THE STATUE IN THE POETIC MYTHOLOGY OF OSMOLOVSKY
In August of 2000, together with Osmolovsky, we were invited by Novosibirsk artists to take part in a joint project in the Altai. The plan was that we would be dropped off on a wild shore of Teletskoe Lake, dozens of kilometers from any settlement of any kind. There, over the course of two weeks, without any links with civilization or chance of escaping, we were supposed to discuss art and make creative improvisations. When we were still at Domodedovo airport, Anatoly told me that we were going to a region where there are encephalitic ticks at the most dangerous time of the year. He explained how they strike the gray matter in the brain, and continued with a detailed description of the clinical pattern of the illness over the course of the longish flight to Western Siberia, and then in the bus (from Novosibirsk to Teletskoe Lake is another 10-hour drive). The first thing that we saw at the tour base that served as our staging post was a vast sign created by a local artist depicting a tick the size of a cow with the words: “Caution! There are ticks in the forest!” “I told you,” said Osmolovsky. Teletskoe Lake stretches out for 77 kilometers, and the motorboat took a long time moving through the somber beauty of the mountains that surround the lake. We were looking for a place to pull in to. The impatient Novosibirsk artists, periodically seeing a strip of sand, would shout out: “That's an excellent spot!”, but Osmolovsky would crush them with an irrefutable argument: “It's not fashionable.” Finally, we found a suitable spot, we unloaded the tents, our stores of buckwheat, matches and tinned stewed meat. Watching the boat as it left, Osmolovsky said to me: “They've already sensed that we've arrived. The ticks crawl towards warmth. In a few days they will be here.” We lived with him in the same tent. Every day he carefully examined my clothing and finally, towards the end of our visit, he actually pulled a tick off me1.
In the artist's consciousness there is nothing and can be nothing that is there by chance, nothing that is not very closely linked to what he is doing in art. Why was this tick that destroyed consciousness so important for Osmolovsky, despite the fact that the rest of the participants in this extreme journey were entirely indifferent to it? In order to understand this, we can take Agamben's book “The Open: Man and Animal”, where there is a chapter titled “Tick”2. There, Agamben quotes and comments on a description of the tick provided by one of the leading zoologists of the 20th century, Jakob Johann von Uexku?ll. Agamben describes this extract as the height of modern anti-humanism. Uexku?ll recounts how the tick hatches from an egg still not entirely formed, lacking legs and sexual organs. In this condition, it can already lie in wait for its victim on the end of a blade of grass, at first attacking cold-blooded lizards. After several molts, the tick acquires the organs that it has been lacking and begins to hunt warm-blooded creatures. With the aid of its eight paws, this tiny insect climbs on to the end of a bush branch and from there falls onto its victim in order to suck its blood. The tick doesn't see colors or sense the aromas of flowers; it doesn't hear the buzzing of the bees. It is entirely deaf and blind. It's aided in climbing upwards by the light-sensitive cells beneath its integuments. Its absence of perception is compensated for by its intense sensitivity to temperature and its highly-specialized sense of smell. The scent of oily acids flowing out of the skin glands of all mammals induces the tick to jump down from the branch, and if it falls on something warm, then it just has to find its way to the skin. It doesn't perceive the taste of blood, and experiments have shown that the tick will thirstily drink any liquid provided that it is at a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. Following it's bloody funeral repast, the impregnated female drops to the ground, lays its eggs and dies. The tick is interested in just three things within the vast array of what nature has to offer: the scent of oily acids, a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, and the typology of the skin. Agamben writes: “The tick enters into direct, intensive and passionate relations with these three elements, the kind that perhaps can't be seen in any other relation linking man with his surrounding world which would appear far richer. The tick is these relations, it only lives in them and for them"3
If we were to search for a metaphor to describe the central theme of Osmolovsky's art, it would be hard to find anything more fitting. In fact, one image could equal it here. The Terminator. James Cameron's film came out in 1984, when Osmolovsky was 15 years old, and it soon made its way to the USSR along with Perestroika and the first video cassette recorders.
