Magazine article Artforum International

"Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art": The James Gallery

Magazine article Artforum International

"Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art": The James Gallery

Article excerpt

"Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art"

THE JAMES GALLERY, THE GRADUATE CENTER, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK/E-FLUX

In perhaps his most popular one-liner, perestroika-era satirist Mikhail Zadornov dubbed Russia "a country with an unpredictable past." Spanning two continents and eleven time zones, the state now known as the Russian Federation lays claim to conflicting inheritances, from Kievan Rus and the Third Rome to the czarist Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin was able to consolidate power by cherry-picking aspects from each of these legacies and placing them under the banner of his political party, United Russia; the liberal opposition, however, is having a much harder time formulating a rallying call of its own. The left-leaning collective Chto Delat explores this predicament in its latest film, The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger, 2014, a nearly hour-long, twelve-episode Brechtian exercise in which students from Chto Delat's School of Engaged Art answer questions regarding whom they consider heroes and how they see their place in history. When asked to identify "points of no return," the participants cite the annexation of Crimea and the trial of Pussy Riot, but also Occupy Wall Street, the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the 1999 bombings in Yugoslavia. Among their role models, they list Antonio Gramsci, Ulrike Meinhof, Guy Fawkes, and the online activist Aaron Swartz.

If, for the post-post-Soviet generation, "the Wall" is no longer the de facto defining historical moment, curator Boris Groys argued that its shadow still looms large with "Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art," a two-venue exhibition split between the CUNY Graduate Center's James Gallery and e-flux. Through a sampling of seven artists and collectives, Groys attempted to trace a trajectory from the Russian avant-garde through the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and on to the present moment, which he describes as "Post-Conceptual Realism"--a mode of practice in which artists reflect their surrounding social and political conditions as a way to effect change within them. Groys claims that the current political climate, with its outright disavowal of "Soviet leftovers," prevents artists from paying proper tribute to their past, thus forcing them to devise their own surrogate myths. If the curator leaned a little too heavily on a supposedly shared Soviet experience, it might be because it was one of the few things that united the selected artists, who represent multiple generations as well as multiple geographies. …

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