Writings by Conceptualist Artists

Overview by Ilmira Bolotyan, Elena Ishenko, Maryana Karysheva, Valeriy Ledenev, and Anastasia Tishunina

Now on show at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is the exhibition The Snail’s Trail, from one of the leaders of Moscow Conceptualism: Viktor Pivovarov.

The artists of the Moscow Conceptualist movement are famous not only for their visual works, but also for their writings, some of which are discussed here in the latest overview of publications from Garage Library.

Sergei Anufriyev, Pavel Pepperstein. Mifogennaya lyubov kast [Mythogenic Love of Castes]. 

Moscow, Ad Marginem Press, 1999. — 478 pp. 

Pavel Pepperstein. Mifogennaya lyubov kast. Tom 2. [Mythogenic Love of Castes. Volume 2]  

Moscow, Ad Marginem Press, 2002. — 539 pp.

Strangely, the main postmodernist account of World War II was written by two artists of the younger generation of Moscow Conceptualists: Pavel Pepperstein and Sergei Anufriyev. The two-volume Mifogennaya lyubov kast is an example of psychedelic realism, where the protagonist of the delirious narrative is party functionary Vladimir Dunayev, who dies early in the war only to return to the front as a spirit. His battleground is a parallel reality where he is confronted by fairy tale creatures: the little boy and Karlsson, the Blue Fairy of a Killing House, Holy Girls, and other half-mythical creatures. Helping him are traditional characters from Russian folklore: the Chicken-Legged Hut, the Buzzy-Wuzzy Fly, the Magic Tablecloth, the Clergy, the Lieutenant, and a dozen others.

Their battles take place in the complex world constructed out of what we might call “inappropriate language.” The psychedelic realism of Mifogennaya lyubov kast is created out of fragments of borderline speech, where Russian folk tales get mixed with Vertinsky’s songs, Dunayev’s erotic hallucinations, excerpts from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, prison talk and rude rhymes, fables, Vassily Bykov-style Soviet realism, and Sorokin’s conceptualism.

Here Soviet culture meets folklore, and a party functionary becomes a shaman in the world that exists beyond history. However, the story is not so much about Dunayev as about language, evolving and unstable, defiantly rich in layers and meanings—the special language that only conceptual artists could tame. The fascist strategy is literally standing on eggshells, the Magic Tablecloth covers the battlefield, the dome of a church turns out to be a stinking onion, and the heads and tails of German eagles turn into coins. The language is an independent character as well as the general background and the driving force behind the story. Everything exists in language and is informed by it. This fixation on language materializes in the image of Mifogennaya lyubov kast—a hallucinatory definition of the war going on, as well as the book Dunayev discovers in the museum of the Don River hidden in one of the folds of his higher reality. This book is a catalogue of the museum, which is in its turn devoted to the events that are described in Pepperstein and Anufriyev’s book.

Apart from allusions to world literature (going back as far as Homer), the two volumes abound in references to the conceptualist circle. The character of Senya Headache, whom the reader meets in the chapter Odessa (volume 1), is a combination of conceptualist artist Senya Narrow Eyes and his band Boli [the aches] with Georgy Litichevsky and Farid Bogdalov. The Black Elsa — a deadly machine made of washboards that appears in the first pages of the second volume — is one of the most famous works by Yuri Leiderman. In the end, Pepperstein himself makes an appearance: as Murzilka the correspondent hits the keys, the letters emerge, that smell of “pepper and stone” (“Pepper und Stein”). E.I.

Viktor Pivovarov. Vlyublennyi agent [Agent in Love].

Moscow, Artguide, 2016. — 368 pp.

Published by Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

Viktor Pivovarov’s book resists classification. Neither a fiction nor a memoir, this mostly autobiographical text too often slips into poetic digressions and meditations one normally finds in novels. Perhaps Agent in Love is best described as the author’s extensive commentary on his own work as an artist. As Pivovarov points out, the book grew out of his ambition to “cover all the contexts” that have informed his work—and his inability to do so. “To the dry annotations to every work I started adding stories about the people and events that had inspired them, providing the context,” he writes. “And then the dry annotations themselves grew shorter and shorter.”

The heavily illustrated book could hardly replace a catalogue of Pivovarov’s work, but combines text with image in the true spirit of Moscow Conceptualism. The artist’s paintings and drawings, already deeply rooted in the literary tradition, become the starting point for endless commentary, recreating the atmosphere of private showings and discussions, which took place in the studios of Soviet nonconformist artists. Unfortunately, the close, unmediated contact with the artist’s work, which that situation allowed, is now impossible. At the same time, many of Viktor Pivovarov’s series of drawings and paintings have been published separately. Some of these publications are available in Garage Library.

The first edition of Agent in Love was published by Novoye literarutornoye obozreniye in 2001. On the occasion of Viktor Pivovarov’s exhibition The Snail’s Trail, Garage has published an updated and expanded version of the text: the artist has added a new chapter devoted to his work in the past decade. V.L.

Vagrich Bakhchanyan. Sochineniya [Writings].