Both the tick and the Terminator represent a programmed, blind force that bears a mortal threat to the living, a force that knows no doubt, a force that cannot be reasoned with, and a force that abstracts itself out of all relationships with the world, automatically pursuing its goal. The logic of its actions is rigid and merciless, it acts without error or deviation. An image of this kind arises in Eisenstein's notebooks. Here is his note from May 29, 1946. “The image of what is most horrifying: the last carriage of an extremely long train coming back towards you. Unavoidability and implacability.” In this implacability you can find the course of history itself, where events, like the present day, take on a fatal character, where everything is preordained and nothing can be done or changed. Here, man's lot is to merely understand what is happening, and it becomes even clearer what stands behind this phobia of tick encephalitis. Overcoming the central nervous system and the brain, it induces a comatose state in the human that it afflicts, depriving him of even a last chance of perceiving what is happening4.
One of Osmolovsky's earliest works, created for the Istanbul Biennial in 1992, was dedicated to the Terminator. It was a sculpture of the Terminator cast in metal, twenty percent larger than human scale and created by a Belarussian sculptor. The stump of the Terminator's neck was stuck into the ceiling, as if it had pushed through it, and at its feet lay several severed sculptural heads of the Mona Lisa with Duchamp mustaches. (Like many other works of the era, it was destroyed in the chaos of the 1990s). The image of the beheaded revolutionaries presented at the exhibition at Triumph can already be made out in this part sculpture, part installation from twenty-two years ago. This image can also be found in one of the most important, in the theoretical sense, letters of Engels to Weydemeyer. (Several years ago we discussed this extract with Anatoly, so it is well known to him. It is possible that the heads on spears come directly from this.) “I have a feeling that one fine day, thanks to the helplessness and spinelessness of all the others, our party will find itself forced into power, whereupon it will have to enact things that are not immediately in our own, but rather in the general, revolutionary and specifically petty-bourgeois interest; in which event, spurred on by the proletarian populus and bound by our own published statements and plans — more or less wrongly interpreted and more or less impulsively pushed through in the midst of party strife — we shall find ourselves compelled to make communist experiments and leaps which no one knows better than ourselves to be untimely. One then proceeds to lose one’s head — only physique parlant I hope — , a reaction sets in and, until such time as the world is capable of passing historical judgment of this kind of thing, one will be regarded, not only as a brute beast, which wouldn’t matter a rap, but, also as bête, and that’s far worse. I don’t very well see how it could happen otherwise"5.
Several themes run through all of Osmolovsky's work, and the political reaction, the fate of the revolutionaries, the heads broken off, the grey matter, those deprived of nourishment, relate to the most central of them. As early as his action on Red Square of April 18, 1991, they were declared with complete clarity. The action took place by Lenin's mausoleum in the instant when the work that Lenin had set in motion encountered its conclusive defeat. His embalmed body couldn't in any way fit in with the course of events, and his brain of genius, overcome in the latter years of his life by severe atherosclerosis, had long since been preserved in the form of tens of thousands of very fine slices made for cytoarchitectural study.
Bound by nature to the carrying out of a single task, revolution, working until the final stages of illness with a phenomenal intellectual power, this brain died from overuse as a result of extraordinary activity and the consequences of the fateful bullet of Fanny Kaplan, which hit a vein in the neck and the carotid artery.
