Exhibition Verge

Valentine Dyakonov
Art critic and expert

Russian art critic and expert on the 20th – 21st century art.

Russian design became widely acknowledged at the same period as Russian art, i.e., in the 1910-1920s. At that time the self-identifications of progressively minded Western and Russian artists had much in common: here and there the artists demonstrated a huge interest in new technologies, targeted the most unspecific audience and consequently aspired to achieve universal artistic solutions considering both economy and aesthetics. Yet, the imminent differences of the addressed audiences could not but draw a line between the Avant-garde practices in the West and in Russia.

Marcel Breuer, as well as Gerrit Rietveld, made chairs, and a chair in any circumstances insulates its owner (or a temporary user) preserving his/her individuality. The Soviet Avant-garde artists came out with the solutions meant for collectivities. The iconic product of the movement “Artists In Industries” was a bench designed by Vladimir Tatlin, creator of “The Tower of the III International”.

A bench, being traditional in a villager’s household, supposes and even inflicts some sharing. And the specific orientation to collectivity was a fixed part of the Soviet propaganda from the very start. It would be exaggeration to say that before 1917 people in the Russian Empire cherished individualism, but that it was easy to establish the priority of collectivity over personality upon the grounds of the revolutionary ideas about social justice and equality. That initial principle did not stay for long and by the beginning of the 1930s it degenerated.

By the 1970s the disappointment in the Soviet ideological constructions was nearly ubiquitous. Nevertheless, the collectivity power was still felt as a social reality. We can see that if we compare two conceptualistic works turning a chair, as a piece of furniture, into an idea, or notion. A pioneer of “idea art”, Josef Kosuth knocks together the vocabulary definition of “a chair” and the thing itself. His colleagues from the USSR, Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov (Tot-Art group) provide their chair with the sign “The chair isn’t for you. The chair’s for all!” In Tot-Art’s presentation a person is forbidden to use a thing of individual usage because that thing has the unique owner – an invisible but implicated collectivity.

Treating individual goods as objects of collective experience keeps on engaging artistic imagination, and the works presented at the BE OPEN exhibition “Verge” only confirm it. “3G International” sculpture by Electroboutique group turns one of the most popular products in the international gadget market – an Apple iPhone – into Tatlin’s “The Third International Tower”, which was conceived as a state-formative structure in its function and as a meaningful symbol of the workers solidarity all around the world. In Electroboutique’s opinion, universal access to information and easiness of processing it postulated by the iPhone’s engineers is just another illusion, born, this time, not in the socialistic but in the consumerist world. Another work, “The Cross”, is interactive – the information on the electronic panel changes only after a spectator has bowed to the object. Here religious experience, which is collective par excellence, is opposed to an individual schedule of moving in space. Archaic notions creep into the contacts with the technocratic world, and this does not come as a surprise to Russian spectators. Many of us, while dealing with intricately organized technical equipment, practice animism – earnestly, more or less, (the degree depends not upon education level but upon the difficulty of a problem solved by a technical appliance).

With the help of PU foam Sergey Shekhovtsov, in his monument to an expensive watch, makes a parody on marble, the material favored by sculptors of monuments. Shekhotsov’s sculpture implies the existence of watch worshippers on a mass scale as well as of the “memorized” watch’s owner who cannot but belong to “the high and mighties”. Here the individual add-on symbolizes not so much a social status as the power – over minds and wallets. Mikhail Kosolapov’s computer “mice” gather frantically in packs. In the installation by Irina Korina multi-coloured play dough in the oblong container personifies a miscellaneous society stiffened by the authorities.

Looking at these works from the point of view of their design, we can clearly see that the Russian artists come across the same world-wide problems of mapping the borders and specifying the content of the artistic activities. Of course, the Russians have a very different background. Orientation to collectivity does not help with the evolution of design when every invention not only sizes up to the expectations of the audience and market but creates new expectations. Besides, due to the USSR being a closed country, we are not able as yet to estimate the design level of our staple consumer products as those goods have never been exported and have never appeared in ratings, or lists, of Western researchers. Iconic goods and packages present an exclusively nostalgic value for the people in Russia. The consumer and esthetic contexts are left out. Furniture and clothes production in the Soviet Union lagged behind of the corresponding industries of the West and Eastern Europe, as the Soviet factories churned out indistinguishable, “collective”, goods – a bench instead of a chair, metaphorically speaking. Design was officially acknowledged as a professional activity only in the 1960s, so, in Russia controversies between a craftsman (designer) and a free (museum) artist have a comparatively short history.

