Arseny Zhilyaev’s “The Monotony of the Pattern Recognizer”

Valentin Diaconov

October 7, 2021
Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA)
June 25–September 19, 2021

Arseny Zhilyaev’s “The Monotony of the Pattern Recognizer”—an installation of more than a hundred untitled paintings, wall-texts, neon sculptures, collages, and other works arranged according to a series of speculative concepts that comprises his exhibition at Moscow Museum of Modern Art—seems to have been thought out while stoned. “Imagine TENET,” the show seems to propose, “not the Christopher Nolan flick but a freight spaceship lost in some faraway quadrant of the universe, and its AI stumbles upon the Sator Square palindrome from Pompeii, you know, the one reading SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS, and starts to unpack it and reconstructs the whole history of European art, from the Romans to the Moderns, in coded images! And… maybe we all are living in a simulation that is created by that AI to get in contact with sentient life and bring us whatever cargo it has on board!”

This sci-fi premise is beguiling by itself, but Zhilyaev, nothing if not studious, brings the idea into relation with the wealth of contexts he has explored in the past. Prominent among these is avant-garde museology: an umbrella term for a number of early Soviet practices that seek to recontextualize histories from class standpoints. As a student in Moscow in the late 2000s, Zhilyaev was influenced by what is today called The State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia. The exhibition rhetoric employed in that museum—with its mixture of original artefacts, paintings, and historical mise-en-scenes—seemed more contemporary to the artist than any of the shows in the capital’s art institutions, and inspired him to adopt the museum display as a primary medium.

Of course, the Revolution and its aftermath were never as clean-cut or idealistic as Soviet museums would have us believe. The official image of the Revolution as egalitarian and emancipatory has been questioned, forgotten, revived, and questioned again over the past thirty years. Public attempts to explain why the Soviet Union collapsed have created a multiverse of scenarios in which either the calculations were to blame (the Socialist economy could not have possibly worked, the argument goes, because the resources were grossly overestimated), or the human factor was (Stalin’s terror, Khruschev’s failed agricultural experiments, Brezhnev’s Afghanistan policy, and so on). The indecisiveness and fluidity of historical imagination—as related to the Soviet period and in the context of museum display—has drawn the interest of a number of notable contemporary Russian artists, such as Anna Titova, Evgeny Antufiev, and Ian Ginsburg. Zhilyaev stands out in this emergent tradition for his interest in Russian Cosmism—an idea originating in the writings of the late nineteenth-century figure Nikolai Fedorov who argued that science and technology could achieve victory over death—as well as post-work futures and singularity as a cultural force. “The Monotony of the Pattern Recognizer” explores this last topic.

Embroideries made on canvas using a textile printing machine with different versions of the Sator Square palindrome (ASCII code, original version, and so on) take up the most space. They are arranged between the exhibition’s various halls, from the altar of an Orthodox Church to a riff on “0,10,” the 1915 exhibition that introduced Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square to pre-Revolutionary Saint Petersburg. Adding another layer are quotes from Goran Djordjevic’s correspondence with various European artists. In 1979, Djordjevic proposed a global artistic strike to combat capitalism itself. Several artists responded but only a few were sympathetic. Their answers—including Carl Andre’s thought-out scheme of artistic production—provide a seemingly random counterpoint to Zhilyaev’s paintings. There are rooms based on “Colossal Cave Adventure” (1976), a text-based quest from the early years of gaming; autobiographical materials on Zhilyaev’s career; and two empty rooms, bathed in warm yellow light, where performers ask visitors questions related to time and labor.

The show’s disparate elements form a cohesive whole that is, deliberately, neither arresting nor bland to look at. The repetitive canvases and the yellowish neon glow bore the visitor just enough to prompt reflections on how art might look in a “world without work,” to borrow Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ phrase.1 These theoreticians are vague on the place of artistic production in a hypothetical post-capitalist civilization in which individuals are liberated from the need to work, allowing more free time to pursue creative avenues. But the production of images and exhibitions might also seem like chores to some, even while they generate meaning. A fully automatized future in which AI makes all the assumptions and discoveries in a given culture—leaving artists no incentive to redefine how we think about life, sex, poetic justice, and so on—can be seen as one of unbridled collectivity. In this way, “The Monotony of the Pattern Recognizer” seems to position itself as the first, last, and only museum of this postcapitalist future. Yet our laborless descendants may find that going inside will be too much work, and that museums are sites of the unpaid, qualified labor of recognizing and interpreting images.


See Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015).

Cosmism, Russia, Revolution, Curating

Valentin Diaconov is an art critic and curator. He is the Fellow in criticism at the Core Residency in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA)
October 7, 2021

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