One day, Osmolovsky phoned me and asked if I'd noticed the artistic element — usually incorrectly quoted — in Lenin's statement on the lackeys of capital imagining themselves to be the brains of the nation: “In practice, it's not a brain, it's shit”6. What was important in this phrase for Anatoly was the visual similarity between the furrows and convolutions of the brain and those of shit. He intended to do a work on this theme in the form of a brain molded out of excrement. (He had another project, where a giant brain inflated with gas was to float in the space of the gallery, entirely occupying it.) Projects that are imagined but not carried out are important in gaining an understanding of an artist, sometimes even more so than those that are completed. Some light can be thrown onto these works of Osmolovsky's by an interesting thought on the brain to be found in an article by Chernyshevsky, “Criticism of philosophical convictions against communal ownership.” In his text, Chernyshevsky defends the following idea: “In its form, the higher level of development is similar to the beginning from which it sets off.” “What is this mass,” he asks, “the development of which constitutes the crown of nature's aspirations? The mass of the brain is something indeterminate in its type, it is as if it is a transition from muscles, which have such a defining quality in their form and internal structure, and some sort of semi-fluid jelly like those from which the transformation of non-organic material to organic begins. This formless jelly preserves the outlines that we know only because it is constrained by external bone enclosures; freed of them, it diffuses, spreading like a piece of runny dirt. In its chemical composition, the most characteristic element is phosphorus, which has an irrepressible tendency to shift to a gaseous state; the pinnacle of animal life, the highest level achieved by the natural process in its totality, the nervous process lies in a transition of brain material into a gaseous state, in the return of life to a predominance of the gaseous form from which planetary development began.”
While Chernyshevsky with his hope for a better future invites a comparison between the most complex and complete achievements of the Universe's evolution and the origins from which this entire confusion arose, Osmolovsky develops the theme in the opposite direction, which is to say that he takes it forward. In its form, the highest level of development turns out to be similar to the finale, to its collapse. He is interested in ideas following their downfall, heads removed from bodies, the brain switched off from the arteries that supply it with oxygen, overcome by encephalitis, returning to a gaseous state, the transformation of the most complex in the Universe into excrement. Even in icon-painting, which he collects, he is attracted by a moment of agony — the 17th century, the Stroganov school of painting. A level of refinement and sophistication that is already touched by putrefaction, beginning to dry out. (“Well, this is already Prokopy Chirin,” is the way that Osmolovsky characterizes a work of modern art that is distinguished by a very high level of refinement. The first time he used that term, was on seeing a piece of fiberboard with two barely noticeable pencil lines drawn on it at the Whitney Biennale.)
As Engels foresaw, the revolutionaries lost their heads and the triumphant world displays their heads on poles as a lesson to those who attempt to knock out of kilter the inexorable course of events that Eisenstein calls the most horrifying and Agamben calls the summit of anti-humanism. This frightening force in one way or another defines all of Osmolovsky's works. He puts the spectators into a stupor, a sacred horror in the face of the mechanistic, in the face of the unavoidable. The action from the “Manifesto of Netsezudik” of 1993 is constructed on the concept of continual automatic repetition: “If I throw some shit into the auditorium and an intellectual says 'it's already been done', then I'll keep throwing it until he screams 'What kind of hooliganism is this?!” A poem written by him at the end of the 1980s unfolds in the same way: “One, one, one, two, three, one, one, one, two, three, one, one, one, two, three, one, one, one, two, three, one, one, one, two, three, one, one, one, two, three one, one, one, two, three, one, one, one, two, three.” In this context, Osmolovsky's interest in icon-painting can also be understood. In the icon, it is the canon that is important, the powerful element of repetition, where the personal and vital exists only in the deviations, the insignificant divergences from the set pattern.
