Becoming a Meteorite
Boris Groys

We experience our contemporaneity as being defined by a complicated set of economic, political and artistic conflicts. Looking at contemporary events, one involuntarily registers which side their
protagonists take. However, in the context of the museum the conflicts of the past epochs loose their grip on the imagination of the spectator. Rather, one begins to notice the similarity between
the communicative means by which conflicting messages and attitudes are formulated and transmitted. In the museum one begins to understand that, as stated by Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message.” The goal of Arseniy Zhilyaev’s Museum of Russian History is precisely to reveal the commonality of the medium behind the individual messages that circulate in the contemporary Russian media space. Thus, this project aims to musealize contemporaneity and to let its language, its medium carry its own message.

For Zhilyaev, there is indeed a common ground between Putin’s image making and artistic strategies of his adversaries: they both operate by the means of performance. The politically engaged artists/activists enter the sphere of public attention by staging performances that produce media waves throughout the country and eventually worldwide, as it was the case with the groups Voina
and, especially, Pussy Riot. However, it is not only the oppositional art groups that organize public performances to attract media attention, but also Putin himself. And he is going much further in
this respect that most of his counterparts in the contemporary political world. His public appearances with a tiger, or kissing a pike, or flying with the white cranes, or picking up an ancient Greek
amphora from the seabed look very much like artistic performances. These actions are not, strictly speaking, of political nature. Rather, they serve to design Putin’s image as a private person in the public space, i.e. to politicize the private. They thematize Putin’s physical
fitness, his individual skills, and his masculine appeal. Like many other contemporary artists, Putin places his own body at the center of his performances. Besides, he stages these performances as
any successful contemporary artist would do it: by making them spectacular, sensational, and generating massive media waves. Of course, by interpreting Putin as one of Russia’s contemporary
performance artists, Zhilyaev produces an ironic effect that makes his project very entertaining, similar to the one provoked by Russian artists of the 1970s as they interpreted Stalin as an artist.
But this comparison also reveals the differences in the way in which politics and art manifested themselves in modernity – and the way they do it in our time.

The paradigmatic modern artists understood themselves as architects of a new life. The same applies to modern politicians. Stalin was an architect of the whole political, social and economic
structure of the Soviet Union, including its media space. Today nobody can shape, structure and totally control the media. The contemporary media space is a global archive from which an
individual user borrows particular items, almost accidentally. Every event presents itself through its documentation. The staging of a performance coincides with its documentation and archiving. Thus,
our own contemporaneity always appears to us already as a part of the past. It is no coincidence that the Museum of Contemporary Art became the most characteristic institution of our time. Such
real-time musealization provokes artists and politicians to stage yet another performance and to create yet another sensation time and again, in a repeated attempt to penetrate the media surface and produce convulsions in the whole body of the media sphere.

Obviously Zhilyaev does not want to participate in this competition for media impact – also because he does not believe that any artist or politician is able to win it. After all, both will certainly lose this competition to any middle-sized meteorite or a UFO. That does not mean that Zhilyaev holds a neutral position in the ideological, political and artistic struggles of his time. For him, as for all of us,
the difference between the performance artist in the Kremlin and performance artists sentenced to spend several years in Russian labor camps is obvious enough. Rather, being confronted with the typical contemporary choice between becoming a media hero by imitating a meteorite or acting as an analytical spectator of the mechanisms and strategies of media success, Zhilyaev chooses the second option. He describes the discursive and media conditions of becoming a meteorite instead of trying to become one. Among its other aspects, his Museum of Russian History offers a persuasive explanation of this personal choice made by its author.


One foot in the field of the real. The activist dilemma
Silvia Franceschini

The exhibition Save the Light!, named after the campaign in support of the imprisoned activist Vladimir Akimenkov, combines archival research, modernist masterpieces, and vibrant traces of the recent protests, all embedded in a network of references. If the projects presented were real, it would have been an ideal political exhibition – formally sophisticated and rhetorically virtuous. But in reality, the exhibition consists of pieces of fiction, which reflects the dilemma that torments any aware, politically engaged artists of nowadays. Arseniy Zhilyaev weaves a complex and ambiguous structure in order to probe the limits of art and politics. Save the Light! is in fact a dark dystopia of a contemporary political art exhibition; an apophatic expression of awareness and concernment about the distance between the ambition for political and social changes and the actual capability of art to influence reality.

