Russia 2 - Post-communist artistic critique

Since the collapse of Soviet Union the Russian art scene has been intensely working on a new definition of a concept of culture. It deals with question of how one should deal with the (communist) past, how the Russian (political) future should look like. Artists constantly criticise problems concerning a democratisation of the country.
In the first year these critical tendencies used to be pictorial/visual ones (paintings, photomontage, staged photography etc.), but during the last years artists have become more and more active and many of there "works" seem to be mere protests, aggressive actions and sometimes are situated on the margins of vandalism.
The problem of the Russian art scene is that the change from Socialism to a neo-capitalist system came all of a sudden. How can you expect a former socialist republic to addapt a new system that quickly?  Artists used to be dependent on governmental commisions, which ought to have clear function. Socialist realism used to be the standard during communist times. Artists painted murals with educational implications, designed everyday objects and painted paintings which sought to be understood by everybody, which ought to illustrate workers' lives, the bright site of proletarian life etc. But nowadays the artists are part of the globalized art world. However, Russia has not mastered this change. There are two major problems: 1. the public and 2. the government.
Datei:Alexander ivanov - appearance of christ to the people 668.jpg
Alexander Ivanov
Appearance of Christ to the People
1837 - 1851
Oil on Canvas
Stately Tretyakov-Gallery Moscow
1. The public
A majority of the public is not opened to new, maybe critical art. This mainly has to do with a lack of education. Russian children still study the Russian masters (like Ivanov or Repin), read Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Pasternak and learn how to paint true-to-life. The socialist model of education still works and children are rewarded, when they paint "well". There are dozens of museums in Russia which show paintings by children.
This does not mean that there has never been or that there is no critical art, but a lack of acceptance by the public. 
The interest for new art is mainly curiosity. A majority of the population admires the old masters. Nothing bad, one can say. The past achievments of the Russian art are impressive. The painting  by Ivanov (above) IS impressiv. Its seize is 540 x 750 cm (212,6 x 295,3 in). But when it comes to contemporary art many people do not understand or do not want to understand the artworks. They still have in mind the impressive painting by the old masters. Of course this situation is not surprising. In West European countries the same has happened. But they have had many decades to educate the public. When you go into a museum for contemporary art in e.g. Germany you - from time to time - will hear sentences like "Why is that art?" or "Well, I could have made the same". Normally these sentences are followed by another sentence that expresses that it surely is "great art" and there it "probably has its justification". The main difference is: German people goes into museums for contemporary art. In Russia there are hardly any of them. Most of the museums for modern or contemporary art are funded and financed by Russian millionaires, art collectors, which were mainly educated in the West (like Igor Markin and his gallery Art4Ru or Daria Shukova and her ArtGarage). When they started their projects, the Russian media spoke/wrote a lot about them. But shortly afterwards their names hardly appeared anywhere.
Most of the works by contemporary Russian artists are exhibited in the West, but not in their home country.

2. The government
First of all it is important to notice that there is nor ever has been a censorship in Russia. But still, censor-like processes to exist. During Socialist times it was easy to control the art market. Governmental organs commisioned works and paid the artists. As long as you did, what was wished, you did have a regular income. Of course, alternative and critical tendencies did exist. (s. http://www.gif.ru/eng/texts/rus-women/city_/fah_/). But it was hardly possible for them to display their works. Today this form of regulation is not possible at all. However it is obvious that stately organs still try to control the art market. Most of the important museums are stately museums and depend on stately money.
One past incident can exemplify this situation. In 2007 Andrei Yerofeyev and Yuri Samodurov had set up an exhibition called "Forbidden Art" at the Sakharov Museum in Moscow. Yerefeyev wanted to show those works, which he was not allowed to display during his time as curator at the (modern section) of the Stately Tretyakov-Gallery in Moscow. It showed works that had been barred from Moscow's mainstream museums and galleries. The exhibition included pictures that showed Jesus as Mickey Mouse, or a Madonna made from kaviar. Russian-Orthodoxs became furious and sued the curators. The court fined Samodurov 200,000 rubles (6,480 USD, 5,153 Euros, 4,305 Pounds) and Yerofeyev 150.000 rubles (4,860 USD, 3,865 Euros, 3,229 Pounds).
Originally the prosecutor demanded three years prison camp. However, the fine is a clear sign. 

Many artists react on these difficult circumstances by creating extremely critical artworks. The have to fear repressions in Russia, but the West European public loves their works, which creates a certain kind of protection for the artists. However, the situation is schizophrenic. 

An often used strategy by Russian artists is to use typical Russian symbols or heroes (like the old masters) and void them. 

Blues Noses Group
The Blue Noses Group (Slava Mizin and Alexander Shaburov) work a lot with photomontage. Their works show copulating political leaders or kissing Russian policemen. They play with Russian stereotypes and translate them into absurd situation.  

