This recent conversation is part of the Center for Experimental Museology, a collaborative project between COLTA.RU and the V-A-C Foundation.
Arseny Zhilyaev: I would like to start our conversation with a question about the relationship of artists of the historical avant-garde to the museum – specifically the relationship laid out in Kazimir Malevich’s famous text from 1919, “About the Museum.” As we know, in this text the artist calls for museums to be burnt down, leaving the right to judge whether this or that artwork from the past should be saved to life itself. The only possibility for the work of a dead artist, then, is to find some relevance within the current context – that is, to be compressed into a didactic pill of powdered ash, which can then be given out on request to active cultural workers. In his own work, Malevich himself took on the role of a kind of prophet-arsonist, creating not only an image of the absence of an image, but also, as you have noted in your own writing on the artist, an image of the permanent destruction of the image. That is to say, an image that is able to survive any negation. While the artist’s less radical colleagues may not have been calling for the total destruction of the art of the past, they were advocating for the creation of a museum that was maximally open to change. This is why Nikolai Punin, in the discussions leading up to the I All-Russian Museological Conference, was arguing for the creation of a flexible “museum on hinges.” Osip Brik suggested launching a series of exhibition halls, modeled after the libraries of scientific institutions, where each artwork could be checked out for use for research purposes, just like a book. Picking up on this, I wanted to ask your thoughts on the contemporary museum. It would seem that, with the advent of the internet and its assumption of the role of an international archive, or even, in some sense, of the dematerializing crematorium, the museum actually has increasingly positioned itself as a place for organizing educational or discursive activities, all the more enshrining the status of the work of the past to how Malevich described it.
Boris Groys: Here I need to say first and foremost, that the project of the avant-garde – or, let’s say, more specifically, of Futurism and Suprematism – would have been impossible without the tradition of historicism, which was given form in museum displays as they had evolved by the end of the 19th century. These museum displays were constructed on a simple principle: each historic epoch had its own persona, its own artistic style – antiquity, medieval art, the Renaissance, Baroque, and so on. This is where we get those famous formulations like “we are the face of our times” or “the future of the world is written on our hands.” Malevich himself repeatedly described the genealogy of the contemporary (to him) art and Suprematism as the result of a gradual transition from Cézanne through Cubism and Futurism. If all the art in museums had actually been cremated, then the historical originality of the avant-garde would have lost its visibility. The history of art, as it is shown in European museums, is precisely the history of breaks with the past. Without this history, the avant-garde is simply no longer able to be perceived as such. This is where artists, including artists from the radical avant-garde, get their fear that museums might disappear without a trace – the same way their own art might also disappear or, to a lesser degree, lose its ability to be understood. In this sense, Malevich’s proposal to burn down all the art of the past should be thought of more as a kind of consolation. After all, Malevich even says that, in this scenario, the museum could be replaced with an installation from the ashes remaining after the art was cremated. It is no accident that he compares this installation to a pharmacy. What we are talking about here is the medication for the excessive despair brought on by the prospect of the total disappearance of art, and, if anything, of all culture in the future. But such a remedy seems most plausible only if you maintain a consistently materialist view of things.
If we are talking about the internet, then yes, today it is playing the role of the main medium for the archiving of art. But the internet’s ability to stabilize cultural memory remains problematic. On the one hand, it is an accepted idea that computers never forget anything, but on the other, recovering and restoring lost data is possible only in instances when the hardware is still relatively intact.
At the same time, museum objects preserve their value even after catastrophes - if they are lying in the ground, they will be excavated. With the internet, the only thing left in this kind of situation are cables and other equipment. Future generations will treat these things the way we treat Roman aqueducts, where water no longer flows. But even if the belief in museum conservation as a means of achieving this worldly, secular immortality is entirely eradicated, museums will retain their appeal as a place to visit. Museums today act as organizers for film screenings, poetry readings, lectures, performances, and so on. This transformation of the museum into a club echoes the transformation of the church into a club. In general, the trajectory of art is reminiscent of the trajectory of historical Christianity: the loss of hope for a soul’s salvation (or art as a product of bodily creativity) leads to an interest in good deeds, care for one’s neighbors, social responsibility and political engagement.
Zhilyaev: In one of your recent curatorial projects — “Specters of Communism” — you propose the term “postconceptual realism” to describe the Russian art of the 2000-10s. Unlike the realism of the 19th century, which was structured more as passive reflection, the contemporary version suggests the possibility of active intervention, its subsequent documentation and the representation of changes made in response to it. This kind of understanding of art comes close to the conceptual practices of artists from the 1970s-80s, who started to use the space of the art installation to analyze the specific features of the production process of art, as well as the context of the social relations that makes this process possible. Contemporary art does the same thing, but for the institutional boundaries assigned to it, which precipitate the use of the document as the primary material carrier of the artist’s message, in turn making the documentary installation the most frequently applied medium of “postconceptual realism.” In my opinion, the prototype for this can be found in museums of a non-artistic focus or, in the Post-Soviet artistic context, the Museum of Revolution.
