Bogdan Mamonov Born in Moscow in 1964. Artist, critic and curator. Lives in Moscow.
The fate of this text is not entirely ordinary. It was written at the end of the summer of 2011, and became a reaction to the ideas and events seemingly prevailing in two different modes of existence, amidst which I nevertheless saw a close relationship. On the one hand, there was a question of a big epistemological problem determining, in my view, the social, cultural and even political horizon of the European world. And on the other, the text described a number of artistic practices and events that had already taken place and that summed up the year 2011 in the Moscow art scene. These events, in the author’s opinion, were a wonderful illustration to the problem that I designated as “Fatherlessness.”
However, once again, life played another trick on the author.
Those vivid art initiatives that promised the development and struggle for hegemony of some new forms, in fact turned out to be vivid, but short-lived. On the other hand, muffled sounds of thunder heard at the end of 2012 and beginning of ‘13, fairly unexpectedly escalated into a powerful barrage, which, in specific conditions, threatened to violently redraw the picture of the world that has emerged after the fall of the Soviet empire. According to all the parameters, this barrage could be described as an attempt to do away with a new model of the world order; to do away with “fatherlessness.” And if, at some moment, it seemed to me that the publication of this text had lost its relevancy, then later I arrived at the conclusion that, quite inversely, it makes sense to once again turn to the artistic events of 2011 today, in order to attempt to sort out the cultural context of an epoch that laid the foundation for today’s explosion.
Over the last decade, it seemed that artistic practices were losing their pertinence in the current context. However, they undoubtedly retain their value as a diagnostic tool of the frailest zones of contemporary civilization. And this would not have been trivial at all, had they, acting as diagnosticians, also been able to propose an appropriate form of therapy. But alas, the tragedy of contemporary art consists precisely in that it only indicates a symptom of illness that manifests on its own body. In that sense, Deleuze’s well known thought that artists are the clinicians of civilization, drawing art closer to the practices of the famous doctors-experimenters, turns out to be too close to the truth. The difference, however, is that art does not undertake a conscious risk, voluntarily taking on the “sin” of civilization. In reality, it becomes that kind of sensitive zone of society, where the common illness manifests itself most visibly. Risking their lives, doctors discovered weapons against illnesses, whereas a contemporary artist is not only far removed from such an accomplishment, but distant even from the belief in its possibility.
Thus, the discussion will revolve around several events that have either already taken place or were just being planned by Moscow artists, and these events will not be presented in a chronological order.
To begin, I will mention that in the winter of 2011, some Austrian collectors appeared in my studio, wanting to acquaint themselves with emerging Russian art for the purposes of either an exhibition, or a collection, or a gallery collaboration. Their goals have remained obscure. Regardless, only one of them materialized at my place, vaguely identifying himself as a “consultant.” The others either dissolved in Moscow traffic jams, or in telephone conversations, and have remained ghosts to me. Suspecting a connoisseur of emergent Russian art in me (obviously, erroneously), they asked me to show them its latest achievements. These collectors vanished, befitting of ghosts, just as suddenly and silently as they appeared. A stack of files with archives of several budding artists, which I conscientiously compiled for my unexpected Austrian guests, was the only thing that remained from their visit. My contemplations over this far-from-complete archive served as a starting point for the present commentary.
