Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art

Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art

Chto Delat, The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger, 2014.

Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art
January 21, 2015

Artists: Alina and Jeff Bliumis, Chto Delat, Keti Chukhrov, Anton Ginzburg, Pussy Riot, Anton Vidokle, Arseny Zhilyaev

Curated by Boris Groys

Contemporary Russian artists are still haunted by the specters of communism. On the one hand, they do not want to close the utopian perspective that was opened by the October revolution and art of the Russian avant-garde. But, on the other hand, they cannot forget the long history of post-revolutionary violence, where artists are haunted by these specters in the middle of reality that does not welcome them.

In contemporary Russia in which the official political and cultural attitudes become increasingly conservative, a new generation of Russian artists continue the tradition of the Russian artistic and political Left: desire to change the reality by means of art, ideals of equality and social justice, radical Utopianism, secularism and internationalism. This exhibition includes the works of artists from Moscow and St. Petersburg who share a critical attitude towards the realities of contemporary Russian life.

Pussy Riot address the power of the Church and its complicity with the state. The group’s famous “Punk Prayer” brought two of its members into prison. The videos of Chto delat thematize the cultural and political issues with which the Left is confronted in the contemporary world. Arseny Zhilyaev supplies an ironical commentary to the contemporary Russian media space in which the sensational news about UFOs and meteorites circulate together with Putin’s quasi-artistic actions, like kissing the tiger and finding the antique amphorae at the bottom of the sea. And in her poetic and poignant video Keti Chukhrov shows the gap between the intellectual attitudes of the Russian leftist activists and their real social behavior.

The exhibition includes the works of New York artists of Russian origin who also deal with the heritage of Russian communism. Anton Vidokle rediscovers in his works the radical Utopian projects of the Russian political and artistic avant-garde aiming at creating the world in which men become immortal and at the same time re-united with cosmic life. Anton Ginzburg finds the traces of the gigantic “earthworks” of the Soviet time. And Alina and Jeff Bliumis nostalgically try to reestablish the direct contact with the audience that was lost by art under the conditions of the art market.


Alina and Jeff Bliumis’s work concerns the politics of community, cultural displacement, migration and national identity. Jeff and Alina began their collaboration in 2000. Their work has been exhibited at Denny Gallery, Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, as well as internationally at Centre d’art Contemporain in Meymac, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among others.

Keti Chukhrov has authored numerous publications on art theory, culture, politics and philosophy. Her books include To Be—to Perform, Just Humans, and Pound & £—the first in Russian dedicated to Ezra Pound’s works, investigating the interrelation between poetics and politics.Her play, Afghan Kuzminki, was featured at Theatre.doc, in the 2011 Moscow Biennial, and at the Wiener Festwochen in 2013. She most recently participated at the Bergen Assembly by showing her latest video-play, Love Machines. Chukhrovis Associate Professor at the Russian State University for Humanities.

Chto Delat (What is to be done) is a self-organized platform for a variety of cultural activities intent on politicizing knowledge production through redefinitions of an engaged autonomy of cultural practice. The collective’s public debut took place on May 24, 2003, in an action called “The Refoundation of Petersburg,” a response to the 300th anniversary of the city. The still nameless core group then began publishing an international newspaper called Chto Delat?. The name is inspired by an eponymous novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky about the first Russian socialist workers organizations, and a political pamphlet published in 1902 by Vladimir Lenin.

Anton Ginzburg uses an array of historical and cultural references as starting points for his investigations into art’s capacity to penetrate layers of the past and reflect on the contemporary experience. He has been shown at the first and second Moscow Biennales and the 54th Venice Biennale, as well as the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Palais de Tokyo, among others. He is represented in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, as well as private collections around the world.

Pussy Riot is a collective of artists and activists. In August 2012, two of its founding members, Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikovaand and Maria (Masha) Alekhina, were imprisoned following an anti-Putin performance in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and were released in December 2013. In March 2014, the pair announced the opening of the Mordovia office of Zona Prava (Zone of Rights), their organization advocating for transparency and humane conditions within the Russian justice system. The following September they launched their independent news service, Mediazona, which focuses on courts, law enforcement, and the prison system in Russia. Tolokonnikova and Alekhina are the 2012 recipients of the LennonOno Grant for Peace.

