Strategy and Politics of Everything Novel. How to Write A Conceptual Biography of Timur Novikov and St. Petersburg Art of the ‘90s Today.
Dmitry Golynko-Wolfson Born in 1969 in Leningrad. Essayist, poet and cultural historian. “MAM” editorial board member. Lives in St. Petersburg.
In the second half of the ‘00s, I formed a clear impression that St. Petersburg art—at least, from the perspective of an institutionalized system—had lost the kind of exploratory and experimental charge it had at the beginning of the perestroika reforms. Mainly, it stopped connecting with the charged intellectual work. Today, it either serves as a leisure activity, organically written into the bourgeois club atmosphere, or it supplements the exhibit conveyor, launched by a series of nondistressed commercial galleries. Or both, at the same time. Seemingly, the scenarios and formats of artistic life are being replenished, new lofts, as well as squats are opened and rendered comfortable and habitable, as well as private studios and alternative “spaces.” But against this daring and glamorous background, a thought woefully emerges that contemporary art on the urban scale has stopped producing new meanings and knowledge, but delivers only ironed out pleasures of the spectacle. Undoubtedly, this impression is subjective, and it is largely dictated by a pessimistic valuation of post-perestroika art in St. Petersburg. However, this subjective lens is worn if not by the majority, but by many “disgruntled” representatives of the local artistic scene. Hence, the already traditional nostalgic “wakes” for the ‘90s in Petersburg galleries, where this pivotal epoch does not undergo an examination seeking impartial understanding, but rather, idealized mourning, since for many, it is equated with the moment of ultimate realization.
Alongside almost every discussion of this unfavourable situation, it is unavoidable to hear spoken the name of Timur Novikov (1958-2002). In the urban cultural consciousness, Timur appeared as an unquestionable aesthetic justification for an entire perestroika-era generation that brought him into the global art arena. One repeatedly hears the prideful phrase: “It’s ok that everything now is quite poor, after all, we had Timur.” For artistic St. Petersburg, Timur is a myth and legend, a behavioural and moral beacon, a unique expiatory totem. Today, a conversation about Timur appears to me especially important and timely, since the publisher “Amforа” has recently released a panegyric—and polemical—book by Ekaterina Andreeva “Timur: To lie only truth!” provoking lively debate in the local scene. The bulky volume edited by Andreeva, contains numerous interviews taken from major players of the St. Petersburg scene, select manifests, penned by Timur and by his companions, as well as an essay-memoir written by the editor herself, academically titled “Materials for Timur Novikov’s biography.” This entire informative motley collection not only reveals the chronology of Novikov’s activities, but the dynamics of the “crazy” epoch of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Today, interest for this ambivalent sliver of time steadily grows, but many relevant questions and claims justifiably remain. In relation to St. Petersburg, Novikov appears as a key and symbolic figure of that epoch. Moreover, being an incendiary and highly proactive person, he had partially crumbled it under himself, subjugated it to his iron will and acumen. As a result of his frenzied, unabated activity that did not stop even for a day, he created both the museum and the market image of St. Petersburg art for abroad, turning it, so to speak, “attractive for investment.” For an internal audience, he invented a fairly new type of public space, joining together traits of a bohemian gallery, a youthful dance floor, and a glossy elegant evening party. It is widely recognized that he participated in all the loud initiatives of the post-perestroika Petersburg life—from necro-realism to club gay- and techno-culture. He bravely accepted personal responsibility for many artistic events and social configurations in the city. At the same time, even his admirers, in awe of his inflexibility and work ethic, frequently admit that many lively and non-standard impulses of urban culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s did not have a chance to develop owing to the excessive influence of Novikov’s inculcated neo-decadent tendencies. Thus, despite the plenitude of grassroots democratic movements in St. Petersburg in the ‘80s, both politicized and human-rights oriented, no socially reflexive art that would have offered left alternatives to the liberal right-wing redistribution of property, appeared during this period in the city.