The first time I encountered an attempt to find terminology to link conceptualism with realism was in Ekaterina Degot’s text for her exhibition “Struggling for the Banner: Soviet Art Between Trotsky and Stalin.” By drawing on the concept of “conceptual realism,” the curator was able to describe the self-reflexive practices of painters from the 1920s, the second wave of the Russian avant-garde, as well as their experience creating didactic exhibitions. As I see it, this term remains more suited to the description of the experimental Marxist museologists, particularly Aleksei Fedorov-Davydov and his “Experimental Complex Marxist Exhibition,” created at the beginning of the 1930s. In its structure, it is closest to the future critical practice of conceptualism and institutional critique. Quite importantly, Fedorov-Davydov’s installation refused a strict allegiance to the medium of painting, instead mobilizing a maximum spectrum of artistic media, as well as documents reflecting their place in reality.
It is obvious that Degot’s argument is focused on a particular historical period and its specific features – “conceptual realism” as a pre-cursor to conceptualism. In the case of “postconceptual realism,” you actualize aspects characteristic of the production of contemporary art. Could you draw a line tracing the possible relationship between “conceptual realism” and “postconceptual realism”? That is, the relationship between the practice of the creators of Marxist exhibitions, whether it's the Museum of Revolution or the State Tretyakov Gallery, and the artistic practices of today – if such a relationship even exists?
Groys: We shouldn’t forget that the avant-garde artists considered themselves to be realists. The avant-garde insisted that the work of art is first and foremost a material object, which directly manifests its real presence in the world. A work of art is every bit as real as a rock or a tree. Or as a tractor, or an airplane. In this sense, the avant-garde artists positioned their realism and materialism in contrast to the illusionism of the art of the past; the traditional art work – for instance, a painted canvas – presents itself not as what it is, which is a piece of cloth smeared with paint, but as something else entirely – for instance, a portrait or a landscape. This explains the sympathy of avant-garde artists towards the Communist materialist ideology. However, it is clear that by the end of the 1920s in the Soviet Union, things began to be displaced by ideological signs. This is why the avant-garde started to be replaced by Socialist Realism, which presented itself precisely as this kind of symbolic system. Back in his day, Andrey Bely had already observed that in Russian the triumph of materialism would lead to the disappearance of matter. Of course, he meant this in regard to the Soviet stores, but it could also be applied to the sphere of art. This replacement of the avant-garde object with the ideological symbol crystallized in the art of Socialist Realism. In recent years in Russia, the concept of “Socialist Realism” has almost entirely fallen out of use. It apparently seems to be too toxic and is instead substituted with shame-faced synonyms like “conceptual realism” or “romantic realism.” However, these synonyms only obscure the real crux of the matter.
As for those Marxist (or, as they said back then, “vulgar sociological”) exhibitions at the beginning of the 1930s, they interpreted the avant-garde object as a sign, or rather, as a symptom of certain class determined ideologies shared by the artists. These exhibitions are sometimes compared to the infamous exhibition of “Degenerate Art,” organized by the Nazis in Munich in 1937, in which modernism and the avant-garde were presented in terms of racial symptomatic. Of course, Soviet exhibitions should not be considered to be the same degree of incriminating exposé as “Degenerate Art,” but all the same, their titles – for instance, “Art in the Epoch of Imperialism” – sound problematic. In these exhibition halls, one could find text along the lines of “Anarchism is the flip side of the bourgeoisie.” These exhibitions inscribed the avant-garde within the sphere of bourgeois art – what’s more, to its imperialist stage. Understandably, in the ideological atmosphere of those years, these kinds of characteristics did not promise anything good. Historically, these exhibitions preceded the final ousting of the avant-garde from Soviet art, taking the vulgar sociological school with it.
The issue with these exhibitions is not that the position of the curators did not coincide with the position of the artist, but that the artist was denied the right to have a position altogether: his art was shown only as an indirect manifestation of his class- or race-determined nature – like the burrows of a mole, or the tail of a peacock.
