The rhetoric of time: the old narrative through the prisms of the new point of view
Zeigam Azizov Born in Azerbaijan. Artist. Had numerous exhibitions, publications. Teaching in Central St. Martin's College, London University of Arts. Form 1992 lives in London.
The most creative people never took the classification of artistic evolution into periods so seriously; it is interesting as far as it is helpful to understand and to contemplate things. We know times when being contemporary or avant-garde or modern played the role of having a strategic position. In order to maintain the stronger position in different times, many forms were excluded or postponed, left-out waiting for their right time to return. The narrative is one of the categories that have been periodically subjected to exclusion, but despite this it is also the category debated most widely. In our days we come to terms to realize that the role of an artist is no longer simply manipulating different forms and ideas, but also making sense out of forms and ideas to narrate, to say something. In this context an interesting phenomenon haunting the territory of art in the former Soviet Union poses some questions. The phenomenon is described as the 'return to the narrative'. The term 'return to the narrative' has been suggested by Viktor Misiano and for the purpose of this short text I will refer to it as a new narrative.
This effort made by artists working in the 'post-soviet' reality is motivated by the current situation in contemporary art. The situation is the dissatisfaction with the language of contemporary art in the East and in the West. After the perestroika, when their Western colleagues very enthusiastically started recycling the radical forms of post 1968 culture carefully avoiding it's political content, in order to be able to sell their products (radicalism as fashion and glamorous entertainment), in the former Soviet Union artists made an attempt to introduce these radical forms only to inform the recent historical past of the West, elements of which strongly invaded the territory of the former socialism by rapidly replacing it with the capitalism. The culture imported from the West, at the time of perestroika reached its most decadent form. Time imposed new questions after the disillusion with the glamour of decadence culture, giving the chance to the most thinking artists to take on real issues. In the conjecture of the disillusion mixed with the confidence artists turned to tell stories emerged from within the circumstances known as a result of embracing the 'planet lost'.
In this situation to tell the story means to go back to the history, which was 'thrown out of the ship of modernity' by the Russian avant-garde in the early 20th century. This time through the stories of artists it is history turned into image and 'looking' at the critical situation of our days from the distance. The distance, the gap made between history and modernity as a result of modernism's strategy of "cutting-off" with history, transformed into the big picture. The need to bring this big picture to the view has emerged from the crisis of representation in contemporary art.
Let's take a brief intermediary excurse to this 'crisis' which creates the need for post-soviet artists to 'return to the storytelling'. The complexity of modern narrative and its rhetoric reflects a general rebellion against the historical heritage. But the style chosen by most of the artists associated with modernism is also ideologically motivated. The silent performance, the broken image, the blank canvas, the empty gallery space, the bicycle wheel etc. deliberately confusing mixture of elements of simplicity with the complexity of experiments-all this appears to be consciously designed to render modern artists attempt to be accessible to any critical technique based on ideological principles different from their own. In our days, in the condition of 'neo-liberalism' these radical gestures have lost their meaning, which they had in the particular historical conjecture of avant-guard, although it doesn't mean that adopting these gestures for the specific context is meaningless.
The strict division of 'fact' from the figure, or the documentary from 'fiction' following the persuasive theory of spectacle insisted that facts have replaced images, what was considered the fiction in the previous age has become the fact of reality. Theories of 'everyday life' in their turn suggested that history would be collapsed into the events of the everyday. Some theories engaged with the new media believe, that elements of new media, such as the database as the genre of new medium with specific narrative capacities, have replaced the old. In some cases the narrative is expressed by means of the surface, because of the total collision of fiction with the real, which leaves no room for the story. For some it is the documentation which becomes the basic of any narrative. With the documentation of events and considering the facts of reality as they absorb into themselves the images of the past, the narrative is inevitably returns to history, because documenting means perceiving facts and events in their relation to beginnings.
