Sunday, 20 September 2009
This year sees the 300th anniversary of the foundation of St Petersburg, an event that is being widely celebrated here in London as well as in Russia. And today 'The Times' of London carried a story about the "widespread sleaze" that is hampering the restoration of Russia's former capital city. Though Oleg Kulik is not a Petersburg artist, these two facts help to provide a context for his career. Western interest in and curiosity about Russia is acute. The tendency is, however, to look at the Russian past, not at the present. When outsiders contemplate the present state of Russia, what they often seem to see is corruption, degradation and chaos.
Kulik is one of the two most celebrated contemporary Russian artists, speaking in international terms. The other is Ilya Kabakov. The contrast between them could hardly be more striking. Kabakov was a leading figure in the revival of the Russian avant-garde activity that took place during the last decade of Soviet rule. The themes of his most fascinating work were the stresses of living under Communism, but also the small pleasures enjoyed, almost in secret, by a cultured intelligentsia who knew themselves to be the true keepers of the Russian soul. At the same time he, like many artists of the perestroika period, made extensive use of established Soviet symbolisms. He deployed this symbolic vocabulary with a cutting sense of irony, but, as later events were to prove, it was also an essential part of his means of communication.
When he was free to do so, Kabakov emigrated, and now lives and works in New York. I believe I am not alone in thinking that what he has produced since he emigrated is much less interesting than what he produced earlier. Recent work by Kabakov that refers to Russia seems nostalgic - it reflects, not the actual conditions of Russian life, but a time that is already gone. Other new work seems curiously vague and uncentered. When Kabakov attempts to re-use Soviet symbolisms, one is aware that he is making use of what is already a dead language - as dead as Egyptian hieroglyphs or Babylonian cuneiform.
In contrast to this, Kulik, though he exhibits and performs internationally, has continued to base himself in Russia. His career as an artist belongs almost exclusively to the period after the fall of Communism, and his early activity, in particular, was seen as typical of the wild excesses of a society that suddenly found itself in a condition of free fall. The critic Victor Misiano, writing of Kulik and the other Moscow avant-gardists of the early 1990s, remarked that: "Art fused with Sociality divides its structure in the presence of the big Catastrophe: if its place is among the ruins of the urban sphere, then the most appropriate form becomes scandalous." He also noted that events in Russia at that time tended to be more excessive than anything that art could invent: "Obviously it is impossible to outdo the spectacle of the House of Parliament burning or to be more functional than the MMM share scandal, in which one part of the country was robbed and another part enriched. It is also impossible to be more explicitly communicative than in the electoral speeches of Zhrinovsky. So, art has no chance to outrun reality."
Nevertheless Kulik, especially in his earlier manifestations, has made numerous strenuous attempts to outdo the outrageous qualities of post-Soviet Russian reality. Most of these centre of his adoption of an animal persona - that of a savage dog. The most celebrated adventure of this persona took place not in Russia, but in New York, with Kulik's 1997 performance at Deitch Projects. Arriving at Kennedy Airport, Kulik undressed, assumed his role and was transported in a van to the gallery. Here he spent two weeks in a spartan pen, unclothed, eating and behaving as a dog night do. At the end of this time, he was again placed in a van and taken to the airport, where he put on his clothes and human identity once again, and returned to Russia.
It must be noted that this performance was an echo of a celebrated 'action' by the German artist Joseph Beuys, which took place nearly a quarter of a century earlier. In 1974, Beuys did a performance at the René Block Gallery, also in New York, called 'Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me'. For this, after arriving in the United States, he was transported to the gallery by ambulance, where he then spent five days living in a pen with the coyote of the title.
There are other precedents for aspects of Kulik's activity, especially in the work of the Vienna Aktionist group of the 1960s. Kulik himself has noted his debt to the personality of one of the most extreme members of this group, Rudolph Schwarzkogler, famous for acts of self-mutilation, who committed suicide in 1969, at the age of twenty-nine. Schwarzkogler's girl-friend Edith Adam commented after the artist's death: "He saw art as a ritual of life. Life and art were inseparable for him." The same comment can be made about Kulik.
