SELF-MADE SUBJECT OF ART
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by Vladislav Sofronov-Antomoni

Text from catalogue of the exhibition: Vladimir Arkhipov, "Folk sculpture"
Kunstverein Rosenheim, 2004



   
   
  Within the institutional frameworks of art, the contemporary art project developed by Vladimir Arkhipov raises questions and even some bewilderment. This bewilderment especially in the unsophisticated observer - is connected with the question of Whether or not this can really be called art at all? But actually this ability of Arkhipovs things to shake-up and drive customary conceptions of art out of a rut already says a lot this ability to cause amazement and to induce people to stop and ask questions is one of the most important characteristics of art in general. (And for contemporary art, the most important one.)

The sophisticated observer does not pose such questions concerning definitions. In the first place, because he is already used to the attempts of contemporary art to startle him. Secondly, because it is easy to recall parallels to Arkhipovs project - Ilya Kabakov (whose total installation makes use of or imitates household items), Joseph Boyes (who introduced materials which were earlier considered to be unsuitable for art), and already almost a century of the practice of ready maid and objet trouve - and this only scratches the surface.

But what does Arkhipov do? What is the essence of his project? He collects certain items of material culture, which exist in any country, but which for some reason only become visible when they end up in an exhibition hall. A toothbrush curved and drilled to serve as a clothes hook, maracas from an empty cereal tin; a flowerpot stand made from a plastic plate with bent edges.

The presentation of household items from every day life as art objects confronts the observer and the critic with two interconnected questions: Where does the border between art and non-art lie (not in the sense of bad art, but something that is simply other than art; say, gadgets or a collectible)? and How, it follows, can we define art (because only in establishing such a definition can we derive the criterion necessary to answer the first question)?

In reality, the history of 20th century art in any case, beginning since Duchamps Fountain - was an attempt to pose these questions and to offer certain answers to them. A significant part of artistic focus in the 20th century was devoted to attempting to break through the limits of art and, in doing so, to expand those limits and define the concept of art anew. This part of art, violating the defined concepts of art, can be called the intellectual-gnosiological movement of 20th century art. There was also, of course, a movement considering picturesque-plastic problems par excellence. In the end, it is necessary to recognize, that the strict division of these two vectors is only an illusion and in the work of each individual artist they take on many forms and are intertwined in complex ways.

Incidentally, Arkhipovs things are located right at the intersection of these two movements. On the one hand, as already noted, they raise questions (the gnosiological movement). On the other hand, they are absolutely plastic and formally expressive and look perfect in gallery space.

Another difference between the things in Arkhipovs collection and usual ready-made items is that not one of the items was produced as art, but each has its own personal history, already connected with concrete circumstances and events more than the concrete necessity that it was created to satisfy. Arkhipov carefully keeps the personal history of each item (the author's description, photo, and voice). On the one hand, this contradicts the ideal of a self-sufficient work of art. But on the other hand, it demonstrates, with the help of careful documentation, that each thing has been made by a specific individual for a concrete specific purpose and, hence, each thing has never existed before, and will never exist again - again returning us to concept of uniqueness, that concept without which, starting at least since the epoch of the Renaissance, art itself cannot be conceived of.

So each self-made thing which appears in exposition space confronts us with a whole complex of problems: it pulls in its wake the question of how art can be defined; it is ready-made and simultaneously something almost opposite to ready-made; it is alienated from the creator and is exposed in a gallery; simultaneously it has a creator, no less concrete than the creator of any picturesque tapestry hanging in the adjoining hall of the same gallery. But then: if each thing has its own documented creator, what is Vladimir Arkhipovs function? Is he a creator? An artist? A curator? A collector?

By selecting not simply concrete things, but unique things and exposing them in a gallery environment (that is giving them a universal quality the ability to cause aesthetic experience), Arkhipov is taking an approach traditional enough in European culture. Such a combination of the unique with universality is the object of art par excellence (at least in the ideal).

Nevertheless the items presented are not pictures, painted with oil on canvas, but self-made things. They provoke a whole new line of questioning, already not about art as such, but about ourselves, about our civilization - both in its spiritual and material forms.