A while later, the victory of the “Voina” [“War”] group at the “Innovation” [“Innovatsiya”] competition organized by the National Centre for Contemporary Art [GTsSI: “Gosudarstvenniy Tsentr Sovremennogo Isskustva”] became known. Here, an informed reader is entitled to marvel: although the participants of the “Voina” group belong to the same generation as Ogurtsov, Tkach, Lozmanov, Suhareva, Titova and others whose art interested me, it is difficult to find authors so distant from each other in terms of poetics, origins, and even political positions. But I will insist that despite such radical divergences, I will speak of phenomena that have a common basis, similar to how one disease could find its expression in completely different symptoms. Contemplating “Voina’s” victory, forgive the double-entendre, I understood that it is incorrect to examine their action on the Liteyniy Bridge—however vivid—without the context of a whole range of artistic-political gestures of some artists and curators in relation to traditional institutions, the main one being the Russian Orthodox Church. Finding its embodiment in a series of scandalous artistic-political gestures, the fight of the liberal society with these institutions lasted throughout the “noughts,” and it is well known that the author of the present text participated in the polemics surrounding these events in the most direct and interested way, speaking, moreover, on the side of the traditionalists, and not on the side of the artistic community that was genetically-related to him.
Today, I perceive the core of this conflict not so much as a struggle against sacrilege, or inversely, as a struggle for liberal freedoms and artistic rights. Rather, this struggle was a symptom of a deep-seated cultural complex, undergoing a time of “fatherlessness.”
Why, after all, “fatherlessness”? I will admit that the thought of the role of the “father,” of “fatherhood” as such, and its role in the development of culture had always intrigued me.
For the Moscow art scene, this thought persisted for many years. Moreover, speaking of the Soviet period, the problem of the struggle between fathers and children meant much more especially for the alternative “underground” culture. Thus, in the ‘80s, when the underground still retained its connection to a serious professional tradition, a condescendingly mocking attitude towards the new generation of adherents to the principles of “new village,” and “bad art” prevailed. Evgeniy Gorohovsky, a well-known but now deceased artist, shrugged off the art of a rising star—the future participant of Documenta and the Venice biennale—Kostia Zvezdochetov.
In the ‘90s, in their ambition to land a place in the meager Moscow sun, a newly arrived generation of artists was prepared not only to wipe off their “fathers,” but also their “brothers” from the face of the earth. How could one forget the fight “until first blood” between today’s “maestro” Anatoliy Osmolovsky and a slightly older artist Anton Olshvang at Viktor Misiano’s memorable seminar—“A Workshop on Visual Anthropology.”
But in our time, in 2010, the roundtable “Fathers and sons,” organized by the artist aspiring to the status of a leader of a generation, Arseniy Zhilaev—in the presence of that same Osmolovsky, as well as another guru, Stas Shuripa—passed listlessly and did not become an event.
Timid young people respectfully listened to the “dictums” of the maestros of contemporary art and no debate—never mind, a debate, not even a discussion—followed. What “Oedipus complex”? What ambition to overthrow Cronus from his Olympus?! It seemed that we were present on the scene of a serene and conflict-free reconciliation between “fathers and sons.” Is the story really over and has Freud been disgraced? Will an idyll reign over “fathers” and “sons” henceforth? To me, it did not seem to be the case.
Rather, this begs a different conclusion. The “Children” turned out to be weak and sluggish, because they have not acquired a genuine “Father.” In fact, both Shuripa and especially Osmolovsky turned out to be false “fathers,” or rather, impostors, which, however, is not their fault. And here, we are inexorably faced with a question: “Where is this genuine “Father,” and could he be found at all in today’s world?”
A Bit of History
In order to answer this question, it will be necessary to temporarily depart the lived-in world of the Moscow art scene, and turn to history, albeit not too distant. I must apologize to the reader in advance, because I will reiterate well-known things. The end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries were marked by serious changes in the spiritual life of a European person. Religion, as a fundamental source of “paternal” discourse, had seemingly been permanently relegated to the margins of the historical process. Marx speaks of the end of religious critique. Nietzsche—practically an antipode to Marx in his spiritual and philosophical constitution—declares the death of God in unison with him. Religion is preserved, but as a private affair of a private person. Increasingly, social life is subject to other influences. But God alone does not die. Similar to the way the disappearance of one or another species is capable of having an irreversible impact on the ecosystem of a region, bringing about the extinction of other members of the flora and fauna, the declaration of the death of God significantly transformed social life. And primarily, damage was done to the figure of the “Father.” It is obvious that in European culture, as well as in other patriarchal cultures, “fatherhood” found its firm foundation as a fundamental social institution in religious belief, which saw a universal Father in God, who, in fact, delegates His authority to specific fathers, but only to the extent that they recognize this world order as expressed through commandments.
