AN IVORY SUBMARINE: CONTEMPORARY ART, RUSSIAN POST-MODERNISM AND SOCIAL REALITY
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by Vladislav Sofronov-Antomoni

Text from catalogue of the exhibition: Horizons of reality. At MuHKA from March 15th until June 1st 2003, Antwerpen.



   
   
  A general view of reality


From about the mid-eighties onwards and during the entire decade of the nineties the post-modern canon and its strict collection of axioms undividedly governed the consciousness of an important part of the Russian class of intellectuals: reality is but a linguistic game, reality fluctuates, it has many forms and, as a whole, it cannot be subsumed within one single ontology; in fact there are an indefinable number of realities, and, at the same time, reality is a misleading representation of itself; consequently, strictly speaking, we cannot know anything about reality - an odd contradiction, yet quite a typical one of post-modernism.

It needs to be pointed out that, despite the fact that this post-modern consciousness was only represented by an extremely limited circle of scientists from Moscow, in actual fact it was acknowledged by all, albeit tacitly. Yet, it did encounter the resistance of the oldest generation of thinkers, who, in the best case, were considered to be a generation of conservatives by the progressive ones; as of today, apart of this generation of post-modern youth spawns a layer of new conservatives and actually constitutes one by themselves. The causes of this domination and their historical foundations mil be sketched in greater detail.

It also has to be said that a comparable escape into a postmodern unreality stands in an odd contrast to the social activism of the first years of the perestroika, of which also the social activism of contemporary art was part and which found its ultimate expression in the Moscow actionism. One last remark in connection with the above; despite the contrast between post-modern escapism (the flight into linguistic games and the refusal of any study and judgment of social realities) on the one hand, and the social elan and the subsequent social fracture and the transformation through which the country went, on the other hand, towards the end of the eighties and the early nineties, the ideas of post-modernism constituted the domain of reflective activity, when the leading Russian representative of this world view, the Moscow-based philosopher Valeri Podoroga, delineated the horizons of intellectual activity. As such, the post-modern flight - the escape- was considered to be a return to real life after the unbearably mind-deadening period of brezhnevism which had lasted for decades. In contemporary art, this intertwining of activism and escapism became manifest in the creation and in the production of the Studio of visual anthropology, which was founded by Viktor Misiano and to whom Valeri Podoroga and some of his collaborators adhered, as well as a group of contemporary artists from Moscow,



Social roots and branches


The production of ideas and the representations of consciousness is, at its very inception, intimately intertwined with the material activity and the material communication between people, with the language of real life. (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, in German Ideology)

When we speak about the political and social basis and background of Russian post-modernism, we should first and foremost point out the following circumstances: the post-modern presentations of the relativism of epistemological methods and theories which spread all over Russia in the nineties, as well as the post-modern presentation of the fluctuation and the relativity of different varieties of reality are dearly and undeniably linked with the social-economic and political realities of Russia in the nineties, a decade of relativism in the forms of the distribution of property and of fluctuating power structures.

In the nineties, a tectonic fault came to the fore in Russia, the replacement of one social-economic formation by another one; it was a period of transition/return from a socialist bureaucratism to a capitalist production method. It goes without saying that this is an extremely complicated and in se contradictory process. In the historical dynamics of a decade, this is a leap forwards. In the historical dynamics of an entire century, it is a step back. Innumerable partial developments are active within this hyper-process, each according to its own rhythm and its own measure.

In addition to this, the dazzling heterogeneity of capitalism returning to Russia grafted itself on this hyper-process: at times a wild, archaic capitalism, then again a remarkably retarded capitalism (a later phase than wherever), a capitalism of consumerism and of the information society. And this is not everything: in this context one also ought to consider the literal boom or explosion in the literal sense of the word of digital and information technology (a basic process, a process from/at the basis) which occurred in the nineties and which continues up to the present day. In 1990, a man of science could only dispose of a typewriter and a photocopy machine. When I finish an article today, sitting in the library, I immediately send it to the editor via e-mail on my pocket computer, using my mobile telephone with its infrared plug-in as a modem. Afterwards, I have a look at my messages and surf on the internet for a while by means of the same devices.