Anton Vidokle has most recently exhibited works in the 2014 Montreal Biennale and the 10th Shanghai Biennale. As a founder of e-flux he has produced Do it,Utopia Station poster project, and organized An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life and Martha Rosler Library. Other works include e-flux video rental and Time/Bank, co-organized with Julieta Aranda; and Unitednationsplaza—a twelve-month experimental school in Berlin as a response to the unrealized Manifesta 6. From 2013–14, Vidokle was a Resident Professor at Home Workspace Program, organized by Ashkal Alwan in Beirut. Vidokle is co-editor of e-flux journal along with Julieta Aranda and Brian Kuan Wood.

Arseny Zhilyaev is an artist who proposes new approaches to the tradition of Soviet museology. This has been a recurrent theme amongst his recent artistic projects, such as Museum of Proletarian Culture: Industrialisation of Bohemia, Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow, 2012; M.I.R.: Polite Guests from the Future, Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco and Paris, and others.

Boris Groys is a Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, Germany. Groys was curator of the Russian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale and of “Total Enlightenment: Conceptual Art in Moscow” 1960–1990, among other exhibitions. His recent publications include History Becomes Form: Moscow Conceptualism, Going Public, Art Power, and Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment.


“Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art”, Artforum • Kate Sutton

In perhaps his most popular one-liner, perestroika-era satirist Mikhail Zadornov dubbed Russia “a country with an unpredictable past.” Spanning two continents and eleven time zones, the state now known as the Russian Federation lays claim to conflicting inheritances, from Kievan Rus and the Third Rome to the czarist Russian empire and the Soviet Union….

In perhaps his most popular one-liner, perestroika-era satirist Mikhail Zadornov dubbed Russia “a country with an unpredictable past.” Spanning two continents and eleven time zones, the state now known as the Russian Federation lays claim to conflicting inheritances, from Kievan Rus and the Third Rome to the czarist Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin was able to consolidate power by cherry-picking aspects from each of these legacies and placing them under the banner of his political party, United Russia; the liberal opposition, however, is having a much harder time formulating a rallying call of its own. The left-leaning collective Chto Delat explores this predicament in its latest film, The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger, 2014, a nearly hour-long, twelve-episode Brechtian exercise in which students from Chto Delat’s School of Engaged Art answer questions regarding whom they consider heroes and how they see their place in history. When asked to identify “points of no return,” the participants cite the annexation of Crimea and the trial of Pussy Riot, but also Occupy Wall Street, the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the 1999 bombings in Yugoslavia. Among their role models, they list Antonio Gramsci, Ulrike Meinhof, Guy Fawkes, and the online activist Aaron Swartz.

If, for the post-post-Soviet generation, “the Wall” is no longer the de facto defining historical moment, curator Boris Groys argued that its shadow still looms large with “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art,” a two-venue exhibition split between the CUNY Graduate Center’s James Gallery and e-flux. Through a sampling of seven artists and collectives, Groys attempted to trace a trajectory from the Russian avant-garde through the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and on to the present moment, which he describes as “Post-Conceptual Realism”—a mode of practice in which artists reflect their surrounding social and political conditions as a way to effect change within them. Groys claims that the current political climate, with its outright disavowal of “Soviet leftovers,” prevents artists from paying proper tribute to their past, thus forcing them to devise their own surrogate myths. If the curator leaned a little too heavily on a supposedly shared Soviet experience, it might be because it was one of the few things that united the selected artists, who represent multiple generations as well as multiple geographies. (Nearly half of these artists have lived outside Russia for two decades or more, this exodus predating not only the recent upheavals in the country’s social and economic structures but also the entirety of Putin’s political career).