The death of God led to the fathers’ loss of the foundation of their power and rights. The prohibition as the most important component of paternal authority has ceased to be perceived as an unquestionable, sacred taboo, since now it has become a private prohibition of a private individual, and not a message that “Supreme Creation” translated through the figure of the father.
“The Father” and Moscow Romantic Conceptualism
Moscow conceptualism turned out to be the last major movement in Russian art that firmly established itself in the history of world art. And this happened not only because of historical circumstances, as some may think, but also because it turned out to be the only “self-reflexive” movement over the figure of the “father.” If Komar and Melamid turned to the father figure directly, representing and ritually violating it in the image of Stalin; if Erik Bulatov returns this motif to the collision of ideology and the image of a boundless sky (the mythological living place of the Father), then in his interpretation of the theme, Kabakov reaches particular dramatism. “The Father” is never revealed in his project, but he is always present, and always repressive and invisible at that, close to the God of the Old Testament—punishing and inapprehensible.
I do not have an opportunity to provide a more detailed analysis of romantic conceptualism from the perspective of the problem that interests me in this text; we are, after all, speaking of today. In one way or another, limiting the field of inquiry to the Moscow art scene, it can be stated that conceptualism achieved what it wanted, which is that it made atonement with the pedestal of the “father.”
The formation and success of such (in purely artistic terms, quite mediocre) figures as Kulik and Osmolovsky, is also explained by the fact that these authors experienced their “exclusion” more acutely than others, and thus, yearned to occupy the “paternal” throne all the more. But because this fairly tumultuous struggle (recollecting the symbolic “funeral” of the conceptual leader Andrei Monastirsky by Oleg Kulik in the “Ridzhina” gallery), was, in itself, fought out exclusively on the territory of art, the new “fathers” also remained seemingly decorative “fathers.” From this comes a desire to mask oneself, to give oneself weight through external attributes (Kulik’s “Tolstoy” beard, Osmolovsky’s journal publication). By the way, it is interesting that if conceptualists—whose poetics, say what you like, but lay in the sphere of language—became a social- and at one time a political phenomenon, then the post-Soviet artists have persisted in the field of pure aesthetics, even though their rhetoric and even practice drifted towards the social.
In any event, it appears that no new “fathers” appear, either in art, or in other spheres, whether cultural or political. I would even venture to say that we are living in an historical stage of the “death of the ‘father’.” What replaced it is “youth,” which, however, does not intend to occupy his place. This youth wishes to remain young forever; it is horrified both by old age and maturity. As the cult performancist of the ‘90s, Aleksandr Brener once said that the artist in Russia remains young for a long time, and then becomes decrepit, but never mature. It is impossible to disagree with this, except for one amendment: these words are not only valid for an artist, but for a contemporary individual in general. The cult of youth is the mainstay of market activities. One cannot but recall the words of one of the heroines of ‘68! Years later, when she was asked: “What, really, did the Parisian events generate?”—she confidently replied—“new markets.” The result of the revolutionary waves of the ‘60s was the triumph of the values of youth. The problems with which the European world collides evermore fatally, from demography to ecology, are ultimately related to the imbalance of the interaction between the conservative “paternal” model and the rebellious “youth” model. “Fathers” who wanted to remain young forever and remain “comrades” with their “children,” are suffering defeat, unable to reproduce the spirit of the revolution in the new generation. Hence, a total relaxation of society, its conformism and incapacity for social struggle. Power itself loses its illicitly appropriated “paternal” function. The example that best testifies to this is Russia’s recent president Medvedev, posting on Twitter, and being fond of soccer.
