Иду / On My Way
О, засмейтесь, смехачи!
В бесшумном мраке библиотек
В них жизнь. Но жизнь совсем другая:
Но это там. Оттуда эхо
Oh, laugh, the laughers!
In the quiet of a library dusk
The life is there, but a different life.
It’s true, but the echo will not bring
The title of the exhibition, On My Way is intentionally open-ended. It hovers between the poetRoald Mandelstam’s two kinds of life, bothderived from fantasies: a bright and colorful one hidden in books and Laputa, Jonathan Swift’s imaginary flying island populated by intellectuals and ruled by men, where “The Earth, unused to laugh, to sing, rides on business along the sky.” For Mandelstam, these two opposing imagescorrespond to two types of “lives”: a forbidden and “different” one, belonging to art, and that of the everyday existence devoid of art. His friend Alexander Arefiev vividly displayed the first kind of life in his painting I am off to Get a Beer, which celebrates Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Arefiev’s native city. Itis a painting demanding considerable degree of absorption in the work for its viewing enjoyment. We see a vast architectural vista opening before our eyes, inviting us to survey the tasteful grandeur of the metropolis with its low skyline, classical buildings, and granite embankments. Human figures appear almost as non sequiturs, dwarfed by the grandiosity of the setting. Their multicolored silhouettes appear in the middle ground in two nearly symmetrical clusters – on the left in the intervals between the trees and on the right standing in line in front of a beer kiosk. In 1960s and 1970s, the decades in which many of the exhibited canvases werepainted, getting a beer was a popular social ritual, allowing inebriation as a way to relax and escape from the pressures of the everyday. More than the content of the painting, however, its very form is directed toward this goal. When we see the work, we become completely taken by its image. As art historian Michael Fried famously observed in connection with the 18th-century French landscape paintings, a viewer standing before such a work is no longer mentally in front of this painting, because he or he is being effectively drawn toward and into it by its fiction: its formal devices, which include the play of perspectives and demands complete visual participation in the depicted scene.
Arefiev and Mandelstam knew each other well – so well, in fact, that they were buried in the same tomb in a Leningrad cemetery. Living in post-war Soviet reality and socializing in the same circles of non-official artists watched by the KGB for their insubordination to the rules of the Soviet community, they share the same concern of connecting earth and sky, finding respite in art from the deadening routine of the everyday and the “business” of a continuous struggle for survival. They remind us that dream is a necessary part of life — “the tale is real, life is a dream” – and should be accorded as much attention as questions of economic production. If in his poem Mandelstam inserts creative action – even as seemingly passive as reading a “forbidden” book — as a wake-up call and a jolt to the deadened senses, Arefiev views freedom as the very unproductive act of getting drunk in the middle of the day, when socially conscious workers spend their days toiling on behalf of the motherland or simply making the ends meet. Apart from their shared concern for subjective expression, both the poet and the painter are preoccupied with the perfection of form: for them, precision and elegance of styleis the sole vehicle for carrying out their task, the guarantee of its success. Mandelstam turned to the legacy of Acmeism, a turn-of-the-20th-century poetic school, with its measured rhythms and references to Classical Antiquity, to craft his delicately balanced verses. Like his friend, Arefiev borrowed his vocabulary from turn-of-the-20th century movements, albeit not in poetry but in the visual arts, buildingup the surface of his work by usingthe bright colors and simplifiedshapes of the Fauves and Cubo-Futurists, turning away from propaganda and performativity toward the internal dynamic of the work.
The same is true of the works of the Arefiev Circle, a group of artists formed in the late 1940s-early-1950s in post-blockade Leningrad, which included Rikhard Vasmi, Valentin Gromov, Rodion Gudzenko, and Sholom Shvarz among others. Just as I Am off to Get a Beer, the four paintings of the group included in this exhibition celebrate the city by drawing the spectator into the depicted scene, thereby increasing the viewer’s absorptionoffered by art and minimizing the dramatic, theatrical element of the relationship between the viewer and the work. That is to say, these paintingsmakeus identify with the scene through an imaginary union, either joyful or melancholy, and not to judge it in confrontational manner. In Vasmi’s Venice, for example, we are invited to enjoy a sunny Venetian day, with its azure-blue sky reflecting in the water, gondolas crowding the canals, and an impossible covered bridge, the kind that cannot be found in the actual city of the artist’s dreams. Vasmi has never been to Venice, but lived his entire life in the placeknown as “the Venice of the North.” It is not surprising, then, that his cityscape resembles St. Petersburg/Leningradwith its granite embankments and low-rise buildings more than it does its legendary namesake. Gudzenko’s On the Platform also brings us into the atmosphere of the city’s life, but unlike Arefiev and Vasmi, he does not show us itsbright, pleasant, and relaxing side, but rather the gloomy grind of the everyday routine. We are at a station where people stand along one train that is about to depart, while another one is pulling out leaving puffs of smoke behind in freezing air… A man is trudging along the side of the platform, half-bent to the ground under the weight of an enormous bag, his face turned away from us as is everyone else’s in the picture. Although Gudzenko’s work includes more human figures than Arefiev’s or Vasmi’s, and he paints them at a closer range, they still exist apart and away, not looking at us or challenging us with their gaze. Even Sholom Shvarz’s Untitled, which is the only work focused specifically on a group of people who are engaged in a rigorous dispute, demanding something from an invisible authority left outside of the picture plane, depicts it in such a way that weobservethe angry crowd from aside, dispassionately, without getting involved in the heat of the moment. Gromov’s Sleep is, perhaps, the epitome of absorption into the realms of imagination and metaphoric abstraction. The artist shows us the sleeping figure from the back. We don’t know who the sleeping woman is or what she is dreaming about; all we can see is her stark nakedness, which makes her vulnerable, but also deeply human. When we look at Gromov’s painting, we are entering the imaginary world of the sleeper, which becomes our world. The artist’s task is precisely to draw us into the picture to the maximum extent possible, which he successfully achieves.
