Setting The Stage
To understand the art of Russia and the post-Soviet world, it must first be thought of from a historical and political standpoint. With their deep and complex history, it can be easy to get confused. In 1945, World War II came to an end leaving Joseph Stalin and The Soviet Union in control of much of eastern Europe, thus triggering the start of The Cold War. Although America and the Soviet Union had fought together against the Axis powers of World War II, the relationship between the two countries was at a breaking point. Americans, wary of communism, didn’t see Russia as a member of the international community, while Russia’s late involvement in WWII caused the deaths of millions of Russians. This tension grew into distrust which was further fueled by Postwar Soviet expansionism where Russia continued to defend and extend their influence in Eastern Europe. In 1946 Americas strategy for combating this conquest was Containment, which is the long-term containment or prevention of Russia’s expansive plans.
Artists working in Russia during this time had to conform to Soviet socialist ideals to make a living. Artists that did not conform would be cut off from any major art institutions, and in some instances face political treason. Stephine Hutchings writes of the Russian Postmodernists, “Although unofficial artists, particularly those residing in Moscow, began selling their works to foreigners in the early 1960s few could make a living from their art.” Artists were required to make art that served the political agenda of the government. Social Realism was a form of at that served this purpose and was approved by the Soviet Union. Social Realism is a theory of art, literature, and music that has been officially approved by the government, mostly common in communist countries. This type of art depicted naturalistic scenes of an over-idealized Russia, often showing Stalin standing with children or the everyday ‘common’ people working the land. Under Stalin’s rule art was only allowed to further promote the ideals of the Communist society and Social Realism was the vehicle for these messages because it left less room for interpretation.
Unofficial Russian Art (mid 1950s- mid 1980s)
The unofficial art scene of Russia during the 1950s to the 1960s was full of variety and individuality, which stood in direct opposition to the conformity of the communist regime. From fear of repercussion and lack of resources, these unofficial artists were cut off not only from the institution but from each other. This isolation caused artists to take drastically different directions in their art practices including Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art. Out of the many directions taken by Russian Artists, two movements dominated the Unofficial art scene, Sots Art or Socialist Pop Art used the motifs of popular culture to speak out against the totalitarian regime. Moscow Conceptualism was a movement in Russian art that produced sarcastic, non-conformist art, it used many mediums including performance, installation, and more. According to Boris Groys, this plurality of styles reflected the variety of styles being oppressed by the official art of Russia, Social Realism. Groys goes on to explain in his essay The Other Gaze, that the role the unofficial artist played in society was “to manifest his or her individual truth in the midst of the official public lie.” Most of these artists felt it was their duty to expose the personal injustices Soviet Russia inflicted on them. To be individual was breaking with the oppression of Social Realism, yet it was difficult for Westerners to acknowledge their innovation. Because they were late to most Western techniques and movements, it was hard for the international art community to recognize these unofficial artists as unique or individual.
Contemporary Russian Art
In recent years Russia has been more open to international interactions and influences. The fall of Stalin in 1953 and the Soviet Union in 1991 were important milestones that lead to a more free, accepting society. Russia now recognizes contemporary art as a form of high art which was a necessary step in allowing museums and galleries to flourish in Russia. This new mindset also opens up the importing and exporting of fine art, lifting prior restrictions on the selling of artworks. Although Russian Artists experience more creative freedom, it is the Russian Oligarch’s, Russia’s elite, has control over the contemporary art scene in Russia. Russian tycoons invest in art and culture for many reasons and have recently been setting up private galleries in Moscow to showcase their collections. These private galleries experience more freedom than the public museums and galleries in Russia, exhibiting art that challenges the current politics.
Alla Rosenfeld, Norton T Dodge. 1995. Nonconformist art : the Soviet experience, 1956-1986. The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection, the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey: Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum. New York: Thames and Hudson in association with the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum.
Antsiperova, Marina. April 2018. “Art and the oligarchs: how Russia’s super-rich make and spend their millions.” The Calvert Journal. https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/9780/art-oligarchs-russias-rich-galleries.
History.com Editors. 2009. Cold War History. October 27. Accessed April 10, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history.
Hutchings, Stephen C. Oct., 1996. “Reviewed Work: After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture by Mikhail N. Epstein, Anesa Miller-Pogacar.” The Russian Review 710-712.
Kishkovsky, Sophia. 2018. “New Russian law recognises contemporary art at last.” The Art Newspaper , March 9.
Peterson, Ronald E. 1993. A History of Russian Symbolism. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub.
Kollektivnye Deystviya (Collective Actions Group)
During the later period of the unofficial art scene of Moscow-based conceptualism, Nikita Alexeev, Georgy Kiesewalter, Andrei Monastyrski, and Nikolai Panitkov formed the Collective Actions Group in 1976 with members joining throughout the decades. When the conceptual group first formed their installations and performances, or ‘actions’ usually occurred on the outskirts of Moscow, focusing on cooperative interactions while also asking questions of individuality. There were a few reasons for holding these artistic gatherings on the outside of the city, most notably these trips were ways to escape the conformity of the busy city, to the free fields and forests. Although the members of CAG weren’t as interested in the physical location as much as “the exploration and transformation of their own perception.”
