“The general tenor of emotional life in Moscow, thus forming a lyrical and romantic blend, still stands opposed to the dryness of officialdom,” wrote Boris Groys in his 1979 essay “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism,” delineating the state of contemporary artistic practice in the Soviet state. In the essay, Groys discusses the work of Lev Rubinstein, Ivan Chuikow, Francisco Infante, and the artist group Collective Actions (Kollektivnye deistviya). Founded in 1976 by Andrei Monastyrski, Georgii Kizevalter, and Nikita Alekseev (later joined by Nikolai Panitkov, Igor Makarevich, Elena Elagina, Sergei Romashko, and Sabine Hänsgen), the group devised actions that took place sometimes with and sometimes without spectators, in the countryside, the city, or private apartments. Organizing conspiratorial “trips out of town,” their initial audience was asked to attend a gathering in the woods or in a field, where they might have, for example, as if by chance, come across a ringing bell under the snow. These actions were documented in photographs and short descriptive texts, among other forms; this translation into factographic elements forms another level of the work, the only one directly accessible to any audience other than those present during the initial realization.
In 2007, I had the pleasure of including a number of these photographs in an exhibition I curated entitled Romantic Conceptualism—a title that begs the question of what “conceptualism” means here, as well as what Romanticism is. That same year, Collective Actions realized a performance—again in a winter landscape outside Moscow—entitled Deutsche Romantiker (German Romantics), which amongst other elements involved period portraits of famous Romantics such as Adelbert von Chamisso, Bettina von Arnim, and Novalis affixed to trees. I couldn’t help but think of this beautiful piece as an ironic twist on my basic premise for the Romantic Conceptualism exhibition, namely that there are some interesting parallels between the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century and artists working in the realm of international conceptualism since the 1960s.
But isn’t Romanticism the antithesis of conceptualism? Yes and no; if conceptualism is understood as dialectical—as much about what it doesn’t say as what it does, as much about “pure” information as the “impure”—then there are very interesting connections.
The first methodological characteristic of conceptual art is that it radically shifts the emphasis from representation to indexicalization (in this alone it doesn’t differ fundamentally from earlier movements of modernist abstraction); rather than reproducing or illustrating the appearance of something, that “something” is evoked through a gesture, or language, or other indexical means (including, literally, signs and measures). While this may imply a devaluation of skill (in order to index, one doesn’t necessarily need to be good at drawing from life, or even at making a photograph) and originality (if there is no virtuosic skill, there will be no detectable “style” securing the distinctive authenticity of the work), these seem to be—initially, at least—side effects rather than main objectives. The main objective is rather to move away from the visual and the phenomenological (or the retinal, as Duchamp famously put it) toward the indexical, toward pointing to things in an idea-driven way (which does not preclude the use of images as long as they are in the service of this objective).
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