Just like a movie director, Zhilyaev brings together different locations and historical moments within one composition, highlighting three main narratives where light serves as a direct metaphor for freedom, being also the leitmotif of the whole exhibition. Light is also accompanying the evolution of the 20th century’s art throughout three different contexts: Russian modernism in the 30s, the rise of abstract expressionism in New York in the 50s, and the contemporary London art scene, a globalized post-modern laboratory of ideas. Like in some of Zhilyaev’s previous projects (such as The Museum of Proletarian Culture), the protagonists are fictitious, but in this particular case they are modeled after real artists who have marked significant moments in art history.

The first room is dedicated to a fictive Russian avant-garde poet and artist named “Vasily Boyko” whose memory is re-enacted through an archival installation consisting of “original” documents, reminding a display at a Soviet history museum. While imprisoned in a Stalin’s Gulag camp for 20 years, Boyko produced several artworks by means of exposing canvas to the sunlight coming through the prison window for a long period of time. The exhibition features several pieces from Boyko’s series Svetopis (The Blueprint) – seven raw canvases with cross-shaped traces left by the sunbeams that entered the cell through the grid. The prototype for this fictive artist is the Russian poet Vasilisk Gnedov, whose book Death to Art (1913) demonstrates a gradual reduction of text from one line, to one word, then to one letter, and ultimately to the blank page of The Poem of the End which became one of the most radical poetry pieces of Russian Futurism. This poem has been compared to such modernist experiments as Kazimir Malevich's Black Square and John Cage’s silent composition 4'33" (1952). Both the use of language disintegration as a poetic method and the use of light as a painting tool are ultimate gestures of expression produced under the conditions of extreme survival, fitting in the context of the modernist experiments on the border of art and life. But the main reference for these fabricated canvases is the work of the American abstract artist Ad Reinhardt, whose black squares, also produced in the minimalist and reductionist aesthetic, attempt to emphasize the autonomous value of art.

Ad Reinhardt reappears in the second room where Zhilyaev stages a fictitious strike of the exhibition hall workers while installing the exhibition. They have flung out banners with the famous slogan “Art is art”, Reinhardt's statement about the autonomy of art, and, as an act of protest, directed all the light in the exhibition hall onto the viewers who, blinded by the light, cannot see the exhibition. Thus, Light becomes a tool of resistance and political struggle that tries to interfere with the autonomy of art and its elaborated, hermetic language.

The third room hosts a video produced by the imaginary London-based collective of anonymous artists ‘Alliance of Precarious Images’. In the video, the voices of judges, recorded during the hearings of the 6th of May “mass riots” case sound over a black screen. Darkness is rhythmically interrupted by a white screen to the accompaniment of undistinguishable screams of people in the background. The structure of the video repeats an early film by Guy Debord Howling for Sade (1952), at the same time borrowing its rhythm of interchanging black and white scenes from the Hollywood movie The Fountainhead based on the novel by Ayn Rand about an ambitious architect fighting for the realization of his modernist ideas. By once again placing together two contradicting characters, Debord and Rand, ideologically very distant from each other as also Gnedov and Reinhardt, Zhilyaev provocatively increases the intellectual complexity of the exhibition. As for the ‘Alliance of Precarious Images’, this collective mimics the logic of politically engaged artists who are fully integrated into the cultural industry, whose works, however, often risk to turn out mere formal speculations on the political events without any potentiality of changes.

May 6, 2012 saw clashes with the police at the anti-Putin manifestation on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. One of the activists imprisoned as a result of these events, Vladimir Akimenkov, is suffering from a serious inborn eye disease. While he is waiting for the court judgment in the pre-detention prison under improper conditions, his eyesight is decreasing drastically. In fact, unless sufficient medical care is provided, he may lose his vision completely. This reference invokes not some imaginary narratives, but instead the real tragic events: here, light is not a metaphor, but a matter of life and death. This ambiguous disproportion between the refined fiction and the brutal reality of oppression leaves us reflecting upon the whole project and invites us to reconsider the artist’s methods and ethical intentions.