The exhibition “Leopards burst into the temple”, where spectators, from a cage in the center of the gallery, watched the predators wandering around the room (Regina, March, 1992), also had a story of looped actions at its core. The leopards burst into the temple and knock over the holy utensils. They return again and again, themselves becoming a part of the ritual. The theme of the sacral and the pattern of the leopards' skins themselves are later resurrected in Osmolovsky's wooden icons. The dominion of the supernatural over the natural, inspiring a feeling of fear, penetrates the wooden decorative writing of his “Khleba.” Here, this is achieved by taking it to a mechanistic extreme in the production process itself. The scanning of a slice of rye-bread, computer manipulations of the image, and work with an automated slicing machine all presuppose the absence of the artist's hands actually touching the work. The interference of the organic nature of the bread that could destroy this poetry is removed in a brutal move: the scanned image is divided down the middle, one piece is thrown away, and the second is glued to its mirror image. If the same is done with a human face, removing its natural asymmetry, then we get an image that is as regular as it is repulsive. The perfect symmetry is a victory of geometry, lifeless, frightening. The bread becomes like Aztec gods requiring human blood for support. (These sacrificial offerings are another of Osmolovsky's interests. We were once invited by a western curator in Moscow to an early breakfast where Osmolovsky described the ritual killings practiced by the Aztecs in such detail that the rest of the cafe's guests couldn't bring themselves to eat.) The plasticity of the “breads” processed with a brown preservative, where it seems as if it has been eaten away by huge worms, is a return of the texture of excrement, albeit hyper-enlarged. They are the prototype for an anti-humanist human progress that is akin, according to Marx, to “the disgusting pagan idol that only wanted to drink nectar from the skulls of murdered people.”7.
The revolutionaries' severed heads were begun by Osmolovsy with a depiction of Lenin. Lenin as the embodiment of the pitiless force of history, a force to which he himself fell victim, appears in many of his works. One of them, “A Forgotten Face”, was also constructed on the principle of icon-painting: a repeating canonical image with micro-variations. It was done for Robert Wilson's Watermill Center near New York. The 36 windows of the facade of the Watermill Center were covered with 36 examples of photographs of Lenin disguised as the worker Ivanov when, in make-up and a wig, in August of 1917, he was hiding from the Provisional Government. In each photograph you could barely notice a change in facial expression, and together they formed the marked backs of a deck of cards. Another two of his projects, where the theme of imminent danger was even stronger, were rejected by Wilson as being too radical. In one of them, at a dinner party for New York billionaires, a table without legs was to be held by gigantic Mexicans; in the other, the serviettes on the tables were to bear depictions of Lenin with the inscription “He remembers you.” All of this was in August of 2001, a couple of weeks before the attack on the skyscrapers of the World Trade Center.
We can recall again the ticks and the Terminator. The programmed instinct to take a victim, with everything that doesn't serve that purpose switched off or cut out, is the idea behind many of Osmolovsky's performances. His action “Crawling” was constructed in this way, its official title being “The Quiet Parade.” (In a somewhat blurred form it was carried out on November 10, 1991.) The idea was that the participants had to crawl after one another on their stomachs during the rush hour across the Garden Ring, before the wheels of the cars, entirely paralyzing movement in the center of Moscow. The image of a crawling, blind force, was embodied in a sculpture 16 years later in the turrets of tanks torn free, their fixtures and fittings cleared away, along with all the other details that serve in the tank for the perception of the external world (which was stressed by their surfaces being polished to the sheen of a mirror). The climax of this poetic of auto-suggested action, mindlessly carried out in spite of everything, was reached in Osmolovsky's performance in the Studio of Visual Anthropology at a seminar given by Valery Podoroga on December 9, 1993. In the heat of a discussion on the theme of “Repulsion”, he made an “official declaration”: “ From this moment onwards, I will fight anyone who mentions so much as a word until first blood is drawn.” (After which, a horrific punch-up immediately ensued8.)