Vologda: German Titov, 2010. — 407 pp.

Vagrich Bakhchanyan was a conceptual writer, but his work can also be classified as Sots Art. Born in Kharkiv, “21 years after the Great October Revolution,” he immigrated to the USA in 1974. Author of 11 books and many popular sayings (including the famous “we were born to make Kafka real”), Bakhchanyan devoted most of his pre- and post-emigration writings to various aspects of Soviet life: from official symbols and language to historical and literary figures, folklore, and the everyday.

His writings were published posthumously in a small series called The Library of Moscow Conceptualism of German Titov. The 2010 publication consists of 155 numbered “writings,” most of which are based on puns, newspaper clichés and idioms rearranged to produce new meanings that border on nonsense (“Do wash your literary linen in public, even if the linen don’t rhyme”), or sound patterns. His techniques are not unlike those employed by Russian Futurist poets Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, or the OBERIU collective, whose works Bakhchanyan knew well. Some of the writings are narrative short stories and sketches, all concise and sharp, but at times still slipping into chaos.

When it reaches a certain level of absurdity, language becomes pointless, gets deconstructed, falls apart, leaving behind only disjointed sounds and a reader perplexed by the disappearing and reappearing connections. One text consists of disconnected sentences, some of which are taken from Soviet newspapers: the language of power and propaganda is one of Vagrich Bakhchanyan’s main sources of inspiration. Another chapter is entirely made of magazine and newspaper excerpts, connected into a very smooth yet nonsensical text.

The book has an open structure and can be read and enjoyed in parts: “Like author, like book.” M.K.

Andrei Monastyrsky. Kashirskoye shosse // Esteticheskiye issledovaniya. Texty, aktsionniye obyekty, installyatsii [Kashirskoye Highway // Studies in Aesthetics. Texts, Objects, Installations].

Moscow: German Titov, 2009. — 562 pp.

Kashirskoye shosse is based on the early diaries of Andrei Monastyrsky—a young philologist and religious convert gradually descending into madness. This is an edited version of the artist’s famous trip, which has been reworked into a memoir. Monastyrsky refers to the book as “notes” on his life before Collective Actions’ Journeys to the Countryside.

The protagonist’s mind mixes Christian symbolism with Kabbalah, Vedic, and Buddhist concepts, such as thoughtforms. To Andrei Monastyrsky, Hesychasm (a mystical tradition of prayer at the roots of Orthodox asceticism) was a kind of artistic practice: inserting a new meaning into profane reality and turning one’s life into a mystical experience, learning to perceive time, the speed of light, and its audio and psychophysical deformations. In the swearing that haunts him during the prayer, the reader will easily discern the technique that was quite common with the conceptualists: deconstructing and eroding traditional (or authoritarian, in the words of Mikhail Bakhtin) discourse with rude or absurd insertions. Certain episodes, like the one where the protagonist beats himself on the chest while reciting the akathist, will remind the reader of the actions Monastyrsky performed at home: Little Pushers, The Conception of Aeromonk Sergiy, and others. In his action To N. Alexeev, the artist, as he said, felt that he was “leading Nikita Alexeev,” which is quite similar to the protagonist’s delusions of people around him becoming dependent on him.

Andrei Monastyrsky’s meticulous description of his delusions during his madness is one of the best examples of what later came to be known as psychedelic realism. Think of the vigil of Medical Hermeneutics Inspection.

Monastyrsky’s vivid descriptions might provoke phantom pains in those who have experienced similar symptoms, especially due to the author’s very precise account of his actual movements. How he succeeded in overcoming his madness remains a mystery, as if the author encourages us to look for the answer in his later consciously artistic experiments. I.B.

Yuri Albert. Chto ya videl (What I Have Seen).

Moscow: Novoye Literaturnoye Obozreniye, 2011. — 272 p.

This book by Yuri Albert is in fact a collection of his dreams, which he wrote down for the 2011 exhibition Metamorpheus at Stella Art Foundation (the exhibition was by Kupidon art group, which consisted of Yuri Albert, Viktor Skersis, and Andrei Filippov).
The collection includes all of the artist’s dreams from December 1996 to October 2007 that were in any way connected to contemporary art. To the author himself, the chronology of their appearance is just as important as the actual content, and the reader will occasionally stumble upon an entry like “05.02.2000. Forgot.” Although it might seem a joke, the project is in fact an ironic comment on surrealist practices, which often incorporated dreams. But, where the surrealists looked for the unconscious, Yuri Albert searched for the traces and reflections of his daily life.

The diary of dreams includes some phantasmagoric episodes (Vadim Zakharov crawling across an underground walkway, river submarines run by old ladies, Sergei Mironenko piloting a plane) as well as quite normal routines: exhibition openings, working in the studio. “These are very comfortable dreams of a nice world,” Yuri Albert writes, “where everybody loves art and shows me their new works.” Some of the dreams, however, do bring up serious questions, usually suggested by a critical remark by one of the characters: “Mass-produced abstraction is horrible, worse than the Soviet little landscapes painted for distraction.” A.T.