In addition to these tendencies we have described above there is also the curious turn towards effects of cinema. It needs to be understood as the spectacular expansion of the visual art forms and a shift made from the formal homogeneity towards heterogeneity in representation, as in the cinema, which is able to tell stories by mixing together elements of painting, music and literature. For Henri Bergson the cinema as a technical means of representing 'reality' was the means of projecting the present into the past, present into the future, as well as holding together the most eminent forms of narrative by mixing together painting, literature, music and other forms. Ideologically speaking, Vladimir Lenin's statement 'among all arts the cinema is the most important of all' had a particular significance in the context of the Soviet history. The aura of cinema has invaded the cultural universe. The dynamic energy depicting workers life, the speed intensifying the progress of the everyday, the positive energy overcoming and replacing the negative energy are motives disseminated in any work of art adopting cinematic effects. This effect mostly resided in the panoramic life demonstrating the "open-endedness" of the society.
The greater reason resides within the ideological endeavors. In the climate of 'neo-liberalism' 'giving the voice' to the larger population to narrate, to tell their own stories by using new artistic and technological means widely practiced in the media. Yet only slight knowledge of this kind of 'freedom' helps us to understand the liberty to speak is nearly the same thing as delivering the message of power. Because previous radical gestures very quickly became institutionalized and adopted for the purpose of ideological operations of power in terms of the control of people's right to speak. Neo-liberalism is characteristic for this feature: it seems that everyone is free to speak at the same time the degree of control is also increased. The forms and styles of radical art movements are now disseminated elsewhere in the spectacular society, the illusion that the contemporainity is everywhere, yet the internal dialectic is consistently takes back to the past. In order to have an access to the history of this spectacle the epistemological playground needs to be built and art is, of course, such an alternative.
The rapid spread of new technologies gave rise to the rapid spread of the popular narrative the result of which is the populist use of 'radical' means invented by artists. After Althusser we could review this paradox of subjectivication by saying that 'subjects speak by themselves', because the political message interpellated in the birth of the contemporary person. It is also called biopolitics. If 'subjects speak by themselves' that means that power is "shifted" from the governmental houses to population's mind, as if their bodies are possessed by the message of power. The condition of surveillance is internalized and entered into the way of perception. The critical effort or at least one of the chances seems to find the way of telling the story, which is not restricted to the old or the new, but the story told to offer the choice to see events of our days from the distance.
Socially peripheral, but symbolically central form of creativity, such as art takes on the responsibility to define the point-of-view in order to regain its symbolic power. The collapse of representation with the cinematic effect created by media is the conjecture for the possible critic. Like cinema, in order to gain the symbolic insight returned to the epos, sagas etc., the return to the past through the cinema inevitably leads to the formation of new narrative in art. So the task is not to end up making films, as it is often happens, but to take history seriously, like cinema did. Because in our highly contradictory age of globalization if 'the world is a planet', the history also seems 'snapped to grid' and turned into the panoramic image: past-present-future.
The complexity of the situation in the global landscape and in Russia today underlies the urgency to re-discover the past in order to understand the present. One of the specific reasons is that Russia's past has not been fully understood yet, and in the international context it has been analyzed as far as communisms failure goes. On the one hand the past was repressed by the communist regime, on the other hand outside Russia its culture mostly understood for being repressed. The distance, the repression, the paradoxical stories made in spite of temporality, time and history and the need to return to what has been 'left out' takes us to the point that the celebrated age which attracted millions of bright intellectuals, namely the history of modernity is the history of repression! It is a particular repression through liberation, inclusion through exclusion, the stubborn silence over the invitation to speak. At this point it is appropriate to mention that in recent decades, the diverse forms of artistic production provided the ground for the critic by deconstructing the history through the 'inclusion' of its repressed other. All debates around the post-colonial past, totalitarian regime, racism, sexism, gender and feminism and other forms of subjectivity brought the subject of history back to the present. The place for the means which manifests this subject is the narrative. The subjectivity is the capacity of the narrator to posit him/her as "subject". It is through narrative one constitutes oneself as a subject in its reality, which is that of the being.
Return to the old 'story telling' by artists coming from the territory of the former USSR is the challenge to modernity's obsession with abandoning of the historical narrative in favor of relativistic amalgamations that desperately seek to relate artistic forms to the political events. Different from this kind of relativism, the new narrative is sharply directed towards the events taking place from the fissure opened by the distinction of modernity from history. The distinction between the past and the present and the effort to create this distinction by modernity ended in realizing that history is not the message anymore, but it is the medium, which offers bundle of possibilities for the new narrative.
