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Left in the Lurch


Artists in the crossfire of everyday Russian reality: where do you stand in terms of politics, comrade? Moscow's cultural scene still thrives on a reverence for the heroes of the Soviet Revolution. Ten years after the end of Perestroika, however, people still persist in their search for political fronts. The Berlin-based curator Christoph Tannert on the delicate dance between globalization and home turf, melancholy and revolt in Russian art.


Ever since the days of Stalinist culture, artists from Moscow have liked to style themselves as heroic revolutionaries. Even as the old monuments were being toppled in the age of Perestroika and the familiar life in the shared apartments of the Kommunalka suddenly seemed to run haywire, there were still a number of believers that set out to fan the fires of human happiness anew, at first individually and then in small groups. As we all know, Stalin promised the masses happiness and then wreaked widespread misfortune. This did not diminish the revolutionary passion to still somehow erect the Soviet paradise, not merely under a national Russian aegis, but preferably somewhere else and best of all worldwide, or at least as far as the Kalashnikovs reached in the Caucasus. Is the revolution behind us, or somewhere up ahead?


Anatoli Osmolowski, The forgotten face,
Photography 2001. © Anatoli Osmolowski

The old dilemma of Russian artists, their delicate dance between melancholy and revolt makes up one part of the problem. Some of them still see themselves in the tradition of the revolutionaries, the avant-gardists, and the non-conformists and measure themselves up against the West, or promptly resettled there beginning in the early 90s. Others see a universal provider in Mamma Russia, who nourishes every living cultural artery from the home territory - which is why making contact with the West is unnecessary and even dangerous.

The feud between Westerners and Slavophiles carries on to this day. Being revolutionary is one thing, being a hero is another, and what's best of all is being a revolutionary hero back home. Whereas in this context home means the expanded sphere of Soviet influence from Vladivostok to the Elbe, as soon as you try to locate the artist's homeland close to that of the revolutionary hero. Within the framework of the Socialist human image, multiple attempts have been made to artistically represent these exceptional missionary figures and evaluate them politically and morally.


Erik Bulatov. Glory of KPdSU, 2003.
©courtesy ADAGP, Paris

From day one, many of the Russian artists were indoctrinated with the ingredients that make up a hero in Socialist literature and art: "his ability to act historically and his acumen for being a subject and not an object of social struggles and processes," as the keepers of the dogma announced, because "every important Socialist-Realist artist has a special conception of hero that corresponds to his subjective experiences, ideals, and traditional relationships," according to the Kulturpolitisches Wörterbuch (Cultural Political Dictionary) published by Dietz Verlag in 1978. When Oleg Kulik first turned himself into a dog, and then into a carrier of the Red Flag that goads the beasts of a reawakened capitalism, it took place under heroic and revolutionary portents. At first, while watching the spectacle of the Soviet Union dissolving before his very eyes like some kind of civilizational experiment, Kulik responded with skepticism and callousness. Since then, his art has become a merciless observation; the objects of his scrutiny are the failures in political public life.


Oleg Kulik, Darkening I & II, from the serie
"The Russian', Photography, 1999.
©Photos courtesy Trilistnik Verlag, Moskau

The tone characterizing this strategy and that of some other Russian artists of the middle generation (the younger ones are for the most part pooped by everyday life!) is no longer marked by a desperate sadness. Nor is it the heavenly silliness of the bureaucratically controlled non-existences of Ilya Kabakov's slapped-together restroom facilities with swarms of flies circling overhead, which was how the documenta artist once simulated Russian life. Both Oleg Kulik and Anatoly Osmolovsky have helped themselves to a large portion of traditional motifs and poses from the inventory of gothic revolutionary romanticism - for instance decadence, a disgust for the world, a longing to fly to the heavens, and actual attempted revolt. Now, their boundless, image-rich activism makes the artists look more like party members of some violent surrealism than the dust collectors of the Russian Revolution.

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