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Performing Objects, Narrating Installations: Moscow Conceptualism and the Rediscovery of the Art Object


The artistic practices of the international neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s and ’70s are often understood through the notion of the rediscovery of the figure of the artist. Experimental art from that period included happenings, performances, and other body-related practices. One would expect such expressions of subjective freedom—to the extent they were legally permitted—from artists in the totalitarian Soviet Union. But while works of this kind did indeed exist (e.g., the performances of the Dvizhenie [Movement] group, whose members took part in outdoor “Dionysian” happenings in Crimea; or Rimma and Valeri Guerlovins’s “naked” performances), they represented cases that were relatively rare and exotic—one could even say deliberately so, since, at least for the Guerlovins, the “Western” hippie aesthetic was an important part of their message. Contrary to such expectations, however, the riskier and more experimental artistic practices of Moscow Conceptualism actually represented a rediscovery of the art object, even a utopian quest for it.

In a performance by Moscow’s Gnezdo (Nest) group called An Attempt to See Oneself in the Past and Future (from the Non-Functional Art series [1977]), young artists jump up and turn around in the air in a desperate attempt to capture their own image in a moment in the past (like in a photograph), or in the future (like in a flash of intuition)—in either case, as a static image, a still. It is the dissociation of the “seeing” me from the “seen” me, or from the “me-to-be-seen,” that is at stake here. To discover the objectified part of oneself, one has to stop experiencing art in real time and instead envision it as a finite and autonomous “thing.” One has to achieve a suspension of uninterrupted temporality for the sake of the deed, of self-objectification. But the static image slips away instantly. The desire to break free turns out to be unrealizable. (The photodocumentation of the performance does not provide the sought-after image, since it is made by an external gaze.) It seems more difficult to stop the constant performance of life than to start it.

One might assume that artists behind the Iron Curtain were freer to produce material objects than to move their bodies. But in the Soviet Union of the ’70s it was the reverse, at least for artists in the unofficial scene, who found creative ways to survive in the very malleable society of late communism. Living under no pressure in terms of housing (modest housing was provided by the state), career (theirs was nonexistent), and money (almost nonexistent), they had ample time to hang out indoors and outdoors (within Soviet borders, of course) in a kind of an endless and slightly Surrealist “involuntary performance.” It is often said that the practices of Moscow Conceptualism were largely immaterial; the artists did not need to produce any work since they were constantly meeting and exchanging ideas.

This strange freedom from production was exactly what the young Gnezdo artists sought to break free from. But it was a failed liberation: in An Attempt to See Oneself in the Past and Future, the dream of self-objectification remains unfulfilled. The performative character of the action pointed to this fact, as if the very form of performance were synonymous with the failure to suspend “turning around” and to produce something.

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