Turning back to the life of the art community, we observe the same tendencies here, but in an even more distinct form. The award of the “Innovation” state prize to the “Voina” [“War”] group serves as the best illustration to everything stated above.
On its own, the action of the activists of the “Voina” group is an undoubtedly vivid expression, effective precisely as a countercultural gesture confronting normative artistic practices. In this and only this context, it has its known value. But when a gesture of this sort receives—through the award of a state, and I emphasize here, the state, and not a private, prize—a normative status, other criteria must immediately be applied to it. What is scandalous in this case is the choice of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts [GTsSI: “Gosudarstvenniy Tsentr Sovremennogo Isskustva”] officials, who, while assigning themselves the functions of artists-activists, do something even more scandalous than the artist himself or herself. What is evident here is GTsSI’s complete misunderstanding of what is a cultural institution, how it must function, and under what principles it must work.
It is curious that in their past, GTsSI executives were “rebels” to a much higher extent (considering the historical context), than the activists of the “Voina” group. Erofeev, Bazhanov, Samodurov—the tragedy of these figures of contemporary art is that having infiltrated government structures, they wanted to usurp the “father’s” place, but at the same time, they could not, and did not wish to part with their “youthfulness.” They easily found a potential target that would have fulfilled a patriarchal function for them, to subject to eradication and abuse, and it was embodied in the Russian Orthodox Church. The church, which in reality has remained practically the sole institution that aspires to a paternal status, gladly fulfilled that particular role in the “noughts.” I suppose that all the participants of the artistic-religious wars fought out in the Russian cultural field remained fairly content with themselves, since they were able to present their platforms—which in practice were most likely simulacras—without serious casualties. The Russian Orthodox Church affirmed its role as a traditional paternal institution, and “human rights fighters” asserted their faith in “principles.”
A New Generation
Now, let us proceed to a generation of artists who had quite emphatically proclaimed themselves at the end of the noughts.
It is difficult to call these artists a group, although they are often perceived as such. The perception of their activities as a group can be more plausibly explained by external circumstances, rather than by common language or ideology. Nevertheless, there are a number of traits that compel us to consider this generation precisely as a community. Almost all of them received education in Europe; all of them regard themselves as part of an international art world, and finally, most of them see their teacher embodied in the artist Stanislav Shuripa, who may be considered their senior fellow, as much as the theoretician of that circle. The question of theory is fairly urgent here. Perhaps, one of the main problems of this new generation of artists is that during several years of their existence, they did not develop, some kind of a clear and distinct discourse, if even an appropriated one. If in the case of the “Voina” group, or the artists-gallerists of the end of the ‘90s, this was not necessary—at the basis of their work was an elementary gesture-gag—then the new generation does not work with gesture, but, as Shuripa remarks, conducts investigations. In that case, the theoretical basis appears absolutely essential and subsequent survival of these artists as a generation will depend on how successfully they will resolve this question. Meanwhile, it is worth turning to the texts of Shuripa himself, who repeatedly attempted to analyze the foundations of the work of the artists, the majority of whom are his students… These thoughts are undoubtedly interesting by themselves, but I allowed myself to focus only on those nuances that are relevant to the themes of this article.
In the text, “The Aesthetics of a Cognitive Act,” Shuripa writes that the appearance of a new pleiad of artists was the result of serious changes in the field of communications. Subsequently, he justly remarks that “new art does not try to assert itself as a movement or a tendency, and this is understandable: it did not emerge according to classical logic, by rupturing with the past and by causing revolutions.” In other words, the opposition between “fathers and sons,” which is precisely fraught with revolutionary rupture is absent here. What seems more debatable to me is another comment made by Shuripa, who states that the artistic experience of this generation is generated by the change in the art system—of institutions, methodologies, and descriptive forms. The acquaintance with the works of Ogurtsov, Yakovleva, Suhareva, Titova and Pankina leaves a strong feeling that these things are created by authors well informed and acquainted with global trends, but poorly connected to the local context. Regarding themselves as primarily international artists, they, alas, continue to remain in the arrière-garde of the Western experience.
