Art in the Post-Post Soviet Space

Ekaterina Dyogot is an independent curator and art critic who lives and works in Moscow. She is the author of numerous essays and books on 20th-century art. Most recently, Dyogot has published a study of the Russian Avantgarde. She is currently co-curating the upcoming show Berlin-Moscow (Berlin, 2003).

Sven Spieker: I’d like to ask you first of all about her impressions about one of the most important exhibitions currently on show in Germany, Manifesta. What were your impressions of this exhibition?

Ekaterina Dyogot: It is difficult this year not to compare Manifesta to Documenta, or the other way around, – they are too close in both time and space. Also, they both have a political dimension – Documenta was initially a product of the Cold War, established close to the Eastern Block in order to show what Western Modernism was about – autonomy of art, individualism, innovation etc.

Manifesta was intended to be a Documenta of post-Cold-War times, nomadic, open-minded, with no trace of a totalitarian ‘big narrative’ of any kind, including the Modernist one. That is why it showed a lot of Eastern European artistic positions from the very beginning.

Manifesta is a good example of the trend over the last ten years – the trend of what I would call ‘intimate narratives’, where the artist is declining the pressure of ‘identities’ (whose place is determined by the imperialist narrative) switching to his intimate identity – I am not a Russian, an Australian, an Eskimo, I am a unique person with my private habits and obsessions, take me or leave me.

I like to travel, for example, to wander without any purpose, and I’ll show you my typical itinerary if you want. Or – I like to tell strange stories. Or to throw oranges in the river, for some reason, and the budget of our exhibition allows that.

This is the kind of art that I would call ‘sponsored hobbies’. For me, it is very appealing, since this is a successful resistance to totalitarianism, and it is definitely not new.

Exactly this kind of art was blossoming in the Soviet Union I remember, of the 1960’s, 70′ and 80’s, of post-totalitarian times, when the state was still, like in the 30’s, sponsoring its citizens, giving all of them a small grant to survive.

But they were already sabotaging any kind of official jobs and were only doing what they liked, without any commercial interest (in the total absence of the market), just for themselves, their family and friends.

All kinds of hobbies, and art was one of them. How strange it may be, but works by Kabakov, Komar&Melamid, and other so-called ‘unofficial’ artists (but the whole society was somehow ‘unofficial’ then) were indirectly supported by the state.

And that’s how contemporary younger artists prefer to work now – traveling all the time, collecting things they like, listening to the music they like, and producing just what they like doing with the sponsorship of different organizations.

This is a pleasant and productive situation, but here art is definitely about ‘liking things’, as Warhol once famously said. So it is difficult to be critical here, there is rather a sense of euphoria.

Many of these projects position themselves as social projects, but this is actually a simulation, like this work with a handful of oranges thrown to the river, which you couldn’t even see.

Or an artist substitutes advertisements in the streets for portraits of artists in the show, to resist I don’t know what, but it is finally interesting only to the family of these young men and women.

This kind of art is called ‘intervention’, which shows it is usually pretty meaningless; the only meaning is to make a small gesture. Contemporary Russian art is definitely a part of this trend, so this year, there were Russian artists at Manifesta, too.

In my opinion, the problem with this art is that it is by its own position not very strong, since it resists the strength of the ‘big narrative’, ideology, representation, male point of view, or anything which is usually considered totalitarian.

This art intends to reintroduce and rehabilitate things that were left behind in Modernism, like hybridism, nuances, complexity, and among these things there is also weakness.

S. S.:

E. D.: Weakness, yes, while Modernist discourse is considered autocratic and dominant. Art of the 1990’s is somehow weak by its very ideology, since it also has an ideology, of course.

And this was always a problem for me with this art, however open and authentic it might have been. But it’s interesting that the Documenta has showed something very different. I didn’t expect it, but it showed the rehabilitation of the big narrative.

S. S.: If we generalized what you said we could say that art has become utterly irrelevant; that what Manifesta really exhibits is the fact that nobody needs art, except for artists who receive fellowships in order to pursue whatever they like.

But that seems to suggest that art as we know it has become a completely irrelevant activity, and that Manifesta really only shows us that this is the case.

E. D.: I would say that the artists are trying to deal with this situation, and that’s why they try to locate what they do in a social space. But the only thing they could do would be a kind of simulation of social activity, would be something like what the Dutch artist Marc Bihl did, who put the inscription “Resist” on the Porticus building in Frankfurt.

