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For I understand thine age-old sadness

Spirits, Soviet Underground art and practices of radical distrust



Have you noticed how compelling is the uncanny of our land? Strange lot indeed has fallen upon the Eastern Europe, and anyone with an affection towards even the tiniest bit of creepy stories would find an inexhaustible spring of inspiration in its vast realms! From Transylvanian castles to Karelian swamps, from Vlado Zabot’s “Nights of the Wolf” to Nikolai Gogol’s “Viy”, from Kukeri processions to Kupala celebration - this land has not yet casted away its chthonic spirits in all but one case.


The spectre of communism that haunted Eastern Europe for the last hundred years has, luckily, been expelled. The exorcism was conducted and this spectre, exactly as a spirit of disease evicted from an ill man’s body by a shaman, left this region and went wandering around the face of the Earth (today, as some symptoms show, it started to haunt the West). Nevertheless, a mark communism left on Eastern Europe cannot be underestimated- it is visible even in a fact that the term “post-Soviet space” become its almost interchangeable synonym. But what is this mark, the epitome of Eastern European spirit?


We have a reason to believe that this most characteristic sign of Soviet an post-Soviet Europe is its distrust to any ideology and playful, carnivalesque character of its culture, in the meaning that Mikhail Bakhtin attached to it. The age-old sadness and fear taught the people not to believe official mythologies, to doubt the symbolical language of power. These people have learned to live a life parallel to those who control them, they made jokes about them - the famous Soviet political anecdotes, they wrote satirical songs, deconstructed the propaganda, put one hand on the Party membership cards while crossing the fingers behind their backs with the other one. And when the time came, the Eastern Europeans performed perhaps the largest and most radical artistic act in history- they tried to wipe out this era out of the history, tore down the statues of dictators, cut the red flags, changed plus on minus and minus on plus by condemning the murders (yesterday’s heroes) and rehabilitating the victims (yesterday’s enemies).   


Of course, no prophet is accepted in his own country, but still it seems that finding the artists who expressed this doubt in their work would mean to better understand des choses cachées, those hidden motives that explain and broaden the phenomenon of radical distrust. 


In the situation when direct speech is persecuted, the language of visual art, of an indirect symbolic expression, takes its place. Where there any artists in the Soviet space who would directly engage with myths and symbolic systems, both dominant and marginal, who would challenge the paradigm of official narrative, replacing it by their own? Of course, such people existed, among many- Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov - the Moscow Conceptualists. Their art mirrors the post-Soviet character in its crucial feature —  it deconstructs and mythologizes symbols and ideologies to create its own parallel reality.


Leading members of the group, Ilya Kabakov or Viktor Pivovarov, worked as children book illustrators- the story of these non-conformist artists making drawings for fairytales and kid’s magazines to earn their bread became archetypical, standing in one row with the generation of street cleaners and watchmen- the late Soviet rock musicians and artists from Leningrad, or starving   habitants of Montparnasse’s La Ruche residency. 


Being loyal to the genre, Kabakov and Pivovarov would use illustrative imagery, its visual style, in their main practice. Was this appropriation, quotation or deconstruction of an illusion of happy socialistic childhood, its legends and dogmas? Knowing the underground artists’ strive to creative that would be as total as possible, we can believe they were guided by everything suggested above. The reason to focus so much on the childhood-centred aspect of their practice lies in the fact that this realm of human life is the most unstable in terms of influences. In childhood, the edge or realism and fantasy is highly unstable, the doubt is sincere and innocence is vulnerable. After all, a semi-religious, semi-mystical idea that only children will build Communism, for they are unspoiled by the bourgeois world, was quite wide-spread in the time. Hence, if there is a need to seed the radical doubt, then there is no place better than childhood. There are plenty of ways to do it, and the two artists choose those that fit each the most. 


Ilya Kabakov is smart and cruel, with a simple visual gesture he shifts the focus of attention from a drawing to its periphery- and it becomes a place of an obscene commentary on the forced optimism of the Soviet childhood utopia. His fuck you hid in-between cute precisely drawn rabbits is an honest, by no means cynical, demonstration of a fig sign which almost every Eastern European wanted to show to the omnipotent government. 


The method of Viktor Pivovarov is more corresponding to the epithet “romantic”, given to Moscow Conceptualists by philosopher Boris Groys. Pivovarov is melancholic, dreamlike, nostalgic, painfully real and deeply fantastical. When he speaks of childhood and youth, he always takes retrospective position. Not the one of an old man on his porch remembering the days of glory, but a young man recalling all events of the passing day when dusk hits the sky. Pivovarov engages with the most logical, the most rational and clear imagery the propaganda has- the language of labour safety posters and illustrations of pioneer’s and schoolchildren lives. Then, he points out all the emptiness they hold in themselves. This is seen in “Project of household items for a lonely person”, “The Bulb Burns Out” and other artworks of the same tone. In other words, if Kabakov’s method is focused on external impact on the official narrative, revelation of what others think of it, then     Pivovarov is introspective, demonstrating the sadness inside the system and its subjects. And where sadness lives, there is no place for firm belief in something that promises earthly happiness. Alas, the doubt is born.


Another extremely important artist to consider, though not mentioned above, is Erik Bulatov. Nowadays interest in his art is growing, even the controversial and world-popular designer Gosha Rubchinskiy payed tribute to Bulatov in the last collection of his clothing line. Bulatov may be regarded as the most stylistically consistent of the leading Soviet unofficial artists. While knowingly refusing to be attributed to any movements in underground Soviet art, he still stands close to Sots Art and Conceptualists groups. However, here is the point of divergence: if all other artists worked with images, visually expressible symbolism or, at least, theoretical texts, Bulatov’s instrument and subject is the language itself, this root and border of the Existential. Perhaps, this is the reasons why his paintings are among the most attractive and uncanny at the same time. To put it simply, his approach is to insert text and wordplay in hyperrealistic paintings, showing how the same language and words that are heard daily, the most simple words like "go" or “see", can turn into sources of strange illusions and misunderstanding. In other cases, it may be more straightforwardly political, take Bulatov’s most famous painting “Glory to the CPSU”, where this slogan, as much senseless as it is total, covers the blue shiny sky. How is it possible to believe the straightforward language of propaganda after these paintings? How is possible to believe in progress of the 20th century after seeing blood-stained rivers in “Russian 20th Century”? Bulatov is valuable for his straightforwardness and, simultaneously, love for undertones, for simplicity of his instruments and yet sophisticated nature of his experiments with semiotics.




Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov and Erik Bulatov made albums or painting series, assembled installations or wrote novels - and in all of them they told stories, in one way or the other. This narrative-centrism is the most appealing thing in their art, since being able to make your own universe, a mystification of a sort, is a liberating practice and a way to deal with our collective Eastern European trauma. They are the great teachers of doubt, people who cut the ground from under the System’s feet in the sphere of art and semiotics. The age-old sadness may seem to prevail throughout, but in the end of the day its spectre’s curse will be casted forth by il miglior fabbro, a power greater than this spook can ever be.

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