Members of the Aktionist group continued to excite controversy after their initial heyday. In the early1990s, Otto Mühl, another leading participant in Aktionism, was imprisoned for seven years on charges of rape and child-molestation. His supporters consider that the charges were trumped up - the result of long-standing hostility in conservative Austria to the controversial imagery used in many of his performances, which were then recorded on film. Others see him as being someone who took the art/life equation into regions that were morally and socially unacceptable. Kulik has never quite crossed this frontier - or at least, not yet.
Many of Kulik's Russian admirers and supporters do not like comparisons being made with earlier precedents in non-Russian art, even though, in the case of Beuys and that of Schwarzkogler, Kulik himself has made it clear that they are in fact relevant.
In my view, these predecessors are certainly part of the story, but not the whole story.
As a late 20th/ early 21st century artist from Russia, Kulik forms part of an especially complex cultural and social matrix. In the first instance, he belongs to a long-established tradition of outrage-as-art, which goes back to the very beginning of Modernism. Pre-Soviet Russian avant-garde groups like 'The Donkey's Tail' were very much part of it, and it was consolidated by the Dadaists and then by the Surrealists. This form of art, however, never flourished in totalitarian societies, such as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, where mechanisms for social control were more highly developed than they were under laxer regimes.
Art-as-outrage traditionally plays on the fears and phobias of the more conservative parts of its audience. Without this reaction it loses its meaning. In fact it is not going too far to say that the controversial artist and the audience he shocks are in fact collaborators, and that the art work or art event therefore counts as a joint project.
Now that this kind of art has established itself as an 'accepted', in a certain sense at least, form of art activity - a challenge to the norm which is in fact a norm in its own right - one can also observe how the notion of outrage shifts and mutates in response to changes in social circumstances. Some the members of the French Surrealist Group, for example, made a habit of insulting members of the Catholic priesthood. This would not rank very high in the list of avant-garde priorities today, despite the scandalous success of Andres Serrano's 'Piss Christ', which shows a cheap plastic crucifix plunged in what is supposedly a vat of urine. Since the camera makes no distinction between urine and - let us say - lemonade, this image is typical of a surprising characteristic of much art-as-outrage - which is that it very often depends as much on what the audience is told, as on what it actually sees.
Another, less surprising, characteristic is that outrageous art is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns. Robert Mapplethorpe's homosexual S & M imagery from the 1980s has now moved a great deal closer to the cultural mainstream, and, while it still upsets some people, shocks many fewer than it once did.
In their search for what is truly unacceptable, artists currently seem fascinated by three categories of subject-matter. One is death, which has become the ultimate obscenity in western materialist society. American photographers such as Serrano and Joel-Peter Witkin have been adept in exploiting this reaction. However, one must also note that fascination with death in its more gruesome aspects is an inheritance from the Romantic Movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There is really no significant difference between Serrano's photographic studies made in the morgue and Géricault's paintings of severed heads and assorted body parts.
Sex, rather than death, remains the most reliable source of shock, and a number of contemporary artists seek to exploit the kind of sexual imagery which makes modern society feel uneasy. In particular, a number of artists have attempted to exploit the current panic about paedophilia.
This is not Kulik's territory, but he does venture into another sexual realm, bestiality, or, as he would prefer to call it, zoophrenia. For instance, his photographic series 'Deep in the Heart of Russia' shows him supposedly having sex with various farmyard creatures. Kulik's wife and collaborator, the critic Mila Bredikina, defends this in her text 'Ten commandments of zoophrenia'. Among the points she makes are the following:
1. Man will be saved by humility and scorn for the pride of anthropocentrism.
2. The Alter Ego of Man is an animal suppressed inside him.
3. To love an animal inside yourself is to understand and to love everyone who happens to live and breathe side by side with you.
