Leaving Las Vegas

Hammer & Sickle. Design by Vladimir Paperny

Since 1996, Dmitri Shalin, who teaches sociology at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, has organized bi-annual festivals devoted to (post-) Soviet culture in the City of Lights, with a varying cast of participants and audiences drawn from all over the country. Last year’s festival (November 19-22, 2000) was entitled Cold War, Hot Culture. Vladimir Paperny and Svetlana Boym present their impressions of the event and throw in a collection of doodles by some of its illustrious participants.

“Poisonous Blankets”

It all started in 1996, when my friend Yuri Neyman and I were sitting on his porch in Studio City, reminiscing about the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow and the cultural shock it produced. One of the long-term consequences of this shock was the fact that we were sitting in Studio City, and not in Komsomol’sk-na-Amure, and that we were drinking Jack Daniels, and not brake fluid.

“We should start thinking how to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the exhibition,” said Yuri. “It’s only three years away.” “And perhaps invite the American designers who put it together,” I said, “as well as people like us who managed to get 24 rounds of free Pepsi at the show before the KGB kicked us out.”

The seed fell on fertile soil when I mentioned this idea to Dmitri Shalin. Dmitri teaches sociology at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and is married to an American lawyer who does not (nor has any particular desire to) speak Russian or deal with Russian matters. I am not quite sure why, but Dmitri never misses an opportunity to brush up his Russian, dust off his Moscow phonebook and start yet another crazy Russian project which would cost him many sleepless nights, many thousands of dollars, and invariably bring his whole family to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Dmitri thought that the idea was good but needed enhancements. The proposals under considerations were:
–combining the exhibition reunion with a retrospective of unofficial Russian art;
–creating a festival of contemporary Russian poetry and music;
–commissioning some artists to create art pieces and installations specifically for the show;
–organizing a conference on the subject of “America in Russian Art. Russia in American Art”;
–making a trip to the Grand Canyon;
–bringing together all interesting people who speak Russian or at least don’t mind when others do.

Unable to choose one direction from this list, Dmitri made a very post-modern gesture by selecting all of the above…

What is unofficial art? In Russia of the 1970s it took the form of so-called Sots-art. I’ve run across a few American publications claiming that I invented of the term. I didn’t. In a recent TV program Alexander Melamid described what happened at the end of 1972: “Labels are usually invented after the fact. In 1972 we heard something about pop-art, but very vaguely. After we finished a series of works which later would become Sots-art, Vadik Paperny stopped by and said: ‘this is pure pop-art, guys, Soviet pop-art.’ Then we knew that we had made a discovery. Sots-art was born.”

The fact that Komar and Melamid used the neologism Sots-art (from the Russian word for “socialism) instead of Sov-art, which would have been easily understandable in any language, shows that they were quite innocent, naïve and pure, not the “marketing demons” some critics claim they are.

Sots-art was born out of the necessity to reconcile the depressing Soviet reality with the stream of information seeping through the cracks in the iron curtain. Semion Faibisovich (not present at the festival) was talking about the “heart-breaking mixture of hatred, pity and elation” that this reality produced in him. He was looking at this reality “the way a rabbit looks at a python”, until one day the python dropped dead. His canvasses are photorealistic documents recording this intense gaze. Komar and Melamid came from a different perspective.

“Sots-art had nothing to do with irony or confrontation, ” says Melamid. “We just looked out the window and saw the portrait of Lenin. This was our landscape, and we painted it. It was common sense. What we wanted was to recreate the dream, to recreate the great art as we understood it in our childhood.”

Are we to believe them?

Soviet reality was universally hated by the creative-intellectual elite, but their were many different ways of dealing with this hatred. Faibisovich’s approach was emotional and anti-intellectual. “The critical gurus treated me as a ‘wrong’ artist, a ‘bad’ hyperrealist, and an ‘awful’ Sots-artist,” he says, “perhaps because I don’t read their books.” The Komar-Melamid approach was decidedly anti-emotional. I remember one Sots-art exhibition in the mid-70s, in a private apartment in Moscow where the somewhat puzzled architect Alexander Ermolaev asked Komar and Melamid:

“But art should touch me, affect my emotions, shouldn’t it?” Upon which Vitaly Komar coldly advised him to start using drugs. No irony here? Give me a break.