Anyway, by the 1970s modern art and applied and decorative arts decidedly drifted apart (following the same process in Europe) under the impact of abstract art, which started up after the World War II and, later, conceptual art. Individualism of the first together with a proclaimed non-visuality of the latter have brought in a situation when telling a person, who positions himself/herself as an artist, that his/her work is a “a great piece of design” would be very often taken by that person as an insult. A lot of authors see their artistic activity both as a creative expression of their personality, meant for contemplation of that personality itself and as an intellectual construction.

Nevertheless, since the 2000s, scope for a dialogue between top-level design and art are getting more and more widespread. First of all, both art and design attract ostentatious, high-profile consumers. The audiences of both are steadily jamming together. Replicated art – graphics, sculpture – and limited editions of design belong to the comparable price brackets. Secondly, numerosity of niches in the design sphere combined with the infinity of the product line resulted in coming up of a number of conceptual authors oriented to collectors’ audience (or even museums) rather than to chain stores and interior specialists. Those authors’ approach to the creation of an object, utilitarian in its function, is based not on the principles of architecture , as it was the case with Bauhaus, Alvar Aalto and other authors of the 1920-1940s, but on the principles of art in its most radical guise originated in Marcel Duchamp’s early ready-mades. Between the designers of the sort and artists creating objects there has been formed an intermediate zone, which Aristarkh Chernyshev and Alexei Shulgin from Electroboutique group call ironically “little art” – trifling, smart art which looks excellent in interiors being sometimes fairly functional. Another term for that zone was prompted by the title of the exhibition “The New Decor” held in the London Hayward Gallery (in Moscow the exhibition was shown with the addition of Russian participants including Alex Buldakov with the installation “Brush”, a version of which “Files” is presented at “Verge”).

In such a situation it seems more fulfilling not to divide those two types of artistic activities but to compare particular works and aims set up by authors. Almost for every artist at “Verge” a doppelganger can be found, or, that which is no less interesting, an absolute antipode from the design sphere. The lamp of Reinier Bosch called “The Frozen Teardrop” is an imitation in bronze of a ragged piece of cardboard looking like a storm wave. In his other works Bosch imitates various sorts of rubbish using expensive materials’. Bosch is not the only one who plays with the materials value, though, maybe, he is the most monumental. Sergey Shekhovtsov’s approach to his sculptures is quite the opposite: he cuts expensive and functional things, out of PU foam. Both Bosch and Shekhovtsov turn what is cheap and trivial into an object for collecting and aesthetic pleasure without adaptating it to the comfort and characteristics of an interior. Shekhovtsov takes over Pop art and, more precisely, Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, while Bosch should be seen in the context of the friendly to Pop art “Neo-Geo”. “The Frozen Teardrop” is comparable to inflatable toys made of steel in the workshop of Jeff Koons. Meanwhile the interactivity of Electroboutique’s “The Cross” is disinterested in the sense that a spectator gets no informational benefit from interacting with this object. rAndom International’s installation “Audience” (2009) works in a similar way. With rAndom International a few mirrors “watch” a spectator; the mirrors turn, following and fixing a spectator’s movements. Here technologies do not serve a consumer, they cringe before him/her. Aristarkh Chernyshev’s “Knode” is a contamination of scrolling lines from Jenny Holzer’s works, the Hans Haacke installation “News” and a popular design method of curving artificial planes congenial with, for example, what the group Troika is doing and especially with the interactive cloud over the London airport Heathrow.

More elaborated links emerge between Irina Korina’s installations and the works of a Spanish designer Nacho Carbonell. Carbonell makes biomorphic furniture with additional planes shooting forth and stylised as organic objects (hornet’s nests, tree branches, fossils). In his “Chair-Tree” the back of the chair, resting on two thin legs, stretches up for a few meters and ends with a hollow. The object is accompanied by the text in which the chair is treated like a living being seeking its own identity. From about 2008 synthetic planes in Korina works have also started to violate the borders acquiring flexibility and expression of plants. In the outcome her objects look more emphatic than the eco-design of Carbonell. And the effect is due to what is the most apparent difference between art and design: art always prefers pessimistic scenarios to the construction of the stable world models.