My question is, of course, resist what? But this art avoids these kinds of questions, since it is ‘light’.

To stress the individuality of the artist is important, of course, this is a kind of anti-totalitarian gesture, which is relevant for artists who come from totalitarian tradition. That’s why this is considered a social gesture. But in real society artists have to struggle with the situation of missing interest.

S. S.: Especially since it seems that this notion of simulation itself seems to be something that has exhausted itself. It seems as if simulation, as an answer to this situation, may have been a strategy viable in the 1980s, or perhaps still in the 1990s, but it seems to me that simulation itself has kind of run its course and has become a rather cliched version of an answer to this problem of the irrelevance of art.

E. D.: The word ‘simulation’ is rarely pronounced now, it is out of fashion. But the slogan of communication, which is in, is nothing else in my opinion.

The new utopia of the art of the last ten years was about communication: communication versus representation. Representation is believed to be totalitarian, because something or somebody is representing something, and this is not politically correct.

To avoid this hierarchy, we should put two things on an equal level, and this is called communication. The younger scene all over the world is into this: exhibitions and projects are build upon what is called dialogue.

But it is difficult not to see that these dialogues are about dialogue itself. The communication projects are often communicating the very fact that the communication is taking place, like in a conversation over bad phones – I am hearing you, are you hearing me, and so on.

If you hang on, you would cut any hope of conversation, so you continue, even if there is no information exchange, just ‘strokes’. And so do the artists, as a heroic gesture of preservation of art in conversation.

There was one project at Manifesta which got a lot of press attention. It was ‘Free Manifesta” by Sal Randolf who bought her participation from another artist at an auction, for 30,000 or something like that, and then organized a show in the show with free participation. There were mostly virtual projects and mostly about communication; at least it was advertised like a social network.

Here you have junk communication in pure form. There were rumors it was all arranged, the guy who sold his participation and the girl knew each other, there was no auction and no real money…

Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. In any case, this kind of art gives you an idea: This is a circle of friends who are usually delighted with their friendly communication, while for outsiders this is terribly boring.

S. S.: If one wanted to place two labels on the art you are describing, one would say it is hedonistic, or pleasure-oriented, and also esoteric, in the sense that even though it claims to be about communication, in fact it doesn’t communicate to anyone except those in the know, those who are already in the circle, who are friends, who are already part of the game as it were. So the communication aspect is really a kind of a con, a sham-nothing real.

E. D.: This is what is really called communication, nowadays. That’s how people communicate in a nightclub, for example. They are exchanging energies, I don’t know, that is what they say afterwards.

But in the club they are not telling each other anything, because they can’t hear each other. But maybe the younger generation is perfectly okay with thiskind of communication and it is enough for them.

S. S.: So you think that Manifesta served its purpose in the sense that it documented this type of art? But at the same time, conceptually, that it seems it failed, because Manifesta clearly has heroic goals that suggest a communication of a very different kind.

E. D.: It showed this kind of art. In this sense, it was a success. But this kind of art is somehow problematic, and I suspect the curators also felt like that.

There was a little desperation in this gesture – that’s what we can show now, that’s what can exist now as art. Art is looking for new ways in the situation, where there is no art anymore, or maybe everything is art, which is the same. The institutional status of the art is unclear.

What is art? It is not producing a picture anymore. Actually the types of art which were shown at Manifesta and Documenta were the same – kind of interdisciplinary arts, not just multimedia.

There were research projects, urban planning, architecture, films, longer ones and shorter ones, there were texts and social activism, reportage photography and practically any kind of imaginable activity. Different things. This is all considered art.

S. S.: But with very different results, it seems, as far as Documenta is concerned.

E. D.: Yes. Documenta was about the question of a big narrative in a post-colonial condition. It showed that art which is concerned with social questions can exist and can address very different issues.

And this kind of art can create a new image of the world that is not divided to the ‘same’ and the ‘other’ anymore, when the other is already part of the norm, which is what post-colonial condition is about.

S. S.: You see this question of post-colonialism as really the center of the curatorial idea of Documenta, even though it’s not the only one. It seems central, but it doesn’t seem to be the only kind of element.

E. D.: I would say that this is the main idea, but that it can be presented on very different levels – not just on the political or social one, but also aesthetically, as a question of space, for example.

The post-colonial is about space, because exoticism is about being far away. But in reality everything is there, there is no far away anymore.

