All the Ways of the World
“The true picture of the world flits by”.
Theses on the History of Photography
As it is evident from its title, the exhibition On My Way is about a journey, but a journey both global and strictly individual. The creative journey of an artist, journey of a generation – the movement in time and space as a factor that unites the whole exhibition. It is possible that it is not a well-known fact for the western spectator that the journey of a Soviet person was firmly restricted and controlled, starting with physical movements and ending with spiritual ones. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was hard for Soviet artists to quench their thirst for what was going on in the art of other countries. Artists of the Arefiev Circle (Alexander Arefiev, Rikhard Vasmi, Sholom Shvarz, Valentin Gromov and Rodion Gudzenko) are no exception. They invented their own culture, built their own world as a haven, as a freedom zone. Not but what freedom is something that lives separately in each person. The internal freedom cannot be broken down, taken away or surgically removed as the soul was removed in the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Artists of the circle were not radical, but they were not conformists either. They lived, worked, every now and again “getting it in the neck” from the government, but they did what they saw right because they didn’t want to or knew how to do otherwise. Works of the Arefiev Circle exhibited in Venice are not so much the story of an artistic union as that of one generation that was free in spite of any of the surrounding conditions. And that freedom is the second factor that unites the exhibition’s participants.
The connection between generations shines through both in individual works and in the show’s entire structure. Paintings by the Arefiev Circle that have been long considered classical in Russia intersperse with works by contemporary artists who use new technologies in their art. The language and means of expression change, but the subjects and issues that interest people remain the same. And no technologies or years that zip forward are capable of destroying the warm-heartedness that shimmers in every work at the exhibition.
The exhibited works could be united into several groups according to visual and conceptual characteristics, which is accentuated in the show itself. Rikhard Vasmi, a member of the Arefiev Circle, painted a Venetian landscape in the 1970s while he had not been in Venice even once. The Rialto Bridge, gondoliers, low-rise houses, clear sky and green water: the similarity is obvious, but Vasmi’s Venice looks like St. Petersburg, as if, instead of the countless number of shades of grey, the city had been filled with sunlight. The vital necessity of the Arefiev circle to create their own world and to mythologize their existence manifested in this small landscape. The impossibility of physical travel to Venice activates the whole potential of imagination. And, it would seem, why fly somewhere if you are there as it is? This subject of presence-absence makes the work of Vasmi akin to the video installation Star Landing by Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. Two flat plywood young ladies sit in front of each other on stools, and their heads are in TV sets. It seems that the girls discuss where they have been: one went to a museum and walked around the city, and the other went to a winter forest. We are present at this dialogue, but, at the same time, we are alien-ated from it. The work comprises three layers of this presence-absence. The girls, much like the spectator, find themselves in the exhibition hall and, simultaneously, they each saunters in her own space, one – in a crowd of people, and the other – in a complete solitude, but, at the same time, they are absent from both the hall and video recordings.
Ludmila Belova in her audio installation Archive balances at the same verges of presence-absence, visible-invisible and statics-dynamics. Six boxes with peepholes and headphones conceal black-and-white photographs of staircases, distorted by the peephole’s optics. The imprecision of sound and picture – everything is heard and seen from some distance and, making its way through the unconscious, it drags up the viewer’s own archives, and the viewer constructs his own memories.
The landscape On the Platform by Rodion Gudzenko is close in its mood to the media installation Anxiety by Anna Frants. The general state of uneasiness: in Gudzenko’s case, it is characteristic of a train station: all people are in a hurry, they are dragging their bags and suitcases, saying goodbye, saying hello – as long as they make it to their trains; in Anna’s, it’s an engineered show, in which the leading role is played, it would seem, by the blowing drapery, lit up and guided by air gusts, but, in reality, the action is built on a feeling of anxiety that overtakes the viewer who looks at the installation. Weather Forecast is the second part of Frants’ statement, in which the webcast from the Estonian Coast of the Baltic Sea becomes a counterbalance for the anxious feeling. It is the grandeur of nature against the programmed-improvised sounds of the rustling fabric and ventilators.
The crowd that screams at somebody from above in the painting Wall by Sholom Shvarz exemplifies the impotence and fear of ordinary people before the omnipotent authorities, but also the unwillingness to obey them unthinkingly. Its title, content and degree of tension are close to the protest album of the same name by Pink Floyd: the righteous indignation and fear as well as a practically reflectory attempt of self-defense. A similar acuteness of emotions is present in the works of several other artists.
A deliberate simplification of subjects and images in the drawings by Marina Koldobskaya is also preserved in her mural painting La Cucaracha at the exhibition in Venice. The big black cockroach is, according to Kabakov, a precise symbol of the Soviet communal household. It is the character of many children’s stores and rhymes that has practically disappeared from the face of the earth. It is the intimidating past, seemingly harmless, but, in substance, comparable to real epidemics.
A virtually ringing sensation of fear accompanies the installation Pause by Petr Belyi. Circular saw blades, frozen for a moment, and dried drippings of black paint on the white wall signify the precarious balance that, as we all thought, has been achieved in our country and all over the world, is apt to get disturbed at any moment, and the saws will rush again with a screeching sound to destroy everything on their way, filling us with a horrifying sensation of approaching danger.
In the landscape First Snow by Valentin Gromov, there is an empty indifferent city, lightly powdered by snow. There are no people in the painting – just stone walls and a few trees. Gromov recorded the familiar grandeur of St. Petersburg and its dispassionateness towards human emotions. It is a city-museum suddenly inhabited by Homo sapiens.
