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Moscow Romantic Exceptionalism: The Suspension of Disbelief


I do not complain about anything and everything pleases me despite the fact that I have never been here before and know nothing about these parts.

—Collective Actions slogan, January 26, 1977, Leningradskaia railroad, Frinsaovka station

In 2005–6, I experienced a coup de foudre—a lightning blast of admiration—when I discovered Collective Actions and their performances in the snow. Later I attended Boris Groys’s talk at his Total Enlightenment exhibition in Frankfurt (2008) where he described the physical experience of travelling to snow fields, participating in mysterious actions, the return, and the months-long discussions and documentation that constituted other dimensions of the project. Much of this documentation was displayed in the Russian Pavilion this summer at the Venice Biennale, curated together with the doyen of the group, Andrei Monastyrsky.

Groys baptized “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” in the review A-YA in 1979, later excising (exorcising?) the word “Romantic,” a move that specifically intrigues me. During our Courtauld Institute collaboration last spring, I was introduced to Jorg Heiser’s Romantic Conceptualism exhibition from 2007, which explored the revitalization and dérive of “original” conceptual art. Its title preceded our new terminology—Expanded Conceptualism—for the Tate Modern conference of March 2011. Groys’s The Total Art of Stalinism (1988; English 1992) ­marked a “turn” at the moment of perestroika; it broke down the Manichaeism of Cold War stereotypes (Malevich good, socialist realism bad) from which current revisions of the twentieth-century canon proceed. What I wish to interrogate here is both the presentation of Moscow Conceptualism as entirely exceptional and the “suspension of disbelief” (the term coined by Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) that its chroniclers require of a Western audience, as they insist upon an autochthonic movement, born in snow.

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