For Arefiev and his group then the phrase “I am on my way” could mean “I am off to get a beer” or off for a walk in the city, off painting, imagining, and enjoying what I see. For the them, On My Way designates movement not as dvizhenie, a measurable property of physical objects, but as an intensely subjective action in its psychological sense that opens up possibilities for individual freedom to feel and explore the imaginary space of the work on the viewer’s own terms, without being put in a situation that she must like or dislike, accept or reject, argue against or comply with, all the while feeling pressured, frustrated, or coopted.These paintings dissolve our individual subjectivity, emphasizing the leading role of the unconscious, the place in which we feel comfortable and cozy, because usually take it for granted.
Agroup of contemporary artists from St. Petersburgin this show shares this concern of their predecessors and compatriots with the spaces of imagination and absorption. Because it is impossible to eliminate every theatrical element from a form of visual expression, they make art that strives to strike a balance between displayand imaginative withdrawal. At first glance, a certain renunciation of the outside world may appear to be the result of such absorptive experience. In fact, however, the appearance of ignoring actuality is the result of an attempt to focus on the unconscious roots that connect artists who belong to the same place but different generations. The exhibition traces several ways by which such a connection between generations could be established. The curators of the exhibition organized it in such a way that each artist from the Arefiev group is assigned certain “successors” from his contemporary compatriots, with the idea theircreative concerns have something in common. Because these creative concerns belong to the aspect of art that deals with the unconscious and is therefore hidden from direct observation, the task of the viewer in this situation is to find a link between the generations of artists not only on the visual, but also on an intuitive level, taking special care no to separateintuition from intellect. Partial descriptions and explanations of the works of the exhibition’s contemporary contingent are given below as a way to facilitate this process. A brief look at Vitaly Pushnitsky’s list of exhibitions, for example, reveals that he, like many artists, is concerned with issues of space, time, and light, and the way these traditional painterly concerns can be explored in other media, such as sculpture, architecture, or installation. At this exhibition, Pushnitsky is presenting Falling Light, an installation of fluorescent lamps that resemble a stairway leading usto the sky. Pushnitsky’s iconography and his obvious reference to Dan Flavin in his choice of material suggest a spiritualized message: no matter how difficult life is in this world, there is nothing wrong in believing that there is a way to heaven. In his unabated dedication to the creation of a space to dream, Pushnitsky opposes himself to someone like Ilya Kabakov, who, in his work How to Meet an Angel mocks precisely such a striving.
In Dream and Ball Petr Belyi also literalizes the idea of a space for dreamsby placing large luminescent balls made of opaque glass upon stacks of pillows. A room filled withspheres exuding soft light reflecting on white surfaces of pillowsmoves usinto a surreal bedroom where we can walk around the delicate constructions and examine them as closely as we want. Careful scrutiny of the materials, however, will not bring us closer to the meaning of the work, which is a symbolic reminder of the importance of dreams in our lives. The artist reminds us that each person dreams differently: “Monotonous light emanating from the ball is the dream of a person whose consciousness is clear. Quiet and deep glow is the sleep of a child; nervous, quivering and cold – sleep of a criminal; bright yellow light – sleep of a president; greenish light is the sleep of a homemaker. The ball is resting on a pillow; it sleeps.” Similarly symbolic is Belyi’s other work, Pause, which is made of a circular sawblades held at various levels by thin steel cables. The walls of the room are splattered with black paint resembling dry blood. According to the artist, the precariousness of the suspended position of the sawblades in mid-air paired with the sight of splattered walls is meant to make people uncomfortable and vulnerable, making them freeze in horror, in anticipation of asound of moving sawblades. Pause has been conceived as the symbol of Russia’s brutal history and the wounds it leaves in people’s psyches.
