Выпуск: №2 2007

Рубрика: Situations

Art and its Thresholds

Art and its Thresholds

Victor Alimpiev, Marian Zhunin. We're Talking About Music. Theater play on 37 Theater festival. Direction Teatro Metastasio Stabile Della Toscana. Photo Julia Zhunina, Biennale di Venezia, 2005

Keti Chukhrov Born in 1970. Philosopher, works in the Institute of Philosophy, Moscow. Editor of the magazine "Number" and the publishing house "Logos-Altera'. Lives in Moscow.

Several problematic issues have emerged in the Russian art scene over the last two or three years-issues that directly concern the past, present, and future of contemporary art. On the one hand, attempts have been made to shield the territory of art from mass-media contamination both in formal aesthetic and institutional terms. On the other hand there has been the opposite trend-a search for ways to transcend aesthetics and use artistic means to touch on real, everyday problems that have nothing to do with art. Finally, there is another orientational vector that points toward rejection of intellectual implications, media commercialization, and competition with mass-produced art. All of these positions aspire to represent modernity and lay claim to being the exclusive vanguard of progressive art.

The last-mentioned strategy (employed by Оleg Kulik, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, Vladimir Dubosarsky & Alexander Vinogradov, and others) is more or less transparent since it does not rely on any theoretical underpinning but openly uses the paradigms of advertising, promotion, scandal, and fashion.

The first two approaches attempt to elaborate the foundations of the artistic process on the basis of art theory and history as well as reflections on the social and political context. Essentially there is a choice between aestheticization and ontologization; art and life; form and content; the qualitative objet d'art and the truth; the thing (a work of art) and human existence.

It is hardly possible at present to speak of confrontation between the adepts of these two alternatives. All that is clear is that each camp declares that it has the resources and potential for renewal, both in cultural and historical terms and at a sociopolitical level. Artists like Anatoly Osmolovsky and Victor Alimpiev, who subscribe to the tradition of the avant-garde, demonstrate their faith in form as the source of new, autonomous work of art. On the other hand, Olga Chernysheva's videos and paintings show that equating ethics and aesthetics, as well as cultivating an autonomous artistic language, which were so natural for the avant-garde, cannot diagnose the problems of modern reality and human existence, let alone model them.

The focus of artistic interest in Chernysheva's videoscapes is on what happens to a human being (people) in an environment where they are invisible to both themselves and society. This is not a pseudo-humanistic view, but a broadening of the artist's attention to the relics of reality scattered beyond the borders of style, history, and exchange processes. Of course, it is not a matter of the notorious, banal "humanity" propagandized by churches and other religious groups that criticize modern art for lacking a place for the human subject. In Chernysheva's videos such as Surok (Marmot), Teplokhod Dionisy (The Steamboat Dionysus), and Samostoyatelnyye zanyatiya (Independent Pastimes), a human (people) takes on the role of the Other-the work of art-in relation to the artist. People are not objects of psychological analysis but nascent works of art. If nature, theological authorities, revolutions, the historical subject, and art itself were substantial for art in the past, it is possible that today a lacuna has formed for exploring another material surface, one that at first glance cannot be reduced either to art or any bio-political context. People in Chernysheva's videos are no longer links in a bio-political chain, representatives of this or that class, members of this or that party, but a particular surface that calls out to be read. The video camera is the instrument for this reading. Therefore, when we view Chernysheva's works, we never forget that there is an off-screen artist and observer. Her videos can hardly be called portrayals-they are more like witnessed events which it would be impossible to capture without a video camera.

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Victor Alimpiev, Marian Zhunin. We're Talking About Music. Theater play on 37 Theater festival.
Direction Teatro Metastasio Stabile Della Toscana. Photo Julia Zhunina, Biennale di Venezia, 2005

Ancient Greek theater discovered a new horizontal surface — the stage. Later another (vertical) means of synthesis was discovered-the screen. The medium of video, as used by Chernysheva, adds the possibility of visually exploring yet another newly discovered productive (reality-producing?) surface – a human being. Drama, which skillful producers fit together from pre-planned mises en scènes, is automatically present here in human existence, as seen in people's never-ending self-creation.

Therefore one cannot say that Chernysheva films everyday life as a counterbalance to things beautiful or consciously staged-for the simple reason that everyday life does not exist in the given spaces. Video has the effect of showing ontology as something creative; it allows us to see people themselves as a permanent capacity to be a work of art.

Rather than recording events like an epic or a novel, video captures the very possibility of media realizing themselves as an element of human existence.