As in The Excluded, there were diverse, often conflicting points of reference. For instance, the exhibition at e-flux juxtaposed Anton Ginzburg’s meditative Walking the Sea, 2013—a multicomponent project that channels both Heinz Mack and Gustave Courbet as it surveys a casualty of the utopian extremes of Soviet science, the rapidly disappearing Aral Sea—with the pop-rock theatrics of Pussy Riot. The presentation of the latter focused more on the international publicity around the trial and imprisonment of members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina than on the duo’s recent artistic output. Meanwhile, an excerpt from Arseny Zhilyaev’s sardonic Museum of Russian History, 2014—originally developed for the Kadist Art Foundation—suggested that the most radical work currently being made in Moscow may very well be Putin’s.

At CUNY, a second work by Zhilyaev ventured into the milky wilds of cosmism, a school of thought inspired by the teachings of late-nineteenth-century philosopher Nikolai Fedorov. Proclaiming “the common task” of all mankind to be victory over death, Fedorov and his fellow cosmists were convinced that advances in genetic engineering would eventually lead to the resurrection of everyone who has ever lived, thus necessitating the colonization of other planets. Zhilyaev’s RCC YHV Resurrecting Museum at Home, 2014, imagines the lobby for a cosmist-inflected museum (LET’S RESURRECT!, an advertisement urges). Fedorov is given a fairer shake in Anton Vidokle’s This Is Cosmos, 2014. Shot in the suggestively otherworldly landscapes of Russia and Kazakhstan, the thirty-one-minute HD video indulges a scientific experiment of its own, interspersing explications of cosmist tenets with an irradiation bath of red light. As the text explains, this type of exposure is deemed to stimulate cell reproduction, a first step toward regeneration and thus immortality—a condition that dispenses with nationality altogether.

—May, 2015

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“Post-Soviet Union aftermath on display in ‘Specters of Communism’”, Columbia Spectator • Geneva Hutcheson

Darkened and claustrophobic, the entry room contains two glowing screens, running images of swaying fields, and broken humans. The “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” exhibition, which features at the City University of New York’s James Gallery and e-flux location, has turned the white, rectangular James Gallery into a space…

Darkened and claustrophobic, the entry room contains two glowing screens, running images of swaying fields, and broken humans. The “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” exhibition, which features at the City University of New York’s James Gallery and e-flux location, has turned the white, rectangular James Gallery into a space compartmentalized by heavy thought.

The space contains a collection of videos, found objects, photographs, and other pieces of art that come together to form a reflection of contemporary art in post-Soviet Russia.

“It [the exhibit] reflects a certain ambivalence in contemporary Russian art in reaction to communism,” guest curator Boris Groys said. “One remembers utopia. One also remembers violence, the tragic aspect of the communist revolution in Russia. One has mixed memories.”

A remembrance of this utopia plays on a screen at the entrance. The 31-minute video “This Is Cosmos,” created by artist Anton Vidokle, is a visual and auditory collage inspired by the works of Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov that focus on immortality and resurrection.

Fedorov believed that through transhumanism, humans would overcome mortality and imperfection. Transhumanism is a cultural movement that seeks to transform and enhance the human condition through the proliferation of technology.

For minutes at a time, unadorned text on a red screen claims to improve the health of the audience through increased circulation. Then, in a shocking contrast, the camera pans across wide-angled shots of fields, of mountains and shrines, and of natural beauty unimaginable while the narrator speaks of the forthcoming resurrection Adam.

“These kinds of works show young people that are hesitant, and this kind of hesitation is precisely an effect of these mixed memories,” Groys said.

The mixed memories Groys references were created by the promise of communist Russia, the failure of this vision to be realized under the Soviet Union, and the current hyper-conservative climate’s rejection of a communist utopia.

“I wanted to bring forth this issue of the crisis of humanism,” poet Keti Chukhrov said. Her nonlinear dramatic poem “Love Machines” plays on a screen just to the right of the entrance.

Chukhrov’s poem features three dimensions of characters: cows, humans, and robots. The robots have arrived to seduce, destroy, and replace the humans. The pain they cause forces the humans to decide whether to give in to primal instincts, like the cows, or to rise to the cold, intelligent robots.

It is questionable whether the robots are themselves a result of pain. “Only humans can endure the pain that is too great to be human,” Chukhrov said. “You have to be human to be enduring something that is more than human, and when you give up being human, you don’t deal with pain.”

