Non-Conformist Soviet Art from the 1980s

, a new show opened at Haunch of Venison in April 2010 which looked at how artists challenged the social and political in the 1980s, and the legacies that remain today.

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last year was marked by celebrations, festivities, and contemplation by people all over the world. The anniversary of such a seminal event served to re-focus attention back onto that period in history – especially that of the USSR and the cultural revolution that was occurring within the state at the time. This spring, curator Nina Miall, in conjunction and collaboration with the galleries Haunch of Venison, Volker Diehl, and Diehl + Gallery One, will stage an exhibition that takes as a starting point this cultural and social revolution as reflected and embodied in the work of Soviet non-conformist artists.

Miall states: “While the 1980s have been subjected to intense political and socio-economic analysis in the past 20 years, there’s been little discussion of what was happening culturally at that time. After decades of official, state-sanctioned artistic production, artists such as Ilya Kabakov were questioning the existence of a genuine visual art in Russia. They were challenging the role of the artist and their relationship to the state, and asserting their right to independent artistic expression. I hope that this exhibition serves as a starting point for a discussion of this cultural revolution – much of the material and many of the names will be unfamiliar to a Western audience, but will I hope encourage them to discover more. The exhibition will essentially provide a historical survey of the underground art produced in Russia, specifically Moscow and Leningrad during the 1980s and 1990s, especially that which was created as a reaction of Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika reforms. However, Maill’s curatorial intent is simple: “To communicate in this exhibition the really vital underground spirit of the Soviet non-conformist artists, their dynamism, exuberance and wit in the face of adversity.”

Government censorship of art and literature in the USSR ensured that it could not be used as form of political agitation or criticism; instead artists were encouraged to use their art as a visual ally of the state. State-sanctioned art thus presented an idealised view of the political and social situation of the state at the time. Obviously an inherently biased view, and one that Gorbachev, by implementing his reforms and encouraging an openness and freedom of expression, broke down. This is not to say that all Russian artists of the period had followed the ideological and artistic confines of the period, as many artists, such as Ilya Kabakov, left Russia to pursue their art and to expose the political and social fallacies of the Russian State to the rest of the world. Exposed to the “Western” ideologies of art these artists prospered – artistically and financially, and helped pave the way for other Russian contemporary artists to leave the USSR. Those artists who remained within the recently dissolved state struggled to find the freedom to express sympathies towards a libertarian world until Gorbachev’s two major reforms of the 1980s, Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”), were implemented allowing artists this freedom that had been denied them.

The philosopher and critic, Theodor Adorno stated, “…it is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politics.” This statement is particularly true with regards to the exhibition as the artists selected all produce work that is dissident and critical of the regime at the time, as well as of the current regime – though Miall would argue that the right of contemporary Russian artists to criticise through their work is now recognised by the authorities whereas historically this was not the case. The Communist state stripped artists of their right to independently create works of art; instead, they had to follow strict guidelines of production and behaviour. The piece of art existed no longer as an aesthetic entity but as a tool of propaganda cloaked under the guise of “art”. For many artists, the reaction to such restrictions was instantaneous and predictable. Walter Gropius’s (founder of the Bauhaus) reaction is perhaps the most succinct and clear as he states in a 1919 questionnaire: “Art and state are irreconcilable concepts. They are by their very nature opposed. The creative sprit, vital and dynamic, unique and unpredictable, refuses to be limited by the laws of the state or by the straightjacket of bourgeois values.” Perhaps a bit aggressive in his stance, Gropius is keenly aware of the danger of imposing state values onto art and of the cultural and social implications of doing so. However, reacting against aesthetic restrictions of production, especially Socialist Realism in the Soviet state, was dangerous and not without its own implications. Miall says that, “Soviet non-conformist art was violently radical: the aesthetic choices made by these artists were tantamount to revolutionary political statements,” as the act of rebelling against the imposed boundaries was necessarily a rebellion against the political state. Art was only allowed within the Soviet state as it was during Hitler’s reign in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s: as a vehicle to propagate the ruling government’s doctrines and beliefs.