The borderline between the theatrical and the non-theatrical, the artificial and the natural, has been erased here. The incorporeity of the visual object and the acquisition of a "body" over time are phenomena that allow us to see any object in an ontological perspective. And precisely this ontological perspective, rather than a sociopolitical or aesthetic one, opens up a concrete place for people in video.

Human existence cannot be recognized as such, just as reality can only be discovered as a momentary event, not as something given a priori. The intrusion of the new technological and methodological potential of video permits the discovery of temporal and visual planes that bring a human being closer to his own selfhood.

* * *

Victor Alimpiev adopts a completely different strategy in his autonomous video études. Any possibility of borrowing from reality is excluded from the footage of his videos. And although Alimpiev does not appeal to art-historical values directly (as does Osmolovsky, for example), he creates "a tendency to return to the presumption of the artificiality of art, to the dimension of the sublime," as Yekaterina Degot correctly observes.[1] Without commenting on the avant-garde directly, Alimpiev nevertheless employs a strategy of reducing all the signs that he excludes because they do not belong to his "ideal" form. His definition of a work of art is in the same vein: "One of the hallmarks of artistic quality is when a work of art suddenly turns out to be really autonomous-it demonstrates none of the codes of the surrounding world, but the world permeates it."[2]

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Victor Alimpiev, Marian Zhunin. We're Talking About Music. Theater play on 37 Theater festival.
Direction Teatro Metastasio Stabile Della Toscana. Photo Julia Zhunina, Biennale di Venezia, 2005

This position strives to delimit the work of art from the world because it entrusts the creation of the sublime to a productive subject in the hope that the work of art can be protected against the pervasive languages of the mass media-advertising and the signal ethics of mass culture. The enigmatic nature of Alimpiev's spaces, which is frequently described by critics, springs from the extreme refinement (emasculation) of the sign and an immersion in a predictable sign-simulacrum.[3] The nature of the simulacrum-its communicative calculability and recognizability-is overcome through near-hermetic concentration on a minimal quantity of carefully selected signs. In this respect Alimpiev's videos are poetic in line with a Mallarméan aesthetics of poetry and musical in so far as music no longer provides any occasion for the Imaginary and Phantasmal but relies purely on its own immanent possibilities. One could say that these creations (together with Osmolovsky's most recent works, for example) conform to the definition given by Gilles Deleuze: "In order to destroy the predictability of representation, every viewpoint must become a thing or every thing must belong to the viewpoint."[4] This means that one should not represent anything outside its artificial deformation of natural integrity. Alimpiev is a master of such deformations in the name of forming different signs that are too hieroglyphic to enter the intertext of the endless exchange of media images, cultural values, and monetary units.

"Alimpiev's videos tell of another layer, a level of existence separate from the subject," Yevgeniya Kikodze writes. "This material, generated in spontaneous outbursts and explosions, brings salvation from the totalitarianness of operational space, whose control it is immune to."[5]

For one of his recent projects-Siyaniye (Radiance) — Alimpiev digitally videoed a picture that he had already made with digital (computer) technology. The result was a video-animation of simulacra of children's faces. In the animation, boys' and girls' faces emerge from shining circles and gradually disappear again. Furthermore, the children/signs were videoed turning around their own axis. The viewer encounters a visual monad in which the signs belonging to the microcosm of this particular work appear and disappear, move, flare up, and fade again. But the main thing that makes this artwork so inexorable in its striving for autonomy is the borrowing of digital technologies that have already become the language of the media, and its attempt to prove that this language is far more complex than the one used by the mass media. Alimpiev discovers new meanings in digitality and demonstrates that mediality and digitality are separate phenomena. He shows that the technologies that usually facilitate broad dissemination can turn into an artistic language if they crystallize in a form contrary to the media pattern. The semiotic potential of digitality therefore lies not in the media, but in the hands of the artist (author).

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Chernysheva Olga. Steamboat Dionysius. 2004. Video film, 28 min.

It is interesting to note that the same gesture took place in music when the electronic technologies traditionally associated with the music of entertainment were used by figures of the musical avant-garde such as György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez to create serial and aleatory techniques.

Both methods described above-one intruding into the world (Chernysheva) and the other fencing itself off from it and seeking genuine harmony in the work of art itself (Alimpiev) — doubtlessly diagnose the gap between the language of artistic expression and the question of human being's (people's) place in the community, the world, and the universe. But it is not only a matter of clarifying the resources and aspirations of modernity, but also the role of modern art in this modernity. What is its driving force? Political manipulation and media technologies? The decentralized, desubjectified individual, wandering in a vacuum? Or aesthetic elitism, no less intimately connected to capital than any other media?

