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Art With No Excuses

© RIA Novosti . Grigory Sysoyev / Go to the photo bankOleg Kulik preparing an installation for the Biennale of Contemporary Art
Oleg Kulik preparing an installation for the Biennale of Contemporary Art - Sputnik International
Although Russia has contributed to many art genres, performance art has never been an integral part of Russian culture.

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published a new Special Report on the performing arts in Russia: Bodies in Motion.  Twelve articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine the current trends in theater, music and adjacent forms of art both as creative activities and as social institutions. The following article is part of this collection.

Performance Art Was Not Always Part of the Russian Art Scene.

Although Russia has contributed to many art genres, performance art has never been an integral part of Russian culture. Performance art was born in Europe in the early 20th century, at a time when futurists experimented with colors, Dadaists meshed poetry and visual arts and the German Bauhaus explored relationships between space, sound and light. These art movements paved the way for what was to become performance art as it is known today. It reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s, in America with the “Fluxus” movement; in “happenings” (early forms of performance art introduced by Yves Klein in France and Allan Kaprow in the United States); and body art, an offshoot of performance.

Modern performance art spans an enormous variety of activity, and has lately been increasingly incorporating technological media. It can include anything from music and video-mixing to poetry recitals, from direct interaction with visitors in a gallery to extravagant street performances. Such non-object, wild art forms could not possibly exist in the realm of Soviet socialist realism. One of the Soviet books on art theory defined performance as “the last stage of decay, when an artist had to borrow creative energy from other art genres.”

Nevertheless, from the mid-1970s Russian performance art did exist as part of underground art—Moscow Conceptualism, to be precise. For years Andrei Monastyrsky, a key figure in the movement, and his art group KD, held clandestine performances outside Moscow and then scrupulously documented them. “It was collective action, a participatory art involving other artists and the spectators,” said Professor Boris Groys, an art historian at New York University who coined the term “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism.” “In the Soviet Union we had dissidents and protests, but there was a lack of understanding, of analysis. Moscow Conceptualism wasn’t about protest, it was analysis,” Groys said.

Monastyrsky and his art group have been active and prolific for almost 30 years. The role and significance of their aesthetic practices are now being reevaluated on an international scale. The artist himself still claims that time and space are the main participants in his performances. Andrei Monastyrsky and Collective Actions group, the pioneers of Russian performance and installation art, are exhibiting their “Empty Zones” project at the Russian National Pavilion at the 54th Art Biennale in Venice.

No More Taboos

When examining Russian performance art it is impossible to overlook the 1990s, a period of “radical” performance with the strong predominance of politically engaged leftist art, represented by Anatoly Osmolovsky, Oleg Kulik and Avdei Ter-Oganyan, the major figures in performance art from that time. Artists used their bodies, gestures and actions to subvert, shock and politicize contemporary art. For a good ten years performance became one of the pivotal genres in the rapidly transforming Russian art scene. Later this period in performance art became commonly known in art history as “Moscow Actionism.” Osmolovsky, a flamboyant radical-demonstrator at the beginning of his career and a recognized authority in the research of artistic form today, once climbed onto the shoulders of a monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky, deconstructing the essence of historical discourse in the course of his performance “Travel to the Brobdingneg Land.” In April of 1991, together with his art group ETI, Osmolovsky managed to convince dozens of people to lay out an obscene three-letter word on Red Square, breaking all imaginable taboos.

Oleg Kulik, currently one of the most famous contemporary artists, is best known for his series of “human dog” performances, including “Mad Dog” and “Dog House” in 1996, which saw him travel around the world and perform naked, sitting in a wooden box in a gallery for weeks on end, “escaping” from a leash and ferociously biting people. In his artistic autobiography Kulik wrote: “I am an artist possessing a powerful ‘projectional’ will. My projects are just as interesting as they are dangerous or repugnant to society.”

A number of performances touching upon such sensitive issues as religion or faith were heavily censored by the authorities: in 1998 Avdei Ter-Oganyan went into exile after the Ministry of Internal Affairs accused him of fomenting religious hostility, following his “Desecration of Holy Objects” performance, in which he hacked mass-produced paper copies of Orthodox icons to pieces at a public exhibition. Ordinary Russians perceived many of these actions as political and anti-social, and some of the artists fled Russia, but regardless of their further artistic development the most famous performances preserved the spirit of the time and are now referred to in art books as symbols of the era.

Today many young artists choose different ways of artistic representation, but some, just as their predecessors, are still exploring the frontiers of art, trying to determine how far art can be developed and incorporated into society.

One Form, Two Directions

After a relatively quiet period in performance art in the early 2000s, when a lot of artists turned back to object-based practice during the relative stability and rapid commercialization of the art milieu, the present-day Russian art scene is experiencing a new splash of performance art. Last year saw a record number of exhibitions, festivals, lectures and events dedicated to performance art, including the First International Festival of Performance at the Garage Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow. “Performance is a free art. It does not demand substantial financial investment, so when the domestic art market stagnated in the economic crisis of 2008, artists again turned to performance and actionism as the most efficient ways of self-expression,” said Masha Chuikova, an active participant in the Moscow art scene, who is famous for cooking and food performances.

