“Russia Redux #1” at Schroeder Romero Gallery

Russia Redux #1, 17 September – 17 October 2005, Schroeder Romero Gallery, New York City

It is a more interesting combination than art and beauty, or art and domestic interiors, but it presents the viewer with a dilemma: how do I evaluate the art without also evaluating the politics? In other words, can I possibly relate to the artworks without also delving into the political point of view, and is my appreciation of the artworks dependent upon my acceptance of the politics?

I would say no. The idea of a completely formal analysis is absolutely vacuous: the notion that a viewer can pass judgment on the “quality” of the artwork while completely ignoring the content is totally fallacious. It just does not happen.

For that is the point of art: that it mean something. Looking at art is looking at the world through someone else’s eyes, and if you reject what they see how can you possibly understand the meaning inherent in it?

The point of view is important. The politics are important.

Which brings us to the point at hand. Elena Sorokina has curated two independent though simultaneously running exhibitions in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, both of which dealt with the general notion of Russian art: Russia Redux #1 at the Schroeder Romero Gallery, and Enemy Image at the Momenta Gallery.

And both were responses, in their own ways, to the mega-exhibition at the Guggenheim entitled RUSSIA!, an example of the trend of the major museums to stage extravagant, very large, over-the-top shows that still manage to convey their message in simplified sound bites – a trend bemoaned by all who value thoughtful responses to subtle stimuli. And both of Sorokina’s exhibitions did just that: give us thoughtful responses to subtle stimuli. So thoughtful, in fact, that writing about it proves daunting; there are many levels on which these shows need to be discussed(though I will only be writing about Russia Redux #1) for these exhibitions do not shelter us from ourselves, as does viewing something like the Guggenheim show – those mega shows which encourage the sensuous “ah-h” absent the mental “hum.”

There, at that large and impressive Guggenheim building famously designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, we can see the splendors and wonders from that great empire Russia (some worry: former empire), and we never have to wonder about ourselves as either Americans (as most of the viewers are) or as human beings: as creatures caught up in the churning cycles of power, depravation, lust, and alienation. But if we were to visit Russia Redux #1 at Schroeder Romero Gallery (a gallery which has just recently moved to Chelsea in Manhattan), then I think we must. And those disruptive human/political cycles become the point at hand.

A disclaimer: I can only view this from the point of view of an American; I cannot pretend to some kind of objectivity that would amount only to a false claim of omniscience. And my understanding feels radically incomplete though not for want of effort. I spent some time studying Russian politics in undergraduate school where I got a minor in political science; I worshiped the Russian Constructivists while I got my M.F.A. in painting; I’ve read Lenin and of course Marx for my Ph.D. in philosophy; and I regularly and voraciously read the papers. But I still feel completely ignorant of what makes Russia tick, and I imagine the rest of my compatriots are (at least) in that boat. So I confess at the beginning that I am both impressed and bewildered. What’s going on in Russia?

America viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall as a long-over due triumph of good over evil. Communism deprived the individual of political freedom to choose one’s leaders, of economic freedom to choose one’s profession, of freedom of conscience to speak one’s mind. To most Americans, the fall of the Soviet Union was sanity restored in a world that had long claimed – against all evidence – that communism would lead to economic bounty, feelings of brotherhood born of economic equality, and general happiness of mankind. It was gratifying to see that these large numbers of people would be joining the western world’s political pluralism and private ownership, for only those kinds of freedoms would bring social satisfaction and personal happiness.

But, as revealed in much work in Russia Redux #1, many younger (at least) Russians do not feel thrilled at jumping onto the west’s bandwagon. Throwing off the universal claims of communism and taking on instead the universal claims of capitalism seems to leave in its trail feelings of being a second-class citizen, or something like the formerly wild dog that has now been tamed. Yes, nod the Russians in our mental picture of them, now we think just like you.

But do they? Dmitry Gutov, in an extremely interesting video in the entrance of Russia Redux #1, documents the Communist era’s philosopher Mikhail Lifshitz, who wrote The Crisis of Ugliness, a book which featured on its cover a Kandinsky and in its text a scathing criticism of modern art. It was with thinkers like Lifshitz that classical Marxism became conservative – adamant to protect the status quo (despite the fact that he was Jewish in a political and social atmosphere that was actively discriminating against Jews), Lifshitz is a compelling figure in his devotion to the cause. And Lifshitz presents a crystallized opposition figure to liberal capitalism, especially seen in Gutov’s documentary when Russian artists discuss the snobbery of pop art – e.g., that art movement that is completely based on commerce and its affections.

