Thaw: Russian Art from Glasnost to the Present

Selections from the Guelman Collection ‘15G’ Exhibition at the Russian Museum, Marble Palace, Saint Petersburg. Curated by Marat Guelman and Juan Puentes (Chelsea Art Museum, 7 March – 17 May 2008)

The visually raucous new show at the Chelsea Art Museum, Thaw: Russian Art from Glasnost to the Present, opened to the public on 7 March with appropriate flash. Vodka-cranberry cocktails flowed like wine. An international — and striking — deluge of artists, writers, djs, and avant-garde film-makers converged from out of the rainy streets of their New York to mingle in blends of Russian and English. A confidently eccentric blonde, text-messaging rapidly in a corner, was as likely updating a friend in Moscow as in Brooklyn. Co-thrown by Russia! magazine, the opening reception seemed to render visible a new cultural live-wire connecting Moscow to New York.

The art on display, meanwhile, is as equally spirited. Explosive technicolored pieces, many heroically sized and explicitly provocative, read as a perhaps-inadvertent retort to this year’s modest Whitney Biennial, open the same week. Comparatively, Thaw could be called old-fashioned. Despite the collaborations so pervasive in both (Thaw includes works by two notorious collectives, AES+F and the Blue Noses, as well as by two couples), this is a show laden with painting and (digitally altered) photography, with figurative art in general, and with relatively accessible works that give up their main impact on first viewing.

AES+F nearly steal the show with their monumental, round false-icon series “Last Riot 2” (2007). Against a background of impossible, culturally-hybrid distopia, adolescent models pose in an elaborate ballet of mass slaughter and carnage. Clad in well-cut fatigues and pristine white wife-beaters, and with brand names on belts and baseball bats in full display, these mannequins are certainly selling us something. The digital collages also read as religious images from inside a video game’s world. “Last Riot” was, by all reports, the hit of the most recent Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art.

Many Thaw works range in effect from merely abrasive to successfully provocative. But this is openly a Greatest Hits show: one grasps quickly that a) the intended public is far wider than the art school crowd, and b) many pieces do register as at least mildly shocking. Alexander Kosolopov shows two sizable silkscreens, “This is My Blood” and “This is My Body” (2002), on which the visage of Christ shares a red backdrop with the title slogans and the Coca Cola and McDonalds logos, respectively.

Alexander Kosolopov’s This is My Blood (partial)

The now-famous Avdei Ter-Oganian, here showing works lampooning Western modernist masters from Picasso to Lichenstein, underwent trial and effective exile from Russia after chopping paper icons at the Manege in a poorly received performance piece. (His son David, also exhibiting in Thaw, shows some inherited mettle with the Duchamp-inspired mixed media “This is Not a Bomb”, 2005).

Oleg Kulik, in turn, stimulates the same cranial nerves as a disconcertingly intelligent horror film. For the photo series “Mad Dog, or the Last Taboo Guarded by the Lonely Cerebrus” documenting his November 1994 performance, Kulik metamorphoses into a rabid canine. Naked except for collar, chains and plastic strips reinforcing his knees, he is shot attacking human beings and smashing into a car windshield on all fours. The most upsetting detail, somehow, is that his face is turned away from the camera.

Cerebrus has other taboos to guard. Grozny-born Alexei Kallima focuses on Chechen narratives: his explicit pieces poke and prod at what refuses to stay hidden below the surface. Images of war and battle are simultaneously acutely self-conscious and highlight unexpected everyday poetics. In the 2008 painting “Owl”, a sky full of floating parachute troopers offers us the detail of matching Converse All-Stars sneakers — yet another brand — with the logo’s suddenly miscontextualized red star. Erbol Meldibekov’s 2001 photograph “My Brother, My Enemy” depicts two facing top-knotted men in a nightmare parody of a duel, pointing revolvers emerging from their painfully stretched mouths. The image became an emblem of Central Asia at the recent Venetian Biennale.

Blue Nose’s Epoch of Clemency (partial)

But Thaw’s real darling and political centerpiece is the Blue Noses’ “Epoch of Clemency” (also known as “Era of Mercy” or just “The Kissing Policemen,” 2005). The enormous digital print, which shows two (male) police officers kissing in explicit, uniformed embrace, was actually pulled from an exhibit in 2007 by Russia’s Ministry of Culture. Russia! magazine’s current issue quotes co-curator and Moscow gallery owner Marat Guelman on these new “degenerates” in Russian art: “There are four completely taboo subjects in Russian art today,” he claims. “The government, the Orthodox Church, Chechnya, and Putin.”

Guelman himself seems equally to rise above and thrive on controversy. Since the opening of the Marat Guelman gallery in Moscow in 1990 (the ‘15G’ of the show’s subtitle refer to the gallery’s 15 plus years), he has been credited by some for single-handedly fathering a vibrant, relevant, and internationally marketable contemporary Russian art scene. An outsider from Soviet Moldavia, Guelman brought with him a slew of avant-garde “south Russian” artists in a dramatic challenge to the existing Moscow art market. His was one of the first and most important private galleries in post-Soviet Russia. A few years of cross-pollination later, Guelman had a veritable revolution of post-communist/postmodernist aesthetics on his hands.