Anna Frants’ Anxiety deals in part with the same task of the creation ofspace for a distinct feeling, but usually that of unease and discomfort, which, while instinctual, is also highly structured, because it is artificially produced. With the help of a few props, she creates an emotionally disturbing atmosphere with blowing drapery, wind, and frightening sounds. According to the artist, this work is “an allegory of anxious states: there is no love, no compassion just anxiety.” When she creates feelings of anxiety exclusively through materials and without the intervention of drama and theatricality, Frants makes the viewer concentrate on her gut reactions to stimuli, which may signal approaching danger.Weather Forecast is an installation, which accompanies Anxiety, because it requires the accompaniment of the sounds of its twin installation. The video of the forest for Weather Forecast was taken at the shoreline of the Estonian coast of the Baltic Sea. According to the artist, the two installations go together because “an artificially created audio sequence of the kinetic installation Anxiety, readable in real time, evokes an uneasy feeling and demands an alternative – the eternal grandeur of sea, forest and its inhabitants.”
Instead of suggesting imaginary spaces of existence, Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai makes them literal by inventing and setting them up in front of the viewer. The expressive dynamics of Shishkin-Hokusai’s work derives precisely from this juxtaposition between the spaces of the imagination and those of reality.An artist who worked much of his life in theater as a stage designer, he stages scenes with “actors” – smaller than life-size human figures, which he makes out of plywood. In Let It Be, these roughly hewn miniature figures crowd around various parts of the gallery space, creating situations that look ordinary, but also strange. For example, some of them seem to be hard at work performing such an ordinary activity as cleaning. However, a woman at the feet of which they are hard at work scrubbing looks as taut as wire and ready to fly off into space. In another scene, working attentively and conscientiously, a woman examines the back of an enormous rat. In Star Landing, Shishkin-Hokusai places these cardboard figures on top of stools and crowns them with video monitors resting on their shoulders. Their heads, meanwhile, appear on these screens as video recordings filmed against a variety of backgrounds, such as rooms, forests, or cityscapes. The artist describes his attempt to juxtapose the worlds of the imagination and reality as follows: “This installation examines a border condition of being in two worlds – I am here and I am there; I am static and I am dynamic. The video contains documentation of the artist’s project, when he inserts his heroes into the midst of actual people thereby creating the situation of them being either accepted or rejected [by the community]. It also contains the opposing experience of filming his heroes surrounded by wild nature.”Althoughmuchmoresatiricalthanotherartistsintheexhibition, Shishkin-Hokusai’s desperate mockery of his fellow human beings has a touch of tenderness to it. His cardboard figures may be ridiculous and pitiful, but they are also vulnerable and earnest, which may redeem their silly awkwardness to some extent.
Alexandra Dementieva and Liudmila Belova focus on the link between representation and memory filtered through the use of various technologies. Dementieva’s Mirror’s Memory invites people to stand in front of a screen in a dark room on which images of visitors are projected. It is not exactly a mirror, but a reflection of one’s appearance created on the computer. The viewer can see himself in real time, but a step on carpet in front of the screen triggers a reaction that records himon the computer and releases recordings of other people who were in hisplace. The computer is programmed to release the recordings randomly, so a residual image of hisrecording may or may not show up in front of this person or someone else. In Dementieva’s work, a person’s private existence becomes visible through a delay in time, as a representation or even as a remembrance, spirit or phantom. In Belova’s Archive, the memory of the body is evoked not through its visual image, but mostly by auditory means. Here, the artist makes us peer through peepholes in uniform wooden boxes in which we can see photographs of entry halls into old St. Petersburg buildings. The images were found by Belova after they had been discarded by a real estate agency. Each box is equipped with a set of headphones, transmitting sounds associated with the life in each particular building: music, steps, fragments of conversations, falling water… While in this work photography and the magnifying glass of the peephole create an infinite distance between the viewer and the viewed, audio-technology becomes the main tool that bridges this distance, connecting the vision to the body and creating a nostalgic reminder of a particular time and place.
In contrast to many artists in the exhibition, Marina Koldobskaya does not mount technically elaborate installations, but paints elemental things – flowers, animals, fruit, faces – using deceptively simple technique and basic palette. In her performances, she creates murals revealing to the curious eye the tricks of the painting trade: how to make an illusion with minimal means of paint and brush and how to do so in such a way that it becomes powerful and convincing. She starts just with a few movements of the brush, laying the ground with white primer, which looks like an abstract daubing, upon which she splatters some red paint and outlines it with black. Gradually, her forceful lines and distinct marks assume a certain recognizable shape, which eventually turns into a fully developed figurative representation. In their primitivizing style and effective presence, Koldobskaya’s murals recall cave paintingmore than anything else, and her practice of performing painting makes her one of the most theatrically inclined artists of the group.
