11 artefacts to help you understand post-Soviet Russian art

There is a great power in archives. They not only preserve records of people and events, but shape our understanding of history by determining what is remembered and what is erased. Archives are also crucial to our understanding of contemporary art. Documents, letters and ephemera put artistic expression into social and historical context which otherwise would have been lost.

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For Russia’s contemporary art scene, it’s the Garage Archive Collection which carries out this indispensable work for future creatives and historians. Located at the Garage Museum in Moscow since 2012, its main aim is to provide an academic platform for the study of Russian contemporary art in an international context. The archive is also vital to the preservation of Russian artistic expression. Through documents and video materials, researchers can trace the very evolution of modern Russian art, from its underground roots amid Soviet oppression, to the arrival of capitalism and the economic crises of the 1990s, and the beginning of a new millennium.


Especially for The Calvert Journal, the team at the Garage Archive Collection — Valeriy Ledenev, Daria Kuzenkova, Ira Gakhova, Anastasia Kotyleva, Maria Udovydchenko, and Yuri Yurkin — have chosen ten objects which tell the story of contemporary Russian art.


Sotheby’s auction in Moscow

1988

The Soviet Union’s first and only Sotheby’s auction on 7 July, 1988, was a turning point in the Soviet art history. For a precious few days, the most wealthy and famous representatives of the capitalist West descended on the Soviet capital, whose inhabitants had a rather mythical concept of “capitalist paradise.” But the auction also reset the priorities of the Russian art world, revealing that real-world prices did not always correspond with established ideas on the symbolic value of artworks in artistic circles.


The auction, which took place at Moscow’s Sovincentre building (better known today as the Centre of International Trade), listed 119 lots, including works by Russian and Soviet avant-garde artists, non-conformists, and members of the Moscow Union of Soviet Artists. The auction was hosted by Simon de Pury, both a legendary auctioneer and the curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which helped exhibit works from the collection in Moscow and Leningrad.


The most expensive lot was the painting “Line” (1920) by Alexander Rodchenko, which was sold for £330,000. It was followed by “Fundamental Lexicon “(1986) by Grisha Bruskin, auctioned off for £242,000. One of the contenders for the Bruskin painting was none other than Sir Elton John, whose agent was present at the sale. The singer, however, ultimately ended up purchasing “Landscape” by Svetlana Kopystianskaya and “Restored Painting No 5” (1987) by Igor Kopystiansky (1987) for £44,000 each. Another Restored Painting (No 7; 1987) was bought by David Bowie.


Despite the auction’s success (not to mention a healthy £2,085 million profit for Sotherby’s), not all artists were happy about the event. Many were upset to see their creative priorities collide with an art world that prioritised money. After the sale, art group World Champions, led by Sergey Shutov and Gor Chakhal, organised an action called Anti-Sotheby’s. There was also a protest boat ride.


New Artists’ Mail Art

1988

“Dear Comrades A. Mitrofanova and A. Khlobystin!

This is to inform you that from 5 March 1988 you become sailors of the Baltic Red Banner Navy.

DP Staff

MP

Leningrad

ex-SPB”

In the mid-80s, all kinds of art forms flourished thanks to a new movement known as the New Artists’. They advocated for the total experience of art and its introduction into everyday life. Among other things, the group became interested in mail art, and many artists, including Timur Novikov and Ivan Sotnikov, sent creative correspondence.


This practice reached its pinnacle in the art of Vadim Ovchinnikov. His letters to Timur Novikov, Andrey Khlobystin, Alla Mitrofanova, and Boris Koshelokhov give life to the playfulness and absurdity that were so important to the New Artists, often mocking the excessively formal language of Soviet institutions.


One of the New Artists’ favourite games was creating made-up institutions, for which they would create their own official correspondence. In these letters, you can see round, handmade from the Friends of Mayakovsky’s Club, stamps with dispatch and posting dates, mysterious acronyms, and absurd texts.


Video of the 1991 August Coup

1991

Between 18 and 21 August, 1991, a coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev swept through Moscow. It would ultimately fail, leading to the fall of the Soviet Union just a few months later. But for a few days in August, tanks rolled through the city’s street, protestors swarmed to the capital’s White House building, and every TV channel played Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in a bid to cover the chaos.


This video recording documents the events of 19 August: a crowd of people surrounding the White House, barricades in the streets of Moscow, and a house party, at which artists, curators, and critics are seen enthusiastically listening to the news on the radio and celebrating the coup. “Here, the staff of the Moscow art society are gathering in order to plan how to restore the rights of both people and artists,” art historian and curator Joseph Backstein says into the camera. He later donated the VHS tape to the Garage Archive Collection.