What exactly was seeping through those cracks? Jack Masey, Director of Design of the 1959 American National Exhibit in Moscow, came to the Las Vegas festival with a bunch of color slides to tell us how he, with George Nelson, Charles Eams, Buckminster Fuller, and other designers, were trying to convey to us, Soviet people, the niceties of capitalism. Capitalism was represented, among other things–such as washers, dryers, refrigerators, cars, and TV sets–by Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings. Somehow, between 1950s and 1980s abstract painting became loaded with political and even military significance. As we recently learned from a book by Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London ,1999), the CIA was spending millions of dollars promoting American Abstract Expressionism as a weapon in the Cold War.

John Bowlt, who currently teaches Russian Art and Culture at USC, told festival participants how in the 1960s he tried to convince Soviet authorities to allow Malevich’s Black Square to travel to an art show abroad. They categorically refused, and, according to Bowlt, he screamed at them in his flawless Russian: “You guys are a bunch of fucking assholes!” Why did this bunch put so much emphasis on abstract art? Why did plain-clothes KGB officers ask virtually every student that passed through the Stroganov Art School how he or she felt aboutabstract painting? And why did the CIA spend money on it?

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Russia and America are the only two nations (outside Israel) with a sense of manifest destiny and self-identification as “chosen people.” The Russian examples of this worldview could be found in Dostoevsky, the American, in the writings of Cotton Mather. One of the logical consequences of this attitude was perpetual expansion: to the South-East in Russia, and to the West, in America. Both “chosen peoples” had no problem exterminating local populations. According to James Shenton from Columbia University, one of the weapons in the war with native Americans was to send them blankets infected with deadly diseases.

During the Cold War, abstract canvasses became a new kind of poisonous blankets. Instead of smallpox or cholera, they were infected with poisonous ideology. Jackson Pollock, Jack Masey, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Buckminster Fuller, as well as the young Russian artists trying to jump the fence at the American Exhibition in Moscow, perhaps had no idea of the war that was going on above their heads. But it was. And once again, the poisonous blankets worked brilliantly. The python died not because the rabbit’s gaze was unbearable (as Faibisovich would like to think) but because somebody sent the python a poisonous blanket.

The part of the Las Vegas festival that worked best was bringing together people and memories. Mikhail Chernyshov reminded me of how we met at his show in 1963. I reminded Alexander Kosolapov how he and I punched each other in the face at the boxing club of the Stroganov Art School. I also told him how I virtually adopted his 9-years old daughter in the 1970s when he was already in New York. One summer I couldn’t get on a plane from Simferopol’ to Moscow, and his pretty ex-wife lent me their daughter, who pulled a sad-puppy-face so successfully ( pretending to be my daughter) that they finally put me on an plane.

Vitaly Komar reminded me of the obscene door knob design I had improvised at the lobby of our hated alma mater, the Stroganov Art school. “People usually don’t appreciate their best work,” he said. “This door knob was your best creation ever.”

Katya Dyogot reminded me how she and I once drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back, analyzing her broken heart on the way there, and mine on the way back. Marietta Chudakova reminded me of how she and her daughter Masha performed a musical number called “A Duo From Odessa” in a forest between two tents on a kayaking trip in 1964. Zinovy Zinik and his wife Nina gave me details of our mutual friend Asarkan’s stay in London. Svetlana Boym and I talked about her ex-husband Kostya and his new wife. My ex-wife Katya Kompaneyets wanted to have a photo taken of herself flanked by her ex-husband Iosif Bakshtein, myself, and her ex-boyfriend Alexander Zholkovsky. Iosif and I were ready to do it, but Zholkovsky refused. Perhaps, you need to be legally married for that kind of stuff.

It was a small group of people tied together by a common language, the specific Moscow dialect of the 1960s, and, in some cases, by education, occasionally by profession, kinship, friendship, love, hate, memories, rivalry, cooperation. Some had made it big, some not, but it did not really matter. It turned out that we all kind of liked each other and were strangely happy together for three long days and nights.

I have an immodest suspicion that fifty years from now, art historians will be busy restoring minute details of these three days in Las Vegas, figuring out who sat next to whom, who slept with whom, who said what and why, who wrote the notes, who made the obscene scribbles , in much the same way historians now are figuring out days in life of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Viktor Khlebnikov, Viktor Shklovsky, Lili Brik, David Burlyuk, Osip Brik, and their friends and relatives.

When the festival was over, Dmitri’s wife Janet took me aside and said: “Please, Vladimir, if Dmitri ever talks to you about another festival, just say no!”

