raid, with the aim of christening their communicative action a poetic "unification with the people" who had, in the day, fostered the revolutionary impulse and "raised the cudgel of the people's rage."

But the trickiest aspect of the group "What is to be Done?" is their firm refusal to focus on the local Russian context, and their attempt to hitch this context with worldwide (in their words, global) problems of trade unions and insurgent movements. The enthusiasm and pathos of spontaneous lower-class protest (perfectly achieved of this group, of erudite intellectuals) connects their artistic and publicist energy with that of Marco Scotini or Klaus Biesenbach, whose projects are dedicated to the poetic strikes of the working man and the terrorism of the city guerrilla. But the broader international approach claimed by the group "What is to be Done?" is far from adequate for the Russian situation, as it is not economically or culturally balanced.

In Russia, there are no gigantic corporations producing planet-wide brand names, and the influence of today's anti-corporate movements, for which Naomi Kleine apologizes, are in Russia stripped of their central importance. It's hard to picture flesh-mobs in the Russian cities, eager to boycott Nike sneakers or Budweiser beer. In contrast to the Asian countries of the Third World, Russia has almost no monstrous, sweatshop companies where, by taking advantage of low tariffs, the leaders of trans-national corporations can shamelessly exploit the unbelievably cheap labor force. No, to this day, Russian businesses have an advantageously irreproducible character, concerned with pulling money "out of the air" or with accruing enormous capital overseas. The bulk of Russian labor rarely mobilizes itself to service the management of these financial machinations. For this reason, protest language of left-allied worker's movements, or anti-globalist rhetoric is often hard to comprehend in Russia.

Furthermore, according to the accurate observation of Boris Kagarlitsky, the left-leaning sociologist and director of the Institute of Globization Studies, the rhetoric of resistance is itself a commercial product, included in the cultural management plan and thus void of its potential as real protest. Thus, the ethical obligation of the Russian artist is to find a local protest language that recognizes the international state of affairs, but is committed to resist it, possessing its own, independent analysis of the post-communist reality. In my opinion, the group, "What is to Be Done?" strays, both in perspective and focus, from this end.    While sometimes corresponding conceptually with the work of Sierra, the action "What is to Be Done?" does not offer its participants any material compensation. Ethical protest, for them, includes a conscious refusal of mercantile wealth.

The ethics of zeroism are the ethics of direct action and active interferences. The contemporary Russian artist often comes to the logical conclusion: this gesture will only seem ethical if it is completely clear-cut, a sharp, fanatical break. The project "Lifshitz Institute" at once comes to mind, because it provoked a lively internet discussion about that figure of orthodox soviet art philosophy, Mikhail Lifshitz. The increasingly heated argument, launched by the Moscow artists Dmitri Gutovy, Anatoly Osmolovsky was joined by the artists Vladimir Salynikov and Constantin Bohorov, and by the philosophers Igor Chubarov, Keti Chukhrukidze, Vladislav Safronov, among others. By electronic exchange, greatly conflicting opinions were discussed with the goal of conceiving professional ethics for the contemporary artist. (One aspect was, does Salynikov have the "moral" right to make a portrait of Stalin, when this would be in corresponance with the today's fashionable imperial ambitions and with the rhetoric of Putin's reign?)

The nexus of the discussion was discovered in the sharp opposition between the positions of Gutov and Osmolovsky. Gutov urged his propaganda of realism from a platform of orthodox Marxism (these were the ideas supporting his exhibit "Everything I did in the 70's doesn't count," shown in Guelman Gallery, March 2005) while Osmolovsky set abstract art at the center of his utopian mission (his abstract art was shown in Stella Art Gallery, December 2003). Note the reflexive judgment of both Gutov and Osmolovsky, and furthermore, note that their works cannot be reproached for their dogmatism or sentimentalism. But the overall tone of their discussion, its"Leninist" methodology, with the elaborate construction of slogans, all based on clear, logical argumentation, brings one to the conclusion: that the position of the artist can be recognized as ethical, if it gravitates towards borderline fanaticism and irreconcilability.

"The ethics of zeroism" will take as the foundation of its ethical action strong-willed superpowers or fanatical victory. In this way it proposes a study of the conventions and limits of ethics itself. This study, in itself, will become for the artist a fascinating, but often dangerous and extreme endeavor.


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