Petition against Piglet Gives Gifts

1992

“In these idiotic and sadistic actions, we can see a challenge to social morality, as well as elements which could provide a violation of the Order of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic from 30 March 1988 “On Animal Abuse” / Article 102 of the the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation”

“TODAY, WHEN THE SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS IS SATURATED WITH AGGRESSION AND DESTRUCTIVE TENDENCIES TO THE EXTREME, THE “REGINA ART” GALLERY WILL HOST A DISGUSTING, BARBARIAN, AND WILD ACTION.”

This petition to the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office regarding Oleg Kulik’s action, Piglet Gives Gifts, is an example of a non-typical documentation for an artistic event. It confirms both the scandalousness of the event, and the wide public response it provoked.


The action in question, which was held at the Animalistic Projects festival at the Regina Gallery, became an iconic moment in the history of contemporary Russian art of the early 1990s. It saw art group Nikolay — which included artist Oleg Kulik and a butcher, who was also named Nikolay — present a video of a pig being slaughtered, before giving out fresh meat to gallery visitors. The event shocked the public, and provoked a debate in the press. In the process, it actualised some of the most pressing questions in the art world today: What can be considered art? Where is the line between art practice and crime? Can art be considered immoral?


Invite to Sergey Kuryokhin’s New Year’s Dream

1993

“Sergey Kuryokhin’s Dream

Artistic party

For you:

stars of theatre, film, TV, and music scene

cozy tables

live music

currency exchange

TV

slot machines

casino

parking”

Sergey Kuryokhin was one of the main characters of the new Leningrad music and art scene that formed in the late Soviet period and drew international attention during the perestroika years. He was interested in possibilities of mixing and clashing of different modes and forms of cultural life. This became the foundational principle of Kuryokhin’s longest-running project — the Popular Mechanics Orchestra, which was started by the artist in the early 1980s. Performances of the Popular Mechanics featured jazz and rock musicians, folklore ensembles, artists, ballet dancers, show people, and animals. Kuryokhin was the leader, the director, and the conductor of these spectacles.


These shows were usually held in concert halls or at festivals, with notable exceptions. Sergey Kuryokhin’s New Year’s Dream Party took place on the New Year’s Eve 1993 at the Manege Exhibition Hall in the city then known as Leningrad. Apart from the director himself, the show featured rockstars Vyacheslav Butusov from the band Nautilus Pomplilius, Boris Grebenshchikov from Aquarium, singer and actor Mikhail Boyaryshnikov, a ballroom dancing ensemble, post-rock bands, chickens and piglets. The role of Father Frost, the magical, Father Christmas-like figure who often visits such parties on 31 December, was a member of the necrorealist art group, Yuri “Tskirkul” Krasev, who hopped around on crutches. Performance artist Kirill Miller meanwhile, wore a dog costume to represent the symbol of the coming year. According to the invitation from the Garage Archive Collection, apart from the dinner and gathering of the artistic elite and celebrities, the party would include an erotic bar, psychedelic dancing, currency exchange, and gambling.


By playing off Russia’s popular TV format of a star-studded show to celebrate the New Year, Kuryokhin wanted to attract an audience with little interest in contemporary art, that would typically not be seen at the Popular Mechanics concerts: the “new elite” that emerged in the early 90s Russia. In one of the interviews, he described his concept. “It was another grand idea to make these “New Russians” think that avant-garde was their style. Who would leave their family on the New Year’s Eve to come and listen to this monstrous clatter, rattle, and gritting? But all the same, the Manege was full with ‘New Russian People’.”


Order on the Army of Arts by Anatoly Osmolovsky

1997

This archival video documents “Order to the Army of Arts”, an action by Anatoly Osmolovsky whose title alludes to a poem by the same name from Vladimir Mayakovsky. As one of Osmolovsky’s exhibitions opened its doors at Moscow gallery XL in 1997, the artist sat at a desk hanging from the ceiling. As he hovered above the visitors, Osmolovsky played the role of an army commander giving out orders. After writing out his commands on a typewriter, artist would yell the name of its recipient, and throw the papers down. Many papers were addressed to representatives of the contemporary Russian art scene, and some to artists from the Soviet past.


One person received an offer to exchange wives with Osmolovsky; another, a command to travel exclusively on roller skates. One popular artist was told that he would receive a state prize and then die, while a famous art critic and curator was ordered to “sell his collection and leave for the Canary Islands.” All orders knowingly played off the biographical contexts of the characters and their position in the art scene.


By hovering above the crowd and alluding to the little-mentioned relationship between politics and culture, Osmolovsky cemented his place as one of the most distinct actionists on the Moscow scene.


Practical Independence for Women Course Booklet

2006

“We decided to create a course for the emancipation of women —
not so much from men,
as from their own incompetence and inaptitude.”