The Last of the Mohicans: Svetlana Boym’s Conceptual Doodle Collection

Svetlana Boym

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

Las Vegas Doodle by Svetlana Boym.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Destroy your manuscript but save whatever you have inscribed in the margin out of boredom, out of helplessness, and as if in a dream. (Osip Mandel’shtam)

Freud believed that every bit of marginalia, a slip of the tongue or a doodle represents some repressed scene of the past. When pressed however, the inventor of psychoanalysis admitted that sometimes a pipe is only a pipe. This doodle collection is only a doodle collection. Most of the sketches were drawn during the sessions of the two Las Vegas conferences of 1997 and 2001. I don’t think this happened because the sessions were boring. The drawings show that they might have been overstimulating. Most were drawn for the eyes of one’s close neighbors, for the pleasure of the moment, not for posterity. However, once I came up with the idea of a collection, this stimulated artistic production and the number of doodle-sketches grew significantly. The conference had, indeed, been very productive in all respects.

In our childhood we learned everything we knew about the USA from Ilf and Petrov’s One-Storied America, Captain Mayne Reid’s The Headless Horseman and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

But the classics failed to predict the bright future. Las Vegas of the 1930s was the most predictable town in the desert–Anytown, USA. Now it’s a city that could imitate and incorporate into itself any city in the world. Only our old country is conspicuously absent from Las Vegas’s utopian map. There is no Casino Moscow here with glittering onion-shaped domes, no classy strip-club “Sankt Petersburg” where Peter the First is always the first, no McLenin monument; only a ruin of a Soviet spaceship is buried in the secret garden of a local millionaire. Russian roulette is strictly forbidden. And yet this is a town where former Russian artists create Venetian paintings, and former Leningrad sociologists run the Centers for the Study of Democracy. During our conference we created Russian Las Vegas with our own tiger passions and guitars. At the end of the long corridor in the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, where Chinese girls were sleeping on their backpacks under the painted sky after having gambled away their small fortunes, was the magic Ballroom Number Five, where the Russian American Festival was taking place and Breakfast Number Three was cheerfully served every morning.

Here we spoke about the other America that no longer, or perhaps never, existed, the America of our Soviet memory. It had its own movable Disneyland, the exhibition “America” that took place in 1959 where the American dream was for the first time revealed to the Soviet citizens as a combination of fantastic consumer goods and expressionist art. Nikita Khrushchev seemed to have objected more to the former. During his tour of the exhibit, the American lemon squeezer irritated him even more than Jackson Pollock. At least Pollock was dripping paint on the canvas with his own two hands. Why can’t an American worker squeeze his own lemon? What kind of bourgeois perversion is it?

The exhibition “America” turned out to be a Trojan horse given by the Americans to the Soviets. Our Soviet-made American dream smelled of a good deodorant and of the glossy journal “America” we read in our childhood. The original we discovered upon our arrival here paled in comparison with its copy. Those of us who emigrated have become accustomed to the American lemon squeezers and copies of abstract paintings in dentists’ offices (No complaint here). Independently of our current passports and actual age, many of us felt like the Last of the Mohicans of the Soviet unofficial culture.

The most heavily debated questions were: Who are “we”? What was “Soviet” and what was “American”? What can be considered “unofficial art” and what remained of it? Who offered whom a poisonous blanket? And what role did the “boots of the KGB,” to quote Alexander Zholkovsky, played in all of that? During our unusual Las Vegas reunion, we all felt nostalgic. Yet it was not nostalgia for our common or uncommon past, but for our vanishing present, for those perfect moments in the Monte Carlo.

Here we were all dissidents vis-à-vis the official gambling culture. Neither the undulating silicon breasts of our redhead waitress, nor the rhythmically bickering lights of the gambling machines could distract us from our around-the-clock discussions. Under painted sky, where sunset was turning into sunrise and back, we did nothing but talk. Hungry and exhausted, with headaches, sore throats and broken hearts, we continued talking against all odds, defying capitalist timetables and bourgeois conventions. “Talk is cheap,” goes the American proverb. It doesn’t translate well into Russian.

What is art? Conceptual Artisans

“Look at her nails,” says Vitaly Komar, gently patting the marble hands of the statue on the bank of the artificial lake next to Bellagio. Las Vegas tourists rush by us, ready to lose everything, indifferent to the partially clad marble maiden. “What’s so great about her? She isn’t even a fountain.”

“This is how you distinguish the real thing from the fake. Judging by the nails, it’s a masterpiece!” insists Komar. What does the master of sotsartistic reproduction mean by the “real thing”? That little crack on her nail, the sculpted wrinkle on the index finger? The statue was a copy of course, like everything else in Las Vegas, but not a mass-reproduced one. It was a sixteenth century remake of the Roman original, a masterpiece of late-renaissance artisanship, a manual labor of love, not a modern reproduction.