Zhilyaev: The debate around the delineation between the artist’s position and the curator’s is one of the most pressing questions in contemporary art. You also make frequent reference to this division. In particular, in your seminal text, “The Curator as Iconoclast,” you argue that the contemporary curator assumes the role of the “iconoclast” in relation to the “iconophilic” position of the artist: through the inclusion of this or that artwork within the curator’s narrative, he produces the work through decontextualization and demystification. I have often referred to another of your statements, which is important in this context, about the difference between the curatorial installation and the artistic; the former is a manifestation of institutional freedom, the latter a type of sovereign freedom. Art history has examples of breaching – or, at the very least, attempting to breach – these boundaries, both from both sides.
If we want to talk more about the Soviet curatorial experience, then we can single out this Marxist exhibition of Fedorov-Davydov’s. As an example of a breach from the artist’s side, we can’t not mention Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s “Alternative History of Art.” In the contemporary context, you can find no shortage of similar examples, pointing to an increasingly present trend of unifying the curatorial and artistic positions. But at the end of the 1920s, the discussion in the USSR centered on the attempt to model exhibition practice after the role played by the proletariat following the revolution – that is, the real overthrow of the boundaries of bourgeois democracy as part of the dictatorship of a proletariat ultimately striving for a classless society, extremely free in all its manifestations. As for the Kabakovs’ project, it involves taking a critical stance on the ideological system providing the framework for representing art history. In the contemporary context, however, we see the opposite tendency.
Let me give you an example. Quite recently, I came across a phenomenon that was new for me – the unprecedented institutional activity of a museum pretending to be free expression in the guise of an artwork. Not too long ago in the center of Kyiv, there was an exhibition called “Presence,” which presented its audience with military equipment of Russian origin, which had been captured in Donbass and Lugansk. I’m not going to presume the authority to judge political matters, I just want to draw attention to the interesting observation that in order to prove the authenticity of certain artifacts, the Kyiv officials needed to put together a, shall we say, curatorial installation, which, taken to an extreme, combined the Constructivist aesthetic with fact. In some sense, this was a symmetrical response to a similar Russian exhibition, “Material Evidence: Donbass, 365 Days,” which opened about a year ago in the Ukrainian pavilion at the V.D.N.Kh. It’s true, unlike the Kyiv exhibition, which took the form of a street intervention, built from a solemn series of ready-mades, the Moscow display – in a nod to the Soviet museology of the 1920-30s – made use of the theatrical effects of the dioramic “staged scenes” seen in Museums of Revolution. Both examples can be understood as deviations, simultaneously drawing on both the sovereign freedom of the art work and the legitimizing power of the curatorial installation, not to undermine the dominant ideological system, but, on the contrary, to reinforce it. In this context, what do you think, what kind of prospects are there for mutations of the curatorial and artistic positions in today’s contemporary art?
Groys: It goes without saying that any curatorial project reduces individual artistic practices and individual artworks to mere examples illustrating the curator’s own position. There’s no way to get around this. But if the curator is working in the sphere of art, then he inevitably must assume that his exhibition has a distinct aesthetic value, relative to how that exhibition compares with other curatorial projects in terms of the organization of space, the viewing time, the use of various media, etc. But as for exhibitions like that Ukrainian one and Russian one you mentioned, then more likely than not, the curators weren’t comparing their exhibitions with those of Harald Szeeman or their installations with those of Ilya Kabakov or Thomas Hirschhorn. What mattered to them was to simply to say what they wanted to say. So the question here is what did they want to say? Artistic space should not be used for the distribution of official propaganda, which has other options for reaching its audience. The political significance of art lies primarily in the fact that it provides the opportunity to formulate and present positions that have no chance of reaching mass media outlets. Affirmational art, just repeating what can already be seen and heard without any artistic intervention, does not make any sense.
Returning to the Kabakovs’ “Alternative History of Art,” it is critical not so much in its approach to a type of artist exhibition, as it is in its approach to the canonical art history. For Kabakov, it is fairly typical to shift the focus from artistic practices to the figure of the artist himself. It is this figure of the artist that is described and reflected in his albums and installations. And it is this figure that always seems to be hiding, disappearing, or slipping away from description – to be, in fact, fictitious. The fictional quality of the figure of the artist reveals the problematic nature of traditional art history, which asserts that we know who the artists “really were,” what they wanted, how they worked, etc.
Zhilyaev: I was struck by your interpretation of [Nikolai] Fedorov’s idea of resurrection as a kind of curating. But if we were to go further, in this instance, an interest in the cosmos – in particular, in the creation of an astronomical observatory on the foundation of museums – could be understood as a reflection of the relationship to the artistic medium – similar to the practices of institutional critique or conceptualism. After all, the study of celestial bodies and their movements, which was developed for the purpose of selecting potential sites for the eventual relocation of the resurrected (i.e., the results of true creativity, according to Fedorov), gives way to speculation as the topic of a possible exhibition context and its features. In a certain sense, this type of naturalization of conceptual reflections can bring the contemporary tendency to its limits, subjecting the cultural aspect of contemporary art to a harsh critique, particularly for being too human, too paternalistic in its relation to the natural world. At the same time, Fedorov’s proposal undoubtedly preserves the role of man as an agent of the changes taking place in the Universe.