Are people and their existence more than art (à la Chernysheva) or less than it (Alimpiev and Osmolovsky)?


Since the Enlightenment, when the idea of the historical subject developed, art has worked not only with the Hegelian idea of the truth but also with the right to the death instinct, which is most intensively inscribed in Post-Romantic, modernist, and avant-garde practices. For the avant-garde, the death instinct is transformed into aesthetic theology, and in the gallery industry this theology shifts to the sphere of money and economics. This is why, when the avant-garde project is to be resuscitated in the conditions of (under the) financial theology that has long since prevailed, we should ask whether the spaces where art is proportionate to the rhetoric of processes of exchange are able to engender hope for innovation and radical renewal?

There is a second important aspect here too: The primacy of aesthetics and theology of art (according to the Adornian and Greenbergian conception) transforms the death instinct and continues to work with the idea of the truth as something inhuman or superhuman. In other words, art never needed to be ontological. It is not about humanity (people). Herein lies modernist art's theological character, all its radicalism and revolutionariness notwithstanding. Art affected a human being (people) in so far as he (people) used the medium of truth in an attempt to overcome his being (the) Human. This is why Lifshitsian calumnies against modern art, calling for faith in the truth in art, are somewhat wide of the mark. They do not take into consideration that work with the notion of truth seldom had individual ontology and the singularity of the Human as it goal. And if truth and art historically have been non-human (proceeding from the combination of the idea of the historical subject with the death instinct), this means that modern art's lack of humanistic anthropology and its combination of dehumanized artistic experimentation with commercial content are a natural consequence of the history of art, its innate trait.

The dehumanizing death instinct thus "rescued" art from commercialization (and transformation into culture), but as soon as it underwent formalization and modernization in the twentieth century, all that art could retain was its detachment from the problems of existence. Therefore the modernist work of art could never be a thing of nature or a recognizable thing of the world, but only a different thing, an adjunct beyond and outside the world.

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Chernysheva Olga. Steamboat Dionysius. 2004. Video film, 28 min.

Consequently, creative motivation, which in a certain sense is always different to people living their lives, and sometimes draws nourishment from the project of truth as the Other, is now content with the formalization of the Other. As a result, the Other remains a program of art, which, in the age of gallery practice, survives in the regime of the autonomous market and elitist commerce. Put differently, the evolution of aesthetics leads to what Boris Groys called the new religion of money and the market " which has abolished all older religions, mainly because its claim to universality is even more radical."[6]

One can also agree partly with Anatoly Osmolovsky's statement: "Modern art is the most transparent and visible scene of the battle between experimentation and capital. It has one most vital feature that distinguishes it from all other forms of creative work: its own materiality."[7] But it is difficult to accept his assertion that "this materiality is also a site of struggle" or that "in becoming an object of purchase and sale, the work of art enters into a relationship of struggle with capital."

Materiality in art plays a major role, of course. It is a kind of emasculated Other in all its immanent tautologousness. But on the other hand even value, or rather the act of forming value corresponding to the work of art, no longer functions as a dead substitute for exchange. Value produces itself like a work of art. This is where the instinct for searching for the truth as something superhuman comes in. In the condition of modern art, money is just as superhuman as the work of art. It is superhuman in the same way as any technology located outside the body. Therefore the opposition between technologies (the media) and the methodological nature of art, which Osmolovsky most convincingly examines in his article[8], is current for the theology of aesthetics-but not for the theology of capital in the conditions we find ourselves in today. Methodology is occupied with innovatively reforming the exhibited form. But the effect and conditions of its representation are influenced by advertising, PR, and other technologies. Catalogues and even media reviews are one such technology. From the point of view of the style and function of rhetoric, modern artistic methodology is also a technology.

This materiality is not only incapable of waging a struggle against capital, but-irrespective of the sublimation of quality and formal and conceptual innovations-it strives outright to be swallowed up by capital (even where this has not yet happened, where the work of art has not yet been bought or valuated).

If in the past the Other was itself a creative event of the first order, now the process of price-formation is becoming an event. In other words, inscription in history occurs not through differences in form, but through the socio-institutional ratification of the status of the artwork.

This raises the central issue: What is more relevant-to change the form of the object being represented or the conditions for the representation of form?[9] To guard oneself against simulacra or to understand that modern art also works with simulacra since (when) it no longer (does not) senses a gap between the death instinct and the refined form (which results in the fact that (or when) the discursive rhetoric accompanying the sale is radically incompatible with the analysis of form)?