The roads, upon which the hero moves in the photo projects Gallery and Traces on White, are located in the urban and suburban areas, accordingly, and they seemingly lead nowhere. There are two ways: straight and winding, the easy one and the one with obstacles, symmetrically framed and in some disarray. And, once again, there is nary a soul in sight – just an empty gallery and a deserted snow-covered path between fences.
The sleeping lady in the painting Reclining Woman by Valentin Gromov is a modern Danae, half-naked and deeply immersed in her dreams. The artists Elena Gubanova and Ivan Govorkov also turn to the myth about the daughter of Acrisius and god Zeus. The multimedia installation Danae is a technologically complex work, sculptural in and of itself, consisting of the mirrors that quake from the touch of a light ray that repeat the movement of the human glance when we look at the Rembrandt’s painting of the same name. The glimmer of meaning, eroticism and sensuality of the story – the event’s mystery dazzles and mesmerizes. The viewer unknowingly becomes the voyeur who thinks that he spies on the Other, but, but who actually spies on himself.
Alexandra Dementieva also draws us into an interaction with the mirror image in her video installation Mirror’s Memory. But here some failure or malfunction takes place: suddenly, we see not ourselves before us, but multiple Others. There is a momentary confusion, minute-long insanity and a thought about the existence of ghosts that live in mirrors – the work affects the spectator unpredictably, but it certainly draws him into a mystical unconscious adventure.
The erotic and sensual, united by one word “libido”, are the central object of artistic research in the video Hydraulics or Constancy Principle by Mariateresa Sartori, the only participant of the exhibition, by the way, who is not from Russia. The man in a white coat demonstrates what is going on in the psychic apparatus of a human being with the example of liquids. Test tubes, diagrams, tables and charts – this is a story of sexuality in the asexual language of lab tests.
The video Acrobatic Sketch by Victoria Ilyushkina and Maya Popova is an ironic performance novella about a young lady in the St. Petersburg communal bathroom. The shabby walls, old tiles and plumbing – it is against this background, at a contrast with the murky surrounding, that the beautiful young woman performs her “acrobatic sketch”. A bath tub is like a boat along whose side the desires, dreams, reality and memories float by. The agony of mind escalates into the agony of body.
Coming back to the subject of dreams, we see a ball that is sleeping atop a pillow in the Work Dream and Ball by Petr Belyi. The soft glow and tall stacks of white pillows bring to mind The Princess and the Pea by Andersen. It is some kind of pagan mysticism, mystery, fragility of the form – one awkward movement and the stack would have a swing to the side and the ball would roll down and break into pieces. It is as the interrupted dream of a sleeping person. A moment passes by and he no longer remembers what his dream was about.
Vitaly Pushnitsky’s Falling Light is a glowing staircase that leads somewhere above or, rather, from somewhere above. But it is impossible to climb it either up or down. It is the ephemerality, laconism and some kind of voiceless peal – about lost opportunities and about an opportunity as a whole.
As it has already been said, there is a thought about the interconnection between generations that distinctly shines through the entire exhibition, namely, about the interconnection between the Sixtier artists and contemporary artists who were born in the 1960s. The exposition also has a discernable issue about the relationship of the older generation with the younger, post-Soviet generation, in the person of the 16-year-old Daniil Frants. Patterns of the Mind, the joint performance of Daniil with Ivan Govorkov, is an artistic dialogue between two different systems of values, memories, stories. Ivan is an artist of incredible experience, academic education and workmanship, while Daniil is a young computer programmer who has a perfect command of technologies. The two-dimensional improvisation by Govorkov is transformed into the three-dimensional one by Frants. Is an integration of technologies into the traditional art possible? Wouldn’t it lose its warm-heartedness because of that? And is there some connection between the post-Soviet and older generations?
The figure of an artist from the Arefiev Circle, much like that of any artist, is close to the figure of Benjamin Walter’s flaneur. It is an idler who aimlessly strolls in the space of a majestic and indifferent city and collects topics, images, stories. In the exhibition On My Way, the flaneur emerges as a hero and elucidator of the works of fiction, his thought is sauntering the way the flaneur himself was sauntering around Paris at the beginning of the XX century. His intellect is set free to go on “a fact-finding stroll”. A moseying observer sometimes becomes a participant of art events, falling through to the past. Such aimless wandering makes the flaneur more sensitive and attentive. The flaneur is free inside himself even though he is surrounded by indifferent stone walls.
Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the 56th Venetian Biennale, refers to the painting Angelus Novus by Klee as a work that unites the entire project. The angel of history whose face is turned toward the past sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. Unable to stay, propelled by a storm, he is hurtling into the future, to which his back is turned. The World War II, Holocaust and other disasters, that befell us later in the XX century, are not yet reflected in the eyes of Angelus Novus. The exhibition On My Way is also built around a painting – the picture that was painted 48 years after Klee’s Angel. It is I Am off to Buy a Beer by Alexander Arefiev, the cityscape of a historic center against whose background small people are hurrying, each on his or her business, and only one of them, full of enthusiasm, is off to buy a beer on this sunny summer day. This seemingly innocent painting, with its jocose title and content that flirts with the viewer, speaks about All the World’s Futures, that ones that Okwui Enwezor urges us to contemplate. We can still discuss our self-reliance and independence for a long time to come, but it is high time that we admit that we all have the same destiny, much like we have the same world for all of us.