Along a corridor—beyond Chukrov’s dramatic poem screening—artist and museologist Arseniy Zhilyaev’s future museum “RCC YHV” hangs on the walls. It features ads for resurrection, paper evidence of UFOs, and a galaxy tapestry labeled “Russian Cosmic Federation, tapestry, unknown author, Earth-11.”

As a museologist, Zhilyaev imagines the museum as a space where different aspects of human life combine—the political, the commercial, and the personal. His collections of artifacts feel purposeful and unbound by the white walls surrounding them.

“It’s not just a museum but an imaginary museum of the future. So I started from a more or less political project but later in time concentrated on these imaginary future stories,” Zhilyaev said.

The far room of the exhibit is covered with photos, reaching to the ceiling, of artist couple Alina and Jeff Bliumis seated on the couch of families from the Bronx; Bat Yam, Israel; Beijing, China; and Lecce, Italy.

Their exhibit, aptly titled “A Painting for a Family Dinner,” is the result of six years of practiced communism, giving a painting to a strange family in exchange for a family dinner.

“The idea is artistic initiative of a project that breaks a barrier between art, art producers—so, artists and public. The main idea of the project is that we are collaborating, active collaborating on the project,” Alina Bliumis said. “This project is not about the painting or a dinner—it is about our coexistence and working together. … So the idea is there is no name, there is no exhibition. It is really meeting strangers.”

Her husband Jeff prompted her to speak about the young classical artist whom they dined with for their first family dinner in Beijing.

“It was interesting, in China—it was actually [an] artist family, and he was so inspired that he signed his name on the back of the painting as well,” she said. “He understood the collaboration. … He was a traditional artist, but when we talked about collaboration he was like, ‘Then I will sign the painting too,’ and we said, ‘Of course.’”

Their project centers around three main ideas: thank you notes, gifts, and the exchange of art. It is an old idea, artists exchanging their art for goods. “The idea is like a potluck,” Bliumis said. “We exchange skills. Potluck, not like with dishes, but everyone brings ideas. The idea of economics, where you skip all the steps and you just exchange your skills. There is no communism in Russia. … The idea is that communist society skips all the monetary. You build together, you eat together, and everybody uses their skills, whatever they can.”

Chto Delat, an artist group comprised of artists, philosophers, and poets, are exhibiting their work “The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger,” a video that creates a space of assembly for the political issues faced by the left in Russia. The video features a group of young actors in motion in a wallpapered room.

The exhibit’s other location, e-flux, will feature art and documentaries by feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot. Their works in this exhibit, including “Kropotkin Vodka,” “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away,” and “Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest,” are a collection of print- and video-recording documentation, which continues the dialogue critiquing contemporary Russia for which Pussy Riot became internationally famous following their work “A Punk Prayer” and the subsequent court trials.

Also at the e-flux space is the work of Anton Ginzburg. Ginzburg’s work “Walking the Sea” focuses on the shrinking of the Aral Sea caused by Soviet irrigation programs. Related to this work is his “Aral Sea Tapestry,” which shows the seas shrinking more literally than the mirror and cane of his “Walking the Sea.”

Perhaps the most curious art pieces presented in “Specters of Communism” are the works attributed to Vladimir Putin, which frame Putin as a performance artist. The works include a painting done by Putin himself, “Pattern on a Frozen Window,” along with documentation of his inauguration, his cat, and his performances. These works make Putin a spectacle, as absurd as the future museum or everlasting life, blurring the boundary between politics and performance art and opening the political space for new voices.

“I am not sure that these works are conceptual,” said Groys. “They are, I would say, post-conceptual, and by being post-conceptual they, of course, they reflect the context of their own functioning. … It shows how the works articulate and answer questions that are not necessarily their own questions, which are coming from social media. You have direct play with society in Alina and Jeff’s piece where they try to find direct contact with the audience, where they try to ignore the exhibition system.”

