Visual Arts

Thaw: Russian Art from Glasnost to the Present

Marijeta Bozovic
From Vladimi Fridke's Last Riot 2 series (partial)

Fears and rumors of increasing state control insinuate that the most recent Russian thaw, as represented at this exhibit at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York, might turn out to be just that: a limited period of freedom.

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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