The exhibition Save the Light! finds its place among the many artistic and curatorial projects based on the combination of real historical events with imaginary, fictitious narratives. Art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty describes the art projects featuring adjustment and alteration of documentary narratives by artistic interventions as 'parafictions': “Unlike historical fiction’s fact-based but imagined worlds, in parafiction real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived. Post-simulacral, parafictional strategies are oriented less toward the disappearance of the real than toward the pragmatics of trust.” For Arseniy Zhilyaev, the revelation of truth and the disclosure of hoax are substantial, and this is what essentially differentiates this project from those that try to hide their fictitious nature: art should exist in the liar paradox mode, openly recognizing its artificial nature.

For the artist, the ultimate artistic gesture towards reality takes the form of self-erasure from the narrative, which implies delegating the authorship and responsibility to the invented characters and fictional situations. He is taking the stand of an artist who, from within the realm of art, states that art is worthless. What is hidden behind the sophisticated rhetoric of logical paradoxes and the vertigo of fictional personages? Maybe it is the passionate belief in art as a powerful language for reflection and reality analysis, a language so complex that it can afford to doubt about itself from within. At the same time, this seems more like a defensive tactic which the artist resorts to in the situation where further politicization of art is no more possible without going beyond its borders. Should an artist, in a moment of political urgency, abandon his field to become an activist? Zhilyaev gives an ambivalent answer; he is not saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but ‘neither yes nor no’ – just as proposed in one of the possible solutions to the liar paradox. Thus, the exhibition presents the unsolvable dilemma of the relationship between art and reality in the form of a rhetorical question.


Museum of Proletarian Culture. The Industrialization of Bohemia
Maria Chehonadskih

In their novels, the first utopians described a new type of institution accessible to every single citizen. The museum ― a distant relative of Campanella’s City of the Sun ― was a public space where the creation of knowledge was founded on the cooperation and communication between free citizens. The emancipatory purpose of the museum was to establish a better future for everyone, here and now, in a particular moment of history. According to the facts, though, the only element of the museum’s utopian function that still remains is the fervor of knowledge reproduction. The achievements of art have been preserved there, where the past is exhibited and the future is not spoken of anymore, whilst public spirit has been slowly replaced by recreation, relaxation and leisure.

The museum has turned into a sanatorium for well-educated citizens ― it has provided the viewer with a cultural and recreational service with service staff ― artists and their works, art historians with their texts, and curators with their exhibitions. Upon becoming autonomous, the institution that had originally been created by artists and philosophers gave birth to artists and philosophers who service the institution (Castoriadis). Thus, the museum space became a place for the reproduction of dogmas, hierarchies, and systems of existing relationships, which were exactly what museum exhibits are meant to inform us about.

At the core of the exhibition 'Museum of Proletarian Culture. The Industrialization of Bohemia', there turns out to be a complex dialectic in the relationship between the museum and the artist. How and in what way does an artist get to be exhibited in a museum? When and why does an artist engage in artistic creation beyond the museum walls? Is the museum that space where a 'happening' takes place? What does establishing a museum mean and who establishes it? Does a museum make it possible to change our future? And who is the subject of these changes?

According to Arseniy Zhilyaev, the answer to this question can be found in the history of the oppressed, of those whose art was shown and preserved outside of the museum. This perspective gives rise to a complex study in which takes place the analysis of the museum as an institution and the genealogy of the ousted art forms. Here, Zhilyaev draws a contrast between two epochs ― the latter-day Soviet era of work and leisure, on the eve of which independent, control-free, anonymous art forms were born, and the post-Soviet era which made them professional and brought amateur artists to the level of commercial culture. While the museum dictates the rhythms of artistic creation where the art fits within the framework of the institutional machine of societal and political demands, anonymous recreational art is a side effect of this machine as it is born in amateur art circles, in the workers’ clubs and cultural centers.

In addition, the exhibition 'Museum of Proletarian Culture. The Industrialization of Bohemia' is a conceptual response to Fedorov-Davydov's 'Experimental Complex Marxist Exhibition' which opened at the Tretyakov Gallery in 1931. For the first time, viewers saw this art of the oppressed as a layer of Soviet society. At the time, the exhibition was criticized for its vulgar determinism as art appeared to be fully bound within the social and economic context. Only after half a century, has Fedorov-Davydov’s innovative approach been evaluated and reassessed. Today, Arseniy Zhilyaev offers us a chance to regard once again the correlation between aesthetics and the conditions of artistic creation, enhanced in his project by an analysis of history and the political context.