Collected together, the works that comprise “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art,” are utopian and dystopian at once. They are ridiculous at moments, such as the ads promising resurrection and the grounded cows groveling for survival, but these moments of absurdity represent a conceptual fluidity in Russian art that is lacking in many other cultures’ contemporary works.

This fluidity, which can easily be attributed to the uncertainty Russia has faced and the specter of communism present even in works that do not directly address the specters themselves, allows artists a space free of separation between the metaphysical and the material world and for the creation of new ideologies altogether. In this space, the real and the imaginary collide, creating a depth of emotions—beyond the pain of failed Soviet communism, beyond the hope for the future—that allows the viewer to see the world as it really is in relation to its true absurdity.

“You know what is poetic? When narrative goes and you expect some kind of consequence, some kind of cause and effect, but all of a sudden either the actor, or the hero, or the agent is doing something unexpected, some kind of unimaginable paradoxical act. … There is some kind of utopian horizon and some idealism of utopianism that, in the case of the play, certain characters like the cow project this ideal, but also it [remnants of communism] is what remains, some kind of unspeakable experience,” Chukhrov said.

“I think Boris Groys was also using it in a very broad sense, meaning that any conscious act in post-socialist Russia, and if it is serious happens to be post-communist, refers to this experience. And it cannot help it because this experience was ontologically one of the most important experiences. You cannot evade relatedness.”

—February 12, 2015

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“The Political Poseurs of Contemporary Russian Art”, Hyperallergic • Olga Kopenkina

It is always a thankless task to review a show against the backdrop of current political events. But there are exhibitions that just ask for this approach. This goes for  Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art , a two-part exhibition split between  The James Gallery  at the CUNY Graduate Center and the  e-flux  gallery…

It is always a thankless task to review a show against the backdrop of current political events. But there are exhibitions that just ask for this approach. This goes for Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art, a two-part exhibition split between The James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center and the e-flux gallery on East Broadway, that drew large crowds on its opening night. Both installations are curated by Russia-born prominent art scholar, writer, and curator Boris Groys. Peculiar and intense, with an abundance of narratives and concepts — reflected in the curator’s labeling of the exhibited works as “Russian Post-Conceptual Realism” — this rather fragmented representation of contemporary art in Russia is a thought-provoking event.

Taken together, the works displayed in these two galleries expose a major problem of contemporary art in Russia: its self-mythologizing escapism. In his curatorial statement, Groys neatly puts the works into categories and paradigms of the leftist tradition that “has two components that do not always correlate perfectly with each other: a critical one, and a utopian, ‘life-building’ one.” I tried to retrace the works in the show to understand which component each represents, but all I discovered was the widening gap between the two, which I re-interpret as a gap between criticism and disengagement. It appears that this distance is the actual “object” of the exhibition.

One can get weary of the curator’s and Russian artists’ disproportionate dwelling on the past. But it’s the efforts to reanimate old myths as well as the proclivity to present Russia as, still, a pioneer of social-political utopias, paralleled only by natural phenomena (think: Sun), or conceptual artists of the 70s (think big: “land art”) that raise eyebrows. In a country where the economy tends to self-destruct and culture suffocates; where government control over cultural institutions is excessive (the recent — though only one of many — firing of the director of the State Tretyakov Gallery by the government administrators is an example); where the art scene’s dependency on all-mighty oligarchs, whose fortunes are based on fraud and close ties to Putin’s government, is all so overwhelming, it’s hard to see a dream world of social revolution. But the artists are dreaming and the audiences are invited to join them. As a part of the experience, there was even a session of hypnosis, helpfully provided by Anton Vidokle’s performance during the opening at e-flux gallery.

Among the “critical” works in the show at James Gallery, I particularly enjoyed the video projection of St. Petersburg-based collective Chto Delat entitled “The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger,” which, through a series of monologues, gives voice to the generational depression and lost hope Russians feel toward chronic injustices. Chto Delat’s collectivist but lonely reflections on the historical condition of contemporary Russia is discomforting. And this unease is immediately echoed in Keti Chukrov’s film “Love Machines,” which, like Chto Delat, employs all the techniques and apparatus of Brechtian theater (minimal scenery, long monologues sometimes sung, estranged acting by an unprofessional cast, the changing of sets in front of the viewers) in order to address the same generational discontent. In the video, which toys with the theoretical concept of “post-humanity,” a couple of sex androids land in Moscow to intervene in the life of desperate Moscowites. Interestingly enough, the film appears as a critique of the entire show as it revolves around the theme of powerless communities, which are dealing with the loss of meaning in their life and in their labor.