It is difficult to clearly define the performance art genre, because “performance” encompasses anything from a studio-based event with video, dance, music and special effects to a street action. Even the artists themselves differ in their opinion of what to call “performance art,” especially given the fact that in English, everything is called “performance.” In Russia, however, actionism and pure performance are two different directions within one art form. “For me, a classical performance is an art form that I know from conceptualists. It is some action, well-thought-out and planned in advance, it’s not rehearsed or replayed as in theater and it’s documented. Meanings are more important than pure actions,” said Maria Chuikova, whose artistic career spans from Moscow conceptual school to the present day.

“I always differentiate performance and action with a social connotation. It’s fair to say that since mid-2000, both trends are on the rise, but classical performance is still very limited and the second wave of ‘Moscow Actionism’ is prevailing. There are two reasons for this—the political and social situation in the country, and young artists’ reflections on the high days of actionism of the 1990s,” said Liza Morozova, a prominent Moscow-based performance artist who has held more than 50 performances and over 130 exhibitions in 17 countries. Morozova herself represents an absolutely different tradition of confessional performance. In addition to being a practicing performance artist, she holds a Ph.D. in psychology, runs an independent performance studio and is particularly interested in “how performance as a genre can contribute to personal growth.”

Local Global Art

The Russian performance art scene is extremely controversial, but the younger generation of artists is reaching across borders. “‘Medialization’ as a global cultural process has affected performance art. Its language has been expropriated by advertizing, youth culture, even politics. It has expanded to include new forms of performance art, such as media performance, dance performance and transitional sub-forms that did not exist before,” said Morozova.

Some new Russian performance is equally distanced from the actionism of the 1990s and from Moscow conceptual performance. Andrey Bartenev, the only Russian artist working in the genre of the synthetic performance spectacle, is very successful on the international stage. His universal language is often mingled with a rather commercialized approach. Bartenev widely uses industrial materials (neon, plastic, cellophane) and complex technical media to create unusual interactive actions, such as synthesizing video installation, performance, kinetic art and musical light shows. This type of performance is more like a show that offers the audience a powerful burst of positive energy, igniting the viewer’s imagination.

Classical performance is represented by Andrei Kuzkin in the new generation of Russian artists. Despite his young age, his performances pursue one goal—a search for a universal, final basis of our existence and hope for a meaning beyond the limits of life’s glaring hopelessness. “Until recently it was possible to claim that Russian performance was more of an introspective, self-centered and observational aesthetic practice, but these days it has gained a very strong social and political element,” said Mikhail Leikin of MishMash group, an art duo actively working in performance as well as other genres. In their own art they follow the traditions of conceptual art and touch upon such subjects as eternity, time, space or the idea of sanctity, as they did in their performance “Volumes of Desires and Various Types of Voids” at the Arco Madrid Fair in February of 2011. During the performance viewers brought their hands together in prayer and contemplation, while the artists filled the gap between the visitors’ hands with plaster. By the end of the performance all the casts were assembled into a large sculptural panel, which represented the remains of the visitors’ thoughts during the day.

“I don’t think that the performance art scene of the 2000s in Russia is unique in the sense of having some qualities or characteristics present only in Russian contemporary performance art. Not that it’s boring or repetitive, but I would not say that there is something specific to Russia in these works,” said Joanna Matuszak, an American Fulbright Hays scholar working on a Ph.D. in Russian performance. “Most performances I have seen in the past year project the state of a person, relations with other people, what you are and who you are in the world. Although, the exception to the above is the art group Voina, as it is engaged in issues of political freedom and democracy.”

A Call For Action

An overview of the Russian performance art scene would be incomplete without Voina, the biggest sensation in this field of last year. In July 2010 it took the group’s activists, headed by Leonid Nikolayev and Oleg Vorotnikov, only 23 seconds to paint a huge penis on the Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg. When the bridge was lifted at night, the painting faced directly toward the FSB headquarters. Several other radical actions followed, including “Palace Revolution,” when Voina members turned several police cars upside down. The aim of the performance was to show how true reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs should be carried out, and it put some Voina members behind bars for several months, while others went on the run. In April of 2011, the Ministry of Culture and the National Center for Contemporary Arts awarded the performance on Liteiny Bridge the prestigious Innovation Prize.

The award and the group’s activity in general split the Russian art community and spurred a public debate on the merits of art, activism and morality. Dozens of people, including prominent public figures in Russia, signed petitions to defend Voina leaders from persecution, while others claimed that their art went too far. This dispute proves that in Russia, actionism is hardly a thing of the past, and Diana Machulina, a 28-year-old painter and installation artist. Machulina was awarded a prestigious Kandinsky art prize in the “Best Young Artist” category, had good reason to say when accepting the award that “art is concerning itself with politics, because it fears that politics will come after art.”

Inconvenient in Essence

Performance art is a difficult and demanding art form, always challenging orthodox art forms and cultural norms. For an artist, performance art is emotionally consuming, sometimes even physically hard, or, according to Leikin, “demands psychological readiness to confront the environment.” For the viewer, performance is provocative, experimental, often extreme, questioning the existing worldview, and challenges the audience to engage in different ways. For a critic or art historian, performance is hard to study, because until recently, when video and photo technologies became very accessible, it often lacked written documentation. For an art collector, performance is inconvenient because it cannot be bought, sold or traded as a commodity, put on a wall or even framed. So why is performance art so attractive to artists and appealing to the audience? The answer is short and simple: performance art is pure art that will always look for the essence of a human being.

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