Category: Book Reviews

Metonymical Mov(i)es

Lev Manovich: The Language of New Media. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts / London, England 2001. $34.95, 7×9, 354 pages, ISBN 0-262-13374-1

Upon reading Lautréamonts Chants de Maldoror (1869) surrealist king pin André Breton took over the author’s famous words “beautiful as the unexpected meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella”, thus coining the Surrealist aesthetic of jarring juxtapositions.

Almost as beautiful as Breton’s observation was another unexpected meeting taking place some years later, namely, the use of punched 35mm movie film in order to control computer programs in the world’s first working digital computer … Read more

And the Winner Is…

Mikhail Berg, Literaturokratiia: Problema prisvoeniia I pereraspredeleniia vlasti v literature (Literaturocracy: Problems of Appropriation and Redistribution of Power in Literature). Moscow: NLO, 2000. 352 pages.

A colleague of mine once confronted me with a strange question: In terms of success and posterity, who did I think was the winner: Bakhtin or Academician Viktor Vinogradov?

In spite of the question’s absurdity, both of us seemed to understand perfectly well what it was about. In this imaginary literary race, my friend was betting on Bakhtin, whose speech genre theory gave him a life after death in worldwide recognition.

Purely out … Read more

Boris Groys’ “Under Suspicion”

Boris Groys: Unter Verdacht. Eine Phänomenologie der Medien. Munich: Hanser 2000, 232 pp.

“Nothing is itself”, declares Rilke in the fourth Duino Elegy. For Rilke, this sentence is less an ontological stocktaking than an incentive to seek a poetical form to be able to express the “authentic”.

If this sentence were to be the header for Boris Groys’ new book Unter Verdacht (Under Suspicion), it would serve more as an expression of an irrefutable hunch that something else is concealed behind everything than as a description of a state. Groys calls this hunch “suspicion”.

Everything that presents itself as a … Read more

Out Looking In

Jan Cavanaugh, Out Looking In: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890 – 1918, University of California Press: Berkeley 2000.

Having read Jan Cavanaugh’s Out Looking In, two different opinions are called to mind. In defense of the impressionists, whose works had been widely attacked, Emile Zola claimed in 1877, “The artists ought to find poetry in the stations as their fathers found it in the forest and fields.”

Promoting modern French art in Poland, painter and art critic Stanislaw Witkiewicz argued in 1884 that it is quite insignificant whether a work depicts Jan Zamoyski’s victory over Prince Maximilian or … Read more

Imaginary Homelands

Irina Sandomirskaja: Kniga o rodine. Opyt analiza diskursivnykh praktik [A Book About Home. Analysis of Discursive Practice]. Vienna 2001 (Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Sonderband 50)

The changing face of Russian Rodina (meaning so much ore than just “motherland”) is maybe best exemplified by two photographs of Moscow’s landmark, St Basil’s Cathedral. The first was taken in 1978 during the period of stagnation, when rodina and its complementary terms otetchestvo (“fatherland”) and otchizna (“homeland”) had sunken to the status of clichés in the repressive discourse of the time.(Photograph by Mark Martin.)

Still, according to Baudrillard, the repressive … Read more

Alexander Rodchenko

Magdalena Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman, and Peter Galassi. Aleksandr Rodchenko. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998. 

This exhibition catalogue, published in conjunction with the first major American retrospective of Aleksandr Rodchenko at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, is a significant contribution to the fairly limited literature on this artist currently available in English. Scholarly essays by exhibition organizers Magdelana Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman, and Peter Galassi are supplemented by texts contributed by Varvara Rodchenko and Aleksandr Lavrent’ev, the artist’s daughter and grandson (custodians of the Rodchenko-Stepanova Family Archive, a major source of materials for the exhibition).

The numerous … Read more

Indivisible Reminders

Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder (London: Verso, 1996).
Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute (London: Verso, 2000).

Slavoj Žižek’s book The Indivisible Remainder opens with a statement of national belonging: “As a Slovene”. This embrace of Slovene national identity seems to be at odds with the writings of the philosopher with the reputation of being one of the “hottest” post-structuralist thinkers in the West. It is especially unsettling to read this simple declaration of self-possession and “presencing” of what is, without a doubt, a form of separatist “postmodern nationalism” from a philosopher whose work had until recently been part of a Read more

Romanian Autism – Bucharest Architecture and its Histories

Luminita Machedon and Ernie Scoffam, Romanian Modernism – The Architecture of Bucharest, 1920-1940, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Except for an extended, and largely favorable, review in The Times Literary Supplement, the book and its topic, Romanian Modernism, have so far passed largely unnoticed by those interested in art and society of Central and Eastern Europe. This is not the book’s fault, but rather the symptom of a larger malaise; for example, none of the major recent histories of modern architecture (Curtis, Frampton, Jencks) ever mention the architecture of Central and Eastern Europe, or do so briefly … Read more

The Theory and History of Samizdat

Guenter Hirt; Sascha Wonders [eds.]: Praeprintium. Moskauer Bücher aus dem Samizdat. [Praeprintium. Moscow samizdat books.] CD-ROM. Bremen: Edition Temmen 1998, 230 pp.