Gutov, with a group of other artists in 1994, formed the Lifshitz Institute, and has held events (such as the 2003 exhibition in his honor) to further the discussion of not only Lifshitz as an individual but thegeneral philosophical/political doctrine of communism. The reasons for this are obvious: the Soviet past needs to be assessed and not merely damned in order for contemporary Russians to develop an independent ideology (instead of merely mimicking the west); and emphasizing the figure of Lifshitz also serves to disparage the tendency to repudiate anything associated with the Soviet past; for such disparaging must be recognized as a kind of self-rejection that would be impossible for any people.

Yevgeniy Fiks’s photographs of Russian prostitutes, entitled Factory Moments, brought to mind not only the ancient fact that women have had access to most economic markets blocked off and thus forced to make a living from the small resource they have – their body, for those few years when it is young and attractive – but it also brought to mind Marx’s railings against the oppression and subjection of women. Communist societies – from China to Vietnam to the Soviet Union – have tried much more than capitalist ones to free women from the subjection that their gender has so often entailed. Everyone remembers how the brothels in South Vietnam were immediately replaced by the communists after the fall of Saigon with sewing factories and education centers. But Fiks’s photos do not rail at these women; quite the contrary. They are human and interesting and their stories reveal the complexity of human choices, values, and relationships to others. We come to know them.

Tsaplya’s (Olga Egoroza) audio piece 35 Years After 10th Commune is a “recording” of a fictional radio show, wherein two youngish pro-western radio hosts interview an elderly woman who was part of the first commune movements. Nostalgic in her memories, the older woman’s voice is kind and patient and discloses to her viewers that equality was a wonderful gift and that they were all happily working together for the greater good of all. Bored, callous, and speaking quickly in nasal tones, the radio hosts clearly have not a clue what she is talking about, nor do they care to.

The projected video of the performance piece by Elena Kovylina was stunning in its revealing of historical Russian anxieties. Standing in the middle of a large room that had viewers surrounding its perimeter, Kovylina played the part of the Russian to the greater world, presenting herself as a vulnerable target. Emptying a shot of vodka in her mouth with military pins attached to her dress, she would choose a member of the audience with whom to dance. And then she would repeat the action – another swig another partner. Blonde and quite beautiful quickly turned to drunk and quite disheveled. Empire/former empire; Mother Russia colonizer/former colonizer; militarily strong/militarily denuded. So these polarities flash through the viewer’s mind; what is Russian identity?

The other artists in the show, among them Konstantine Bokhorov, Taras Polataiko, Anatoly Osmolovsky, Dmitry Vilensky, Gluklya (Natalia Pershin-Yakimanskaya), Alina and Jeff Bliumis, and David Ter-Oganyan/Aleksandr Korneev, all developed work that examined the post-Soviet identity. And all contributed to a profound feeling in this viewer that we, in America, know nothing about Russia.

But this much should be clear to anyone. The idealist goal that argued for the abolition of the exploitation of others, so fervently articulated by Marx especially in his early writings such as The German Ideology, is absent from liberal capitalism. (If the goal did historically exist contemporaneously with Adam Smith and his heirs, it did so in the doctrine of charity within the Christian religion, with perhaps the secular welfare state continuing that theoretical claim to care for the unfortunates. But nevertheless it did not exist within capitalism itself.)

It is this idealism, perhaps, that is yearned for in the post-Soviet Russia. While capitalism never claimed to have humanist or social goals – the invisible hand of the marketplace is only meant to sort out the efficient from the less efficient, and not to provide acts of kindness or caring to either – those who have been left in the ruins of Soviet communism are not relieved to find themselves without either social nets or soaring ideals. While capitalism does promise better economic life for most, the benefits are surely unequal and life is cold in capitalism; and the Russian intellectual world, deprived of the communist social vision, seems to feel western liberalism can only grasp to the family/individual and their material goods; not a very ambitious or lofty goal. It is something we all need to think about. The politics are important. And the art reveals it to be so.