Seminal artist Vadim Zakharov spoke with Margarita Tupitsyn about his role in the Russian Conceptualist movement as part of Art Basel Conversations 2017.
Art Radar considers the key points raised in this talk, including the importance of dialogical collaboration in contemporary art today and the challenges faced by Soviet artists prior to Perestroika.
Artist, archivist, publisher and leading figure in the art of Moscow Conceptualism during the 1970s and 1980s, Vadim Zakharov‘s artistic practice was at the heart of this talk, part of the Art Basel Conversations series at the June 2017 fair. Speaking with Zakharov was Margarita Tupitsyn, an independent scholar and curator based in New York. Originally from Moscow, Tupistyn has been instrumental in writing about and curating exhibitions of contemporary Soviet art since the late seventies, introducing Moscow Conceptualism to American audiences.
The conversation was moderated by Ekaterina Inozemtseva, Senior Curator at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. Inozemtseva introduced the talk by questioning the ways that Soviet artists were able to maintain their artistic integrity, whilst working in a state-oriented and explicitly repressive system. What can artists working today glean from the attitudes of the artists of Moscow Conceptualism, and what were the main tools through which these artists communicated?
The discussion opened with a conversation surrounding the given title – “Silent Resistance” – and how these putatively oxymoronic concepts can work in unison. Tupistyn began the conversation by commenting on how, for Russian artists, the concept of silence links to the lack of institutional opportunities available compared to their Western counterparts:
How can resistance be silent? If you resist you are not silent by definition. […] But on the other hand, it’s an interesting term as what it really means in context of the Russian art, is that they didn’t have any access to museums or press or galleries or any kind of system that traditionally promotes art. And that I guess is what was silencing it, on that broader level that Western artists do not know because most Western artists can find a way into press; even if you are very bad someone will write about you, especially today.
This lack of opportunity and promotion influenced Tupitsyn’s own work when she moved to New York in the seventies, as she tried to “give a voice to Russian art, trying to get it heard in museums, galleries and press”, whilst encouraging New York curators and critics to engage. She explains how these challenges were further reinforced as today the idea of an “artist outsider” is common, and furthermore accepted:
In fact, all the art world does is look for outsiders today. That is not what was happening in the art world of the eighties, or late seventies. The Western art world was not looking for any artists who weren’t out of New York or some European communities […]. So to promote someone who was not only Russian, not only silenced, but also when there was no communication between the countries – let’s say America and Russia… it was almost a completely impossible job.
The conversation then moved to the meaning and importance of resistance within the art world. Tupitsyn stresses how resistance should be viewed as a positive thing, something that can spur on and characterise art movements, particularly within a political context:
I think artists in general have a love/hate relationship with resistance. They can’t live without resistance but they also hate it when someone resists them or gives them a problem. It’s a very interesting issue and I hope it continues to exist because artists need resistance and because artists need to resist.
Tupitsyn and Zakharov then discuss the conflicted relationship between Soviet audiences and Russian art, with Tupitsyn explaining how in the 1980s “the idea of contemporary art was dropped like a nuclear bomb on Russian society without any preparation, without any education, just dropped”:
For the general public it was completely unclear what contemporary art was. Even what modernism was, because most modernist art was hidden in storage in Russian museums. So they didn’t really know what modern art existed, or what contemporary art existed, what were the issues, which for modernists and contemporary artists were so familiar. And I think this was where such big conflict occurred. During perestroika, such conflicts were very dangerous because the idea of repression was so repulsive to everyone because they lived for decades with repulsive ideas. Then later, say in the 2000s, they sort of forget that they were repressed, and they started repressing – the audience themselves. And I think that’s more the audience than the government. I was doing the Russian Pavilion in 2015, and no one ever said a word to me about what I can and can’t curate, neither to the artist.
Zakharov was in agreement that he too had not recently felt censored or repressed by any official organiser, particularly when exhibiting at the Russian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. This led to a discussion about the role of modern audiences, asking questions about who is doing the repressing, and whether contemporary Russian artists are still being repressed. Like leftover cultural apparatus from a bygone, intensely restrictive era, where audience expectations or projections colour general perceptions of Russian exhibitions, it could be argued that frameworks of repression are being recreated by the audiences themselves, rather than the state.
A key talking-point throughout the conversation was the importance of collaborative projects in modern and contemporary art. Both speakers lamented the fact that artists no longer collaborated on the same scale as the Moscow Conceptualists, with Zakharov stressing how the art market does not welcome or encourage collaborative work, rather focusing on individual work and therefore strengthening artist’s egos. In keeping with his original ethos as a young artist, Zakharov now stages and hosts regular exhibitions in his home in Berlin, something he calls “Free Home” – and that Ekaterina Inozemtseva described as the artist returning “back to his roots”. In this sense, non-commercial, non-institutional projects continue to exemplify his practice.
“It’s my position that I create myself not only [as] an artist but a figure in culture, with archives, with publishing,” he explains. Whilst his project is all about artists, he prefers to include critics and curators in this category, pivotal due to their role in creating artistic dialogue and spaces through which dialogical encounters can take place:
It is about dialogue. I think we lost dialogue in private space. And we lost a little bit of the human format […] I started with collaborations, and I would like to say collaborations are very important methods that are totally not accepted by art market. It is not possible to sell works of collaborations. Nobody is interested.
He states that artists themselves should engage in the art market, buying collaborative pieces from each other for a few hundred dollars or euros. Tupitsyn comments too on how working with a collaboration or a group of artists, rather than an individual, can be profitable for curators, making their lives easier by working with a group of individuals and egos. Both speakers agree that working in a collaborative capacity allows emphasis to be placed on human relationships, interaction and decision-making. Perhaps the most important point to glean from this conversation, was the role of discussion in creating artworks. As Tupitsyn concludes:
To explain why collaboration was possible in Russia in this period: all people did was talk. They were discussing. People don’t do it anymore. They do it like this, to show themselves and show how important they are. We are. Nut they don’t do it for the pleasure of it. I’m sure Vadim started their collaboration with conversation. If you don’t have a desire to converse, if you only have a desire to meet a dealer or a curator, you cannot collaborate, it’s impossible.
Art Basel’s fast-paced and expansive talk provokes many questions about the importance of social environment to artistic production, the creative networks that underlie concepts and movements, as well as the role of the audience in shaping perspectives.
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- Russia’s Ural Industrial Biennial announces participating artists – July 2015 – the 3rd edition of the biennial unveils impressive roster of Russian and international artists for 2015
- Contemporary art in Siberia: Art Radar guide – April 2015 – Art Radar takes you on a tour of the Siberian art scene with its latest of its city guide series
- Russian and Ukrainian artists question borders in London exhibition – in pictures – April 2015 – the exhibition “Borderlands” at GRAD in London brings together four artists from Russia and Ukraine
- Russian Pavilion at Venice Biennale: VernissageTV two minute video tour – August 2011 – a video tour of the 2011 Russian pavilion
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