Imagine a provincial Soviet department store with half-empty shelves, sparse decorations behind the bleary windows. All the goods and appliances are a little dusty and old, held up by stand-screens of vertical iron rods falling askance Sixties style. A vacuum cleaner flies through space like a Sputnik. Handbags form suprematist compositions; transistor radios hang suspended on welded prison bar insets. There are op art shutterblind effects whenever you change position. The whole display is amazingly minimal and stylish, but also a little crude, a naïve fusion of decorative abstraction and pop produced by local virtuosos with the material sensibility for improvising quick solutions. Bicycles, clothes hangers, portable washing machines: these goods may have already seemed obsolescent when they were made. But somehow you know that they still work. They look like they were actually built to last for lifetimes.
In his new series “Used Goods,” a set of 13 wall assemblages, Dmitry Gutov imitates the basic elements of such an imaginary socialist shop window display. In doing so, he returns to a symbolic form that already appears in the piece he made earlier, “Art into Life” (1988), which combines two ready-mades from the Soviet Sixties into a handmade still-life or “easel object”: the lacquered door of an East German cupboard serves as a background for a fancy glass with a design characteristic of the epoch. It is attached to the improvised handmade frame and hangs weightless against a sky of deviating vertical tracer lines, singular trajectories of satellites and rockets flying up through socialist outer space toward communism, or falling down, to crash into an impending neo-capitalist reality.
Gutov’s world is a forest of such trajectories. One finds them not only in his paintings, but also in his installations, as in “Above Black Mud” (1994, Regina), where the lacquered cupboard’s intersecting lines of flight reappear as the planks bridging the upturned soil of a construction site. It is no coincidence that “Above Black Mud” quotes a painting by Yuri Pimenov from the same sweet Sixties, the time of Gutov’s early childhood, which is when he started collecting all these razors, cameras, bags, and footstools for their plain and simple beauty.
So, as artifacts of a normal childhood in the Soviet Sixties, these goods are not secondhands in the capitalist sense; they don’t belong to the garage sale of our own hapless time. Instead, they are things made for a world without private property: things-for-us from a utopian time repositioned and displayed as things-in-themselves, like rocks in a Zen garden, whose only possible use is disinterested contemplation and aesthetic enjoyment.
But unlike a Zen garden, the present series is not laid out on the floor. Instead, the assemblages are fixed to the wall as vertical formats. This automatically equates them to paintings, and not only imposes painterly or graphical compositional rules, but also means that that they are clearly for sale as objects for someone’s interior. This is a similar translation of painting into metalwork as in Gutov’s manuscript-fences for documenta 12, only that now, he is not copying manuscripts but shop windows. Through his choice of objects, Gutov shows that he was always something of a Kabakovian character, a man who could never throw anything away, a Robinson swimming to and from the sinking ship to rescue all kinds of stuff. But this lyrical image of the collector is sobered up by the prose of artistic production: Gutov is actually framing and selling personal mementos to a very different type of collector.
But why is Gutov parting with these objects now?
Because the post-Soviet era is now definitively over. Until recently, it was still possible to maintain personal cults of all things Soviet, but now, even the dream of a new Thaw has been privatized and belongs to the PR managers of Dmitry Medvedev. But that is not all. There is a sense of closure all over the world. For example, one might say that the epoch of design has ended. Phillip Starck, known for his toilet bowls and toothbrushes, just recently said that he will stop working as a designer altogether. When he started, he was departing from late modernist assumptions: design was for the elites, and elitism is vulgar, so the only possibility for elegance lay in mass production. But now, says Phillip Stark, he is disgusted at having produced all this materiality (for the petit bourgeoisie, one might add). As society follows strategies of dematerialization, so Starck, the entire concept of the designer becomes redundant. New generations of bionic knowledge workers grow up in disposable realities. The only way mementos of the material age can survive is as elitist works of art (read: commodities), either tucked away in a museum, or, as is more likely, in the hands of private collectors. They aren’t even safe at home.