Novikov owes his elevated and almost uncontested reputation in the city to the fact that because of his efforts and fantasy, many, in some way revolutionary innovations were launched. In substance, his entire enchanting activity revolved around an indefatigable production of novelty [“Novikov” and noviy (adj., new, novel) have the same etymology in Russian, and in case of “novel,” the alliteration is preserved both in English and Russian]—not only “novel” objects, styles and directions, but also “novel” social connections, role-playing strategies and manners of dress. It is sufficient to glance at the screaming headlines of his manifesto of “novelty” permeated with ecstasy, written under the pseudonym Igor Potapov; for example, “Novel tendencies in contemporary painting by the ‘New’”, “The process of perestroika in the creative work of the ‘New’”, “New theatre,” etc. It seems that he aimed to initiate or bring to light everything that proclaimed itself to be “new,” doing away with inert Soviet officialdom and everything imposed by stagnant canons. Under his direct or indirect assistance, the groups “New artists,” and “New composers” are formed; directions such as “the new theatre” and “the new criticism” appear; debates on “new languages in art” emerge, the institution “New Academy of Fine Arts” is established, and the style of “new Russian classicism” begins being propagated. Novikov’s artistic career was built on the unceasing production of newer and newer meanings, and often, on imparting meaning to newness itself. Moreover, the factor of newness predetermined (and sometimes even exhausted) the character objects and events conceived and executed by him. In other words, in St. Petersburg art, Novikov acquired the status of a politician and strategist of everything new that hitherto was either forbidden owing to censorship, or remained unknown owing to a lack of informational resources.
The attachment to the “novel” is undoubtedly a tribute to the perestroika epoch, where this surefire epithet was fastened to practically every innovative phenomenon and character in the cultural field. But for Timur and his circle, the orientation to newness also signified an accomplishment of instantaneous and immediate vital effectiveness. The effectiveness of an artistic gesture, of a secular way of life, and of international recognition. Belated and deferred effectiveness (manifested sometimes in the hope of posthumous fame), was not characteristic to that extremely fluid epoch, and in this, perhaps, lay its most important strategic miscalculation. Because the appeal to devices and methods with the highest winning potential does not always turn into an optimal and immediate path to success. In my view, one of the central problems of Petersburg art—both in the present day and two decades ago—is a coupling of casuistically developed strategic thought (too lucid of an understanding of all the positional intricacies) with an almost complete lack of intelligible strategic planning (the capacity to engage this understanding into the order of one’s own life).
By underlining his innovative mission as a trailblazer, Novikov did not imply the implementation of an avant-garde gesture in its utopian or political dimensions. The accent on his own undoubtable newness in the “novel culture” of the ‘80s meant something different. More precisely, it was a moment of synchronization with the history of Western art of the twentieth century; that is, the aspiration to enlist in a strange, already-archived and museumified foreignness. Already at the beginning of the ‘80s, Timur completely diverges from the Petersburg tradition of moderate dissent, expressed in the love for impressive, religious-metaphysical painting. Partially, this symptomatic rupture explains Timur’s divergence with the “Comradeship of Experimental and Visual Art” [Tovarishestvo Eksperimental’nogo Izobrazitel’nogo Iskusstva (TEII)], culminating in the display of a shield with a hole in the middle, naughtily named a “zero-object,” inside the Kirov House of Culture in 1982, which he assembled along with Gurianov, Sotnikov and Khazanovich. In that same year, 1982, Novikov gathers together a “band of artistic youth” (Andrei Khlobistin’s expression), disposed towards vivid, nonstandard actions and an expansive conquest of the artistic scene. The group organized by him at the time, “New artists,” which included Oleg Kotelnikov, Georgiy Gurianov, Andrei Medvedev, Oleg Zayka and many others, works predominantly in the ecstatic, impulsive manner, and is therefore seen as the local Petersburg example of abstract expressionism. In 1986, Novokov officially registers the “Club of Friends of Mayakovsky” and participates in Sergei Kurehin’s “Pop-mechanics” carnival concerts in the Petropavlovsky [Peter and Paul] Fortress, thus inventing and legitimizing a national hypostasis of pop-art. Its specificity is a mischievous mockery of the cliché of the departing totalitarian and a nascent mass culture. By the way, the famous Andy, the father-founder of pop-art, symbolically blessed the Petersburg reformer, having photographed with his mural “The City” in 1985, and having sent him (and his colleagues) autographed cans of “Campbell’s” soup as a gift; according to gossip, some of these cans were eaten at the time of the disappearance of foodstuffs on the eve of the ‘90s. Around 1989, Novikov launches a loud, controversial and long-lasting project “neo-academism,” which appears as an ironic and simulative version of Italian transavantgarde. Thus, under the slogan of newness in the chaotic decade at the turn of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Novikov succeeded in wedging almost half a century of systematically developed Western postmodern art.