An opinion exists that the foundations of the style that guides many of these artists was laid out in the exhibit Unmonumental, held in New York in 2008. This style was a reaction to new directions in media theory. But there is a suspicion that the artists of the Russian scene appeal specifically to “style,” and not to theory. This, in itself, is not so bad – after all, we are talking about truly young, and not fully formed artists. What is worrying is that this tendency could signal a fatal inability of the Russian art scene to merge into the international context as a full-fledged member, possessing its own voice. (Having said that, the author does not urge the artists to begin exploiting pseudo-national stereotypes in the spirit of “Sinie nosy” [“Blue noses”] or Oleg Kulik). Will the new generation of artists who possess a European education and life experience in a global world be able to find their own voice? I would like to believe so! But a number of dangers await them. In order to apply an international toolkit to surrounding life, it is at least necessary to make contact with that life. But, as Shuripa indicates: “practically in all the cases, the young authors localize their activities within the system of art. Even if it is a squat or an apartment exhibit, the event always happens on the territory of the art world, symbolically separated from life.” And this is symptomatic. Despite all the allure of the art studios of the majority of the young artists from this circle, it seems that they remain too infantile, incapable of seeing anything outside of their own “commune,” their own “system of play.” Their aesthetic practices turn out to be fairly similar to the everyday existence of their less sophisticated peers, immersed in the pseudo-existence of virtual networks and computer worlds. This is all directly connected to the absence of a fatherly model in their experience, which urges to rupture the prearranged and cozy world of the system.
It cannot be said that the problem of communication with the real world does not concern the artists at all. It is possible to recall a decent show “Natasha and the Machine” [“Mashina i Natasha”] on the “Project FABRIKA” [“Proekt FABRIKA”] site, organized by Arseniy Zhilaev; an interesting exhibit, “Types of assembly” [“Tipi Sborki”], by Aleksandra Sukhareva and Anna Titova in that same space. But no matter how interesting these attempts are in and of themselves, they never reached their goal, as admitted by the participants themselves (see Arseniy Zhilaev’s article in “KhZ,” No. 79-80). And it is naïve to assume that contact with real workers who represent the living relics of the Soviet system of production could aid in overcoming the tragic rupture between the artist and social life. However, is not society itself a mirage? Or are those who assert, akin to Boris Buden, that “we live in a world where society is no more” correct? And if this is so, then could “the private sphere infinitely expand the horizons of the private”? (B. Buden “Art after the end of society” [“Iskusstvo posle kontsa obshestva”]). Will the new generation of artists endure such a state of things? The temptation is great. After all, the private space is boundless; here “the universal returns as the solitary, truths consigned to the past are read as scripts, acquiring unpredictable meaning depending on the staging” (S. Shuripa “The Aesthetic of a Cognitive Act” [“Estetika kognitivnogo deystviya”]). Or will art be capable of tearing the veil of private space after all, and break out from the cozy world of personal dreams into the field of reality where society once existed. Bring back the Father.