With respect to the complexity of these works, and with an eye to the fact that both are produced collectively, one should however wonder: is it enough to reveal a collective resignation, through the tactics of laying bare theatrical devices — the art of Brechtsploitation? — to make contemporary art “critical”? Would it not make more sense to direct this collective energy to producing an actual critical art practice, instead of indulging in lamentations and theorizations about indecisiveness and melancholia (“To be a cow is my fate, and I can’t change it,” – says one of the characters in “Love Machines”)? Or, wouldn’t it be better to enhance a utopian / dystopian moment?

A significant number of works in the show tend to excavate the past in order to remind us of the lost potential of Russian modernity that would have privileged humanity over the needs of industrialization and technological progress had Stalinism not happened. Based on his own theoretical ramifications, Groys included a few works that supposedly reanimate old utopias repressed by the failed promises of Communism in the USSR. There is a peculiar video titled “Walking the Sea” by Anton Ginzburg that most art historians would love: it shows the artist traveling to the basin of the now dried-out Aral Sea, a part of the former Soviet Union industrial site located in Kazakhstan. This overly aestheticized journey seems to draw pictorial parallels with the famous proto-modernist and modernist artworks such as Gustave Courbet’s and Robert Smithson’s.

But the question that seems to be missing from the exhibition is this: How do we look at the past? Why do we cut slices of history for display, or trim out its utopian aspects in order to illuminate some of them and to obscure others? The inability to connect with history as a whole is clearly a symptom of repression — something that is exemplified by the installation “Resurrection Museum” by Moscow-based Arseny Zhilyaev, dedicated to Nikolai Fyodorov (1829–1903) and his idea that some day the dead will be resurrected and fill up all of cosmic space. The piece consists of a plaster bust of Fyodorov next to a series of images showing smiling families that advertise the “eternal life” — a kind of sarcastic, postmodernist interpretation of the philosopher’s idea as an attractive new product that promotes humankind’s future.

The installation did not convince me, however, that the artist attempted to dig into the complexity of the idea of resurrection itself, which is, first of all, a result of spiritual labor. Fyodorov, who was the founder of Russian cosmism, that in turn influenced Dostoevsky and other important Russian thinkers, did, in fact, search for scientific proof of his theories. Anton Vidokle, an artist also interested in Fyodorov (his work “This is Cosmos,” in which he investigates the roots of Russian cosmism, mentions the Russian philosopher), offers up a clue to such theories in his film “The Communist Revolution was Caused by the Sun,” in which he explores the process of atmospheric ionization. But is it really possible, after all of what mankind experienced in the 20th century, to imagine “resurrection” as pure science without taking responsibility for mass atrocities committed in the 20th century? Can we dismiss, for instance, Walter Benjamin’s concept of historical redemption that not even the dead will be safe if the enemy (Fascism, and, one should add, Stalinism) wins? Fyodorov, who died in the beginning of the 20th century, would not be able to answer this question, but we could attempt it. Instead, Zhilyaev’s work trivializes the philosophical idea into a pop-up installation, justifying it with the reference to Fyodorov’s dream of resurrecting the dead archive “from its grave.”

The inability to deal with philosophy is reflected in an inability to deal with political realities. The second part of Zhilyaev’s “archive,” which is presented at the e-flux gallery, consists of press images of President Vladimir Putin, in which his antics (namely, his media appearances showing him kissing a tiger, flying with cranes, fishing, or painting) are displayed as the work of a conceptual artist. The display also suggests a reference to the legendary artist group from the 70s, “Collective Actions,” to which Groys has dedicated a lot of his scholarship and curatorial work over the years. The group is best known for its mysterious, self-isolating performances realized in natural environments and documented in a voluminous archive known as the “Journeys to the Countryside.” By ironically equating Putin with a conceptual artist — display of the images of Putin’s actions resembles the documentation in Collective Actions’ archives — Zhilyaev aims to draw attention to the political numbness of the general public in Russia. It is Putin, indeed, who writes the scenario, not Zhilyaev.