Created by Cyber-Femin-Club, St Petersburg’s first feminist art group, “Practical Independence for Women” took place at the Gallery of Experimental Sound at the Pushkinskaya-10 art centre in St Petersburg, with a full course guide.


Female teachers held free classes on everything from computers and car servicing, to fixing household appliances and DIY. The course was popular, with 50 students aged between 20 to 60 years old taking part in two cohorts between 2004 and 2006. That high demand prompted the Cyber-Femin-Club to publish a guide book with practical illustrations, each drawn by Irina Aktuganova.


Today, the project can be seen as one of the first examples of art activism and DIY-art in St Petersburg. The feminist agenda is also noteworthy, and it was aimed against a growing push in Russia’s mass media to embrace new, more conservative gender norms in the post-Soviet space.


Protest against the Forbidden Art Exhibition

2006

In 2006, Russia’s artists were glued to the criminal investigation of social activist Yuri Samodurov. Samodurov, who was also curator and researcher of the Andrey Erofeev Tretyakov Gallery, had been charged with “incitement of religious enmity” after organising an exhibition called Forbidden Art—2006. The show had taken place at Moscow’s Sakharov Centre, with such high-profile participants such as Avdey Ter-Oganyan, the Blue Noses group, Ilya Kabakov, Mikhail Roginsky, Aleksandr Savko, and others. But many of the artworks criticised the church and religion, which was met with a huge outcry from religious organisations who boycotted the exhibition. Their protest was filmed by Yulia Ovchinnikova, whose recording now belongs to the Garage Archive Collection.


Performance Evening at the Art Strelka

2006

In the 2000s, contemporary art was only just finding its place in Russia’s newly opened private and state art centres and clusters. One of the first in this new wave of art spaces was Art Strelka, founded in a former chocolate factory on Balchug Island in central Moscow. The creative cluster included dozens of commercial galleries and non-commercial spaces, where leading Moscow artists held their exhibitions, performances, and theatre plays.


The Garage Archive Collection owns video footage of Art Strelka events recorded by art critic Yulia Ovchinnikova. In this video, you can see artists from the duo YeliKuka and their friends during a performance in the Art Strelka square.


Solitary Picket Booth by ZIP

2013

The early 2010s were marked by the fast-paced development of Russian art-activism. Actions of the art collective Voina, Pussy Riot, Artyom Loskutov, Pyotr Pavlensky, and many others drew attention from the global press and Russia’s cultural establishment. Powerful statements also came from beyond the country’s main artistic centres in Moscow and St Petersburg, including collectives such as ZIP, who made their own politically-laden actions in their home city of Krasnodar. They included actions such as Propagandist Crab, in which a group member in a crab costume moved around the beach and shouted out dumbed-down campaign promises; and Flags Washing Machine, in which washing machines rinsed the dye off national flags.



Solitary Picket Booth was an action by ZIP member Eldar Ganeev in one of Kranodar’s main city squares: an echo of the Moscow protests during the parliamentary and presidential elections. The artist locked himself into a wooden booth resembling an outhouse with protest signs sticking out, some of which read “Free the May 6th Prisoners,” “Free Art,” and “Send Putin to the Canary Islands.” (The name of the islands in Russian just happens to rhyme with the word nary, or the Russian word for a prison bunk.) The booth was later dismantled by the police.


Visual Arts Festival Temperate Forest. №4

2014

This photograph documents the annual amateur festival Temperate Forest, which has taken place in Saratov since 2013. It sees dozens of artists and locals present artworks and performances in the Sokolovaya Gora park — and aside from being in a particular format chosen by the curator, there are no other limitations. Formats are also kept broad and varied — with examples such as costumes, or artworks with food items — to boost a sense of artistic freedom.


For Russian art, late 2010s were marked by a greater push for decentralisation. Large Moscow institutions started paying attention to the art from the Russian regions; launching projects that showcased works from Siberia, the Urals, the Far East, and the Volga region. Among them were the project of the State Centre for Contemporary Art NEMOSKVA (2017); the 1st Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art at the Garage Museum (2017); the Department of Research Arts project by private gallery Triumph (2013), which also researched the art scene of different regions of the country; Tragedy in the Corner: Art Guide to Russia exhibition at the Moscow Museum (2018); and a collaborative exhibition programme between the Winzavod Contemporary Art Centre and regional museums of contemporary art (2016).


During the same period, local organisations representing their own regional art scenes also began to make a name for themselves: they included CAC Tipografia (Krasnodar), CAC Smena (Kazan), and many others. Dozens of similar projects all over the country drew close attention of the research department of the Garage Museum, which started the Open Systems project to gather information on as many self-organised initiatives as possible from artists and curators all across the country.


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