Field of Action: The Moscow Conceptual School in Context
‘Field of Action: The Moscow Conceptual School in Context’ at Calvert 22 contextualizes what was once known as the unofficial art of the former Soviet Union. In so doing, it opens up a complex world of social, political, and creative relationships. The difficulties of presenting this work in a necessarily denuded context form the chief quandary of the exhibition. As Elizaveta Butakova asks in her exhibition notes, ‘How do [these artists] speak, then, to a contemporary viewer, and outside of their circle?’
The exhibition is an adaptation of a show held at the Ekaterina Foundation in 2010. Happily, the incarnation at Calvert 22 retains the depth and ambition of a large-scale museum show. Decade by decade, it charts the context out of which the Moscow Conceptual movement emerged, its heyday in the ‘70s, the so-called New Wave movement of the ‘80s, and the radical transformation of the entire landscape in the years leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The obvious accomplishment of this exhibition – particularly given the relative spatial constraints of Calvert 22 – is the lucid presentation of the movement’s timeline, its origins and key historical moments. But the exhibition also succeeds in capturing the elusive soul of the movement, the particularities of the tension between official ideology and political resistance, the development of a hermetic artistic community and its shifting network of influence and collaboration.
A few works deftly communicate the social conditions and state ideology to which these artists were responding. Vladimir Mironenko’s Protest Room (1987), a trompe l’oeildoor painted on the gallery wall, recollects Franz Kafka’s bleak parable of the Door of the Law, in his novel The Trial(1925). Meanwhile, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, founders of the Sots Art movement, appropriate the aesthetic of state sanctioned Socialist Realism in works such as Military Parade (1972).
Appropriation and inversion appear throughout the exhibition, but so do metaphysical ideas of transience and transcendence. The performances of the Collective Actions group involved only a small number of artists and observers, and were often deliberately obscure; the group’s founder, Andrei Monastyrski, referred to these performances as ‘empty actions’ designed to create an ‘empty zone’. Meanwhile, a separate section of the exhibition is dedicated to exploring the notion of spatial fields as locations of possible transcendence, as in Ilya Kabakov’s ‘They Say . . .’(1989) or Sergei Shablavin’s After Sunset (1988).
The relatively austere tenor of ’70s Conceptualism was followed by the more anarchic art of the ’80s, loosely termed New Wave. But the landmark change took place later, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union. The removal of creative restrictions, combined with growing interest from the international art market, led to a critical shift in the identity of these artists. In 1988, Sotheby’s held their first sale in Moscow, featuring work by unofficial artists. For the first time, monetary value was set to the work of the Moscow Conceptualists, many of whom had never before sold their work.
But according to Vladimir Yankilevsky, the shift from unofficial to official began as early as 1974, with the so-called Bulldozer exhibition, a showcase of avant-garde work that was broken up by a police force and bulldozed: ‘The situation changed radically, from then on it was no longer dangerous to be an unofficial artist – we had been legalized. It became prestigious, people started to talk about our exhibitions … That is why I think the history of ‘unofficial’ art ends after the Bulldozer exhibition’.
With the advent of intense interest from the art market, that prestige was further ratified. In many ways, the ambiguity of recognition is at the heart of ‘Field of Action’. There is therefore something double edged in the title given to this final section of the exhibition, ‘Happy Days’ – both a phrase describing this post-Glasnost era of creative freedom, international attention and financial success, and a reference to one of the bleakest of Samuel Beckett’s plays.