In perfect consequence with the law of conformity between the processes in the superstructure and the processes at the basis, these vertiginously complex and astonishingly contradictory social events could not but constitute the infamous fertile soil upon which the flowers of postmodernism were to thrive.

In this respect, classical Marxist analyses of social classes can also be applied. The central and absolute role which is being attributed to language in the theories of the postmodernists is a distinctive and characteristic feature of the class of the intellectuals. Quotation marks are necessary over here, since, according to the classical definition of a social class, intellectuals do not feature as such, as they stand in no specific relation or other to the means of production. Yet, just like, to the class-consciousness of the farmer, the entire universe revolves around his piece of land on the rhythm of the seasons and of the process of agricultural labour, to the intellectual, the inhabitant of libraries and universities, the entire world presents itself as a linguistic/textual construct. In other words, there is a process of hyposthasis of language on the basis of objective, social grounds, which we will discuss in further detail below.

And just like, from an objective point of view, the class-consciousness of a farmer is limited and passive (in this regard, the other side of the coin is merciless revolt), language is being inverted from a method and a tool into a goal in and of itself and into an objective given, into something which alienates man from his land, his history, his future and even from himself. Precisely at this junction lies the cause of this characteristic trait of Russian intellectual history during the nineties, namely the remarkable and scandalous silence (and quite an eloquent silence, for that matter) of the intellectuals/post-modernists during the entire decade of the nineties about the most important problems of the historical moment, the moment whose importance cannot be overestimated.

In closing, we broaden the historical perspective to conclude this concise analysis of the social roots of post-modernism in Russia. As stated above, the post-modernist of the nineties flee into text/language and observe a demonstrative silence about the social storms, which first deprive them of their sausage sandwich and afterwards pull away the social groundwork from underneath them, after which they land in another country, in another Russia, like Elly and her destructive little house in the fairytale about the wizard of Emerald City.

One hypothesis explains that the aforementioned gap between the screaming evidence of social earthquakes and the intellectuals eloquent and absolute silence about them is rooted in the era of Peter I (research in the social history of that time also shows us the underpinnings of the reforms by Peter) at a time when society appears to have been bisected in two parts, two economies, two ways of living, two languages even: on the one hand, an insignificant minority educated in European fashion and economically prosperous versus an enormous majority without any rights, education, deprived of any participation in the government, of the right to vote, of possessing land, in short which did not possess anything at all.

Furthermore, the eternal, universal and historical significance of the Great socialist October Revolution may lie with the fact that this gap was bridged in only a few years time and that this vast majority obtained everything which it had always been deprived of. For this reason, the October Revolution was not at all a collapse, an obscurantism or a period of confusion; quite to the contrary, in the deeper meaning of the word, it was the first harmonizing phenomenon within Russian (and universal) history. After this prelude and overture, the chain of action has been interrupted; but why should one care, since also the bourgeois revolutions have not been victory at a first attempt.

And, in connection with the above, there is another point. This gap already opened up at the end of the twenties of the twentieth century in order to be transmogrified into a gap between the free-thinking attitude of civil emancipation and a treacherous loyalty to the powers that be within the public domain towards the latest decades of the soviet era. But these decades are the backdrop of the (post)soviet intellectuals. It does appear that then and there the circle has come to a full close and that, in order to break through it in the nineties, it was not so much strength which was lacking, but rather the very consciousness of the necessity to do so. (Whence the moulded identification of bolshevism with Stalinism and of socialism with totalitarianism in a significant part of social consciousness).