The large-scale effort of synchronization undertaken by Timur was, evidently, hailed ecstatically by the West, which provided those “new” artists on the cusp of the ‘90s and on the wave of the “Russian boom,” invitations to high status Western galleries and museums. Thus, in 1989, Novikov’s personal exhibits are opened at the Tate Gallery (Liverpool) and at the Turku Art Museum; in 1991, at the Vienna Museum of Modern Art (Lichtenstein Palace), at the Raab Gallery Berlin, and at New York’s Phyllis Kind Gallery; in 1993, at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, at the [Frederick] Weisman Art Museum (Malibu, California), at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf… And so on, and so forth. In 1991, Novikov holds a residence in Paris at the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques with Pontus Hultén; in 1995, he is a fellow of the Künstlerhaus Behanien Fund. Moreover, these are just listings that appear in Andreeva’s book; in reality, there were many more invites and trips. Today, it would have been said that the artist had made a brilliant Western career for himself; but back then, people spoke of the “heyday” of perestroika-era Russian art.
The West welcomed the “novel [artists]” so favourably and with such open arms, because having become acquainted with their intuitions, it had experienced a kind of recognition of itself. Since the reflexive Western artists and the outrageous “novel [artists]” were developing, if not similar, then at least complimentary tendencies. More precisely: they were preoccupied with a parodying critique of postmodern aesthetics, while resorting to the travesty of playing with the codes of high modernism. Despite the superficial formal similarity, the premises of these critical approaches were fundamentally different. Western postmodern artists had been preoccupied, for decades (in conceptualism, pop-art, land-art, etc.), with a systematizing analysis of art as an Enlightened and transcendental medium. In the ‘80-90s, with the decline of the postmodern paradigm, they recognized that the instruments of such a dethroned analysis were partially outdated and began to relate to pathos with an ironic smile. For the “novel,” the cunning game with postmodern clichés was motivated by other reasons—by their refined dandyism and their craving for decorating reality, by everything contemptuous, joyful, and carefree. By the mid-90s, the West had overcome the crisis of postmodern attitudes by turning to the investigation of its own institutional order, to the unmasking of global and neo-imperial trends, to the study of new structures of social thought and new forms of capitalist exploitation. St. Petersburg art in the ‘90s continued to exercise in jocular travesty, upholding the programme of artistic life as an unceasing celebration and a careless pastime. Undoubtedly, that kind of programme also possessed compensatory qualities, since the level of social degradation and depression of that period was uncanny.
Gradually, year after year, the poignancy and charm of novelty dissipated, and in their place remained mannerism, affectation and pretentiousness, which came to be established in St. Petersburg art of this decade. Let’s take at random, from that same already mentioned book by Andreeva, an illustration of a museum vernissage, revealing the subcultural mode and etiquette of the early ‘90s: “All the forces of glamour—at that time, in its infancy in our city—combined, in order for Bella’s exhibit in the Marble Hall of the Museum of Ethnography to sparkle. The lights were dimmed, the floor was covered in silver foil, and pyramids of mirrors stood at the centre of the room, in their faces, nude bodies of young men and women that Bella decorated with gold necklaces and loincloths copied from Lucas Cranach the Elder glided smoothly; above, from the marble colonnades, a blue light of projectors poured over this divine spectacle, all under a cold and mechanical musical accompaniment.” The illustration is, in its own way, nauseating, but not infrequent for that epoch of terrible poverty and shameless luxury. Moreover, in the consciousness of St. Petersburgian fantasy, there was a constant “itch” to compete with Moscow; not a conceptual competition, but rather, more childishly obsequious. Similar to the way a younger sibling gets too carried away by a game, while his older sibling is trying to focus on something, ignoring the former and persisting in his or her task in a strictly autonomous mode.