First of all, to people of that generation who are now in their thirties and forties and who lived roughly half their lives under socialism (Arkhipov belongs to this generation), and to others who were raised under capitalism, the difference in the status of a self-made thing in different socio-political systems strikes the eye. The Commodity Deficiency of socialism (and, more truly, the status of goods under socialism) led to a situation in which self-made things, to a great measure, had to replace absent industrially produced things (for instance, the absence of small pocket flashlights for sale forced people to make them themselves). The part of Arkhipovs collection that was collected in Russia consists mainly of such things. In modern consumer society, the self-made thing has a different function. In a society based on mass, industrial, standardized manufacture people are moved to create such things to satisfy a thirst to be unique, personal, and individual. If in each house stands one of the ten models of chairs produced by the concern IKEA, the self-made chair is a sign that its creator doesnt want to be an average member of the society of mass consumption, but wants to highlight his personal uniqueness (the paradox, however, is that he/she achieves such uniqueness through the possession of a thing - though in a different way than those who seek status by obtaining a thing which has been created through mass industrial production). Further, in this vein, as capitalism becomes stronger in Russia, self-made things will take on more and more of an individualizing meaning, as seen in the West; and less and less of a compensatory one, as was true in the past (one more paradox is that indemnification is present in both cases; only in the one it is indemnification for material shortages, and in the other for spiritual ones).

Research into this contrast (embodied in Arkhipovs collection), like it or not, already gives this project an almost scientific value (the project is very similar to the work done in a research museum). In general, sensitivity to a things materiality and its spiritual components is Arkhipovs distinctive feature. This was first demonstrated in the abandonment of his initial work with standardized industrial subject-goods to work with discovered self-made things, and then in his actual research into the status of a thing in consumer society and other social systems (Soviet socialism); and currently in the artists refusal to appropriate the subjects in his collection. Recently he, more often than not, takes the self-made things from their owners only for the period of an exhibition and then returns them without ever taking permanent personal possession of them.

So what does a self-made thing mean when it is brought into the context of modern art? First, that we still live in a civilization of things. It means that we can learn a lot about ourselves by observing our things. Second, both in modern western societies and in the previous USSR, the self-made object signifies the same thing (for all the distinctions between these societies and their things) - lack. Only, in one case there was a material lack, in the other a spiritual one.

But the self-made thing also says something different about us, than, say, Warhols can of Campbells soup. The can of soup addresses commodity fetishism, the crisis of a civilization, the crisis of art connected to it which could possibly lead to its death, and the refined attempts of modern art to somehow live within this crisis (to this end, artists usually take one of two basic approaches: the first group points out these crises and impasses in order to try to remain artists after the end of art and hopes, in some measure, to propose a diagnosis and cry out to the face of the public with the bitter truth; the second simply speculates on the crisis - and sometimes grows rich off it). But a can of soup was only a can of soup until Andy Warhol put his signature on it. The self-made things from Arkhipovs collection were already unique even before Arkhipov ever got to them. (And Vladimir is completely correct in carefully preserving this uniqueness: lately he not only returns the things after the end of an exhibition, but also invites their creators to the openings of exhibitions). But this uniqueness is not enough for these things to have started talking, that is: to acquire universal meaning. In order for them to say something to someone wishing to listen, someone (that is Arkhipov, the finder) must already have understood that they had something important to say. Vladimir Arkhipov seems sensitive enough. Warhols can is a dictatorship: What do I want - that this be referred to as art! But in Arkhipovs case, it is rather the ability to identify certain special sorts of things (finding them is not so simple, at times they are invisible even to their own creators) and, having placed them in exhibition space, to thus give them a voice.

And what do we hear? The self-made thing says, that not only goods exist in the world; that the world ought not be divided into professional manufacturers of art and passive consumers of it; that it is possible not only to consume the things of the world, but also to create them; that, in the end, each of us is a bit of an artist, a creator.

Our world is arranged so that its ideal plan (a plan which it could fulfill if it was relieved from bitterness, ugliness, and lies) is just that: a plan. This plan is contained within the world only as an embryo, an opportunity. Art has, from time immemorial, been called to point out this ideal plan for the world to us and to bring it into focus (it is due to this that the rock paintings of the Stone Age have been preserved up to the present day). That is, this world is pregnant with something better. Art cannot create a more perfect world, but it can remind us of it. The self-made things found by Vladimir Arkhipov are only things. But at the same time they whisper something that stands beyond and above the civilization of things.

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Translation: Michael F. Lehnartz

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