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ICA offers rare look at Soviet avant-garde art

THE NEW SOVIET ART

Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism.

At the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Nov. 1 to Jan. 6.

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By SANDE CHEN

IN THE FIRST EXHIBITION of its kind, the Institute of Contemporary Art offers a rare opportunity to experience the constraints of Soviet life in a way which is both provocative and enlightening. Painted in the sickening blue color so common to Moscow, the ICA takes the guise of the communal apartment, a place of banality and emptiness, a symbolic representation of contemporary Russian culture.

Soviet avant-garde has always been around, but it was not until glasnost that underground artists could freely exhibit their work. In 1932, Stalin abolished all art organizations and established a Union of Soviet Artists to regulate Soviet art and promote cultural dogmas. Under Khruschev, restrictions were loosened, but again imposed when Khruschev determined certain art to be "obscene" and "offensive." "Unofficial" artists began a life of hiding. In 1976, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid's paintings had to be smuggled to New York for the first exhibition of Sots (Socialist) art.

Soviet conceptual art grew from Sots art and Apt (Apartment) art. Komar and Melamid, working in the early 1970s, coined the term Sots art, which is similar to American Pop art, seeking to subvert socialist ideology and propaganda. The phrase Apt art came from the fact that in the '60s unofficial artists were forced to hold exhibitions in their cramped apartments. This negative aspect changed in the '70s and '80s when unofficial art magazines and illegal shows flourished, turning Apt art into a distinct style.

In conceptualism, the idea behind the work is more important than the physical object representing the idea. Thus Soviet conceptual art is a reflection of the Russian mentality and a representation of contemporary Russian problems. Moscow remains the center for this deeply operated movement. Its key figures are Ilya Kabakov, father of Soviet conceptualism, Andrei Monastyrsky, leader of the group Collective Actions, and of course, Komar and Melamid, who have since emigrated to the United States.

Ilya Kabakov has had a great influence upon younger artists for the past 20 years. His "Sixteen Strings" is part of a larger work entitled "Ten Characters," in which the life of a communal apartment is recreated with 10 imaginary characters. "Sixteen String" is a representation of the communal kitchen, the heart of communal apartment life, and the basic banality resulting from 50 years of forced repression of individualism.

Kabakov uses bits of refuse, and strings them up in a darkened environment. Overheard snatches of everyday conversation pipe in and out, and with a handy flashlight, translations can be seen on the wall. The typical family yearns and plots for another room and worries that the neighbors might be having too many kids. Other comments are more universal, such as "My Lord, another cockroach has fallen into the dish! Look! There's another one! . . ." or "Well, why, why were you bothering me, I don't know where your little rodent is!"

One of Kabakov's followers is the leader of Collective Actions, Andrei Monastrysky. Collective Actions is a group of performance artists who believe that art is continuous, rather than a discrete object or event. They stage "country walks" in which participants have no idea what they're meeting for, and go about doing individualist things. There is no audience. Their ideas emphasize randomness and emptiness and are based on Zen, minimalism, and a study by John Cage.

In addition to the "country walk," documented in "Ten Appearances," Andrei Monastrysky has another work of particular interest. "Finger" is a hollow black box attached to the wall, and through the principle of interaction, one is invited to direct a finger at oneself.

Komar and Melamid have found an artistic haven in Bayonne, NJ, where they see parallels to Moscow. They explore the failures of capitalism and communism. In "Bayonne Rock Garden" various soon-to-be wilting plants are mixed with corroded metal. Unfortunately, the plants haven't died yet, and are, in fact, thriving. (Hopefully, they will die in the near future.) Komar and Melamid's other works address the mythology of the heroic worker and its contrasting reality.

Another upshot of Collective Actions is members Elena Elagina and Igor Makarevich's "Pure," a condemnation of the lack of medically safe abortions available in the Soviet Union. Letters made from bathroom tiles, plastic worms, crematorium urns, and a jug of urine-looking liquid give a decidedly "impure" mood.

The Peppers, husband and wife team Oleg Petrenko and Ludmila Skripkina, also employ seemingly eclectic materials, such as wash basins and peas, a staple Soviet food. In "Bone Marrow," peas ooze out in a very unsettling manner. Similarly, Konstatin Zvezdochetov erects an altar to an apple, in "Towel Holder," commenting on the abundant food shortages in Moscow. His "Box on a Bag with Sand" reminds one of interesting evil things found in hangmen's gallows.

Andrei Filippov presents "The Last Supper" Soviet-style, complete with sickles and hammers at each plate. Nearby lays the wax-encrusted "Old Testament." Behind the table, birds spell out strange omens in "Auspex."

Vodim Zakharov's "After the Fur" looks like magnified belly button lint, or more conceivably, bits of a dead animal after it's been skinned. Zakharov is undecorative in "Two Years Between Hiding and Infection," a whole wall of monochromatic gray, though it's a very nice shade of gray. For years, Zakharov wore an eye patch to signify the censorship of artists and had performances in which tiny elephants attacked his naked back to denote the philistines in charge of Soviet art.

In the same room, Sergei Volkov expresses the need for individualism in "Palm," "Thumb," and "Cat." His "Taste," which has an artist's easel with the words "the arrangement of the picture depends on taste" and two seesawing canvases, appropriately starts off the exhibition, as a reference to the changing distinction between unofficial and official, and the rapid movement of Soviet art.

Andrei Roiter is preoccupied with the color green, antithesis to Communist red and a common Sots color. The gritty texture of his paintings reflects the harsh, drab life of Muscovites.

In 1957, Khrushchev abolished the Academy of Architecture, dismissing any hope for innovative architecture. The team Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, along with Yuri Avvakumov, are among those known as "paper architects." Their designs are not intended for realization, and are a response to the ugly, ubiquitous Soviet apartments. In "Space Bridge" Yuri Avvakumov and Sergei Podyomschikov put paper architecture to the test. The large sculpture is made from decks of playing cards.

Timur Novikov addresses the Soviet war machine by juxtaposing feminine materials with aggressive male symbols. Irony exudes from the tiny battleship, tank, spaceship, and plane in "Water, Air, Space, Earth," a departure from normal depictions of heroic Soviet military might.

Sergei Mironenko utilizes this irony in a clearer form. His "Room for a Hero" leads not to glory but to an austere hospital bed, above which is written the party slogan, "Imperialism is the source of military danger."

Africa (Sergei Bugaev) is also interested in party slogan and propaganda. Inspired by billboards of party slogans, he parodies the cult of Lenin with "The Orthodox Totalitarian Alter in the Name of Anufriev," a veritable shrine to Anufriev. Large photos of Anufriev occupy the altar and Anufriev-like offerings are placed before it. An Anufriev banner covers the facade of the ICA, stating, "ANUFRIEV WAS . . . ANUFRIEV IS . . . ANUFRIEV WILL BE . . . ANUFRIEV DOES EXIST . . . ANUFRIEV DID EXIST . . . ANUFRIEV WILL EXIST . . ." Just who is Anufriev?

Sergei Anufriev, along with Yurii Leiderman and Pavel Peppershtein, are members of the group Medical Hermeneutics. They use cartoon cutouts against high brow texts to illustrate the emptiness of language. "New Year," a Christmas tree with a preponderance of stuffed animals, celebrates childhood innocence, purposeless play, and holidays.

Between Spring and Summer is an entertaining tryst through Soviet culture, but it is important not to place Western biases upon this work. These artists are aware of Western influences, but choose instead to base their work on everyday Russian life, and the political and social climate there. Their views provide us with new insights, and enrich the new feeling of openness between the United States and the USSR.