Avdey Ter Organyan
He installed a stand on a big art fair in Manezh gallery in Moscow. But instead of selling his art, he invited the audience to destroy cheap reproductions of (famous) Russian icons. He destroyed some of them with an axe, was sued and then left Russia. He installed (Duchamp-like) men's urinals in a gallery-space and invited the audience to piss inside. In 1994 he climbed the US Embassy and hanged a parody of Jasper John's USA Flag painting instead of the real flag.

Oleg Kulik
"When the glorious new post-communist era began, it brought nothing but chaos, destruction and mess", says Kulik. "Mafia emerged, brutality and aggression were the only socially relevant emotions." According Kulik the new (Soviet) man got stuck on the (social) level of a dog. So it is not suprising that his favoured topic are animals, and especially dogs (as a symbol of the new, animal-like Russia). This symbolic set of parameter defines the social environment and the artists acts in this environment in the persona of a dog. In his early exhibitions he behaved like an animal and barked at the visitors, he painted paintings with the brush in his mouth etc. He even founded an "animal-party" in Russia with himself as a candidate in the general presidential election, disguised as a bull.
Furthermore, he shocked with a series of staged photographies. "Kulik visits the Emerors" shows the artists  erected penis in front of the Tsar family Romanov. This play with or better: spoof of Russian heroes is an often used strategy in early post-communist art. Another artist who uses the technique of staged photography is Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe. In 1989 he - together with Timur Novikov - founded the independened "Pirate-Television". Mamyshev-Monroe is known for his photographies. Similar to artists like Cindy Sherman he photographs himself in a range of costumes flanked with props and prosthetics portaying artistic or historical figures of the past and present. Most of the time the historical figures (like Adolf Hitler, Marilyn Monroe, the Pope...) are accompanied by typical Russian or Soviet symbols or they stand in front of the Russian Kremlin in Moscow, where most offices of Russian governmental officials are located.
Mamyshev-Monroe questions the ambiguity and the dangers of (politcal) power and the questionable star cult of Russian pop culture. But the artist does not show them in the typical, idealised (often photoshoped) appearance, but gives them something morbid. He shows Dostoyevsky drunken, lying on a staircase somewhere in Baden-Baden (Germany). The images are anti-heroic and therefore renounce the role images of national heroes played during Communist times.


AES/ AES+F
(Arzamasova, Tatiana; Evzovich, Lev; Svyatsky, Evgeny; Fridkes, Vladimir)

Artist group AES united in 1987. In some projects (since 1995) AES collaborates with photographer Vladimir Fridkes (AES+F).
Just like Kulik and the Blue Noses, artist group AES uses a.o. photomontage as an artistic material. Some of their works are ironic parodies of globalization and global tourism. Furthermore, they reflect the tendency of mass media to exploit the phobia of the West. They show the statue of liberty with a veil (yashmak), important Western buildings become mosques or minarets etc.
Especially Russian right-wing extremist tendencies are criticised. On the background of xenophobic acts in Russia, their photos and videos become ponderous. The Video "Last Riot" e.g. shows a host of youths (of different ethnic groups) engaged in battles in a fantasy landscape to the strains of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung".
Their works are (in most of the cases) not especially directed against Russia and its social problems, however, it might make a difference to the spectator when he/she knows where the artists come from.

Andrej Molodkin
Molodkin makes crude oil sculptures. He collects residue oil from Russian pipelines. He transforms oil from an organic resource into an aesthetic form and with that wants to initiate a discourse. Oil is an important (natural) resource and enables Russia to act extremely powerful in international affairs, for many countries depend on its oil-resources. Just like other Russian artist (e.g. Kulik, Blue Noses, Chto delat?) he uses recognizable Russian paintings, orthodox icons or cultural iconography and replaces the images by oil. The modern greed (in regard of modern capitalism) destroys or has the power to destroy cultur or cultural heritages. It even becomes a part of the human body. Molodkin creates sculptures in form of human bodies, in which oil (instead of blood) flows. The artist says that culture is an emptiness which we have to fill with economics.

Chto delat?
Chto delat? is a Russian artist-group, it was founded 2003 in St. Petersburg. Its members are artists, writers, philosophers and critics. Chto delat'? means: What to do? They want to discuss the original ideals of Communism (therefore they call themselves collective) within the context of the 21st century. They mainly produce "songspiele", a mixture of songs, social critique, muscial comedies and theatre, in which they explore the different walks of life in present Russia and how their attitudes towards the socio-political issues differ. Besides these songspiele they produce (political) banners, newspapers and installations. All of these works play with the Socialist aesthetics. They reflect aesthetic stereotypes and use language of classical socialist propaganda. Usually their works are exaggerated as to appear more like caricatures. But within the funny appearance lies a true, critical heart, which perfectly illustrates the present Russian situation: the power of the oligarchs, the political apathy of the workers or the discontent of intellectuals.


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