We are in history and while we understand the history as a discourse, then we are in this discourse. What art takes on for the innovation by scrutinizing time is what the discourse offers. In this process 'the thing itself is unreachable, but its phenomenon can be apprehended through the structure of thought' (Kant). The rhetoric provides the way of telling a new story which arose from the distinction on the one hand and embeddedness in the history, therefore in the discourse on the other. In this dichotomy an artist doesn't look for the 'ground', but rather for the 'space' in order to position ideas. The rhetoric (or metalanguage) formed at this conjecture provides a very good possibility not to fall prey to nostalgia and not to privilege the present, but to enter into the dialogue with time through the combination of the past and the present, history and modernity.
It is the effort to locate ideas and to invent, to find the place for the different story. The ground for this kind of approach is of course provided from the recent art itself, yet the problems are different. At this point we could mention artists like Kabakov's turn to the Russian classics, such as Gogol in order to identify his 'hero's with their own biography that is resided in the past. Inevitably in the work of younger generation of artists, like Gutov the connection with the 'past' (Soviet Marxism, as well as Socialist realism) is made for reasons emerged in our days: it is not totalitarian regime is questioned, but the retrieval and return of elements of totalitarianism, however fragmented. The notion of 'connectivity' and search for connecting points of different times is one of the elements of this new narrative. Instead to cut off with everything past, here we notice the return to it, as far as the storytelling provides the chance for an expression.
The components of this new narrative ranges from the classical Russian culture of story telling via the 'the most important art of all', the film culture, to the Marxism, as well as the 'myth of the West' and the internationalism of Soviet through its 'russified' forms. The use of medium is also diverse, since in the story telling not the medium matters, but the way of telling the story. The stories built around these questions are based on contemplation of the former Soviet architectural edifices built for the reasons of communist ideology and now re-used for new times of business, the everyday life of the post-soviet reality, the connections and disconnection between the former official culture, such as socialist realism and culture born after the perestroika as a mixture of fragments of previous 'underground' culture with the culture imported from the West. The storytelling is evolved into the metanarrative linking different aspects of history and event through the rhetoric of time and elaborating the tropes of event. An example of it is the work by Dimitry Gutov and his 'return' to the Soviet past and his investigations into the Soviet Marxism. It is also true of Olga Chernycheva's deconstrucionial panoramic views of the image of VDNH.
This kind of transformation of image is also visible in the impact of the Soviet past on the so-called post-Soviet circumstances. Highly influenced by already hybrid 'russified' forms of translation of culture in the former Soviet republics artists are creating the narrative close to their colleges in Moscow. In other words the meaning produced by the break-down of the USSR is disseminated and now gathered together by the fragmented image of the past and its present made of these fragments. The work by artists from Kyrgyzistan Murat Djumaliev and Gulnara Kasmalieva build up their work on the 'russified' present through the old narratives of Kyrgyzistan. There is an interesting attempt to elaborate the absent space of the Second world, which is lost in-between the First and Third Worlds through the concept of 'imagined communities' (borrowed from Benedict Anderson) in 'statements' by Yevgeniy Fiks.
The cross-circulation of knowledge and the hyper-transformation of image within the previous decade in art had an impact on making a shift from the previous formalism. This shift made possible to consider the 'past' not as an obsolete entity, but as the rich material for understanding of the present. An important move from modernism's consideration of actuality as a given moment, the circumstances have provided a possible ground for looking at time and actuality on the plane of past-present-future. The narrative formed in this sphere of consideration is the 'return of the repressed' as the psychoanalytical language would like to call it, which in its turn gives to the narrative the role of the 'socially symbolic act'. Having a choice to use tools and ideas, which are proliferated as a result of modernist consideration of multiplying, creates not one but many narratives. The result of this proliferation is the chance to see different forms and stories as co-existing side by side.