Paradoxical as it may seem for Russian-American artists, “Art” in whatever quotation marks and frames is still linked to that low-tech, time-consuming artisan labor. Postmodern awareness goes together with anachronistic love for the old-fashioned European craft of painting. In the Soviet times, the academic tradition was desperately passed on from generation to generation of art students in lieu of the history of the twentieth century art that was heavily censored. At the conference, the Russian artists discussed pop art that questions the romantic idea of originality, genius and authorship and at the same time spoke about the “Hamburg score” the artistic equivalent to the “last judgment that reaffirms traditional values of artistic authorship.

In their project “People’s Choice,” Komar and Melamid didn’t follow the “Hamburg score,” but rather let themselves be guided by the people’s taste as measured by the scientific polls. They dutifully painted the “most wanted” painting of all the polled nations that resembled a total cereal; it had all the ingredients that people desired: the blue landscape, the figure of a religious leader, children at work or at leisure (Russians prefer the latter, Americans, the former), partially-clad humans (less clad in France, more in the US), wild and domestic animals (rhinoceroses in Kenya, bears in Russia). Yet the painting remained conspicuously incongruent. No one’s gazes met and everyone seemed to exist in their own disjointed time and space.

“I hope that when people look at those paintings, they will realize how awful they are and maybe will change their minds,” commented Komar (check quote). “Most wanted,” after all, are usually fugitives. Once captured, they are no longer wanted but subject to imprisonment. The most wanted painting that followed the people’s choice, fulfilling simultaneously the demands of socialist realism and of the market art, ended up being a painting that nobody wanted.

It seems that the most scientific and American project of the two ex-Soviet artists presents, against all odds, a defense of aesthetics–via negativa. Only Russian-American artists can end up as apostles and salesmen of the world’s forgotten religion–Art.

“One could be an intelligent person, and think about the beauty of the nails,” wrote Pushkin. Only then it was a sign of modernity and now it has become an anachronism, maybe a necessary one.

Shadow Economy: Art and Money

Grisha Bruskin remembered a strange story that happened to him sometime at the dawn of perestroika in 1988. Rumors circulated around Moscow that Bruskin’s paintings were sold at Sotheby’s auction for some fifty thousand dollars. For a Soviet artist, a dollar was mythical rather than real money, a subject of Andy Warhol’s painting, convertible into art, not into rubles. Returning home with his wife Alesia, Grisha found five rubles on the road. “Should I pick it up?” he wondered. My painting might have sold for fifty thousand dollars. At the end he did, because five rubles seemed more like real money transferable into Soviet daily life. Besides, one doesn’t find five rubles on the road everyday. It’s a sign of luck.

It seems that Soviet/Russian/Post-Soviet culture always operated through multiple economies that ran parallel to one another. Their currencies became more convertible in the last ten years, but not entirely so. Is twentieth-century Russian art convertible into the Western canon if their institutional histories are so strikingly different? Western art operated in the market society with the developed history of the museum of modern art as an institution, while Russian/Soviet art was state sponsored and collective, characteristics that shaped its history. In other words, Russian Soviet art existed in an anachronistic space of privilege and oppression, in the realm of state patronage on the one hand, and in the unofficial principality where art was a second government ruled by a politburo of officially unrecognized geniuses.

Indeed, the formative economic influences of my childhood (which are mostly likely shared by others) were, on the one hand, the songs that bashed money-making and on the other hand, the romances with the black-marketers, who speculated on jeans and dublenki, cheating on thirsty Finnish tourists.

— Would you like to have a million?
— No!
— Would you like to go to the Moon?
— Yes!

Mikhail Epstein wrote that Soviet money was more beautiful than American because it doesn’t represent “dry numbers but bitter and joyful words” for which “one doesn’t buy products [tovary] but precious and priceless comrades [tovarishchi].” This was well summarized in the popular bard’s song about priceless and precious fog: “Some people travel on business. Some people looking for money, escaping from boredom and debt, but I am going to search for the fog, just for the fog, for the fog and the smell of taiga.”

In the 1960s searching for the fog, just for the fog, was more culturally acceptable than looking for financial awards and self-interest. We thought we’d go to Siberia or to the Moon before we’d go abroad. Instead of marrying a millionaire, we wanted to marry a cosmonaut, or at least a geologist. Art had more to do with the fog and the Moon than with the money. Or so it seemed.

