“Contemporary Art in the Time of Late Christianity”

Deisis, October 2004, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow 

The project Deisis/Forthcoming exhibited at the State Tretyakov gallery in October 2004 shocked Moscow’s art community like no other exhibition before. Under their irony, critics barely disguised their rage and even alarm. According to them, the project only pretended to be an example of advanced art, being in reality a threat against it.

One can imagine that the computerized version entitled Deisis/Anthropology (shown at the Moscow Biennale as part of the “Art Digital” project in Mars gallery) will give rise to a similar reaction. It seems that the artists succeeded in seriously inflaming the frontiers of the very concept of “contemporary art” – however, my point is, from its own territory, not from the outside.

Icon collector Viktor Bondarenko (who owns a very significant collection of icons of 17th to 19th centuries) came up with the project consisting of synthesized portraits of characters from Biblical history and the Russian saints, from Adam to Seraphim Sarovsky. Artist Kontanstin Khudiakov made digital photographs of numerous real-life people, assembled small fragments of them onto a computer, printed them in large format, then varnished and airbrushed them to look more and more like a painting, without actually being one.

The portraits, resembling an iconostasis, were displayed in the Tretyakov gallery in a barely-lit room, and were accompanied by texts written by essayist Roman Bardasarov, and sometimes by music. In the computerized version, the graphic part is shown on monitors as moving images, whereby each portrait is transformed into another; the suggestive influence here is not created by the play of light or sounds, but rather by the captivating metamorphosis of the same face.

Arguments against the project usually consist of the following points. First, critics turned out to be allergic to extreme naturalism, which they saw as a populist step towards the “ordinary spectator,” as kitsch, and even, in light of Soviet history, as a symbol of power that forced the intelligentsia to adopt primitive (i.e. proletarian, in this point of view) system of aesthetic values. Diakon Andei Kuraev, a well known religious essayist, found its own precise expression: he called Deisis a missionary project, which never pleases anyone, being too simplistic for specialist theologians, but too serious for themass public.

Secondly, the forms were seen to be too primitive and lacking any explicit deformation, which is usually understood as the expression of critical attitude of the artist. Not just the form, but the content of Deisis project also seemed affirmative, lacking any sense of critique: the project was founded not on philosophical reflection (i.e. doubt), but on faith, which in relation to the philosophy of our time is somehow itself considered kitsch.

Finally, this project, which was disliked by the critics because of its religious and naturalist character, appeared bad because, anyway, it was not religious or naturalistic. According to most of the journalists, paintings looked “lifeless,” especially because of the use of computer technologies. The titles of all journalists’ essays sounded the same: “Show-iconostasis,” “Techno-spirit,” “Digitalized Illumination,” and even “Caution: Photography,” as though its use was actually shameful.

It is obvious, however, that these arguments do not attack religious art from the position of secular art, but, on the contrary, belong themselves to the long tradition of religious iconoclasm. The discussion is about the impossibility of representing the sacred.

In this respect, Deisis finds itself at the very center of theological debates concerning art that began with the rise of Christianity and still go on. In the Judeo-Christian culture, every human representation is an icon because humans are deemed to be icons of God themselves. This is the basis of the fundamental contradiction of Christian art: the sacred cannot be represented but at the same time, the representation of humans is the key to what is sacred. The project makes sense only whilst remembering this connotation.

We are living in an epoch after the revenge of iconoclasm. This revenge was awaited for more than ten centuries. The first battle occurred, as it is known, in the 8th-century when the elitist and scientific movement of iconoclasts, who claimed that the representation of saints was a profanation, were defeated in battle by the iconophiles who drew up the rules for representation, later adopted by any representational theory.

As the iconoclasm researcher Alain Besançon rightly wrote, the price paid for this victory was grave: representation lost its mystic ambitions and was transferred to the field of rhetoric and even didacticism (a type of missionary project). Even the 8th-century’s Second Council of Nicaea established that icons did not represent the nature of the God or the saint (which was judged beyond representation), but its hypostasis, its human form. Such was the ground prepared for naturalism.

Revenge came by the beginning of the 20th-century, with the birth of abstraction – the fundamentals of which were drawn up by Hegel, who was the first to recognize that art could no longer represent the divine anymore, and anything else was hardly worth representing. With abstraction, mystic ambitions reappeared in art, ambitions of “incarnation,” which, however, was only seen possible in its spiritual, ascetic hypostasis.

After the invention of abstraction, this asceticism appeared in various forms, but what remained unchanged was the prohibition of “full” representation, where forms would remain “undamaged.” It still the mainstream to dismiss “carnal,” naturalistic art as devoid of spirituality – exactly like old, passionate iconoclasts did.