The return to the 'old story telling' is not the return to the old as such, but an attempt to return to forms, which are considered as obsolete. Any new narrative is actually the 'return' to the old narrative. Yet no return is the same, since each return is leading to the new point of view. The return is the retrieval. Because of this it is not the return to the old times, which is impossible, but the possible choice working with old forms. In these circumstances two aspects are important to note in order to understand why there is a need to contemplate, to create a new viewpoint out of the old forms. First it is the refusal to be associated with the political 'pigeon-hole' system, what happened with the artists of post-colonial kind and instead to have an ambivalent point of view. Second, is realizing that modernism's collapse happened because it's tendency to cut-off with anything 'old', ignoring huge possibilities of the historical narrative and to reduce entire existence into the new, as if the life has started with the birth of modernity. The storytelling, fabulation and motives from the 'grand narrative' are adopted by artists, who see in the narrative of the forgotten past a "tool box', material that can be adopted and made anew for our days.
The newness of this kind of narrative is resided in its basic; it is neither the symbolic code (such as written story) nor the iconic code (the narrative created by image) but their intermingling, their articulation what may be called the hyper-transformation of image. For example if artist like Kabakov had to turn to Gogol in order to speak about the transformation of literary hero into the reality which he considered, in the work of artists named above (Gutov and others) it is the everyday reality and the structure of the everyday reality at the basis of the narrative. The stories found their embodiment in images surrounding us, where the text and image transformed into one. When we look at these surrounding visual forms we are not asking questions about their origins, they are perceived as a normal state of affairs, as if they always been there. The epistemological inquiry made into their origins by artists makes us look at them again, differently. Because the images surrounding our world are telling stories, which were previously told only in literary texts and mythological fables. In the tension of time these fables slipped from the pages of books, TV screens, films into our streets, buildings and other public spaces dominating our reality. But like the stories, the reality is also transforming, giving the way into another reality, leaving the past behind as the rich material for narrating. Iconic forms absorbing into the symbolic codes to allow them to be decoded and encoded for the fabulation. Understood in the Bergsonian sense, the fabulation is the form of narrative able to have the signs of past-present-future without separating them from each other, in order to see history as a discourse and contemporeintity as a negotiator of this discourse. What is hyper-transformational here is that the code resided within the forgotten past is hyperbolized now and returned as a new narrative embracing forgotten dimensions in the ubiquitous images here and now. The 'return' happened due to the cross-circulation of the image in this way and what artists do is to grasp this 'return' to create the fabulation.
This kind of fabulation is necessarily encourages to have a viewpoint. For artists engaged in this practice the responsibility to narrate means the responsibility to represent the critical moment. If for these artists there is the return to old forms, to epics and poetics in order to represent their ideas, there is also the clear-cut refusal to become didactic and overtly traditional. One of the reasons is that compare to moralistic demagogy which has emerged from the pseudo-radicalism of network culture, in the work of 'new narrative' this particular thing, having a point of view, taking a position is motivated by the turbulence of gaze. Because of this the position artist has taken here is not within or outside the situation they represent but it is always above, below, beside and elsewhere, in order to see and to show different angles of the situation. This also puts the 'new narrative' in the historical context, when turning to everyday reality doesn't end in the newspaper article, but becomes the part and parcel of historical time itself. Criticism takes on the significant role, because of the symbolic power associated with the way of seeing and representing. Perhaps it is true that before to have a critical approach, an artist needs to regain this symbolic power of artistic form itself. But what kind of position would allow a criticism for an artist "before the infinite play of the world is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages"? This is what we would repeat here again after Roland Barthes, who asked this question some 50 years ago.
Today documenting images and making files is characteristic for the cultures elsewhere, in the media, the network culture, the electronic database etc. Yet it is clear that this kind of archiving was a methodological feature of all times and the difference is in the use of different means. For art the concern doesn't end in the confrontation and use of means and technologies but also finding a position in order to be able to say anything at all. In the complex ideological, economic, as well as aesthetic circumstances, such as ours, the role of the artist today is to consider what is left out, forgotten and to contemplate them and to tell another story. The point is to regain the status of art as something good to think with and once it regains its status of 'thinking' and 'speaking', it can also offer the sense and the meaning, powerful communicative tools for the dialogue. What is needed now is the big picture, the clear concept, the sharp view and in short, the good story to help to figure out the "name of the game".
London, January, 2007