Zhilyaev enters the museum through the back door while acknowledging the Soviet museum’s architecture and design, and exposing its architectonics whose purpose is to support specific mechanisms of knowledge production. Here, the museum appears as a medium allowing the artist to deconstruct institutional politics as such. Thus, the exhibition becomes a whole installation where it is impossible to distinguish architecture from assemblage, facts from fantasy, document from fiction. The artist partially imitates and partially appropriates some elements from those Soviet interiors with their typical stands and flowers planted in wooden barrels, while showing his preference for a linear historical chronology, simplification of material, visual impact and instructiveness. The viewers find themselves as if they are in the era of didactic exhibitions; first, the latter-day Soviet history unfolds before them whereby the main protagonists are the workers, engineers, and amateur artists, and then it’s replaced by the history of the creative class of the almost-futuristic 1990s and 2000s.

Here are the anonymous artists of the latter-day Soviet era: The railroad worker Ilya Dmitrievich Dondurenko who dreamed of an era of new high-speed trains and spaceships which would enable people to move around the globe easily and quickly. He laid kilometer after kilometer of railroad ties, and in his leisure time created masterful architectural models from matches. His 'Model #14' is built in the shape of a sickle and hammer capped by the colorful forms of five-domed churches. The maniacal love for creating tiny houses out of matchboxes, burning portraits and landscapes onto wood and building shelves and tables amidst the scarcity of Soviet reality, has only one face and that is the face of the Soviet worker escaping from the factory discipline into the realm of 'creative relaxation' where the dogmas of Soviet ideology pass through the filter of his social experience.

Zhilyaev attempts to show us the features of that face, and that is why the composition has a certain Kabakov-esque theme: the protagonists of this exhibition are partially invented, partially made into leading characters. Partially they become artifacts of the Soviet and post-Soviet culture themselves. They get replaced by a whole cacophony of experiments and trials from the 1990s when workers’ clubs and cultural centers gave rise to a new pop culture. Here is collected a whole ensemble of voices, histories, and documents which tell us about a period of legitimization of folk art which independently left the underground of "cultural relaxation initiatives" and entered the arena of marketable, assembly-line production. Once the 'free from work' time of creative activity was liberated, it demanded to be recognized as work. Thus, in the 1990s, the dream of Kafka’s Josephine was fulfilled. Former workers, engineers, and female vocational school students started becoming musicians, artists, and talk-show hosts, thanks to which new forms of cultural politics and show business emerged, the culture of the future was forged and the model of alternative cultural production turned into entrepreneurship.

At the same time, grassroots culture was privatized by private business; almost the same thing happened with the institution of contemporary art which went through an analogous process of emancipation and in the 2000s returned inside the museum's walls. The industrialization of bohemia (Andrew Ross) began when business started imitating all the attributes of artistic life. The notion of counterculture lost its meaning entirely because pro and contra didn’t exist anymore. Just like folk culture, professional art became a part of the landscape of the entertainment and tourist industry.

This cacophony is replaced by a harmonious chorus of the new poetry of the multitudes who create the language of contemporary visual culture in social networks. In its analysis of this situation, the exhibition’s narrative approaches a culmination. Despite the industrialization of art and its transformation into show business in the 2000s, a new emancipatory culture emerges among the users of social sites ― folklore, graffiti, and texts create a place for free exchange and cooperation among thousands of people around the world inside as well as outside of the networks. A similar type of art grows from the experience of the new generation of non-material workers ― students, office employees, media workers, and IT specialists. This is the very part of society which actively participated in the protests during the winter and spring of 2012 and established new forms of political life. One such form is the Assembly. According to the artist, the Event of the Assembly heralds a new decade of the 21st century. This is Zhilyaev’s statement ― in the place of established authority (the authority of institutions with the accompanying hierarchy and rigid forms of representation), we encounter the foundational authority of the majority and the anonymous authors who continue opposing official authority in spite of everything.

The exhibition 'Museum of Proletarian Culture. The Industrialization of Bohemia' does not give the final answer but rather leaves the question open: who is an artist at this point in time and what should we call art? What are its functions and can we talk about the emergence of a new subject which does not conform to the rhythms of the institutional assembly line? The exhibition opens before us a view of the future with its new forms of creative activity. Based on this, the museum ought to become a social center where these forms acquire their new foundational meaning.