The exhibition, which includes over 60 artists, expands upon earlier exhibitions of Soviet non-conformist art, which have tended to focus on specific stylistic tendencies within the period. Miall has selected artists that, for the most part, have been under-represented within the “West” and that perhaps do not fall quite so easily into a definable category, such as Moscow Conceptualism or Sots Art. Previous exhibitions, such as Russian Art – Sots Art. Political Art in Russia, held in 2008 at La Maison Rouge in Paris, have focused on specific themes or movements rather than on the period as a cohesive and chronological whole. Miall hopes that Glasnost will, by its necessarily broad and encompassing view of unofficial art produced in the state during the period, expose audiences to a diverse spectrum of art that they have not had the chance to previously view. Selected artists, such as Semyon Faibisovich and Sergei Bugaev (Afrika), who are not international household names as comparable to Kabakov, but whose work is engaging and enlightening nonetheless, are included within the roster of names: “You’ll have works by artists who were assimilating the heritage of the Soviet avant-garde rubbing shoulders with artists who were influenced by what was happening concurrently in American art; and artists whose work responds to European Modernism working alongside artists who were pre-occupied with traditional Russian folklore and applied arts.”

The list of artists, which at first seems quite hefty, is still quite delimiting and Miall says it is by no way meant to be an exhaustive and all-inclusive list but rather an introduction. She has carefully chosen, through extensive research and discussions, a roster of works that provide as much of an exhaustive view as is possible of the period. The idea and impetus for the exhibition, which initially came from the gallerist and collector Volker Diehl, culminated in a smaller version of the exhibition (exhibited in 2008 in Moscow). The current version of Glasnost has grown significantly from its original, and has allowed Miall the freedom to include artists who had perhaps been left out due to time and space restraints. The lack of source material, catalogues, and documents with relation to this underground art movement has meant that Miall has had to focus on an extensive amount of first-person research, contacting and talking with artists, critics, gallerists, and curators active at the time. The resulting list of artists is thereby an interesting read of the art world at the time, as it has nothing to do with artistic economic success, but rather the success of the artist in creating works that continue to resonate – whether it be five or twenty years on.

Artists such as Bugaev (Afrika), drew attention to the absurdity of a state that dictated what could and could not be shown visually; Bugaev specifically by re-appropriating and altering early pieces of Communist propaganda. In this way, through the appropriation of existing pieces of art / propaganda, Afrika utilises the very cultural detritus that was meant to repress him. Other artists, like Kabakov, who focused their attention on the physical reality of living within the Soviet state: a reality at odds with the utopian existence portrayed by the Soviet media. Kabakov took space and altered it in such a way that his installations became a criticism of the stifling aspects of the room and a simultaneous criticism of the stifling aspects of the Soviet aesthetic conventions he grew up with. These two artists, Afrika, a relatively unknown artist in the “West” who utilises extant pieces of work and alters them to create a new piece, and Kabakov, internationally renowned in the “West”, who creates entirely new installations and spaces, are, in many ways, equally readable. Afrika takes recognisable propaganda and creates pieces of art that we, as a viewer, can interpret; Kabakov, whose works are inevitably slightly more difficult to grasp, has created installations we can read and understand through careful analysis and reflection. Kabakov stated, in a 1994 interview with the art critic Robert Storr, that “works of art, I think, consist of a series of traps, or concealments, through which the viewer has to pass.” Art, like literature or music, requires methods of understanding and it is through these methods that the true meaning often is revealed. This is the inherent political usefulness of art: that it can be used as a tool by revolutionaries and dictators alike as it is not autonomous from society (though some would argue it is).

“In Stalin’s time, for example, you could be sent to the gulag or put to death for working in an abstract or formalist style, an idea which today is absurd. In the face of an official art which was ideologically determined, the non-conformists’ artistic dissidence was, necessarily, also political dissidence. Russian contemporary art obviously emerges from over a century of highly politicised art-making and in my experience Russian artists working today possess a similar sense of political responsibility as did previous generations.” Contemporary Russian artists working today still maintain that political edge in their work, an aspect Miall attributes to the same sense of political responsibility that defined earlier generations of Soviet artists. However, she argues that there is a more jovial and ironic tinge: “There’s a much greater degree of jocular humour and satire in contemporary Russian art – their work still contains political content, but often communicated in a more ironic or light-hearted way.”

The exhibition will serve to not only reveal many new artists to mainstream society, but will also expose the political, artistic, and social underpinnings of the society that had concealed them from view in the first place. Miall hopes to encourage a greater interest and research into the cultural revolution of the period – a revolution that, for the most part, has largely been ignored due to the politically sensitive nature of it. Contemporary Russian art has come to the forefront in recent years, showing up at auctions, with Sotheby’s staging their first auction in Moscow in 1988, and at museums and art galleries within and outside Russia. But it is the art produced during the 1980s and 1990s that has still to enjoy the same modicum of success or degree of popularity. Glasnost should hopefully change this reality.

Glasnost opened on 9 April 2010 and continued until 22 May 2010.

Niamh Coghlan