Ivan Govorkov is another performer in I Am on My Waywho appears to be more theatrical rather than absorptive. In the Model of the Mind, Frants and Govorkov demonstrate directly “… the dialogue between generations of artists. Ivan Govorkov, a professor of art at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art and a virtuoso draftsman handles his material expertly and with ease. The sixteen-year-old Daniil Frants is a young programmer who specializes in the creative use of new technologies. In this work the artist raises a very important question for today’s artistic practices: how possible is it to integrate technology and traditional art?”
In the Model of the Mind, Govorkov creates semi-abstract Surrealist imagery, drawingdirectly on the wall with his eyes closed, speedilycovering its expanse with curving lines and a variety of complicated shapes that are suggested by his unconscious. Daniil Frants works at a computer, converting Govorkov’s two-dimensional drawing into three-dimensional digital images with the help of a program he wrote. By adding virtual space into hand-drawn lines, Daniil Frants creates absolutely new objects. In the resulting sculptures, which are printed on a three-dimensional printer, nothing remains of their genesis as a drawing except the dynamics of their form. Despite collaboration, each participant of this dialogue stays in his own territory. The idea of the dialogue between generations consists of understanding that the intuitively created work by Govorkov and the controlled work by Frants rest on a common ground, because “freeing himself from any control, drawing the lines blindly, without premeditation, an artist does not reach freedom, but only reaches the understanding of its fictitious nature. The pleasure of such drawing and such freedom presupposes certain habits, training, and predictability. These are the premises on which Daniil Frants builds his work as well.”
With Gubanova, Govorkov made Danae, an installation whichreferences the Greek myth and the famous painting by Rembrandt in the Hermitage, where Zeus appears to his lover as a shower of gold. In this work, Gubanova and Govorkov link the myth to science by eliminating the literal reference and replacing it with an installation of reflective disks, which contract and tremble when a ray of light touches their surface. The explanation for this phenomenon is given using the terms of corpuscular and photon theory of light, but the import of the work relates to the original myth’s celebration of love as an immaterial and transformative force. In this installation, Gubanova and Govorkov attempt to “tie the algorithm of the movement of light with the algorithm of the movement of a viewer’s gaze when examining Rembrandt’s work [Danae in the Hermitage]. The trembling of the mirrors and flickering of the light reflecting off their surfaces creates an atmosphere of sensuality and eroticism that fills the space of the viewer and the work.
The two videos in the exhibition have a heavy dose of satire as well. Made by Victoria Ilyushkina and Mariateresa Sartori, tell stories relating to people’s sex lives, but in very different styles. Ilyshkina’s is a humorous allegory of a woman’s desperate existence in her short-lived relationships. The action takes place in a shabby bathroom with a tub, a sink, a washing machine, and two actors in each scene – the woman herself and various men who alternate plunging fully dressed into the bathtub with her. In each episode, the actors repeat their steps mechanically, with lackluster expressions on their faces. At the end of the video, when the woman is finally left alone, she carefully descends into white ceramic cavity head first, disappearing in it almost completely, save her legs dressed in stockings and fancy pumps. The heroine of the video is left nameless, literally coming undone by the boredom and meaninglessness of her relationships. In contrast to Ilyushkina, Sartori does not stage satirical scenes of spiritual degeneration, but presents libido theory as a popular chemistry lesson, taking Freudian metaphoric language literally by illustrating his theory as a “hydraulics principle,” which has strong connotations with flows and liquids. The deadpan lecturing style of the narrator and the scientific looking diagrams, charts, and experiments of the subject he teaches make a pun on the distance that separates an actual experience from a theory that offers its explanation.
Alexander Terebenin’s Gallery and Traces on Whitepresents, perhaps,the most direct approach toaninterpretation of the exhibition’s theme. A series of photographs in Galleryshowsperspectival stretches of dilapidated colonnades of the Nikolsky Market in St. Petersburg, erected at the end of the 18th century.A companion series Traces on White displays empty paths in countryside’s equally neglected environment with its rickety fences and snowy fields. In these series, “journey into nowhere” becomes the subject of Terebenin’s work. Despite the sunny weather during which the photographs were taken, certain doom and decay pervade the images. Falling apart and abandoned, empty stretches of decrepit constructionsremind us of Russia’s imperial glory, a passage of time, and a certain attachment to specific places, which makes these ruins symbolic of a living history. Arefiev’s nonchalant walk through a glorious city inI Am off to Get a Beer turns into an endless journeythrough ramshackle structures in Terebenin’s images of abandonment and neglect. Despite a drastic difference in tone, however, the fundamental concern of conveying the person’s subjective attitude toward our environment remains the same. “I am on my way” becomes a metaphor for a passage of time.