Issue: №1 2005

Section: Case Studies

Face-Control (Or: Losing Face at the Moscow Biennale)

Face-Control (Or: Losing Face at the Moscow Biennale)

Konstantin Khudyakov. Anthropology. 2004. Prints on canvas

David Riff Born in London in 1975. Critic of contemporary art. Member of the Working Group "Chto delat'?" Lives in Moscow.

In Russia, the last years have been a period of artificial economic and political consolidation over the representative sphere. This consolidation could be described as "face-control". This term is commonly used in Russia to describe the implementation of door-policies at night clubs and amounts to a spatial reduction: undesirable elements are branded as "suspicious faces" and turned down at the door, by force if necessary. In my personal meaning, it also involves a temporal expansion: the agents of power (tinkers, tailors, soldiers, spies) become prime-time's only actors, led into the limelight wearing custom-tailored suits instead of uniforms or leather-jackets, uttering portents that concern the visible future: "You won't recognize this country in a couple of years." However, despite all of this face-control, the Putin regime constantly loses face and becomes yet another generator of ineffective (though effectful) declarations. This redefinition of visibility through face-control cannot be seen in isolation, in the mass-media and their ongoing coverage of the Putin regime, for an example. Instead, face-control (and loss of face) affect all areas of cultural production. Take, for an example, contemporary art and the First Moscow Biennale of Contemporary. Meant to prove art's sovereignty as one possible venue for producing the state's new visibility, the biennale attempted to commandeer spaces, to capture the time of its clientelle, to declare art's sovereignty, to put Moscow on the face of the global art map. This inevitably led to a loss of face.

On the one hand, contemporary art is a positive way for representing the state; it doesn't only pretend to be liberal and democratic; in some ways, it really is more subtle and contradictory than the discourse of sovereignty. For this reason, the state has given contemporary art a chance, and invested over 2 million dollars into its promotion. However, as the former Minister of Culture and current head of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography Mikhail Shvydkoi stresses in his foreword to the catalogue of the Biennale, contemporary art is "hard to handle": it redefines visibility completely as something processual and self-reflexive, because it contains recipes for its own effacement. In Russia, this is a problem: for most most members of what used to be the Soviet intelligentsia (including the officials), contemporary art is just as unthinkable beyond the confines of a hermetic, semi-intimate audience of professional conossieurs as it was in the 1970s-1980s. The new elite recognizes the need for contemporary art's faciality, but remains blind to its details: the many faces of contemporary art flash by according to a logic that follows some foreign law. The foreign law, in this case, was implemented by an all-star cast of international curators including Nicholas Bourriaud, Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Bubnova, Rosa Martinez, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, as well as the Moscow curator-coordinator Joseph Backstein.

So which redefinition of faciality, exactly, was at stake at the First Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art? The biennale's central project occupied the former Lenin-Museum, right on Red Square, at the very heart of power. As many commentators and critics have been quick to note, this was highly symbolic. Why? Closed to the public since 1992, the Lenin Museum symbolizes an older representation of power. To simplify, the inhabitants of Moscow live in a defunct Gesamtkunstwerk, the result of a successful declaration of sovereignty that aestheticized both public and private spheres alike, so why, actually, living in this total installation, should they need contemporary art?

The Moscow Biennale can be understood as an answer to a question posed during the 1970s-80s. It indicates that what is left of the Gesamtkunstwerk has, in fact, changed owners, and that its faciality is in need of a fundamental makeover, a face-lift. The need to face the past is translated as the need to supply the past with a face. Face-control: Russian art needs to re-establish control over the face of its past. This face of the past, you guessed it, is Lenin: Electricity+Soviet Power=Gesamtkunstwerk. In the beginning, Lenin was faceless. When he died, his body was embalmed and rendered eternally Egyptian, while his face became an "Icon proper", both death-mask of martyrdom and emblem of power. In the period after Stalinism, this power was inevitably lost. The soz-art of the 1970s made ample use of the Lenin that was becoming a meaningless figure, a kind of dead god that could be recycled in the logic of capitalist branding, bypassing his use-value and converting his lost time to added value. The First Moscow Biennale's central project repeats this conversion, albeit in a more trivial form: Lenin+Christian Dior=Biennale. Lenin rolls over in his grave, a grave that is now no more than a video projected into a cardboard box (Blue Noses at the "Dialectics of Hope" on Red Square). However, it is important to realize that Lenin's loss of face has not only produced the negation of soz-art (whose gestures the biennale trivially repeats), but negations of negation: how do we – descendents of perpetrators and victims, revolutionaries and reactionaries all – face Lenin? How do we translate his ideas and decisions back into ethical reality, into a reality that forces us to recognize the past for what it is, namely an Other that can only be known in fleeting glimpses? One of the main problems of the exhibition held at the former Lenin-Museum is that it brushes such local ideas aside in favor of a broader, biopolitical definition of art, drawing upon global glamor and relational aesthetics as two poles in an "international artworld" that often barely masks neo-colonialist intentions.