The following twist of this dualism coincides exactly with the introduction of post-modern ideas and texts in the intellectual atmosphere of the intellectual at the end of the seventies. And vice versa, the ease with which these ideas were appropriated can be explained by the fact that they proposed an explanation for this dualism, a legitimization for this gap. An example thereof consists in the theory of the death of the Author as it was developed by Roland Barthes, who was quite popular in intellectual circles for some time. Because, if there is an insurmountable barrier separating the personality (of the author) and the text, it follows that other moral problems could also be of this nature: for instance if I pretend one thing at a public meeting, whereas I say something entirely different in my kitchen at home. One could add to this that post-modernism marks the end of a great historical circle - a curious form of decadence - by means of its hypostatising of language and making the text unnecessarily complicated: for this is a repetition of the obscure language of the pre-Socratic philosophers. But, just as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were heirs to these philosophers, this might also be interpreted as a closure which lays the foundation of a new beginning, as despair in which new hope is rooted. This is a universal law: history does not only contain oppression, but also the conditions of liberation.



The return of the repressed


And yet, in Russian post-modernism, a social dimension remains present, a dimension of (social) reality: it cannot remain absent, even if it is a bastardised, repressedform, replete with compromises. Once again, I repeat that in the history of Russian post-modernism, one can retrace the history of the concept of reality in social consciousness and in contemporary art.

There are two stadiums in this process and in the presence of reality.

On the basis of this presence of reality, Valeri Podogora developed the philosophy of the body towards the end of the nineties; it is based on the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This was an important event at the time, an event about which was even reported by local papers and which had a significant influence on contemporary art.

One could remark that the philosophy of the body occurs at exactly the same time as the beginning of the social shifts of the perestroika. It is of considerable significance that this presence of reality surfaced in repressed form. On the one hand, thought feels that something other than itself exists in this world (namely, social reality, of course), yet talks about it in a manner heavy with compromises, as about the body of thought. And this is entirely in keeping with classical psychoanalysis: The return of the repressed is a process, involving that the repressed, yet preserved, elements manage to resurface, albeit in a bastardized form, heavy with compromises. (J. Laplanche. J. -B. Pontalis, in Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse) Towards the end of the nineties, the motif of autobiography replaces the theme of the body in the works by Valeri Podoroga and in that of his collaborators (mainly those who constitute the core of Russian postmodernism). And also for this phenomenon, there is an explanation: if the analysis of the body coincides with the period of social reform, the analysis of the autobiography corresponds with the unconscious feeling of the intellectuals/post-modernists of the nineties. Furthermore, there is the correspondence with the repressed desire to reconsider the past. Yet, this re-conceptualisation unfolds as an analysis of the autobiographical text or of the place of autobiographical letters in other literary systems or in other sectors of the superstructure (the eternal return of the vicious circle, for the autobiography which unites the personal/internal history with the external chain of events, is a form of attention for the external aspect of thought, heavy with compromises, meaning, for that part of reality where this thought dwells).

This is added to the fact that the gross activity of capitalist Russia has already surpassed Russian post-modernism, in the process reducing the influence of the latter to nil, and soon it will totally submerge it. The small intellectual bookshop balances on the verge of a debacle; stipends are being halted, and the latter were necessary instruments to shut the mouths of the alleged critics with apiece of bread and butter, in order to prevent them from talking about the dangers of the capitalist restoration; the very pattern of glass beads for diamonds. A great many non-commercial and important cultural institutions continually face bankruptcy and being closed.

In order not to go to far astray from the theme of art and reality, I just wish to point out two more things: At a certain moment, Russian contemporary art and Russian philosophy were closely confronted with each other. Yet, as of today, these are definitely two divergent lines; if, at the beginning of the nineties, the philosophy of the body had a marked influence, not only on intellectual circles in general, but also on the theory and on the praxis of contemporary art in particular, one could now state that this influence definitely belongs to the past nowadays and there is absolutely no reason to assume that the theme of autobiography has or will ever have an influence on contemporary art in Russia (let alone on its mindset). For the time being, contemporary Russian art is not subject to the pressure of a System (or is not conscious thereof), as opposed to many other areas within culture. We cherish hopes that the atmosphere which characterises this art will remain one of freedom, not one of being free of a horizon of reality, of course, but at least one of being free of any form of extravagant repression.


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Translation from Russian by Yonah Fonce
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Self-made subject of art.

An ivory submarine: contemporary art, Russian post-modernism and social reality.

Love and communism

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