Novikov, a responsive and flexible individual, with an ear to the wind to the priorities of the urban art scene, all the while partially determining them, proceeds from the creation of avant-garde textile murals, to the embroidery of beads and rhinestones on velvet, around photographs of cult heroes of the decadent (these rich fabrics, “sewn by a cunt” [shitie pizdetsom] as Novikov ironically nicknamed his craft, Andreeva compares with the “kokoshniks made from glass beads”). Meanwhile, he rhetorically bombards the modernist wanderings of Muscovites such as Kulik and Brener, and glorifies the classical inheritance in its academic and traditionalist recension. Thus, the art of the “novel,” which had spontaneously become synchronized with the global artistic processes for several post-perestroika years, in the ‘90s had become discarded into the decadent and the miriskusnicheskoe [from Mir Iskusstva, “World of Art,” an artistic movement of the turn of the 20th century that profoundly influenced European art] and became a hostage of its own decorative stylization.
By the way, this kind of “biographical” coil of post-perestroika art fairly naturally corresponds with the typical St. Petersburg models of existence in history. Historiosophical self-consciousness of the city, inseparable from its mythology, is founded on the complex of unceasing competitiveness with the West. It is as if the city is constantly undertaking attempts to catch up and overtake the West, while remaining in a constant state of latency in relation to its civilizational standards. A peculiarity of Petersburg’s modernization is that the whole city, its entire infrastructure – is a vanguard imitation of Western modernity, an unprecedented copy anticipating the original. Moreover, as soon as this copy is built according to its architectural and social plan, it immediately considers itself the crown of civilized creation and refuses to undergo necessary renovations. There is a colossal historical irony, as well as an existential tragedy of the city in this. Something similar also occurred with the post-perestroika Petersburg art. In the second half of the ‘80s, its parodying courage with pop-cultural concepts corresponded with global postmodern trends, and this, partially coincidental resonance was perceived as the ultimate conquest, the dividends of which could be reaped for ages. Once tightly woven, collaboration with the West was slowly becoming unwound, since the logical progression towards political criticism and direct interaction with open social contexts has not been mastered. All of this had predetermined the slow fade of that colossal creative intensity that characterized the artistic and subcultural activity in the city at the turn of the ‘80s and the ‘90s.
But what is especially curious and important to sort out in greater detail, is one of the central “works” by Novikov, an aesthetic project of “neoacademism,” and the playful institution “New Academy of Fine Arts” that originated from it. Unfortunately, in contrast to Moscow conceptualism, this project did not acquire distanced critical description and is mainly known to the public by the enthusiastic statements and memories of its immediate participants. By the way, Andreeva’s book also appears as an expression of her dedication to the project, and not of its detached reading. Speaking in the language of contemporary debates, “neoacademism” is incredibly controversial. And it is radically contradictory even against the background of many debatable and ambivalent inventions in Russian art of the ‘90s.
At the level of rhetoric, this project is frankly renovative, permeated with anti-modernist and even anti-enlightenment pathos. Meanwhile, it declares the decadent cult of beauty as its ideal, glorifies a narcissistic view of physical perfection, with all of its consequent ostentatious modernist attributes. Advocating the return of the classic canon, the acquisition of skills and mastery of harmonious proportions in order to resolve its goals, the project simultaneously resorts to the most fashionable repertoire of ultramodern techniques. This can be seen in the technique of computer design in Olga Tobreluts and Egor Ostrov’s digital collage, hyperrealistic paintings in the work of Oleg Maslov and Viktor Kuznetsov, or in Bella Matveeva and Denis Egelskiy’s simulationist works.
Actually, I perceive the aesthetic project of “neoacademism” as the total conceptualization of the classic canon of beauty, transported to the register of current contemporary art, and the left, almost punk, ideology. As strange as it sounds, neoacademism is not an ideological enemy to conceptualism, but one of its somewhat radicalized branches. Although, Moscow conceptualists such as Andrei Monastirsky and Dmitry Aleksandrovich Prigov allowed, as a rule, the presence of hollow places and zones that slipped from conceptualization. On the contrary, Novikov presumed that the antique—or pseudo-antique—concept of beauty hailed by him, needed to be urgently embedded into all the spheres of life and culture, needed to conquer all, and be immortalized everywhere and anywhere.