In “The Ukrainian”, all of the subjects that we have identified return in a new twist. This is a female variant of Frankenstein's monster, a naked Mona Lisa, “Terminator's Bride”, sewn together from the most wonderful parts of the most beautiful girls' bodies. Osmolovsky here is like the artist of ancient times who believed that absolute beauty couldn't be embodied in an actual woman. And everything that is natural and organic has what Lifshits termed “the noble imperfection of life.” There, where each finest part has been removed from a totality to which it never belonged, the link of the whole is achieved only through a violent, mechanical approach, by stitching the parts together. Taking the principle of the ideal body to an extreme, Osmolovsky, as in the case with the brain, arrives at the inhuman. Through “girls with an oar”, ancient goddesses and palaeolithic Venuses, he seeks to go even deeper. The idea behind the sculpture turns out to be the sensuality of the insect that is well known to Russian culture from “The Brothers Karamazov.” “I, brother, am that very same same insect,” Mitya says to Alyosha “and it is said of me specifically. And all of us, the Karamazovs, are the same, and that insect lives in you, an angel, too, and in your blood it stirs up storms. Storms, because the sensuality is a storm, more storms! Beauty is a horrifying and terrible thing!” In one extract from Lifshits we find the development of the theme of the ideal and sex among insects. Describing how a female scorpion eats a male after he has completed his primary function and impregnated her, Lifshits continues: “What is to be done? The behavior of the female scorpion is a distinctive act in the performance of its mission and, if you will, it is the ideality of the scorpion, relative and contradictory, but in principle the same as the fateful will of Caesar, Attila and Genghis Khan. It is, essentially, the sorry experience of a level of existence through which solar systems, biological species and civilizations pass. The ideal can be found in the world, but it doesn't come in through the main door. The love of scorpions presages that of Romeo and Juliet”9.
The theme of lifeless material that is capable of becoming a monster- killer was developed by Osmolovsky in 1993 in “Journey of a Netsezudik to the land of the Brobdingnags.” There, in the form of a blob of a live, warm body it sat on the shoulder of a statue of Mayakovsky, ready at any moment to crash down onto the sharp ledges of the granite pedestal. Roman Yakobson has a renowned text “The statue in the poetic mythology of Pushkin”10, which provides the perfect commentaryon this performance and “The Ukrainian.” Among the key works by Pushkin, Yakobson identifies three where the titles refer not to a living central character, but to a statue. And in each an epithet is employed indicating the material from which it is made: “The Stone Guest”, “The Bronze Horseman” and “The Tale of the Golden Cockerel.” All three sculptures are possessed by the magic of evil and bring destruction to the hero: Don Juan, Yevgeny and Tsar Dadon. In Russian tradition, from the time when the Slavic deity Perun was thrown into the Dnepr River, a cautious approach to the three-dimensional plastic arts has prevailed. It was always felt that behind them lay pagan temples, cult figures and idols. With his dissected and stitched up Aphrodite Anadyomene, Osmolovsky is exposing the fear that is enclosed in any lifeless and motionless anthropomorphic mass, affecting its destructive force. A naked girl, that set the first viewers of the Tauride Venus trembling, appears before us in all its monstrosity.
All of this would be unbearably excessive, if it weren't for the touch of humor (albeit shaded black) that is applied in Osmolovsky's work. In his latest sculptures it is conveyed, first and foremost, through impressionist modeling orientated around the works of Paolo Trubetsky11>. The new, added element in these sculptures that has been absent for the preceding 25 years, is their handmade character and their closeness to life. They have been developed directly by the artist, not simply invented, but made by him, and what's more, this has been done in a realist style. (If some object to this term, we can append “naive-realist”.) This is a way to interact with what Eisenstein termed “the most horrifying,” and it differs in principle from the approach previously employed. This is the degree of the close-range interaction, it is full contact, almost a confluence. It's not sitting