Instead of an Epilogue
Back in the early winter of 2013, when the editor-in-chief of the journal, Viktor Misiano proposed me to republish this text, it seemed as a fairly natural step to both of us. But the events of the fall 2014, and above all else, the annexation of Crimea—accompanied by hitherto unseen enthusiasm in Russian society—has shown that the last sentence of my article did not just resound in reality accurately, but also, according to the opinion of some, threateningly. In hindsight, we should have discerned all the signs of the return of the “Political Father” even earlier. Signs of a “paternal” political model had already clearly manifested in the so-called “anti-orphan” law forbidding the adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens, as well as in the new law banning homosexual propaganda among minors. And it is fairly symbolic that these two laws, in which many see the most important landmarks of the turn in Russian politics, involve namely children, that is, precisely those in relation to whom the “paternal” figure exists in the first place. However, the question is how may these political steps influence the wider cultural context in Russia and in the world. It is obvious that if we were to factor out several dictators of the third world, president Putin may represent the only big politician who unequivocally revives the “paternal” model in the world context. In terms of “branding” [“image”], this is possibly the third reincarnation of the Russian leader. I am not so much interested in the political transformation in that text, but in the transformation of the “image,” since we speak, after all, about the cultural context. Thus, “upon first appearances,” the early Putin is a fairly typical, and I would say “non-spectacular” European politician, fairly indistinct from Western colleagues, but then, fairly different from his brutal predecessors. The second Putin may appear as some belated follower of Moscow actionism, all the more so since like most epigones, he is more colourful in the image of the leader of Siberian cranes than, say, Oleg Kulik in his many guises. This second Putin is still very postmodern—he is constantly performing in some kind of a “costume.” He is either a pilot, a paratrooper, or a diver. But every time, this is a game, a masquerade, a show reminiscent of actions by a famous art group “Sinie nosy” [“Blue noses”], who ironically represent the image of a Russian brute in an ushanka [fur cap with ear flaps], grasping vodka and an axe.
But today, we may be witnesses to the reincarnation of some new Putin. Evidently, time is needed to ascertain that this is the case—that before us is not yet another fake “brand,” but a genuine image. It is not even that important what this image will be—a tyrant, which the majority of the creative class are inclined to believe, or a genuine “National Leader,” a Father, which the vast majority of the population already tends to see in him. In the end, these are only different names for the same thing, and evaluations depend exclusively on ideological predispositions. Here, I repeat, what is important is not whether this is genuine or an artfully designed masquerade for the demand of precisely this kind of paternal model in Russian, and perhaps not only Russian, society. This is interesting to know not because of the political fate of Russian government, or the president, personally. What is more important (and this, in fact, will become the tuning fork that will test the authenticity of Putin’s transformation), is how the overall global situation changes, not so much in the geopolitical, but in the epistemological field. For the last twenty-odd years, we are living in a unipolar world, a world where the postmodern in cultural practice has turned into everyday reality, in a world “after history” and, finally, in a world that many have stopped liking. This world has accumulated too many complaints, amongst which the main ones may be the loss of reality and the loss of the feeling of verticality of being. When critics of the annexation of Crimea to Russia hammer out their, at times, fully substantiated reproaches on the heads of their opponents, they forget about how this act, symbolically, returned us to history as it were (which history, is a different question altogether).
But the “Paternal” model of the universe requires its own immediate legitimation through culture as an important part of ideology. And this is where there may be problems. The point is not at all that authoritarian regimes are not capable of generating elevated standards of art; just the opposite, historical experience shows that art of the highest caliber often blossomed at the thrones of tyrants. On the other hand, authoritarian ideologies and “official” art contributed to the emergence of zones of resistance where alternative practices were born, and which also became critically important signs of an epoch. Abstracting from ideological oppositions, it is not so easy to say today who is “better”—Deyneka, the Leader of Socialist Realism, or Falk, who endured persecution; the representative of the Soviet “severe style” Korzhev, or the conceptualist, Bulatov; they are all part of Russian culture. The problem lies elsewhere—today, there are no visible figures of the same caliber. Figures, whom the present situation could recruit for the design of a new Russian project, which is seemingly, what the state is attempting to do. And since a holy place cannot be empty, there are fears that instead of a truly new, although official art, similar to that same Italian futurism, or early Soviet art, this place will be usurped by another fake—an imitation of the imperial style, a postmodern forgery—which will automatically put an end to the ambitions of the entire political project. However, events are happening with such swiftness, that there are no guarantees that at the moment of publication of this text, it will not lose its pertinence, or otherwise, find further confirmation of its hypotheses.