Timing Is Everything

Article excerpt

HOW LONG IS A PIECE OF STRING? This is the banal question prompted by the twine trailing down the wall in the first room of the Russian pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. Emerging from seemingly nowhere, it beckons one to pull it--and lengths of it have already piled up on the floor, a record of previous tugs from passersby. The situation is one without any real origin or end. And it is, therefore, an apt introduction to the work of the Collective Actions group, which married futility with visceral experience in a kind of never-ending now.

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By choosing Collective Actions, and its founder and leader, Andrei Monastyrski, to represent Russia, curator Boris Groys faced a daunting challenge: How to make the archival documentation of the group's remarkably elusive activities speak to the viewer, and how to render its endeavors legible without eliding their original context and enduring complexity? His solution was a multipronged curatorial strategy: On view are photographs, texts, and ephemera relating to the group's performances; an installation including two banners, one a Cyrillic-emblazoned replica of a prop used in a 1970 performance, the other bearing an English translation; Monastyrski's deliberately drab 1987 series "Earth Works," featuring deadpan photographs of urban sprawl and miscellaneous Soviet non-sites; and projections of Monastyrski's recent YouTube videos, in which he continues to mine the everyday, though the aesthetics of the Communist collective have given way to those of the digital-era democratization of images. The result is a compelling chronicle. The trajectory traced by the show's varied elements illuminates, if it does not exactly clarify, Russian collaborative and participatory artmaking in the realms of performance, photography, and video from Soviet times to the present. Oscillating constantly between embodiment and representation, objects and non-objects, the exhibition resonates in important ways with current practice within and beyond the Russian context. Above all, what this rigorous artistic and curatorial project demands is that the viewer consider not art per se, but rather the reverberating traces and memories that lie in the wake of art.

A long-overdue reassessment of the influence of Monastyrski and Collective Actions, particularly with respect to Russian performative practices of the 1990s, is currently under way. Monastyrski's first retrospective, at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art last year, marked a watershed in that process, and so of course does the Venice show, which is particularly revelatory in its presentation of the early, collaborative work. Collective Actions, whose original members were Monastyrski, Nikita Alekseev, Georgy Kizevalter, and Nikolai Panitkov, formed in 1976 and immediately established itself as an alternative art community that had little use for static objects, focusing instead on the production of contingent events. The installation at the Russian pavilion highlights a number of actions that took place over the ensuing decades. All followed a similar plan: A small group of people (usually fifteen or twenty trusted coconspirators--secrecy being perhaps the most prized commodity under Communism) would be summoned by telephone to a site in the countryside outside Moscow. Those who showed up (over the years, the ever-changing roster of participants included some of Russia's most prominent artists, such as Ilya Kabakov and Pavel Pepperstein) would typically be instructed to perform various tasks, blurring the distinction between participant and spectator in a way more connected to socialist notions of collective subjectivity than to, say, the winsomeness of Fluxus interactivity.

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These pilgrimages in the name of art were as ascetic as they were arduous. Fleeting and modest events, sometimes bordering on the absurd, they often took place against a backdrop of snow-covered fields, which knowingly nodded to the white voids that played host to Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist compositions of the 1910s and '20s--as in Pictures, 1979, where pieces of colored paper were arranged in different configurations against the snow. …