Vladimir Sorokin is one of the most gifted, and certainly the most notorious, among the group of younger writers who surfaced from the ‘underground’ in the late 1980s. Their hallmark was a general iconoclasm: the rejection of realism in all its variants; frequent reference to sex, bodily functions, and other taboo subjects; an emphasis on style and linguistic game-playing as opposed to ethical content, and an avowedly detached, ironic stance towards political and social questions.
Sorokin was educated as a mechanical engineer and graphic artist, and until recently has relied on his skills as a book designer to earn his living. He lives with his wife, a piano teacher, and their twin daughters in a tower-block apartment in one of the amorphous modern suburbs of Moscow. In the 1970s and 1980s such apartments were the incongruous meeting-places of a group of writers and artists who dubbed themselves ‘conceptualists’ and who included, among others, the poet Lev Rubinshtein and the poet and artist Dmitry Prigov. It was among them that Sorokin first made his name, initially as an artist, in the late 1970s.
Like many terms borrowed from the West, ‘conceptualism’ acquired its own meaning in the Soviet context. As in America, it represented a response to an allpervasive mass culture. In the Soviet case, however, this culture originated not in commerce but in ideology, deeply permeating the language as well as the visual landscape. The Russian conceptualists took as their premiss that this culture was inescapable: the writer or artist had no language of his own, but must operate within the prevailing system of ‘signs’. At the same time, his attitude to these ‘signs’ was remote and estranged. In the context of his work, the language and symbols of Soviet culture became aesthetic objects, deprived of their original meaning. At an extreme, words ceased to function as such, but were transformed into elements of meaningless sound or arbitrary components of graphic design. In several of Sorokin’s works, as in Prigov’s, ‘literature’ disintegrates into typography, a mere pattern of printed signs on paper.