The incompatibility of the technologies for attracting the buyer to this art and the attempt to reach an analytical, historical judgment about it could be considered an ontological problem of such art.

Admittedly the public manifestation of art does not occur through the opinion-making of a community that determines its value, but through advertising, the media, and capital flows. Such communities do exist, but their role in price-formation is negligible.

Even if, in our time, something is produced that aspires to aesthetic methodology, not the methodology itself is important but the strategy of its placement in the fields where information expansion takes place and the artist becomes a name. The price corresponds not so much to the artwork-thing as to the name of the artist. This is no catastrophe as long as it is not ignored and no one raises unrealizable hopes for superlative autonomy of form. If this form is open in relation to flows of capital and is represented as an elite commodity, how can it remain hermetic and reduced in relation to its cultural and political environment?

It is often proclaimed that the autonomy of the work of art is a counterbalance to the mass-media images that penetrate artistic spaces. Indeed, art is becoming ever more contaminated by the stylistics of entertainment. These tendencies are particularly conspicuous at art fairs. But it is important to remember that not all components of the mass-media product are entertaining. Differently put, it is possible to use completely non-engaging material for purposes of entertainment-music by Anton Webern, any painting from Leonardo da Vinci to Jackson Pollock, and so on. The intention to entertain is not inherent in the mass-produced product but is contained in its particular intended use. Advertising and video clips always give a signal about the goal or narrative they are devoted to. The actual visual series and the images used in them, on the other hand, are not attached to the goal they represent. If we see media images as having precisely this ability to migrate and hover in the aleatory environment, they will turn out to be fully compatible with the ambience of modern graphic surfaces and their priority production of new mixtures rather than new forms. Chernyshevа, incidentally, does not reject the penetrative nature of even the most banal of advertising.[10]

In any case, both of the video projects are open to this free migration beyond the walls of exhibition spaces. Chernysheva's project uses the practice of expansion (broadening), of finding fields of meaning in the extreme blur of human existence-in a human being (people) as hyper-Other(s) that universalizes the meaninings that are valuable for art as well as those which (but) have not yet been thoroughly worked at by it. Alimpiev's project, in contrast, is one of narrowing-he combines objects and realities that have all been media-filtered and artificially synthesized. Here the focus is sometimes too intense to serve as a mimetic representation of already expounded themes. While Alimpiev's social dimension is plastic and theatrical, Chernysheva has largely ontologized the very possibility of theatricalness and art. What the work of these two artists has in common is an attempt to transcend the viewing space, but also the refusal to simulate the values of art.[11] They aim to touch on those zones of the Inconceivable in modernity that render art's effort to appropriate them powerless. These zones require much more mature effort than the art industry.


  1. ^ Yekaterina Degot, "Repetitsiya orkestra" (The Orchestra Rehearsing), an article on the "Solovushka" (Sweet Nightingale) exhibition in Moscow's Regina Gallery.
  2. ^ Khudozhestvenny zhurnal (Moscow Art Magazine) 55 (2004): 5
  3. ^ A plait and a pair of scales in the work "Neskolko podarkov Olegu" (Some Presents for Oleg), or the hints to the face in Siyaniye, one of his recent works.
  4. ^ Gilles Deleuze, Razlichiye i povtoreniye (Difference and Repetition) (St. Petersburg, 1998), 78.
  5. ^ Yevgeniya Kikodze, "Prostranstvo Alimpievа" (Alimpiev's Space), article in the exhibition catalogue for Siyaniye in the "Sovremenny gorod" (Modern City) Art Center.
  6. ^ Boris Groys, "Yazyk deneg" (The Language of Money), Khudozhestvenny zhurnal 47 (2003): 11
  7. ^ Аnatoly Osmolovsky, "Prolegomeny k metodologicheskomu prinuzhdeniyu" (Prolegomena on Methodological Coercion), Khudozhestvenny zhurnal (Moscow Art Magazine) 48/49 (2003): 21
  8. ^ ibid.
  9. ^ The forthcoming documenta project curated by Roger M. Buergel deals with precisely this problem-it proposes that we reflect on the very possibility of representing art before we represent quality or innovative values.
  10. ^ Оlga Chernyshevа, "Vsegda goryachy khleb i Koka-Kola" (Always Hot Bread and Coca-Cola), Khudozhestvenny zhurnal (Moscow Art Magazine) 56 (2004): 8
  11. ^ If we recall the programmatic statements by Roger M. Buergel, curator of the forthcoming documenta, about modernity as antiquity ("Is modernity our antiquity?") and "bare life," we can say that Alimpiev's work realizes the first option and Chernysheva's the second. 

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