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Field of Action: The Moscow Conceptual School in Context, Calvert 22 – review

Ben Luke

            Until recently, conceptual art was seen as a largely European and North American phenomenon which emerged around the mid-Sixties, and grew to be the dominant artistic idiom it is today.

            But the spread of artists who asserted the primacy of ideas over traditional artistic disciplines has steadily been revealed to be more global - Tate has reflected Latin American conceptualism in several recent shows, and Russian conceptual art is gaining increasing prominence. Calvert 22's show of 100 works from the defining period ofMoscow Conceptualism - the Seventies and Eighties - is the largest UK survey of this scene to date.

            It shows Soviet artists, independently of their western peers, adopted similar strategies to push art forwards: an anything-goes attitude to materials, a reductive approach to form, and a blurring of boundaries between art and life.

            On both sides of the Cold War divide, artists fought against then-dominant artistic styles: those in the US and Europe struggled against the formalist doctrine of Abstract Expressionism, while Russians reacted to the state-sponsored, musclebound kitsch of Socialist Realism.

            While western artists met indifference or hostility at worst, their Muscovite peers had to work off the state's radar, showing informally in apartments more than standard exhibitions. Much of the work is necessarily domestically-scaled - Dmitry Prigov's Cans (Seventies), for instance, are food tins embellished with texts and tiny drawings.

            While some of this rather archival exhibition is inscrutable without a knowledge of Russian language and culture, it is nonetheless a fascinating guide to an era. Strong themes emerge, including a strain of self-deprecating humour, and the dominance in this otherwise colourless show of Soviet red, in works such as Andrei Filippov's Romefor Rome (1990). Importantly, Moscow Conceptualism feels distinct from its western equivalent, and its robustness is clear in the numerous Russian artists who reflect its influence today.