It is interesting that despite the exaggerated totality of his project, Novikov succeeded in leading an absolutely non-authoritarian “New Academy,” which was, in substance, a friendly circle of colleagues, apprentices, and similar-minded people. The “New Academy” is multi-functional. Firstly, it is a fairly caustic satire of bourgeois institutes of academic knowledge. It seemingly declares: whereas over there, you have hyper-bureaucratization with the endless writing of synopses, over here we have a free bohemian brotherhood. Secondly, it is utopian, and that is why there is a particularly seductive attempt to defend an independent community, free both from old Soviet-party, and new bourgeois-liberal, conjunctures. Glancing at the cultural history of the ‘90s, it is evident that this heroic attempt had largely succeeded.
By the way, in Petersburg, with its well-heeled revolutionary tradition, plans for alternative left institutions periodically appear undemanding of official recognition, and organized by grassroots initiatives. Thus, at the end of the ‘80s, not without Novikov’s involvement, there appeared a Free University, which functioned with a few breaks for almost two years, and which was not subordinated to state or bureaucratic apparatuses, giving a home to independent seminars and lectures. Today, twenty years later, at the end of the 2000s, when liberal educational structures are too corrupted by their proximity to technocratic power, another, even less officious Street University is being formed. In substance, these are spontaneous student gatherings inherited from the pathos of May ‘68 unrests, under the banners of free self-determination and self-organization. And Novikov, with his dedication to the deviant bohemian behaviour had done quite a bit for the symbolic prestige of such alternative spaces.
In the middle of the ‘90s, and more precisely, in 1995, Novikov plans a scandalous exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, where he was holding a fellowship, aiming to track classicist motifs in fascist architecture. Obviously, the exhibit was banned, and Novikov’s enchanting career in the West suffered a serious blow. This idea did not only entail a shocking provocation, not only the ostentatious, theatrical rightwardness of “neoacademism” (the confirmation for this is in the short alliance between Novikov and radical ideologists Alexander Dugin and Eduard Limonov in 1996), but also a demonstrative rupture with the conventional pro-Western “leftism” for an artist of the ‘90s. From 1997, after suffering through a difficult illness, Novikov cheats on his thematic predilections turning to orthodox religious symbolism, while partially holding on to his devices of ironic profanation. In his work from the turn of the millennium, his mastered role as a bohemian outcast and a blissful reproduction of icon paintings with the faces of saints, are seemingly found on the same plane of meanings, generating the effect of an anxious and involuntary counterpoint. And now he predominantly exhibits not in Western museums of contemporary art, but in Tver Region Paintings Gallery, in the Museum of Fine Arts of the Republic of Karelia, and in the Tula Art Museum. It is possible that his patristic and theological hobbies of that period are not so much the result of the free will of the artist, but of the tragic collisions of his biography.
Recalling that sunny day in May 2002, Novikov’s funeral service was being held in the Church of the Holy Image [Tserkov Spassa Nerukotvornogo Obraza] on the Konushennaya Square, and along the Nevsky proceeded the annual carnival commemorating the anniversary of the city, which seemed at that time so bothersome and unnecessary. It seems that with Novikov’s departure from St. Petersburg art, the masquerade-like component of unfettered improvisation also vanished. No wonder that Moscow artist Konstantin Zvezdochetov says: “If I were a Leningrad citizen, I would have said with confidence: ‘Timur is our everything!’”. Novikov was the kind of titanic symbolic figure for the city, against which mistakes and accomplishments of the post-perestroika epoch were (and are) measured. At that time, he almost single-handedly signified boundless hopes and grandiose expectations, many of which (if not the majority) turned into illusions and fakes. St. Petersburg after Novikov (speaking primarily about artistic Petersburg)—is a city without demands for change and without ambitions for modernization; a city, from which life had been drained little by little. A city with an exhausted, or, as it is customary to say now, with a butchered internal potential. That is why it is so important to symbolically revive this situation (however negligible the chances of that happening are), to once again critically rethink the turbulent and ambivalent ‘90s and to attempt to search out those resources of “novelty,” that have not been entirely tested and exploited in Timur Novikov’s epoch.
St. Petersburg, 2008