Catastrophe and Hedonism: An Unnostalgic Look at Russian Art of the Last Decade

In the Russian Art scene, the 1990s seemed like a never-ending decline where no activity lasted longer than two seasons, either because of a lack of money or simply due to overwhelming incompetence. Whatever did survive, usually funded by the state or by Western sponsors, soon unraveled intellectually. Being more concerned with sheer survival, the country at large did not show any interest in modernist values. Modern art in the new Russia of the 1990s was not capable of gaining a powerful position for itself, yet it was also unable to settle for dignified marginality–art, too, was fighting for survival. There were so few artists active at the time that they literally had to be grabbed by the sleeves in order to prevent them from going away or changing their occupation. Those who left Russia did not usually improve their careers, and they were certainly not interested in reversing the fragmentation of the contemporary Russian art scene (as was the case in the Chinese art community). Meanwhile, since their survival depended on it, the majority of the small Russian community of critics and curators spent their time simulating the existence of a real art scene in Russia.

Still, Russian art has often managed to survive crises quite well. During the 1990s, Russian artists nimbly filled new slots in the emerging media markets (much of this work was gobbled up for immediate consumption by Russian MTV). Yet, while it provided the artists with a comfortable life (at least for a while), these successes did not bring the kind of financial profits familiar from the 1980s. In Russia and elsewhere, its orientation towards what one might call “nomadic hedonism” was one of the most salient features of the ‘90s aesthetic, an aesthetic that was never formally announced but that nevertheless slowly infiltrated all artistic production, becoming dominant during such megashows as the Berlin Art Forum, Documenta X (1997), the 1998 Berlin Biennale, and last year’s Venice Biennale. 1990s art considered itself hedonistic in that it focused on collecting impressions picked up more or less randomly from the world around it. The difference between the aesthetic of the 1990s and previous decades may be intuitively felt by many, but nobody has yet given it an official name. The search for a label for the art of the 1990s has yielded an impressive (if inflationary) list of terms that has itself become a part of the decade’s aesthetic: “operational aesthetic,” “communication aesthetic,” “post-modernism,” “post-deconstruction,” “neo-globalism,” “sensation,” “new sensitivity,” or “film culture” are typical examples. One could add “potential art,” “post-teleology,” “drug esthetic,” “humanization of art,” and, finally, “surviving.” When it came to media and materials–original or appropriated–there was absolute tolerance during the 1990s, or, more precisely, absolute indifference. Terms such as fashion, strategy, text, interpretation, representation, structure, or hierarchy became obsolete. The issue simply ceased to be relevant, just as it ceased to be relevant a long time ago whether a painter mixed the paints himself/herself, or not. The traditional division into painting, sculpture, graphics, performance, ready-made, etc., ceased to make sense. A typically 1990s categorization might have distinguished instead between image, space, and gesture, with video and film as dominant forms.

During the 1990s, art exhibitions were generally conceived as “total installations”, designed to appeal to the senses and responding to the spectator’s gaze. Some exhibitions featured amusements such as body shows, pseudo-social and quasi-curatorial projects (such as the handing out food or condoms to all visitors). (Often what this meant in practice was that the artist had simply done nothing or was taking the viewers for a ride, or both.) Projects such as these were fuelled by the totalizing ambition to seize all of the visitor’s time, space, and attention with all the means of mass communication available. The rejection of all formal elitism was tantamount to the denial of all reductionism (“less is more”). In the process, the modernist slogan that “art is dead” became a taboo, as did art’s critical impulse, another key ingredient of modernism. The no longer self-critical art of the 1990s searched incessantly for what we might call “trans-critical” or “post-critical” positions as alternatives to the textual practices that dominated the 20th century. These positions included a variety of themes–especially violence, pain, confusion, and mental illness–, causalities–accidents, unmotivated murders, fantasy)–, “immediate” realities such as pornography, and various types of manipulation, especially psychotechnology and genetic engineering. The new trans-textual aesthetic of the 1990s became particularly conspicuous in film (cf., for example, the movie Lars von Trier).

In Russia, the problems encountered by those who wanted to forge a new aesthetic were compounded by the fact that the country is typically perceived as a post-critical, post-textual space. After the break-up of the Soviet Union it had seemed as if all ideology had gone down with the Soviet system–Russians could finally start living like human beings. This explains the unusual excitement at the beginning of the 1990s (its echo can still be felt), when Russia seemed to be filled with authentic change, when artists ceased to be mere observers obsessed with the idea of emigrating to the West and began to participate eagerly in social, political, and cultural life. An entire mythology was created: that of a country (Russia) which alone bore the features of true reality. This creative activity was focused more on Russia itself than on the arts, or, rather, it was focused on the question of ideology. The goal was to have a normal life and to create a decent standard for public life. It appeared then that an aesthetic gesture, if only it was put directly into practice, would be able to help art win the battle. Our excessive visits to nightclubs, viewed as an ideological gesture that connected us with the future, became our most important aesthetic problem. As a result, art mutated into political or commercial design, and aesthetic reflection gave way to journalism. These changes are grounded in a deep Russian fascination with crisis. Wherever it is close to reality, hedonism is distinctly catastrophic. In Russia’s case, however, the results for art were decidedly meager as artists almost without exception played it safe, pursuing a life style rather than a dangerously new artistic paradigm.

The second problem for Russian art of the 1990s stemmed from its initial naive belief that with the fall of the Berlin wall the world had become post-binary, non-hierarchic, communicative, and open. As the saying went, why not enjoy the good life for as long as it lasts… Russian art disarmed unilaterally, only to find that the non-hierarchic, new reality it craved had been a pipe dream; the will to dominate was as alive and well in the West as it had ever been in Russia. As a result, disillusioned Russian artists stuck to the fantasm of a friendly world of communication in which the accepted norm blends happily with everything else. The art journal Khudozhestvenny zhurnal was founded at around that time in Moscow, a good example of the new gospel of Russian art, a.k.a., that the rejection of dialectics would bring with it the immediate escape from the dead-end of traditional Russian identity, as well as from the dead-end of 1990s art where Russian art might otherwise get stuck, drowning in a wave of entropy. Yet the dead-end of the 1990s is, surprisingly, still with us.


Ekaterina Dyogot is an independent critic and curator who lives in Moscow.