There exists, however, another argument, emerging from the Russian context, which has long considered itself the successor of the only alternative to the western aesthetic order – the successor of the vanished Greco-Byzantine world. This argument consists of the idea that while Latin art lost its mystic ambitions, Greco-Byzantine art preserved them, having somehow integrated the criticism of representation brought up by the iconoclasts.

For that reason, Byzantine and later Russian icons were made on the principle of asceticism, almost to its disappearance. It is in the early 20th century that the Russian icon was actually discovered as a form of art, which coincided precisely with the first appearance of Cubism.

Goncharova, Malevich, Kandinsky and others proclaimed that the solution the avant-garde found in Cubism and abstraction was already discovered by Greco-Byzantine world back in the depth of the Middle-Ages. For that reason the turning-point of the latest times had to happen in a radically different way. The vector had to be directed in the opposite direction, in a “backwards perspective” – i.e. not away from naturalism to elementary forms, but on the contrary, from elementary forms to a new naturalism that contains the mystic prerogative in itself.

This naturalism had to be extremely ambitious, for its goal was to find a language for the simultaneous representation of the divine and human nature of Christ which, according to the Chalcedonian definition, exist “inseparably, unceasingly, indivisibly, untransformed.” The word “transformation” is the key here, for the transformation into some elementary symbol was exactly what was to be avoided in this naturalism. Such were the ambitions of Russian art at least from the early 19th century.

We tend to see naturalism today as accessible art, while abstract symbols are said to be an element of high art. However, it was not always this way. Folk art, for instance, does not conform to this rule. There are spheres in which, on the contrary, naturalism means art which is “educated,” elitist and highly theoretical.

This refers, in the first instance, to the icon, where naturalistic aspects are present during all its history, particularly at the very beginning (with antique influence) and in late times, beginning with the 17th century. Bondarenko collects icon-painting from precisely that last period, and it seems to me that from that period comes the idea of connecting icon-painting with illusion.

In Deisis, nationalistic, “Byzantophile,” and “slavophile” components are discernable. Khudiakov imparted almost all project’s characters, and even in some versions Christ himself, with slavic traits such as perceptible cheek-bones and a bulbous nose, leaving a striking Semitic expression only to Sim. But we have to mention the absence of chauvinism in this nationalism; Russian features are not emphasized here as something opposed to other features, but traditionally as a universal synthesis of all the best, created by the torn-to-pieces Latin civilization.

This is how Kandinsky understood “Russianness,” proclaiming that what he has been painting all his life was what he used to call “Moscow,” some absolute synthesis of the hour before sunset, when every church dome glowed in all its colors and no one dimmed in its intensity (“inseparably” and “untransformed”).

But, more than anything else, Khudiakov’s photo-portraits are close to the bizarre paintings by a Russian avant-garde artist, Pavel Filonov, which produce an effect of a poignant cacophony of forms and fragments. As far as we can tell, Khudiakov consciously transmitted the hyper-ambition of its synthetic image through its imperfections (each fragment is illuminated by a different light source, explaining where the strange impression of a worried face comes from).

The ideal synthesis without any “seams” would be simply not visible. Strangely enough, it is exactly this “dead flesh”, unsuccessful incarnation (heroes do not return to life) that make Deisis part of contemporary art.

Fundamentally, the principle of representation and of visual art in general is based on the dogma of the incarnation of the divine in the human. But representing this incarnation is not simple, especially if – as in an icon – the saint is always represented after his death.

In the Greco-Byzantine tradition, the icon is being charged with the task of representing the Transfiguration of the flesh – achieved only in the resurrection; that is to say death must already be considered, integrated in the face.

Filonov dreamed of absolute “achieved” (his term) painting, which implies precisely that this painting could not be made by human hands, but by miraculous forces. However, despite the artistic nationalism of the Deisis project, it can nevertheless be fully inscribed into contemporary international visual culture, and even, to some extent, into the realm of cinema or publicity.

The new version of Deisis looks like advertising, or, to be clearer, shows how advertising resembles an icon. While iconoclasts of the early 20th century thought that they had defeated the iconophiles, positions of the latter philosophy, not without Byzantine overtones, silently crawled into universal culture. Today, the challenge of representing of the immaterial is being taken by video- and digital art which shows to the public what has been done by some incomprehensible – i.e. miraculous – means.

Images are being produced by light, this is why video fits perfectly as a reference to the sacred, something first known by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (in 1912, they created what was probably the world’s first video-installation – the “Photodrama Creation”), and now is being well exploited by American video-art star Bill Viola who brought to the screen the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. Those who say that the Bondarenko-Khudiakov project is religious kitsch must take responsibility to claim that Bill Viola’s work is nothing else. And this will probably be the truth about our entire late Christian era.