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Conceptual Realism: The Vulgar Freedom of Avant-Garde Museum Work


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The exhibition starts with the [following] topic: “The serfdom system had been based on the corvée exploitation of the peasant by the noble landowner.” The main content is expressed by means of a mock-up: there is a peasant plowing with an authentic ancient plough; over him, there is a symbol of noneconomic violence—an authentic three-tailed whip, and beside it, a landowner, one belonging to a type of parasitizing lord. In front of the model the material is structured according to [these] topics: 1) first, the consumer character of the landowner household; 2) second, the developing trade which makes the landowner work for the market—that is, the birth of serfdom industry; and 3) third, the bread market, ever-increasing since the early eighteenth century, that leads to the intensification of corvée labor.

The topic “Absolute monarchy consolidates the authority of the lord over the peasant” is presented through the following symbols: a czar’s throne (a copy of the actual throne of the Romanov dynasty), hung high up inside a red velvet niche, [is] supported with the backbone of monarchy on each of its sides—a guard officer and a priest; above it all, [there is] a fierce double-headed eagle holding a whip instead of a scepter and an orb tangled in shackles. The essentially noble core of monarchy is demonstrated by the Charter to the Nobility.
—From “New Exhibition at the Leningrad Museum of Revolution,” Soviet Museum Journal no. 6 (1931)

Today the description of an exhibition above seems rather weird to us, even exotic. It’s hard to imagine that we could see something like this at a contemporary history museum, or even as a curatorial exhibition. However, it’s relatively easy to suppose that such an extravagant installation could come into being as a result of a contemporary artist’s research. What is the reason for this “duality of imagination?” One of the possible answers to this question could be found in the distinction that Boris Groys draws between curatorial and artistic installations in contemporary art. Whereas the former always has to fit into the public field—that is, to adapt itself to society’s ideological model, with all its rules and limitations—the latter still exemplifies sovereign freedom. Such an undercover restriction of liberty usually gets disguised, just like the limitations of Western democracy. The example of the Soviet exhibition in the beginning reflects a unique state of affairs. There are two things that we can discern in this seemingly weird exhibition. First, it is the merging of artist and curator into one person—even if, in reality, this “person” is an anonymous museum team, with its unlimited freedom. And second, it is a claim for the development of an utterly democratic society, which can allow for such a type of expression. This is all rather characteristic of the situation where a social revolution had won and transformed modernist, artistic innovations into an avant-garde, transcending both the role of the institutional and the borders of art. If we think of this model as potentially applied to contemporary artistic production, we can rightly state that it hasn’t lost its topicality at all. It’s certainly logical in some ways: indeed, many of the practices of contemporary art were anticipated by the historical avant-garde and its radical explosion of the 1910s–’30s, albeit in “laboratory mode.” Right now, there is no actual social basis that would allow us to talk about the expansion of democracy’s borders and a new avant-garde project. But the practice of combining artistic and curatorial positions is still highly productive, in terms of problematizing the exhibition as a special form and medium of contemporary art—a medium which is based on hidden and deep rules of social organization. At that, they not only are productive, but also may potentially lead to the radicalization of the primary impulse of the whole modernist project with its present contemporary art condition.

We are in fact already witnessing such a tendency. Thus, it is an increasingly frequent occasion nowadays that art historians have started to describe art history as the history of exhibitions, and not that of individual artistic statements. And often, these artistic statements themselves appropriate the expositional practices of the curators, not to mention the rather widespread practice of an artist acting as a curator of an essentially curatorial exhibition. The latest and most discussed example of such an activity was the Berlin Biennial, curated by Artur Żmijewski.

In this respect, the recent shift of artists’ attention from separate works onto exhibition-as-medium can be described as a critique of the bureaucratized version of the contemporary critical art display. This kind of display cannot achieve any tangible results in terms of formulating “correct” dogmatic answers without any real aesthetic changes and with unwarranted hopes of creating social transformation. This gesture is reminiscent of how new waves of the postrevolutionary avant-garde in Soviet Russia criticized geometric abstraction and constructivism for these movements’ bureaucratization and fetishization of the primary critical impulse. The exit out of the vicious circle of negating art’s critical variants was then found in realism and “realistic painting,” utterly free in its treatment of any stylistic methods whatsoever. Thus, post-avant-garde painting practice included the possibility of collage or the rejection of any vivid stylistic marks whatsoever—if this was what the creative idea and reality itself demanded. Russian critic Ekaterina Degot, in pointing at the ideological, idealistic, and oftentimes dialogic basis of this sort of collage technique in Soviet painting of the 1920s–’30s, labels it “conceptual realism”—which, in my view, is rather just. As an example she points to a portrait of Predfabzavkom, chairman of the factory commission, and his wife, painted in 1922 by one of Malevich’s disciples, Georgiy Ryazhsky.

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