Detractors accuse him of overly centralizing and controlling the community he has helped to create. Curator, father-figure and fellow provocateur, fund-raiser and promoter, his presence hovers behind the entire phenomenon. Guelman is something like a latter-day Diaghilev, here to introduce his Ballets Russes. For, despite the diversity within Thaw, there is a unified impression emerging from the works as a whole.

As the name of the show suggests, these contemporary Russian works ally themselves with an earlier wave of Soviet artists and trouble makers. Following Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent denunciation of the Stalinist cult, the Khrushchev years saw state control start to loosen its grip. The period was characterized as the first Soviet “thaw”, a time of relative liberalism as well as increased cultural freedom. Many saw history repeat itself when Gorbachov ushered in glasnost.

A group of artists emerged out of the first thaw and came of age in the ’70s and ’80s. Known as Conceptualists or as the Sots-Art movement, this was a generation aware of Warhol, punk and performance art. (Yuri Shabelnikov’s 2006 mixed-media “Andy, Andy…” replicates four Warhol dolls in parallel white coffins.) Artists like Ilya Kabakov, the team Komar and Melamid, as well as the poets Dmitri Prigov and Lev Rubinshtein, shocked their elders and delighted friends by reworking elements of Soviet realia — as well as sacred cows of Russian intelligentsia culture — with an eye to Western postmodernism. Prigov turned passages from Eugene Onegin into a Buddhist chant: audiences fumed. Suddenly, the Russian language itself was infected with new terminology. Words like “underground” and “mainstream” were swallowed whole and simply transliterated into Cyrillic.

Kabakov, especially, comes up constantly in the manifestos of the generation currently exhibiting at the Marat Guelman gallery in Moscow and the Chelsea Art Museum in New York. When complementing each other, young artists compare their perceived greats to the Conceptualist giant. And Komar and Melamid, from the earlier generation, reportedly even had a scuffle with the curator over the use of the term “Sots-Art”. (One of their pieces, however, is exhibited in the related show Parallel Play, just upstairs from Thaw in the CAM).

But if that generation (think Fathers and Sons) opened some big doors, the current crop of Guelmanites, as cynics call the artists exhibiting in Guelman’s gallery, has dynamited an entire graffiti-covered wall. They’ve arguably stolen the stylistic tricks of an earlier avant-garde to produce a fashionable, accessible — and crucially, marketable — product. Umberto Eco would call this kind of culture neither highbrow nor low, but MidCult. In the terminology of the Russian 1990s, is this underground, anymore, or are we firmly in the mainstream?

Guelmanites are using the art market to leverage and enable artistic communication on an unprecedented level. (Kabakov reportedly sold the piece “La Chambre de Luxe” in June 2007, for $4US million through Phillips de Pury, London. As reported in ArtChronical Autumn-Winter 2007. The piece apparently exceeded its estimate 4 times.)

They are expanding the post-Soviet art world quite literally: for all that these artists converge in Moscow, many of Guelman’s talented young discoveries come from all corners of the former Soviet Union. And, while Thaw currently features no female solo artists (several women work in the included collectives), Guelman has pushed the envelope in the past: his Feminism show in Moscow “aimed at fostering a specifically female discourse in the context of contemporary art,” according to co-curator Juan Puentes.

From the Blue Nose’s Kitchen Suprematism

Putting on a show like Thaw in New York also aggressively brings to center stage the immense, and unifinished, Russian and Western cultural dialogue of the 20th century. Besides the more recent Kabakov, Thaw artists reveal and parody other affinities. The Blue Noses call one of their series “Kitchen Suprematism” (2005-2006): slices of cooked salami, cheese and bread are cleverly arranged into recognizably Malevich-like figurations. The Blue Noses thus try on the masks of yet another set of Russian trouble-makers, the early avant-gardists so beloved in the West. But their playful disruptions also link them to Dada, and to the aesthetics of Beckett (also invoked by the curators of the currently Whitney Biennial). Beckett in turn was a passionate consumer of Russian literature, identifying himself in letters as Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, and so on.

However, final reflections cannot but take a grimmer turn. The elephant in the museum room is just how much the West’s recent flurry of interest in contemporary Russian art is fueled by political trouble. Bans by the Ministry of Culture offer a legitimacy difficult to compete with, quantifiable external proof that works have touched a crucial nerve. How much trouble did you get into? How much were you fined, and how many days spent in jail? A related longing for authenticity and alterity of experience has prompted countless tourists to haul home suitcases of Eastern block kitsch.

But maybe the mood evoked by Thaw signifies something more. Fears and rumors of increasing state control insinuate that the most recent Russian thaw might turn out to be just that: a limited period of freedom. We may, in coming years, remember the 15G years for their wild freedom, anarchic optimism, and naïvete. Every avant-garde begins to look a little different when you realize that today is not, in fact, the end of history.

Marijeta Bozovic is a graduate student at Columbia University. She is currently working on a dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov and planning an (unrelated) research trip to Central Asia.