THE PEDAGOGY OF SACRIFICE
The reception of the legacy of the Soviet avant-garde has been unfolding according to different trajectories in the West and in the countries of its origin. Massively influential for Western thought of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Soviet modernism to this day remains something of subterranean sediment in Russian culture, not unlike a hidden reserve of some natural resource. It was never completely forgotten, for it continued to resurface in artistic and design practices throughout the twentieth century with periodic “seismic spikes,” increasing in frequency since the late 1950s, when architects and designers of the Thaw period once again turned to Constructivism for inspiration. But it never fully became part of the academic or artistic mainstream to the extent that it did in the West. Overexposed by the institutions of the West, the historical avant-garde often remained neglected in the East, as the sorry state of many decaying Constructivist buildings vividly attests. Yet while the potential of the great laboratory of Soviet modernist art of the 1920s and 1930s was never explored to the full at home, its lack of official sanction arguably had positive side effects, for it also meant that avant-garde history preserved some of its aura of subversive vitality and revolutionary energy. Paradoxically, the same material that in the West long ago became part of the conscious academic and commercial mainstream, in Russia remained closer to the protean natural subconscious, the underground rivers of which continue feeding the contemporary imagination.
The past decade saw a resurgence of serious interest in the legacy of the Soviet avant-garde in Russia. Artists and thinkers across disciplines are investigating the history of Soviet modernist art in search of theoretical tools and historical precedents that can be actualized for contemporary struggles against alienation, depression, the disintegration of social ties, and the devastation of the natural environment. To name but a few examples: small independent imprints like the Free Marxist Press and Common Place have been re-releasing revolutionary writings from the 1920s and 1930s, from Victor Serge’s poems to the tracts on the universal language invented by the anarchist Gordin brothers; lesser-known texts by Russian Formalists are studied in reading groups within and outside of academic institutions; poets such as Pavel Arseniev are turning to the LEF tradition of Factography and the works of Sergei Tretyakov in pursuit of new techniques for a militant literary community; performance laboratories such as Vokrug da Okolo mine the archives of early Soviet theoreticians of theater and extend theories of processual creativity to contemporary feminist ontology. What Soviet modernism offers these artists today is not a specific style, but a connection to the longue durée of leftist culture and the energy of revolt against all canons and authorities.
Rather than cultivating an attitude of fetishistic nostalgia or melancholic contemplation of beautiful avant-garde relics, contemporary Russian artists are trying to wrestle from the modernist legacy the energy of what Alexei Gan called tectonics1—that most mysterious and organic core principle of Constructivism, the explosive charge emanating somewhere from the depth of spontaneous life, which, when released, should inexplicably reconcile natural energies with the drive for social and political emancipation. For example, in the young feminist poet and editor Galina Rymbu’s poem School (from her 2018 Cosmic Prospect collection), Russian Formalism appears both as an organic natural resource—a dried flower of immortality (bessmertnik) that has been carefully preserved in an herbarium—and as a bomb. Once hurled at the figure of authority, it detonates with the concentrated energy of liberating negativity.
Лег головой в листву. На груди – сухие цветы бессмертника.
На языке – сокровища черные русского формализма.
В роще солнечной паук надевает путы
На легкие ветви. И учитель
В крапинках крови оседает внезапно.
—Галина Рымбу. «Школа»
Laid your head down on the fallen leaves.
Pressing the dry flowers of immortelle to your chest.
On your tongue—dark treasures of Russian Formalism.
In the sunny grove, a spider is putting his nets over the light branches.
And the teacher, covered with small droplets of blood,
is sinking to the ground suddenly.
—Galina Rymbu “School”
Anton Ginzburg was born and spent his formative years in Saint Petersburg, yet his professional maturation took place in the United States. His relationship to the Soviet avant-garde mediates between Eastern approaches, more personal and intuitive, and Western ones, more academically rigorous. Ginzburg himself speaks of his dual identity of an American Russian-born artist as an ever-dynamic montage. (Exposing the seam between different folds of biographical material, is, of course, one of the central tenets of the formal-structural method.) The conversation between the American and Russian receptions of the Soviet avant-garde that takes place in Ginzburg’s work does not lead to the reconciliation and erasure of differences; instead, it throws them into a dynamic relief without, however, diminishing the perhaps biographically conditioned desire to invent a new universal language. Ginzburg’s practice today is an example of a developing trajectory of the global post-Soviet art, one that is no longer territorially bound, but that never stops reflecting the complexities of the process of self-translation. Among the mid-twentieth century Soviet artists, whose works have inspired his own playful and synthetic method of working with historic forms, Ginzburg names Yuri Sobolev.