4. The expansion of morality to interspecies morality is the main demand of liberalism and democracy.
The fourth of these propositions is perhaps the most questionable, but it is also once that is being put forward not only by obsessed animal rights activists but by a larger and larger number of researchers who are exploring the idea of animal consciousness.
Recently, for instance, research into DNA as shown that chimpanzees share so much of their genetic code with homo sapiens that there is a case for reclassifying them as members of the human rather than the animal kingdom - with, of course, equivalent rights to ourselves. Meanwhile it is clear from the numerous Internet sites that describe, discuss, illustrate and fantasise about bestiality that sexual acts performed with animals are an obsession with quite a large minority. If Kulik intends to outdo everyday reality in this field of activity, he faces strenuous competition.
Kulik's zoophrenia is also, however, very Russian because it only half-conceals a deep sense of mysticism, a sense of oneness with nature and natural things. It is perhaps not surprising that Kulik's Russian defenders frequently quote Tolstoy.
Nevertheless once one has embarked on the idea of 'Russianess' as an important quality in Kulik's activity, other factors come into play. One of the most obvious is the fact that Russia remains a surprisingly puritanical society. The initial libertarian outburst that followed the October Revolution was soon repressed by the Soviet authorities, and, despite the country's continuing high divorce rate, the Communist government imposed a rigorous moral code of its own devising. More than ten years after the fall of Communism there is still an instinctive reference to this code, especially by those in positions of cultural power. They are often much more preoccupied with sexual and social non-conformity than with matters to do with financial probity. Kulik often seems to challenge the double standards that prevail in post-Soviet Russian life, and this is one of the things that makes him a genuinely relevant artist.
There is another, and to me more important aspect as well. In recent years critics have had a good deal to say about the idea of the 'abject' in art. 'Abjectness' is a slippery concept that originally derives from the writings of the French philosopher Georges Bataille. It was brought to renewed prominence in 1993 by an exhibition held at the Whitney Museum in New York, entitled 'Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art'. This based itself on Bataille's idea that modern artists were repelled by, by at the same time sacralised things that were otherwise commonly rejected and despised in culture, society and the human body.
Though Kulik is Russian, not American, it is hard to think of art that better fulfils this prescription than much of what he makes, or else manifests in his performances. In other forms, the pursuit of the abject also appears in the work of other important post-Soviet artists. An example that immediately comes to mind is the photography of Boris Mikhailov - photographs of down-and-outs made in his native Kharkov.
The key question is why should 'abjectness' be so central to an important part of current Russian artistic production? The answer to this is I think obvious. Soviet Communism began with a revolution but was not overthrown by one. It fell more or less of its own weight. Russia did not adopt capitalism because it fell in love with it; it became a kind of capitalist society almost by default. And while capitalism is not exactly a philosophy - in comparing it with Marxism one is comparing two things that are utterly unlike in terms of their intellectual construction, the purely pragmatic with the rigorously systematic - many Russians feel betrayed by the change that has overtaken by their society, though without wishing to restore the old regime. In particular, they mourn what they see as the collapse of traditional Russian cultural values.
In this situation Kulik puts himself forward as a kind of sacrificial lamb. He enacts this cultural collapse, while at the same time suggesting that, just out of reach, there survive the mystical values I have already referred to. In other words, he is more like a wandering staretz or holy man, or a charismatic saint of the Middle Ages, than he is like a conventional artist. He risks everything to enforce our belief that he is doing something important, even if we do not fully understand his actions. In this respect he has much in common with Joseph Beuys, whom I have already mentioned. Beuys tried to discover and enact a new, purer notion of German nationhood - he was much more of a nationalist than many of his admirers were willing to believe. Kulik, less obviously obsessed with nationality, is nevertheless profoundly concerned with the idea of what it is to be Russian in a contemporary context.
This site was last updated 20-09-2009