Katia Dyogot insists on the difference between collective Soviet experience and individualistic market existence of the Western artist. In my view, this opposition doesn’t quite hold true. In fact, high contemporary art in the West existed largely on government subsidies (heavily so in Western Europe) and in the case of modern art, its market value, so to speak, was determined precisely by its ability to defy the market tastes as well as the values of traditional art. It first became a museum art, not strictly speaking a free-market art.

The artist exists on subsidies and grants, on all those remnants of the welfare state that survives in Western Europe to a larger degree than in Russia. In Russia at the beginning of perestroika the Sotheby’s auction suddenly endowed the unofficial art with a spectacular market value, providing a short-lived shock therapy to the artistic community. This was, however, highly unusual, and remained so, leaving behind the same absence of institutions of modern and contemporary art in Russia as well as the local art market.

Russian-American artists in America survive as Western artists, working from project to project. “But all their art is anti-capitalist,” says Natasha Ivanova, suggesting that the artists, once Russian, remain so forever.

Yet this “anti-capitalism” (or rather a subtle play with and against the market and artistic institutions) characterizes most of contemporary art–East and West. It is as global (or rather what I would call “glocal”) a phenomenon as free trade. In fact, there are plenty of inversions there, often former socialist artists appear to the institutionalized contemporary artists from the “West” as more money-oriented, while the Western artists appear to the Russians to be living comfortably on social welfare.

Katia Dyogot suggested that while Andy Warhol took time mass-producing the silk screens of his dollar signs, the post-Soviet artist Alexander Brener performed a more radical gesture by simply painting a dollar sign on Malevich’s original in the Stejdlik Museum.

In my view, the belated “actionism” of Alexander Brener is precisely a “glocal” phenomenon of Russian-Western cultural exchange. In fact, at the time he perpetrated his act, Brener was in Holland on a fellowship that gave him enough money to live in Amsterdam, work and visit museums where he could take his liberties. In that respect he was already a “Western artist” on a fellowship.

Brener performed his desecration; nobody was present in theroom to witness his “actionism,” only Malevich might have turned in his supremacist coffin. Brener had to go call the guard and explain to him what he had done. In fact, Brener’s search for radicalism lost proves, in my view, that the border between Russian and Western body politic and art has been slowly blurred. This was a counterfeit radicalism, which still presumed that art, power and money are closely linked together in the mythical Western culture. That is not quite so. While Russian avant-garde sells well on the art market, Malevich’s black square is hardly an icon of power–maybe only in the ex-Soviet imagination. “Signing” Malevich was a gesture of appropriation, painting a dollar sign a virtual purchase. Brener too, wanted to be–or at least to own–Malevich, but at a discount price, with counterfeit money.

In any case, Art always deals in counterfeits, whether they are dollars, rubles or metaphors. In both Russia and America, representation and desecration of money is a misdemeanor, but for different reasons. In America, it is so because money is seen as sacred; in Russia, it is so because money is supposed to be sacred in America.

Recent Russian cinema resolves financial problems by non-economic means. The character of Sergei Bodrov, the charismatic and “fair” Mafioso catches the evil American corporate executive and puts a gun to his head. Before blowing out his brains he gives the American a little didactic lesson Russian-style. “You think only the money matters? No, what matters is the truth [pravda].” Having said that, he shoots him. The only problem is that the hero does it slavishly, following the conventions of Hollywood Mafia films. It’s not the economy, stupid.

Somehow scholars from Russia focused on the difference between Russia and the West. But how far can one go without converting one’s currency? What’s the price of the verbal devaluation of foreign finances? Doesn’t it lead to excessive valorization of the stereotypes that present the “West” as much more homogenous than it is? Wouldn’t it be better to reinvent a different kind of free trade, another “unofficial” globalization that deals in “beautiful money,” to quote Mikhail Epstein? It’s all a gamble, anyway.

The most radical confession at the conference was made by the artist Leonid Pinchevsky. He told us that unlike the other artists present at the conference, he paints for money. In fact, it was he who did the ceiling paintings in Bellagio and The Venetian, and his signature is nowhere to be found. He is proud of his Titian imitations. He traded his authorship for money. He is only a craftsman, not a creator. At least not in this project. That might be the most radical conceptual gesture of which a former Russian artist is capable.