The show at the Lenin-Museum is so problematic because it is faceless in a biopolitical sense. To put it differently, it addresses the problem of Lenin's forgotten face as a problem of the body. The body (of contemporary art) does not face the past; instead, it interposes itself, defacing history. Occupy the Lenin-Museum! All meanings will come after this occupation. The next question, then, concerns the occupants. Who or what exactly occupied the Lenin-Museum during the Moscow Biennale? No-one knows exactly. Most people in Moscow talk about the main project as if it were a student exhibition at an art academy: three floors of something perpetually unfinished, processual, relational, with no apparent curatorial conception. This "on the whole" could actually be considered as the body of contemporary humanity that art is not supposed to show. Contemporary art is full of body hang-ups and body breakthroughs. According to the biennale's web site, "new artists no longer simply provoke the public. Social responsibility, "new seriousness", and the "aesthetics of interaction" are the spirits of the time." But how can you be responsible, serious or interactive, when your body is lost in illusions of absence and presence, neurotically deciding whether to enter or not enter, to freeze or not to freeze, to piss or not to piss, to mark or not to mark, to censor or not to censor, to erect or not to erect, to explode or not to explode, to declare sovereignty or not to declare sovereignty, to remain autonomous or to sell out? The answer to this body-neurosis of names and origins only makes matters worse: multiculturalism, polyethics, safe sex, neo-liberalism, "the 1990s with a condom" (comment by the Moscow art critic Andrei Kovolev while viewing Santiago Serra).

Perhaps all that remains is a list of names and place-origins, compiled from a press-release or a web-site, names of bodies in transit: Boris Achour (France), Saadane Afif (France), Micol Assael (Italy), Michael Beutler (Germany), Johanna Billing (Sweden), "Blue Noses" (Russia), "Blue Soup" (Russia), Jay Chung & Q Takeki Maeda (USA / Japan), Santiago Cirugeda Parejo (Spain), Jeremy Deller (UK), Trisha Donnelly (USA), Sam Durant (USA), Cao Fei (China), Carlos Garaicoa Manso (Cuba), "Gelatin" (Austria), Subodh Gupta (India),Koo Jeong-A (Korea / France), Alexei Kallima (Russia), Irina Korina (Russia), Ivan Moudov (Bulgaria), Aydan Murtezaoglu (Turkey), Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba (Japan / USA / Vietnam), Melik Ohanian (France), Paulina Olowska (Poland), Diego Perrone (Italy), Michael S. Riedel (Germany), Tomas Saraceno (Argentina / Italy), Tino Sehgal (UK / Germany), Santiago Sierra (Spain), Rostan Tavasiev (Russia), David Ter-Oganyan (Russia), Fatimah Tuggar (Nigeria / USA).A faceless multitude of artists, occupying a place that once payed hommage to one revolutionary, most human of humans, only that there is no telos to unite the multitude, as my favorite piece in the Biennale, Johanna Billing's "Project for a Revolution" shows. That they are all too concerned with prophylactic questions in general to pay attention to what's actually going on around them? A multitude of singularities – neither intellectual proletariat nor petit-bourgeoisie – unable to negate negation, to declare sovereignty of the revolutionary body over the sovereign face.

All this talk of multitudes brings us back to global reality. Perhaps the most coherent version of global reality could be found at the second venue of the biennale's central show, the Shusev-Museum of Architecture, whose video-parcour allowed for a far more concentrated mode of viewing. It was here that one could find "face-control" understood directly: Carsten von Wedermeyer's "Leave" (2004), a captivating circular narrative of 15 minutes that reflects upon enclosure in regulated transit, depicting potential migrants standing in line, waiting for a visa at what is supposed to be the German Embassy in Moscow, which has been transferred to Berlin. Shot in a slow, symbolic continuo through trees, muddy footpathes, grey underbrush, the film revolves around a border-zone, where face-control is exerted directly: globalization as a circular dialectic of exclusion. This piece was counterpointed by an oblique deconstruction of face-control: the critique of multiculturalism in De Rijke and De Rooij's "Point of Departure" (2002), an abstract sequence of close-ups of a hand-made Persian carpet from the 14th century as an interweave of human threads, identity-narratives, unraveled through non-spectacular examination of the carpet in all of its "mysterious" details is decentered by loud factory noise that seems to issue forth from the very bowels of the (Multi) - Kulturindustrie. But an interruption signals return the return of sovereignty in Pilar Albarrazín's "Viva Espana" (2004). In this video, the artiste walks briskly through Madrid wearing a bright yellow designer coat and sunglasses, faceless, followed around by a brass-band that endlessly plays the patriotic Spanish ear-worm "Viva Espana". "Viva Espana's" idiotic melody followed me around for most of the next day. According to Rosa Martínez, this is what Pilar Albarracín's work is supposed to do: "[it] questions the absolutist pretensions of minimalism as a hegemonic langauge, [connecting] the poetics of excess which the baroque, kitsch or pop represent and links up with a Spanish tradition of criticism [...]." Which brand of global reality would you prefer?

Returning for the global to the local, the problem of rebranding opens the most obvious venue for faciality as understood in contemporary Russia, namely as a self-referential spectacle of corporate celebrity. Here, contemporary art makes an alliance with Zurab Tseriteli, Moscow's very own megalomaniac court-sculptor, who is not only the author of the monumental Peter-the-Great mega-statue on the Moskva, of the reliefs and sculptural decorations of Christ the Saviour Church, and the War-Memorial in Victory-Park, but also owns all of the bronze-casting factories in the country and two private museums. Both of these museums became venues for the parallel program of the biennale. Most importantly, this new three-way alliance (between an ex-official art-tycoon, international curators, and new Russian super-stars) confirms a particular type of glamorous globalization whose spectacular aesthetic currency is still pegged to the classics of the mainstream game with celebrity and its inversion (Warhol, Jeff Koons, Young British Artists). Since it aims at riding the mass-medial band-wagon and broadening its audience, it has not yet been able to produce any of the more subtle, intricate, and seemingly unpretensious models of faciality available on today's intellectual market: it only points in their direction, indicating their immanent absence at large. As a concrete event, the "Starz" turns out to be a glamorous reinterpretation of a club or a salon, with court-ethics and exclusions befitting of a new feudal base. Floor-to-floor, bottom to top: star-travesty (Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe), "new official painting" (Dubossarsky and Vinogradov), underwear-ad computer-game violence (AES+F), and the sublime emptiness of taxonomic zoophrenia: the monkey-face, tamed by man, recast as a fashion-totem (Oleg Kulik). Starz on a firmament owned by a court sculptor, mock sovereign, holy fool. Let's leave it up to astrology to judge whether or not this new (g-local) brand won't inevitably be a failure.

The hunt for astronomic success brings me to the question of the facial rendition of holiness, which seems to have become a serious g-local alternative to glamor. I am speaking of a very strange manifestation of the New Russia, where artists are put on trial for effacing religious imagery, namely the "Deisis"-project, produced by the oligarch Viktor Bondarenko and realized by the artist Konstantin Chudyakov. This project is a Russian-Orthodox return to the "face as the Icon proper" (Deleuze and Guattari), presenting a contemporary iconostasis of saintly faces, pieced together from photographic fragments, blood, sweat and bone, illuminated at different angles, mapped out by computer according to some arcane scheme. How's about that for faciality? In fact, "Deisis" was "good enough" (rich enough) to be included in the Moscow Biennale in the form of a supplement: its booklet was distributed to the press along with the catalogue of the biennale's central project. Yet the real surprise is that its introductory text, both deconstructivist document and stamp of approval, is signed by Ekaterina Degot, one of Moscow's most discerning and outspoken critics and curators. Absurdly, it was the one place in the biennale where criticism was playing its customary role, both undermining and confirming the "Icon proper's" declaration of sovereignty. Degot's deconstruction is quite useful; it does not only forces us to face "Deisis'" ridiculous "nationalist" features, but launches a critique on "new universalism" in age of late Christianity, forcing us to question the authority of a tradition that includes Vassily Kandinsky, Pavel Filonov, and Bill Viola, for starters. Is Degot, perhaps, using the dwarf of theology to revive the automaton-body of politics, to speak with Walter Benjamin? Or her text a symptom that something has gone dreadfully wrong with all this faciality? Should we laugh at a joke well-taken and prepare to step into the godless (faceless) future with smiles on our faces? But then again, what's the point of laughing at other people's loss of face? Isn't our laughter just another version of face-control?

But maybe I'm being paranoid and unfair. Maybe things are far more simple. The biopolitical-objective meaning of biennale: what is important is not that the biennale contains this or that form of contemporary art, but that it is a biennale of contemporary art. Flat ontology replaces communicative confusion: the biennale simply is. The goal: to change the face of the local scene, to put Moscow on the map. A minimal gesture, stripped of trappings such as curatorial conceptions, critical discourse, or philosophical dialogue. In the end, contemporary art does not really need a specific face: it does not require any specific ethical or political program; instead, it is a no more than form of topological faciality, which bears any number of scars and traces that do not necessarily need to relate to one another, which do not even really require any deep reading but are always to be taken at face-value, as confused gestures of sovereignty and little more. Such declarations of sovereignty always fail, proving any real decision impossible, leading to what Walter Benjamin aptly termed as the allegorical melacholia of the sovereignty's baroque tragic drama. In this sense, the biennale is nothing but yet another Trauerspiel.


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