The curator of Documenta, Okwe Enveizor was attacked by journalists who were saying, “So, you are taking Nigerian artists or artists from Benin but in reality they are living in New York, so they are not true, they are not authentic enough.”

But that’s ghettoization, to keep them in Benin. They are all already there. It’s what postcolonial is: living in New York and by this changing its image.

All these issues, actually, were very thoroughly discussed in Russia during the last ten years. In Russia, everybody feels that political correctness in its formal sense is creating ghettoes.

When you are told, “You are Russian – very good, we need you, if you create art about Russia,” or, “You are a woman, you should create gender-oriented art, otherwise you are not authentic enough”, you know you are defined by the authority telling you what you should do. This is a question which was discussed in Russia until now.

S. S.: So if you see Manifesta as kind of a playground for a very kind of eclectic, indivualistic activities, Documenta is a kind of heroic effort to keep a certain meta-narrative, a certain big narrative, going.

In this case, the big narrative of post-colonialism, which is kind of like an umbrella, whereas it unifies, creates an over-arching big narrative under which all the different things are being done in Documenta can be subsumed, as it were.

E. D.: Yes. I wouldn’t cross it out, though, or say all the efforts of Manifesta, because I sympathize very much with this individually-oriented art, art which addresses the individuality of the artist.

And that’s what we thought was the only way for the last ten years. But I would say now we see that something else is also important, something else which did actually happen in the 60s and the 70s, even in other fields.

At the Documenta, they showed some old things – “Black Audio Film Collective’ movies from 1960’s London, for example. They did introduce documentaries, architecture.

S. S.: I wonder if I could come back for a moment to what you said about post-colonialism and the discussion about it in Russia. You seem to say that there was a discussion, but also that there was nobody who would be ready, as it were, to sum up the results of that discussion and show it to the world outside of Russia.

How come? It seems paradoxical that, on the one hand there has been a discussion, there is an awareness of this kind of problem of the ghetto, and so forth, but it doesn’t seem as if this can be communicated. Why is that?

E. D.: Exactly. The only adequate answer to this kind of question – “Are you Russian?” or “Are you a Russian writer?” is “I’m not a Russian writer, thank you very much. I am myself. I’m such and such a person, with my little obsessions.”

That is what the Manifesta trend is – to deconstruct identity pressure with an individual background. But there could be another answer: “I am a citizen of the world, so I take responsibility for the problems which are taking place in Rwanda, Uganda, etc.”

Russian artists, not talking about Russian citizens in the whole, were usually quite disdainful of all the things which were taking place outside of Russia.

S. S.: So they were rejecting them then?

E. D.: Yes, because it doesn’t have anything for them. The Russians are still obsessed with this question of Russia in the West.

S. S.: But it’s also a post-Soviet reflex, correct? Because the Soviet Union very much took that attitude of being responsible for what happened everywhere, or of wanting to be responsible for what happened everywhere. Incidentally, like the way that America is today.

E. D.: Maybe, maybe. Probably. I have an impression that it will bring a newer, very forceful avant-garde in America in maybe ten years.

S. S.: You think so?

E. D.: I hope so.

S. S.: But you see Russian artists as kind of sticking to this refusal, to the refusal to be universal. They don’t want to be universal artists the way in which perhaps American artists are. Although, of course, on the other hand, many particularisms, many particular ways of making art were invented in America, feminist art being one example.

But you see Russian artists as refusing that position, as kind of working on a position that limits them to Russia rather than taking on a universal kind of role.

E. D.: Maybe the reason is the denial of Soviet tradition, which was universal enough. But I have an impression that it will come.

I have an impression that there is an interest, and I feel that there is an honest reappraisal of this Soviet universalism -not as nostalgia for it, but a real acceptance of the tradition – that might give the scale for contemporary Russian art.

S. S.: It would give Russian artists much more of an audience outside of Russia, right?

E. D.: Yes, which they don’t always understand.

S. S.: Because right now, unfortunately asa result of this, they are condemned to play a provincial role where nobody knows them, except people like Kabakov, who very consciously work with that problem.

He is one who has understood that the only way to make yourself heard in the West is precisely to accept your role as a universal artist. I think Kabakov is someone who would say about himself that he is a universal, post, and in that sense, Soviet, artist.

Sven Spieker
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. He specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. Spieker's book publications include The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (2008; Korean translation, 2013); Destruction (ed., 2017); Art as Demonstration: A Revolutionary Recasting of Knowledge (forthcoming, MIT Press). He teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.