The stunt, as Groys points out, also alludes to the Sots artists who used images of Brezhnev and Khruschev in their art, making them look like characters of their works in their comments on the Soviet public sphere heavily mediated by ideology. But Sots art was, in some ways, a reflection of the stiff political environment of the 70s, when there was no room for public debate. Today, contemporary artists are working in a different political setting, and seem to be making a deliberate choice to disengage with the public debate and struggle, even while a war continues to escalate with the Ukraine. They, unlike artists before them, have resources and funding, but don’t use them as an opportunity to voice out criticism.

This lack of political imagination leads to the blurring of boundaries between puppets and puppeteers, artists and professional politicians. The artist is animated by the imagination of those in power and with whom he is endlessly fascinated (the video of Putin’s spectacular inaugural procession to Kremlin is included in the gallery display as a part of Zhilyaev’s “archive,” and almost looks like a self-sufficient work.)

There is an “elephant in the room” at e-flux gallery, and it is wearing a balaklava! The large projection of Pussy Riot’s performances is hidden behind the curtain that separates the space from “Putin section.” Given that Pussy Riot’s work has been seen so many times by so many people, it’s hard to say what role the now-familiar videos play in this exhibition. Groys suggests that they represent the agora or commons that has been formed in Russia by politically active young people and activists dissatisfied with Putin’s presidency. Again, Groys draws a parallel with the 90s generation of Russian conceptualists who used access to public media previously absent in the Soviet period. It’s a justifiable argument, especially if we take into account that Pussy Riot’s performances became known due to the virally circulated YouTube video edited in the aftermath of their mostly unrealized performance at the Church of Christ the Savior. But this reading ought to include the understanding that their enormous reputation was formed by their later imprisonment.

If the exhibition is at all representative of this “agora,” President Putin takes up most of its space. Is this a sarcastic misinterpretation of the word, or a bitter acceptance that an “agora” today is inevitably dictated by overt power, just like in the days of the good old Soviet Union?

Despite the curatorial claim that the works on view represent a new, mature phase in Russian conceptualism, the exhibition does not create a logical historical genealogy for this varied work. But — much to its benefit — “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” addresses certain societal conflicts. However, the exhibition problematically makes the conservative politics that it seeks to criticize a modus operandi of its own criticism, falling into the abyss of self-effacing sarcasm, or impotent escapism. Or, is it just a Russian love for the universevocalized by a crying woman in Keti Chukhrov’s play: “I have a typical Russian quality: I know how to love the universe, being childish and naughty”?

—February 25, 2015

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“Five Points With Boris Groys”, Art in America • Chris Chang

The exhibition title “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” suggests an angst-ridden premise. But in the hands of curator Boris Groys the proposition turns ambiguous. Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, Germany, has…

The exhibition title “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” suggests an angst-ridden premise. But in the hands of curator Boris Groys the proposition turns ambiguous. Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, Germany, has written numerous critical tomes, including The Total Art of Stalinism (1992), Art Power (2008) and Introduction to Antiphilosophy (2012). “Specters,” as conceived by Groys, explores Russian “post-conceptual realism,” an artistic practice in which artists shift attention from isolated art objects and performances to their social and political context. The show, which runs through Mar. 28, takes place at two venues: The James Gallery at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in Midtown and e-flux’s Lower East Side space.

1) It’s safe to say that the artists in your exhibition are both post-Soviet and post-Communist. But I would hesitate to call them postmodern. Would you? Could you discuss e-flux founder Anton Vidokle’s video This Is Cosmos in this respect?

That is a question of definition. This is Cosmos is not about “the cosmos” but about the cosmic dreams and projects of Russian thinkers before and after the October Revolution. They believed in progress, technology and social revolution. And they believed that, eventually, mankind would become immortal and make all of outer space its home. So the video is a piece of memory—memory about certain radical modernist projects that we still experience today as fascinating and motivating. Is such a piece of memory postmodern or neo-modern? To be honest, I do not believe the question of defining these terms important for the contemporary spectator.