Yet in the festival, Pinchevsky’s works presented dream-rooms of his provincial Soviet Jewish childhood filled with sentimental kitsch and Western objects of desire. The artist chose not to choose between his two alter egos: that of the ex-Soviet unofficial artist and the successful decorator of Venice, Las Vegas. It is the artist’s anxiety that betrayed his roots. No American artist would have worried so much about impersonating a Venetian painter who worked on commission.

If we were to make a Las Vegas quilt of memories, we would have to clip Bruskin’s five rubles, like Nabokov’s butterfly, to the Venetian clouds.

Art and Soul-trade: Russian-American Artist as a Repo Man

The first American project of Komar and Melamid was entitled, We buy and sell souls. Its logo was an apple flying over Manhattan with a snake biting through it–an allusion to New York’s Eden and the Tree of Knowledge. The artists tried to outsmart the devil himself, turning the Faustian bargain into a corporate enterprise. “Bring us your tired souls yearning to be free,” proclaimed one of the ads. Is this a critique of world capitalism that allows you to buy and sell everything sacred, or is it the archcaptialist experiment in its own right?

Besides the traditional role of Mephistopheles the tempter, the émigré artist also appropriates the strategy of an American repo man who repossesses public spaces where art once existed back into the realm of art, trespassing into the sphere of the “sacred” and profane, mixing advertisement and religion.

The project of buying and selling souls had another poetic dimension. It was not only about purchase but also about a curious transmigration. The certificate for the purchase of souls was smuggled to the Soviet Union in 1979 (one of the smugglers was the head of the Slavic division of Harvard University Library) and a secret auction was held near Moscow that became a kind of unofficial performance-art event that took place in the absence of the artists. The material documentation of the transaction of soul-purchase and the photographs of the auction became of great importance in their own right.

The soul of Andy Warhol was purchased for about fifty rubles–one third of the monthly engineer salary, which was not at all cheap. For Komar and Melamid, the project became a part of their experiment with what they called a “transstate” [transgosudarstvo], which would accommodate all resident and non-resident aliens of the world, whose territory would be virtual and whose bureaucratic paperwork will be designed by K and M. So in the end, buying and selling souls was not merely about American all-embracing consumerism or Russian spirituality (or Soviet collective ideology and the freedom of American individual entrepreneurship) but also about investing in the unreal estate of the “trans-country” of the immigrant imagination.

A moving emotional reunion took place during the conference in Las Vegas. The woman who purchased Andy Warhol’s soul reminisced with tears in her eyes in front of the blurry black-and-white photograph. Twenty years ago she spent what was the equivalent of half of the monthly salary of an engineer. Living with the soul of the pop-king did her wonders. She believes that his uncanny presence persuaded her to come to America. So art does transmigrate into life, after all, sometimes surprising pop and sots artists themselves.

Amerossia

How can we locate the borders between Russia and America in the works of the artists? I observed that Komar and Melamid, Sokov, Lemm and Kosolapov use the same device in their work, something that can be called a mock collage or a ghost border-crossing.

Komar and Melamid’s Double Self-Portrait presents a portrait of the artists as young pioneers saluting the father of the people, Stalin. Only the aging faces of the artists betray the fact that this is “nostalgic socialist realism,” not the actual one. (So does the technique. It’s too good to be true.) The line of mock collage goes straight through the neck of the artist, like an invisible guillotine. In Alexander Kosolapov’s It’s the Real Thing, which couples Lenin and Coca-Cola, the border is erased in the shared red background. The tension between two mass-reproduced symbols exists precisely because there is no pictorial tension there, no seam, no cut. Rather than a collage, this is more of a surrealist chance encounter, a bizarre and striking juxtaposition that presents itself as a hyper-continuity. Artist as a repo man becomes a “passportless” spy who crosses the border between different symbolic orders.

It was Nabokov who discovered “Amerossia,” an imaginary land, crisscrossed by the passportless spies and artists from both sides. In the poem to Kachurin, the lyrical narrator imagines returning to Russia with anotherone of his false passports, disguised as an American priest:

I want to go home. I’ve had enough.
Kachurin, may I go home?
To the pampas of my free youth,
To the Texas I once discovered.

So what is the referent of the word “home”? The ex-Russian disguised as an American seems to be returning to his homeland, yet he begs to go back into exile. More precisely, home means neither Russia nor the United States, but rather that imaginary America that the writer inhabited during his Russian youth while reading the work of forgotten American writer Captain Maine Reid. Two spaces, Russia and America, are linked in a kind of Möbius strip of the writer’s imagination. Similarly there is a utopian mirroring of two countries, each of which seems to see in the other the limit of its own fantasies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *