Monday, 31 October 2011

Day by Day: Olga Chernysheva's photography & videos of Russian life by Vivian Sky Rehberg

The soundtrack to Russian artist Olga Chernysheva’s most recent video, Trashman (2010–11), begins before the first blurry sequence of images materializes. Miraculously, that split-second of capacious orchestration is all it takes to situate us in the cinema where the work was made. The artist’s camera slowly pans from the top to the bottom edge of the theatre’s screen, where credits roll in the form of unintelligible smudges of light, lands on the vague, illuminated face of a young man, then swoops down to settle, now in focus, on his hands, which hold open a bin-liner. The audience files out and casually loads his empty sack with oversized popcorn tubs, soft-drink cups and film programmes. 

The cinema’s atmosphere changes with the soundtrack (in fact a montage of different scores), which shifts from uplifting to threatening to jaunty. But the young man’s expression remains the same – alert, if somewhat indifferent. At one point, Chernysheva zooms in and lingers on his face, which glows in the beam cast from an exit lamp, then she swiftly cuts back to his hands, the laden bin-liner stretched taut over his fingers. No words are exchanged between the ‘trashman’ and the cinema patrons. Chernysheva’s video fades to white before cutting to credits, which note that Trashman’s ‘star’ is a guest worker from Uzbekistan. As these credits roll, parallel to those on the cinema screen, the young man faces the camera, shyly smiling for his close-up. Chernysheva’s presence and point of view, until then fairly discreet, are more strongly emphasized in this final sequence; the artist films him from a low angle before retreating for a wide shot of the cinema interior. Then the video ends. 

Trashman is emblematic of Chernysheva’s work to date, which encompasses video, photography, drawing and painting. Its short format, straightforward framing and editing, and its focus on aspects of Russian daily life since the country’s transition to capitalism, trace Trashman back to her earliest video work, Marmot (1999). In Marmot, where her documentary-influenced style was first established, Chernysheva’s camera fixates on an older woman adjusting her fur-adorned garments, collecting her belongings and counting her change while a pro-communist demonstration carries on in the street behind her. Once the woman has dealt with her affairs, she takes a portrait of Stalin, faces it toward the street and sets off, presumably to catch up with the march. 

Both films record ordinary people in real-life circumstances. In both works the
artist frames, shoots and lets the action run its course. The narrative is not pre-determined; it’s contained within and generated from the filmed action, though sound spurs it along. Beyond Chernysheva’s consistent choice of subject matter, which indicates that she is deeply interested in and perhaps even identifies with the reconfiguration of class distinctions in post-communist Russia, these films are not explicitly critical of their subjects or of the time and culture in which they live. The ambiguous rodent reference in the title of Marmot could be affectionate or simply metaphorical – most likely it’s a combination of both. Chernysheva’s street-side camerawork is above all curious, spontaneous and empathetically voyeuristic, without positive flourishes or negative emphases. Although we might infer specific things about the woman in Marmot based on her age and clothing, or speculate on Chernysheva’s reasons for filming her, the woman remains anonymous.

By contrast, Trashman seems more deliberate, if not exactly staged. The musical accompaniment and dramatic lighting of the cinema lend a theatrical air to the perfectly mundane scene. The autobiographical detail provided post-scriptum – that the main ‘character’ in the film is implicated in the organized labour migration from Central Asia associated with the economic restructuring of the former Soviet Union – provides a keener critical edge. It prompts us to mull over the underlying mechanisms that configure everyday experience in the post-Soviet states as well as the intertwined relationship between the mass accumulation, circulation and consumption of images and the systematization and circulation of cheap labour under advanced capitalism.

From the series ‘On Duty’ 2007, Optical silver gelatin prints

Chernysheva also addressed the issue of migration in a series of black and white photographs, ‘To Moscow’ (2010), which portray Central Asian coach drivers. She shot the pictures through the drivers’ windscreens: some are speckled with raindrops, while others are replete with reflections of tree branches or sunlight, while the men behind them look concerned or bored or lost in thought. ‘To Moscow’ joins the artist’s more well known photographic series of workers, such as ‘Guards’ (2009) and ‘On Duty’ (2007), which highlight stillness or boredom rather than activity or mobility. With labour comes questions of unemployment and leisure, and video works such as Festive Dream and March (both 2005) respectively treat the harsh reality of homelessness and poverty and the recuperation of a key Soviet cultural formation – the parade – for marketing purposes. In the latter, a group of schoolboys and pom-pom girls flank a red carpet leading to the Theatre of the Soviet Army, surrounded by bouquets of red, white and blue balloons printed with slogans like ‘Glory!’ and logos from Panasonic and Gazprom.

If these fragments can be said to converge into a composite image of contemporary Russia, Chernysheva’s work constantly reminds us that the smallest detail can thoroughly alter the perception and interpretation of what we see. She gently guides us into a mode of visual attentiveness that sharply contrasts with our current regime of visual over-saturation and compelled distraction. She urges us not to overlook the trivial or coincidental, where small but concentrated moments of aesthetic pleasure may suddenly emerge. This is the case in ‘On the Sidelines’ (2010), a series of photographs, displayed in light boxes, of a half-dozen glittering cut crystal chandeliers strung from a horizontal rack built from tree branches on the curb of a two-lane highway. It is unclear whether this found and photographed set of objects is a roadside stand selling rich and antiquated relics of a glamorous past, a whimsically decorated bus stop, or installation art.

Although much of her work engages with the street, Chernysheva’s Tretjakovka (2002) and Russian Museum (2003), attend to the visual consumption of high-cultural heritage – namely, Russian figurative painting – in public spaces. In Tretjakovka, Chernysheva moves her camera over the surfaces of paintings at the Moscow State Tretyakov Gallery in time and to the tune of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano composition Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). This piano suite ‘depicts’ a viewer’s passage through an exhibition of paintings by Mussorgsky’s artist friend Viktor Hartmann. Chernysheva matches variations in tone, key and tempo to genre and battle scenes in the museum; the camera zooms in and out, slows down and erratically sweeps over the paintings, thus distorting the images accordingly. Russian Museum, with its oddly chirpy Zen meditative music, focuses on similar paintings at the State Russian Museum, but the camera concentrates less on the content than on the reflections of the viewers in their glasscovered surfaces and the intersection of gazes that occurs.

In History: The Last Things Before the Last, first published in English in 1969, Siegfried Kracauer asserted: ‘Small wonder that camera-reality parallels historical reality in terms of its structure, its general constitution. Exactly as historical reality, it is partly patterned, partly amorphous – a consequence, in both cases, of the half-cooked state of our everyday world.’1 There is no doubt Chernysheva is invested in the parallel structural realities of the camera and of history. In her quest to adequately represent something of this current ‘half-cooked state’, she talks freely of her interest in 19th-century Russian realist painters, like Pavel Fedotov and Leonid Solomatkin, and filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko and Andrei Tarkovsky. 

When curator Cosmin Costinas recently asked Chernysheva whether her work could be characterized as nostalgic –a common label for art from the former Soviet Union and its satellite states – she replied that she doesn’t think it is nostalgic for the past, but may be projectively nostalgic, which is, of course, oxymoronic. However, she suggested it would interest her artistically to ‘make the present a point of nostalgia in the future’.2 Given our collective future is likely to be even more overloaded with distracting sensory stimuli, increasingly sophisticated technological interfaces and forms of mediated communication, we might indeed look back with longing at Chernysheva’s art as one that offered us a model of critical sensitivity and awareness toward our present – if only we had been paying attention.

1 Siegfried Kracauer, History: The Last Things Before the Last, ed. Paul Oskar Kristeller, Markus Wiener Publications, Princeton, N.J, 1995, p. 58. First published by Oxford University Press in 1969
2 The interview, titled ‘How Can Realism Be Critical Today?,’ can be viewed at

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a contributing editor of frieze based in Paris, France, and Chair of Critical Studies at École Parsons à Paris. 
Olga Chernysheva lives and works in Moscow, Russia. She has had recent solo exhibitions at 6th Berlin Biennial, Germany; National Museum Cardiff, Wales (both 2010); Foxy Production, New York, USA; and basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, The Netherlands  (both 2011).

This article was first published in Frieze Magazine in October 2011. The text is reproduced here courtesy of Galerie Volker Diehl. 

A full text of the original article with images can be found here:

Frieze Magazine, October 2011 (for subscribers only)

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Exhibition opens: 'Building the Revolution: Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935'

October 29th sees the opening of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The show examines Russian avant-garde architecture made during a brief but intense period of design and construction that took place from c.1922 to 1935. Fired by the Constructivist art that emerged in Russia from c.1915, architects transformed this radical artistic language into three dimensions, creating structures whose innovative style embodied the energy and optimism of the new Soviet Socialist state.

The drive to forge a new Socialist society in Russia encouraged synthesis between radical art and architecture. This creative reciprocity was reflected in the engagement with architectural ideas and projects of such artists as Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Liubov Popova, El Lizzitsky, Ivan Kluin and Gustav Klucis, and in designs by such architects as Konstantin Melnikov, Moisei Ginsburg, Ilia Golosov and the Vesnin brothers, as well as Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn, European architects who were draughted in to help shape the new utopia.

The exhibition juxtaposes large-scale photographs of extant buildings with relevant Constructivist drawings and paintings, vintage photographs and periodicals. Many of the works have never been shown in the UK before.

The architectural photographer Richard Pare has spent the last 15 years documenting the current state of these iconic structures. In the accompanying exhibition catalogue his spectacular large-scale pictures are juxtaposed with vintage photographs, contemporary periodicals and numerous drawings and paintings by Constructivist artists such as Malevich, Tatlin, Popova and El Lissitsky. The book makes essential reading for all who are interested in the history of Russian art and architecture of this period.

Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts in collaboration with the SMCA-Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki, and with the participation of the Schusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow, and Richard Pare.

A supporting exhibition in the Architecture Space (23 September – 29 January 2012) explores the conception, vision and symbolism of Tatlin’s Tower and uncovers the intriguing process undertaken for its special recreation at the Royal Academy.

29 October 2011—22 January 2012 in the Sackler Wing of Galleries, Royal Academy, London

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Icons & Sacred Russia: Lecture tonight at Pushkin House

Pushkin House has just signed a historic agreement with The Russian Museum in St Petersburg. The museum’s vast collections are now viewable via a special Virtual Branch situated in the library.

This resource goes hand in hand with their brand new lecture series 'Ten Centuries of Russian Art: in Search of Identity' running from October 2011 to May 2012. The first lecture takes place on Tuesday 25th of October at 7.30pm with a talk by Andrew Spira entitled 'Icons and the Sacred Art of Russia'.

Despite the fact that Russian icons are widely appreciated for their beauty, they are still little understood. This talk will address the nature of icon painting, exploring how it emerged from the glory of the Byzantine world and became a distinctive expression of the Orthodox spirituality of Russia. It will examine the complex symbolic and sacramental meanings of icons, as well as their fate during the years of westernization under Peter and Catherine the Great and their inspirational role in the development of modern Russian art

Andrew Spira graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art before completing a MA degree in Museum and Gallery Management at City University, London. He specialises in Russian art, publishing The Avant-Garde Icon: Russian Avant-Garde Art and the Icon Painting Tradition in 2008.

He has been a Course Director at Christie’s Education since 2004. His latest book is on the influence of Russian icons on Russian avant-garde art: The Avant-Garde Icon, Russian Avant-Garde Art and the Icon Painting Tradition (October 2008).

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Utopia II conference speakers announced

The Courtauld Institute of Art has announced the line up for the Utopia II conference to take place on 25-26th November. Following in the footsteps of the conference Utopia I: Russian Art and Culture in 1900-1930 – held at The Courtauld Institute of Art in May 2011 - UTOPIA II is designed as a chronological extension of the themes and topics raised by the notion of utopia as a specifically Russian construct. 

The period covered in the papers of the conference - from 1930s until 1989 - will span the final half-century of the Soviet regime. Intended as a broad interdisciplinary project, the conference will investigate Soviet notions of utopia and dystopia, through social, artistic, literary and ideological intersections. 

Potential subjects to be examined in the context of Utopia in Russian art and culture include: philosophy, painting, architecture, town planning, theatre, music, literature, and cinema.

The two day conference is organised by the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre (CCRAC) and coincides with the exhibition at the Royal Academy 'Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915–1935'. Following the conference on Saturday, the Royal Academy will host a special reception that will allow everyone from the conference to see the show.

Distinguished speakers include: John Milner (Courtauld Institute of Art), Christina Lodder (University of Edinburgh), John Bowlt (University of Southern California), Maria Tsantsanoglou (State Museum of Contemporary Art- The George Costakis Collection), Richard Pare (photographer, curator), Birgit Beumers (University of Bristol), Mike O'Mahony (University of Bristol), Maria Mileeva (Courtauld Institute of Art), Maria Kokkori (Courtauld Institute of Art), Maria Starkova (Courtauld Insitute of Art) and Sarah Wilson (Courtauld Institute of Art).

For the conference programme see:

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Call for posters: BASEES conference in Cambridge, 2012

Next year's annual conference of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies, held in Cambridge from Saturday 31st March-Monday 2nd April 2012, will offer postgraduate students in the humanities and the social sciences related to the former Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe the opportunity to present posters on their research project to an international audience of more than 300 scholars in the field. 

The poster will be displayed throughout the conference and can also be uploaded to the BASEES website afterwards. Don't miss this chance to chat with scholars about your research in a friendly and informal atmosphere, get early feedback on your work, make helpful contacts and get tips on archival sources.

If you are interested in presenting a poster, please contact the BASEES postgraduate
representative, Dr Matthias Neumann on or the postgraduate
students' representative, Andy Willimott on

Call for Postgraduate Posters BASEES Annual Conference, Fitzwilliam College,
Cambridge, 2012:

Monday, 10 October 2011

New exhibition opens: 'Socialist Realisms. Soviet Painting 1920-1970'

Professor Sarah Wilson at the Courtauld Institute of Art has contributed an essay to the new Soviet painting catalogue for the Palazzo della Esposizioni in Rome which opens this week.

The history of the painting of Socialist Realism tells the story of an extraordinary movement in 20th century art. The Soviet state supported realist painting in a manner unequalled anywhere in the world, promoting its development by "recruiting" thousands of talented artists from all over its immense multi-ethnic empire. Socialist Realism extolled the social role of art and the superiority of content over form; it encouraged the rediscovery of the practice of traditional crafts and it dipped into both classical and modern European art, using it as a kind of reservoir of stylistic and iconographic motifs from which artists might draw inspiration. In 20th century history it represented the only complete alternative to the urgent drive to sweep away the past that was such a feature of the modernist movement. 

Socialist Realisms: Soviet Painting 1920-1970 is the most complete retrospective of this movement ever organized outside Russia. The exhibition tracks the development of Socialist Realism painting from the dying throes of the Civil War to the start of the Brezhnev era, halting as the seventies begin because after that date the trends in official Soviet art started to branch off into different and inconsistent directions, which were to lead in the end to the definitive demise of the cultural domination exercised by Socialist Realism. 

The exhibition, arranged in chronological order, occupies all seven galleries in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. Each gallery explores a multitude of issues, themes and formal approaches to art in each period. In highlighting the broad variety of solutions with which artists responded to the challenge of Socialist Realism, not only over time but also simultaneously within each individual time period, the exhibition sets out to overturn and thus to disprove the received wisdom that sees Socialist Realism as a monolithic art form built around a single artistic vocabulary.

Curated by Matthew Bown, Evgenija Petrova and Zalfira Tregulova
11 October 2011 - 8 January 2012