Praeprintium, an exhibition that presented for the first time a large spectrum of Moscow samizdat publications to a Western audience, was shown at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin/Preussischer Kulturbesitz, at the Weserburg Museum in Bremen, in Graz, and in Vienna. The show was curated by two scholars who operate under the pseudonyms of Günter Hirt and Sascha Wonders. The cover of the catalogue for the exhibition is black. Adorned with a typewriters typeface, it serves as a reminder of … Read more

Beyond the Abstract Cabinet

Margarita Tupitsyn: El Lissitzky. Beyond the Abstract Cabinet. With essays by Matthew Drutt and Ulrich Pohlmann. New Haven-Hanover: Yale University Press and the Sprengel Museum, 1999.

Accompanying the traveling exhibition of Lissitzky’s photographic work, which was curated by Tupitsyn at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and the Fondacao de Serralves in Porto, this book attempts to give a scholarly overview of Lissitzkyís career. It includes three essays authored by Tupitsyn, Matthew Drutt, and Ulrich Pohlmann, and a section titled “Archive,” which, as it features photos from Lissitzky’s private archive, is a valuable contribution … Read more

Denise Youngblood: ‘The Magic Mirror. Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918.’

Denise Youngblood, The Magic Mirror. Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. xvi+185 pp. (paper).

Cinema is indubitably one of the indices by which modernity has come to be measured Apart from being a technical marvel whose very existence is intrinsically associated with the twentieth century, the act of making and watching movies paved the way for a further phenomenon of the modern age: leveling social and cultural boundaries between the “high” and the “low.” Movies not only synthesized elements of high art and popular culture and democratized the space of public entertainment, but also created … Read more

Margarita Tupitsyn: ‘The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937’

Margarita Tupitsyn, The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Despite the growing literature on early Soviet photography, most studies remain limited to the photographic activity of a few avant-garde artists. This exclusive focus is problematic, as much of the history of Soviet photograph has been treated in terms of conflict between avant-gardists and other practitioners, about whom very little is known. As a result of this simplification, Soviet photographs, publications, exhibitions, and theories have frequently been misinterpreted. Furthermore, most existing scholarship fails to address the broader setting of Soviet photographic practice, in terms of both more … Read more

Between Hope and Fear: Ilya Kabakov: The Sixties – the Seventies… Notes on Inofficial Life in Moscow

II’ya Kabakov: 60-e – 70-e… Zapiski o neoficial’noy zhizni v Moskve. Ed. Wolfgang Weitlaner. Vienna 1999 (Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Sonderband 47)

Ilya Kabakov: The Sixties – the Seventies… Notes on inofficial life in Moscow. Vienna 1999

In the early eighties, with the endless period of stagnation under Brezhnev drawing to an end, conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov wants to come clean with his past. On the eve of Gorbachev’s Perestroika (that would eventually make possible his own emergence onto the international art scene), Kabakov takes stock of the inofficial Russian art scene, as well as his own role in … Read more

‘Socialist Realist Painting’: Matthew Cullerne Bown

Matthew Cullerne Bown, Socialist Realist Painting. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. xvii + 506 pp. (75.00 Hardcover)

The art of soviet socialist realism like that of Fascist Germany, has been inextricably linked to to ideological (totalitarian), rather than aesthetic, considerations by scholars and critics. Both Russian and Western art historians have codified this connection to such an extent that almost any discussion of Soviet artists or their works invariably turns to the political and social implications of cultural events rather than a consideration of the art itself. In Socialist Realist Painting, Matthew Cullerne Bown attempts … Read more

Karl Gernot Kuehn: ‘Caught. The Art of Photography in the German Democratic Republic’

Karl Gernot Kuehn: Caught. The Art of Photography in the German Democratic Republic, University of California Press, 1997.

The title of this extensive documentation of 45 years of GDR-photography by Karl Gernot Kuehn (Caught) already refers to the two principal intentions of this book: to present a detailed analysis of how political pressure and constraint shaped photography (and photographers) in the former GDR, how they “caught” the artists in the act, but also to document what it was that these artists themselves “caught” with their camera, once again with special emphasis on the relationship between photography and … Read more

This is Not a Book: Komar and Melamid’s ‘Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art’

Komar, Vitaly. Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1997

There should be a warning on the cover of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s Painting by Numbers: The Scientific Guide to Art: “This is not a book.” From the opening page, offering “America’s Most Wanted” painting (“dishwasher-size,” as preferred by 67% of the representative sample), the reader becomes a participant in a radical happening, 1990s-style, with polls, endowments, global travel, and practical jokes. Komar and Melamid, two émigré artists who launched their American career some twenty years ago with the project … Read more