Virtually never discussed in Anglophone scholarship, Sobolev (1928–2002) was one of the most mercurial characters in the semi-underground Soviet experimental artistic community of the sixties and seventies. Sobolev’s career was characterized by the absence of a sharp division between so-called unofficial and official art in the Soviet Union of the time. An active member of the artistic underground who participated in the infamous “bulldozed” Manezh exhibit of 1962 together with Ernst Neizvestnyi, Yulo Sooster, and others, Sobolev at the same time successfully held an official post as a creative director in the scientific press. In this capacity, he had a tremendous influence on the emerging Soviet aesthetic of scientific illustration, which allowed for a large degree of freedom of experimentation practiced quite in the open. Sobolev’s works from the sixties, including those commissioned as part of his commercial work and which circulated widely in popular journals of science and technology, combine Constructivist principles of fragmentation and montage, while drawing on (and, in the process, re-interpreting) historical images from ancient and primitive art to Italian Renaissance painters and German Expressionism. Ilya Kabakov, describing the density of allusions and associations reverberating through Sobolev’s works, writes that “he [Sobolev] was convinced that in the field of visual art it was impossible to create anything without it having a correspondence, some connection to the shared cultural situation and the shared visual sphere.” Sobolev employs formal-structural principles of montage and synthesis, inherited from the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s, to build an apparatus for analyzing and re-engaging with historical as well as contemporary images, for inscribing them into an informational grid. As a result, Sobolev traces formal principles that flow continuously through earlier art forms, as well as nature. (In this pursuit of an organic unifying formal principle that runs behind all cultural and natural phenomena, he is similar to Aby Warburg). Sobolev sets a strong precedent for Ginzburg, who also chooses to work with formalist strategies and historical material to create contemporary art that possesses analytical depth as well as an organic quality of dynamic cohesion.
Russian avant-garde theoreticians, from Gan to Shklovsky, famously valued production over reproduction. What mattered to them was the process of making things rather than things themselves. From this point of view, Ginzburg’s 2016–2017 experiment of recreating some of Rodchenko’s sculptures along with the exercises which Rodchenko assigned to his students of VKhUTEMAS in the 1920s—constructing compositions from assigned geometric forms, studying faktura and composition—is interestingly ambiguous.
Set in the museum space, this might at first appear as a museological experiment, which contradicts Rodchenko’s own emphatic calls for perpetual innovation and the passionate rejection of all sentimental attachment to the past:
I welcome destruction!!! We will only then be free to invent, once we can destroy what has been built yesterday. Only that is eternal which could be destroyed easily and quickly. Invent eternal principles and systems, not eternal things, and constructions.
—Alexander Rodchenko, “Budte izobretateliami,”
Yet while Ginzburg tries on the role of educator and archivist who reminds the Western audiences of the historic Soviet avant-garde (and even builds near-replicas of some of the original sculptures), he, at the same time, and with a degree of humor and deliberate defiance against self-exoticization, aims to separate the formal- structural method from the recognizable historical objects, to liberate it for future use. Ginzburg not only re-creates Rodchenko’s modular sculptures, but he also erects a funeral pyre with them and exhibits their charred remains. With this gesture, what could have been a purely academic study of canonized forms becomes a ritual of sacrifice and release. Putting himself back to the “school” of VKhUTEMAS, the only logically consistent way to do well by the “teacher,” for Ginzburg, is to destroy his works.
One of the iconic examples of Constructivist architecture, the Narkomfin Building designed by Moisei Ginzburg in 1928, which is familiar to many from Rodchenko’s photographs, proved to be neither eternal nor indestructible. The image of this by now exquisitely dilapidated building (awaiting its likely fate as either a complete ruin or a sterile luxury loft) appears in Anton Ginzburg’s film Turo (2016)—the final work in a trilogy about the interaction of Soviet culture and the post-Soviet landscape—together with footage of Melnikov’s tower, the ZIL factory designed by the Vesnin brothers, and video game renderings of Pripyat, the now-abandoned atomic town built around Chernobyl. Founded on the principles of 1960s rational design, which aimed to combine Constructivist methods with enlightened humanism, Pripyat is now physically inaccessible (save the tourists unafraid of high levels of radiation). Ginzburg stalks the 3D digital environment of Pripyat in the “ghost mode.” Its landscape devoid of people appears as something of a speculative theme-park for modernist ambition and near-universal destruction. It is not surprising that at the end of this chapter, a digital model of Tatlin’s Tower, which has not been built in real-life, emerges above the horizon of this modernist Neverland. Turo presents something of a metadata catalogue of Soviet modernism as seen not in museums, but in its natural element. It shows the tired and gravity-ridden flesh of monumental modernist art as it is being taken over by decay: the veins and cracks lining the walls, the water-damage, the broken glass. Everything has an archaic quality of Egyptian temples of death—awe-inspiring and silent. In the opening sequence of the film, the slides in Esperanto (a language which, although not exclusively Soviet and not exclusively political, was promoted in the early twentieth century as a language of the new utopian international) are intermixed with hieroglyphics and are watched by a white dog, sitting in an elegant pose of Anubis, the god of death and mummification. Yet, the dog wags its tail and walks away, while the projector keeps on running—the silence and protean inscrutability of these glorious ruins is disrupted by instances of play and rebellion against the stilted revery. The film becomes a rite of passage that frees the spirit and the dream of universalism from its tired and well-catalogued shell. The final beautiful and memorable sequence in the film shows the fire at the ZIL factory (that, by unique coincidence, broke out during the filming). Its billowing smoke over the blue-green fields looks like ritual immolation that releases the trapped energy of life and ambition from this abandoned temple of modernism into the present.
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