It seems to me that there is a contradiction already inherent in the very philosophy of the common task. On the one hand, Fedorov insists on mankind’s leading role in the eventual transformation of the Universe, thus preserving his place as the crown in creation, while still referring to the inevitability of continued evolution, which should eventually result in supplanting anthropocentrism. Complications also arise with resurrection itself, which, contrary to the promises of religion, should actually happen in the earthly world and should offer a restoration both of the soul and of the physical body. But what do we do with the claims regarding the necessity of overcoming the human body in the form that it exists today? That is, how will it feel for resurrected fathers to encounter the significantly different, upgraded bodies of their sons? This question can be put in the context of Fedorov’s aesthetics as a question of future shock, the combination of works of art from extremely distant eras – for instance, the coexistence in one contemporaneity of paintings in the style of both Rococo and conceptualism. What answer would you propose? Or what role, in your opinion, should contemporary man play in the future Universe’s Museum of Russian Cosmism?
Groys: The main problem of art in the New Era is its inevitable role in the technological progress that determines the motion and rhythm of our time. The central feature of the contemporary understanding of progress is this: over the course of the 20th century, it has lost all its purpose. I think that here we need to recognize how new the experience of progress without purpose is for mankind. If we look back at the understanding of time in different epochs of human civilization, then it was either cyclical, or linear. Living in cyclical time, as practically all of humanity did until the emergence of biblical linear time, was quite comfortable; a man knew that in his lifetime he would experience all that could be experienced in life, since everything in that life would be repeated. Nostalgia for those times was aptly described by Nietzsche in his myth of the eternal return. Biblical religions severed cyclical time, offering instead the promise of a universal, transhistorical reunification of all the living at the end times – life after and beyond time. The modern technological civilization held onto this concept of linear time, but it discarded all of the promises related to it, including even the Communist ones. What is left is an absurd, meaningless movement from nowhere to nowhere. In some ways, this resembles the Chinese principle of Tao, but without any chance of escaping it.
For acute minds like Fedorov or Malevich – if we are speaking about Russian traditions – the radical novelty of this situation was apparent quite early on. And also quite early on, they recognized that after the death of God, the museum remains the only place for transhistorical reunification beyond the grave – there the mummy of the Pharaoh can meet with Duchamp’s’ urinal beyond the boundaries that separate their historical eras. Bakhtin, describing the novel as the ideal place for these kinds of encounters, cleverly finds a metaphor for it in Dostoevsky’s tale, “Bobok,” which centers around conversations between the rotting corpses in the cemetery – conversations the syntactical structure of which also gradually rot and decompose. Of course, this comparison between the museum exhibition and the novel is not accidental. In his day, Friedrich Schlegel defined the novel as the genre of genres, dominating over all other genres precisely because it can accommodate all others within it. In our time, the museum installation plays the same role as the novel in the 19th century. An installation can accommodate all media: painting, sculpture, film, video, photography, interactive internet installations, etc. And at the same time, an installation can include a body in different phases of its historically conditioned decay – from ancient sculptures with their noses and arms broken off up to the rotting chocolate sculptures of Dieter Roth.
If we were to return to the medieval texts describing earthly resurrection following the end times, then we would encounter the numerous paradoxes of corporeality in the afterlife that produced such great despair for the authors of these writings. Several of these paradoxes have been addressed by Giorgio Agamben in his book, The Open. For instance, he raises the questions as to how to resolve the problem of defecation in heaven, as wouldn’t heaven, over the course of eternity, become a repository of an infinite mass of feces, as one of the holy fathers wrote; or what happens to children born after the end of history, if sexual organs are to be preserved in the resurrected bodies, etc. It is not surprising that Fedorov, as well as his readers, would encounter similar problems. Here we are talking not so much about the realization of modern and contemporary obsessions, as about the site where they are projected. And at this point, yes, you could say that both in the New Era and in our time, the site of those projections has become the museum. In fact, contemporary art is the theology of the museum. And, with few exceptions, we mean a negative theology (or, to put it another way, institutional critique.) But, of course, negative theology remains theology.
*Image: Arseny Zhilyaev, Anton Vidokle de Kosmos Recreation Centre, 2016 - de Appel, Amsterdam 2016 - photo Antonio Picascia