The Outer Circle: Russian Visual Poetry
by Olchar Lindsann
(LINK to full-length essay)
The Cold War cleaved the avant-garde (like so much of the world’s social body) in half; for generations, there were two avant-gardes, sidereal doppelgangers, united by a shared heritage and shared concerns, yet pursuing diverging paths in different contexts. While we in the West watched the ethical position of innovative Art become discredited as it became more lucrative, granted complete expressive ‘freedom’ but absorbed by the commercial Market as a kind of luxury investment, our Soviet counterparts faced a much more terrifying set of dangers; while Western avant-gardists scrounged for cash to print small-run mimeographed journals, they were vaguely aware that their Soviet counterparts circulated clandestine samisdat publications in runs of one to ten, running the risk of incarceration in a prison or mental hospital should their work fall into the wrong hands; but direct contact between East and West was rare and often fraught with danger. To a great degree we were each unaware of what was occurring on the ‘other side’. What was gleaned was fragmentary and uncertain, most of it either collected through conversation, hearsay, and rarely through archives smuggled out by expatriates or incriminating mail; or else filtered, distorted and re-contextualized by the ruling powers of both nations in transit.
As the Cold War drifted toward its conclusion, channels began to open up, and translations of poems and essays began to appear. Gerald Janecek, John High, and many other editors and translators began to establish an awareness of Soviet poetry within the American avant-garde, but it is a slow process that still continues. Most of the artists and writers in this exhibition came to age during or after the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union. This generation has taken it upon itself to be proactive and intentional in navigating this fundamental reshuffling of cultural contexts. The Russian-language journals whose contributors are represented here—Slova (‘Words’), Drugoe polusharie (‘Another Hemisphere’) and Chernovik (‘Draft’)—consistently publish works in translation between Russian, English, and other languages, and are vital to efforts throughout the world to respond this generations-long historical divide in ethical, innovative, and intelligent ways. They are making the most challenging and rigorous underground thought and creation in both the Russian-speaking and the English-speaking worlds available to each other, often translating work that is still obscure and pioneering even its native environment, sometimes publishing translations before a piece has appeared in its original language.
We do well to regret the countless lost opportunities since the split in the avant-garde took place; but what strikes me at this historical moment is rather the promise that our situation may hold for its future. Here we have two sets of paths explored, two converging contexts and discourses, two sets of awarenesses and strategies that can be shared and developed and applied by countercultural communities as broader economic, ecological, social and political structures continue to dissolve and re-form at a dangerously accelerating pace. This dialogue itself continues to bear the scars of the past. These scars are countless, from the dearth of fluent Russian-speakers and translators in American and European countries to the continued legal persecution of Russian artists of which Kolomiets writes in great detail in the full-length version of his essay condensed here. One result of the threat of persecution in Russia is a vibrant conversation in which dynamics of ‘speaking’ and ‘not-speaking’ are blurred and questioned, in order to carry out constant acts of communication that defy legalistic classification, which do not require ‘meaning’ of the tangible kind that can be offered up as evidence or twisted to serve an ideology. Here again we return to Asemic writing, and to Mail Art as a way to interact with colleagues throughout the world while avoiding public displays that would lead to legal harassment or persecution.
If we seek to bring about revolutionary change within the avant-garde, and thus in life, we will do so not by some single epoch-making stroke, but in the form of concrete, extended collaboration between hundreds of small groups and individuals in dozens of countries, interacting and intersecting in a thousand different directions. It has always been thus. What has been unique about the situation of during the six decades of mutual alienation between Soviet and non-Soviet creative communities is that whole swaths of the avant-garde were artificially sliced out of this network and segregated, on one side of the divide or the other, for generations.
It is a situation which has been tragic in its realization, but which offers numberless potential futures. How we all respond to this situation, which seeds we choose to nurture and which we allow to lie unplanted, shall play a large role in determining our generation’s legacy.
by Gleb Kolomiets
(LINK to full-length essay)
The contemporary Russian avant-garde is a heterogeneous phenomenon. It incarnates all of the typical features present in Russian life: atomization, xenophobia, over-institutionalization and conformism. At present the Russian avant-garde is split into numerous isolated segments and movements, which spread like concentric circles from the points of concentration of power and wealth: galleries, funds, prizes, the Ministry of Culture, the totalitarian Unions of Artists, or conservative, liberal and radical ideological associations.
This collection highlights the work of authors from the outer circle of the Russian avant-garde. This outer circle is not connected with official institutions, virtually unrepresented in the mass-media, and seldom showed in galleries. Collectors rarely buy the works of these artists, and they are never put up for auction, so these artists for a number of reasons (some of them compulsory) refer to their art as non-commercial. The distance from the outer circle to the center shows that the artists populating the outer circle treat art not as profession or the ideological state apparatus, but as a political, social and personal lifestyle. However, these artists do not form a single front, a single art movement, so I think it would not be wrong to say that the number of approaches to art in this exhibition is equal to the number of the exhibited authors (and I expect that most of the artists will disagree with my interpretation of their art). So, a general text about the properly artistic component of the exhibition can give only vague, abstract description of the works. It should also be noted that some of the exhibited authors live outside of Russia. Yuli Ilyuschenko and Katya Samigulina live in Belarus, Alexander Motsar – in Ukraine, Alexander Ocheretyansky and Alexander Galper in the USA. However, they all participate in Russian culture.
