Photography and Reality in the Work of Afrika
Chattopadhyay, Collette A., Art Journal
In observing the changing political parameters of global reality in the late 1980s, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote "the iron curtain rusted at last and through its holes with sharp, dangerous edges seeped people and books in both directions."(1) Yevtushenko's concerns with the complexities of cross-cultural communication and the establishment of cultural identity coincide with a constellation of issues central to contemporary Russian vanguard art and photography.(2) Donaldestruction, a large-scale installation by the artist calling himself Afrika,(3) which first appeared at the Lenin Museum, Leningrad, in September 1990 and subsequently traveled extensively,(4) approached these issues with a similar emphasis. Within this installation, which featured numerous individually titled pieces, was the small work Health Resorts of the USSR #2 (fig. 1).[figure 1 omitted] It displayed photographs salvaged from a 1937 book of the same title, published by the USSR Society of Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.
Swiftly introducing problems central to contemporary Russian art investigation, Health Resorts reflects the chasm between art and reality, particularly between the utopian vision of Socialist Realism and the rough-hewn reality of Russian byt (daily life). Suggesting disjunction and inviting double interpretations, the coarse mat and frame play against the elegant photographs to subvert conventional readings of the images. In effect, the contrasting textures and the sienna mat, which simultaneously references Rembrandtesque painting and rusted iron, intimate that the photographs are too ideal to be part of the real world. In the process, they are refocused as being utopian images, created not so much to document a reality as to create one that furthered specific ideological goals. In this case, where the original photographic image and negative date to 1937, a year associated with the brutal Soviet reality of the Great Terror,(5) the disjunction between the photographs and reality is accentuated. Belying an underlying concern with notions of disintegration and reintegration, Health Resorts thus raises issues of censorship and surveillance, of photography's historic role in disseminating information, and of the inherent fabrication of visual and photographic paradigms.
With its eclectic embrace of what in the West is a variety of distinct artistic premises, this work and others appear at first glance to converse with postmodernism's excavation of the past. In the Western consciousness, visual echoes seem to rebound between this work and Surrealism's emphasis on repressed meanings and realities, or Dadaism's practice of subversive irony, or Pop art's critique of the relation between technology and art, or Arte Povera's penchant for culturally rejected or debased objects, as well as Conceptualism's emphasis on art understood primarily as perception and ideas. Yet despite these kinetic congruences, and perhaps in keeping with the historical, symbiotic relationship of East and West, the entire body of contemporary Russian art moderates against critical discussions premised on comparative analysis. Significantly, Russian artists struggle against the Western postmodern tendency to level cultural differences, insisting strongly instead on a distinct ethnic identity. This issue alone suggests that contemporary Russian art and photography function outside a strictly Euro-American postmodern framework, supporting artist and critic Victor Tupitsyn's suggestion that the present Russian artistic quest is not a repetition, succession, or amalgamation of any established paradigms of Western art, but rather a cluster chord of artistic developments built on Russian premises and history.(6)
Yet the fascinating, tangential congruences that exist, for example, between Afrika's work and that of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Peter Roehr, and Hans-Peter Feldmann suggest that, while Afrika's sure-footed artistic sensibility and methodology undoubtedly owe more to the vanguard work of conceptual Russian photographers and artists of the 1960s and 1970s, both he and many of his contemporaries were aware of successive artistic developments in Europe and America. …