2) Please explain Vladimir Putin’s “participation” in “Specters.” Is Putin even aware of the exhibition?

Arseniy Zhilyaev made an installation in which he used copies of publicity images produced by Putin. Zhilyaev interprets these depicted actions, such as finding an antique Greek amphora on the bed of the Black Sea, as artistic performances. Is Putin aware? I do not know.3) The word “sacrilege” can take on a second life in your writings. Pussy Riot, in their Punk Prayer performance, was attacking not only the Orthodox Christian Church but also the Church’s alliance with Putin’s state. Did Pussy Riot commit a sacrilegious act?

Yes. But the question is: Can art avoid being sacrilegious? I do not think so. Our museums are full of the ritual objects of ancient religions—Egyptian, Greek or Incan. These objects are placed into a secular context. Their sacredness is denied. What is that if not sacrilege? Walter Benjamin spoke of the loss of aura and the substitution of exhibition value for ritual value. But art, as we know it, is not merely a result of the loss of aura. Art is a machine for the destruction of aura—a machine of sacrilege. Art believes that an image is merely an image—a material object having this or that particular form. By its mere existence art denies to images and things their sacral and magic dimension. Art and religion are incompatible—and this incompatibility shows itself from time to time.

4) For example?

As I read reactions to Pussy Riot’s action on the Russian Internet I came across a short text that is relevant here. One woman wrote: “In the museums there are also holy icons, but I do not come to museums to pray. So why does Pussy Riot come to the altar of my church?” She obviously believes that she practices self-censorship and tolerance, respecting the beliefs of the museum visitors, and that the icons there are no longer holy. I think, actually, she gets the point.

5) You have linked Pussy Riot to 1990s Moscow Actionism—an art movement not unfamiliar with sacrilege. Can we position Punk Prayer within the context of the recent gunman assault on the “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” seminar in Copenhagen or the Charlie Hebdo massacre?

Yes. These are events of the same order. Christians, including Orthodox believers, are mostly resigned to the fact that Christian symbols are permanently subject to desecration in the name of art. But there are cultures in which art has not yet taken root. And we should not forget that our culture is not so free from the belief in sacral images and their magic power. Waves of iconoclasm roll continuously over post-Communist Eastern Europe. There are still images that hurt the feelings of believers in Western values.

—February 25, 2015


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Russia, Protests & Demonstrations

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.

Arseny Zhilyaev (b. 1984, Voronezh, USSR) is an artist based in Venice. His projects speculate on possible future histories of art, using the museum as a medium. Zhilyaev plays roles in the Institute for the Mastering of Time and the Institute of the Cosmos, while following the reflections of the Museum of Museums in the lagoon.

Anton Vidokle is an editor of e-flux journal and chief curator of the 14th Shanghai Biennale: Cosmos Cinema.

Keti Chukhrov is a ScD in philosophy, and a Tage Danielsson guest professor at the Linkoping University. In 2022-2023 she was a guest professor at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe. Until November 2022 she worked as a professor at the School of Philosophy and Сultural Studies at the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). In 2017-2019 she was a Marie Sklodowska Curie fellow at Wolverhampton University (UK). She has authored numerous texts on art theory and philosophy. Her latest book Practicing the Good: Desire and Boredom in Soviet Socialism (University of Minnesota Press/e-flux, 2020) deals with the impact of socialist political economy on the epistemes of historical socialism. Her books include To Be—To Perform: “Theater” in the Philosophic Critique of Art (European Un-ty, 2011), and Pound &£ (Logos, 1999), and a volume of dramatic writing: Merely Humans (2010). Her research interests and publications deal with the philosophy of performativity, the comparative epistemologies of capitalist and non-capitalist societies, and art as the institute of global contemporaneity. She authored the film-plays Afghan-Kuzminki (2013), Love-machines (2013), Communion (2016), and Undead (2022), featured at numerous venues.

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