The turn toward the world of ideas and forms is a factor that one can perhaps detect in all the works in the exhibition. Such a tendency is widespread in the world and in Russian art of the 20th and 21st centuries. However, when the conversation turns to the contemporary Russian avant-garde, one can find the distinctive background of Idealism and Formalism.
Most of the artists from the outer circle of the avant-garde are adult, older people. I estimate their average age at approximately 50-55 years. Their creative maturing fell during the years of Soviet government, when art in Russia was an even more dangerous occupation than it is today. Imprisonment and compulsory treatment in a mental institution were the widespread forms of repression of artists in Soviet Union. In 1962, the government launched the campaign against formalism and abstractionism in art, and many artists (for example, Mikhail Schemyakin, who is one of the most respectable Russian sculptors today, or Dmitry Prigov, a key figure of Russian conceptualism) were forced to pass courses of “treatment” in mental institutions. Since that time the refusal to depict reality “as it is” and exploit social themes in art, has became a form of protest against the government. And until the crash of USSR, the government treated such protest seriously and reacted to it with all its cruelty and rapidity. It seems that this tradition of resistance is still developing in the works of the contemporary avant-gardists, despite the changes in social and political circumstances in Russia.
Russian artists who cannot enlist the support of human rights defenders, journalists and expensive lawyers (i.e. are not members of the Russian establishment or not connected to it by friendly or familial links), still risk being jailed any time they show their artwork, and it is a risk which cannot be accepted by every artist. An artist must evaluate the form and the content of his work carefully and captiously in order to make sure that it will not draw the police’s attention. Perhaps this can serve as an explanation for Russian avant-gardists’ commitment to formalist themes, styles and techniques.
Art, prevented from turning toward the outer world, turns on itself. The contemporary Russian avant-garde shown in this exhibition is directed first of all to form. Formalism purifies a work of art from everything outer – context, author, history and reality itself. And the criticism of forms remains the only possibility for the implementation of the destructive potential of art, that specific form of destruction which is able to change the world beyond recognition.
The confrontation between figurative and abstract visual art is still topical for Russian art (a portion of Russian audience and art-critics are still not ready to admit that the “Black Square” by Kazimir Malevich is actually a work of art). So the works by Mikhail & Nikolay Vyatkin, Sveta Litvak and Alexander Ocheretyansky contribute to this confrontation. Relying on the considerable tradition of the avant-garde of the early 20th Century – Constructivism, Zaum, Suprematism, Dadaism – they broaden the spectrum of criticism of classical and early modernist forms of expression. Lettrism, Conceptualism and Visual Poetry have obviously influenced and continue to influence the Russian avant-garde. In the work of Willy Melnikov, Alexander Motsar and Edward Kulemin, text becomes an autonomous artistic phenomenon, sometimes cut off from its readable content and sometimes commenting and broadening the text’s content into universal concepts, which give birth to an autonomous artwork and gives guidelines for interpretation.
Asemic writing, the genre that reaches the limit of the criticism of Natural Language and encourages the multiplication of interpretations, is becoming increasingly popular amongst Russian artists. The idea of the creation of texts that are able to contain whole worlds of meaning at once, is one of the conceptual bases for works by Edward Kulemin, Sveta Litvak, Evgeniy V. Kharitonov, Alexander Ocheretyansky, Yuli Ilyuschenkso and Katya Samigulina.
The two latter artists live in Belarus and participate in the Russian and world art from their own social and political context. I think this can be a good explanation of the fact that their art has an expressive tendency to bridge the gap between life and art typical of the Russian avant-garde. In their works they turn to the facts of real life and even find a way to use asemic writing as a weapon of political struggle (see their Manifesto of the Asemiс International).
Yet, there is a hidden political component in the apparent political indifference of the contemporary Russian avant-garde. The abstract forms, positively cut off from the reality, narrate the loss of the political struggle and the triumph of apathy over the creative forces of the society. The exhibition silently expresses the intolerability of the loss in the fight for political freedom and social justice, lest the world of ideas become one’s last resort.
Alexander Ocheretyansky – 3rd Book of Japanese Letters_24
Alexander Ocheretyansky – 3rd Book of Japanese Letters_43
Alexander Ocheretyansky – Motsar_Russkoe_nebo_Dostoevsky
Edward Kulemin – Poems of a cash register 4
Edward Kulemin -Poems of a cash register 5
Evgenij V. Kharitonov – Poem For Tim Gaze
Evgenij V. Kharitonov – Secret Words 2
Nestor Povarnin – untitled envelope
Nikolai Vyatkin – Morning newspaper – Утренняя газета
Sveta Litvak – Kind
Yuli Ilyuschenko & Katya Samigulina – Asemic manifesto
Gleb Kolomiets was born in 1986 in Tula, Russia, and lives in Smolensk, Russia. He is the author of fiction, poems, essays and scientific papers, and curator of four exhibitions of avant-garde art. He is the editor of the journal Slova, which is dedicated to radical and avant-garde tendencies in contemporary literature, art and philosophy.
Olchar E. Lindsann is a writer, theorist, publisher, performer, pedagogue and historian of the avant-garde. A co-founder of the International Post-NeoAbsurdist Collective, he is also actively engaged with many other radical and avant-garde projects through the Eternal Network. In his capacity as publisher of Monocle-Lash Anti-Press, he has edited and issued 50 books, journals, and discs featuring work by over 100 writers, thinkers, and artists from around the world.