Monastyrski, a poet and linguist, was one of the collectives more influential members, writing the theoretical texts and guidelines for the group. He described the collectives function in his writings; “The only positive definition would be a dynamic definition: the event’s action emerges through the joint effort of authors and spectators, aiming for a shift in the subject of perception from the demonstration zone (‘art’) through the border area (‘strip’) of the indistinguishable – into the zone of scattered everyday perception (‘life’).” Monastyrski was referring to how this conceptual group is operating on the fringes of art and everyday life and asking where does this line begin and end? The point of this was not to create an art object but to stage an action blurring the borders of art and life. Although the artists signed in the order of who participated most, the distinctions between artist and spectator is blurred.
CAG’s performances consist of several stages, which allow the artists to closely document each part of the experience. They used the acts of witnessing, documenting and archiving as the physical material or record of the action itself. The first two stages consist of the anticipation before the journey from Moscow to the site of the action, and the actual waiting for the action to begin. Next is the action itself, that is meant to distract the observers from the empty action. The empty action is the part of the action where the participants misinterpret or do not understand what is happening. It can also refer to the end of the indefinite action. The empty action is the actual main event of these performances and was developed from Zen Buddhism. The entire event was then formed from factographical documents, CAG’s term for the records and documentation of the action which includes participant and spectator interpretations. These action records have been organized into tomes titled Journeys Outside the City which consists of thirteen volumes of detailed records of actions from the groups’ conception to today.
Their first ‘action’ titled Appearance was on March 13, 1976, at Izmailovsky Field just outside of Moscow’s city center, marking the creation of CAG, one of the longest standing art collectives today. This action was invite-only with thirty people invited by the artists to attend. All the participants gathered on one side of the field, this is where the anticipation begins to build, after five minutes or so two members of CAG enter the opposite edge of the field from the forest. They cross the snow-covered field and approach the group of spectators, giving out documents to certify everyone’s presence at the Appearance. The crossing of the field was the action itself, seemingly simple enough, a symbolic emergence from the forest marking the beginning of an influential period of unofficial art with CAD as a pioneer for Russian conceptualism.
Gulenkin, Sergey. 2016. “Field studies: behind the Soviet-era art collective that continues to defy the norm.” The Calvert Journal 3.
Monastyrsky, Andrei. n.d. Moscow Conceptualism: Russian Conceptual Art: Collective Actions. Accessed April 20, 2019. http://conceptualism.letov.ru/CONCEPTUALISM.htm.
Wallach, Ruth. 2014. “Transition in Post-Soviet Art: The Collective Actions Group Before and After 1989.” The Slavic and East European Journal 58 734-35.
In recent years Russia has been more open to international interactions and influences. The fall of Stalin in 1953 and the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed the Russian art community more freedom and creating a more accepting society. Russia now recognizes contemporary art as a form of high art which was a necessary step in allowing museums and galleries to flourish in Russia. This new mindset also opens up the importing and exporting of fine art, lifting prior restrictions on the selling of artworks.
Irina Nakhova, born 1955, in Moscow and used art as a way to take out her frustrations over the Soviet regime. In 1984 she was a founding member of the Moscow Conceptualism, working as an unofficial artist with limited materials. Nakhova started out by covering a room in black, creating an environment she could escape to, she continued to do this giving birth to her series Rooms and to installation art in Russia. Her series of rooms quickly became the center of debate in the small conceptual art community of Moscow. When she removed her belongings from her room and painted it black she allowed for her art to be free, away from the Soviet Union and the public’s eye.
Nakhova eventually entered the international art market when she emigrated from Moscow to the U.S in 1994 but her art to send political messages. “Nakhova seeks to take a critical stance towards the contemporary Western world of ‘liquid’ relations, instability and isolation.”. In an exhibition in 2010 at the Orel Art gallery in the UK, Nakhova had numerous works that related to the injustices that occurred in her country. One of these was here series Skin (2009-2010) which was a series of latex skins with tattoos printed on them accompanied by stories of the victims of capitalism. The images are from photographs of real people but the stories embellished, a commentary on the misrepresentation of self through the manipulation of the media. “Reinforcing the fictional stories with constructed documentation, Nakhova makes a further commentary about the unreliability of both word and image.”. By bluring the lines between truth and fiction Nakhova was able to draw attention to the uncertainty of information in the contemporary world.
Nakhova continues to create these rooms filled with graphic designs taping into the propaganda style of art that was popular in Soviet Russia. She currently has a solo exhibition at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University titled Museum on the Edge, on display from Mar 30, 2019 – Oct 13, 2019. It is Nakhova’s first career retrospective in the U.S., showcasing her range of material and concepts over the decade. There are many more Russian artists continuing to create meaningful contemporary art that challenges the everyday.
Butakova, Elizaveta. “Moscow Partisan Conceptualism: Irina Nakhova and Pavel Pepperstein.” Third Text 24, no. 5 (September 2010): 627–31.
Sachs, Sid, Kalliopi Minioudaki, and Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery (Philadelphia, Pa.). 2010. Seductive Subversion : Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968. Philadelphia Pa.: University of the Arts.
Kovalev, Andrey. 2004. “Flash Art Reviews – Irina Nakhova.” Flash Art 236 (236): 150.
“Irina Nakhova: Museum on the Edge.” Zimmerli Art Museum. 2019. Accessed May 08, 2019. http://www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu/dodge-wing-lower-level/irina-nakhova-museum-edge#.XNM2_I5KjSE.