on the shoulder, it has turned into a sculpture in its own right. In Francoise Gilot's reminiscences of Picasso, there is an important point where Picasso recounts how an awareness of the meaning of African masks helped him to find his way in painting. These masks, he says, and other objects were created with a holy, magical goal: to establish a medium between man and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding him. To overcome the fear and horror that they inspired by giving them a form and an image. The shredded bodies of the “maidens of Avignon,” of course, are recalled in “The Ukrainian,” but the intention is aimed in the reverse direction. From the avant garde to more archaic, academic practices. The era of freezing, at the turn of the 2000s, was linked for Osmolovsky with a rejection of street performances, with an interest in minimalism and Clement Greenberg (it was thanks to Osmolovsky that “Avant Garde and Kitsch” was first published in Russian). It was then that he began translating the content of his actionist practice into an item, a thing, into objects that are self-referential. In 15 years, all the stages in this process have been passed. Greenberg was read, mastered, digested and disgorged. The spiritual situation in the country again changed, and Osmolovsky, always looking for trouble, is attracted by that against which Greenberg kicked: kitsch in Germany, Italy and Soviet Russia in the second half of the 1930s. He persistently mastered this horrifying, compromised language. Formalism is thrown off with the same decisiveness with which performance was previously rejected. Now it is not the minimalist object that is important, it is the image, the recognizable depiction of reality (in keeping with the principle formulated by Greenberg: kitsch through the academic, everything that is academic is kitsch). He tries on the image of a real artist working on classical casting in bronze. If in the 1990s Osmolovsky worked with the wild outbursts of passion on the street, and in the 2000s with the world of ideal objects orientated towards money, then in the modern conditions he is experimenting with the sense of a new totalitarianism that is hanging thick in the air.
But the message that is contained in all of these metamorphoses remains unchanged. It is a sense of the unstoppable march of time — the steps of the Commander, the fateful will of Attila, the last carriage of a long train reversing towards you, a tick crawling towards the scent of an oily acid.
1 A note from A. Osmolovsky: “The most dangerous period for ticks is in fact not August, but May and June. In August, there are not that many of them. But there are some, of course. And at Teletskoe Lake I took two off. One off you, and one off me. They hadn’t had time to start sucking, which is to say that I was in time. If I hadn’t been paying attention, they would have definitely started sucking.
2 Aгамбен Дж. Открытое. Человек и животное. М.: РГГУ, 2012. С. 56–59. [Agamben, G. The Open: Man and Animal. М.: RSUH, 2012. Pages 56–59.]
3 Ibidem. page 58
4 The themes touched on here were at the center of our discussions in 2003–2004. See: См. Гутов Д., Осмоловский А. Три спора. М.: Grundrisse, 2012 [Gutov D., Osmolovsky A. Three Disputes. M.: Grundrisse, 2012]. Particularly Letter No 47 by D. Gutov of 28. 01. 2004 (Pages 223—229). In which situations are we dealing with hopelessness, with a fatal detorsion of the crooked, and in which does a fork in the road remain, a choice of paths? That was how the main question was posed.
5 Маркс К., Энгельс Ф. Соч. Т. 28. С. 490–491 [Marx K., Engels F. Works. Vol. 28. Pages 490–491.]
6 Ленин. В. И. Полн. собр. соч., изд. 5-е. Т. 51. С. 47– 49. [From a letter to A. M. Gorky of September 15, 1919. Lenin V. I. Collected works, 5th edition Vol. 51. Pages 47–49.]
7 Маркс К., Энгельс Ф. Соч. Т. 9. С. 230. [Marx K., Engels F. Works. Vol. 9. Page 230.]
8 Мастерская визуальной антропологии. 1993–1994. М.: Художественный журнал, 2000. С. 72–77. [See the description and discussion of this performance in the book: Studio of Visual Anthropology. 1993—1994. М.: Arts Magazine, 2000. Pages 72–77.]
9 Лифшиц М. А. Диалог с Эвальдом Ильенковым. М.: Прогресс — Традиция, 2003. С. 230. [Livshits M. A. Dialogs with Evald Ilienkov. M.: Progress — Tradition, 2003, Page 230.]
11Не сомневаюсь, что по прочтении этих строк, нашим образованным критикам должна прийти в голову мысль, что Осмоловский этого знать не должен. Уверяю их, что в библиотеке тех образов, с которыми он работает, памятник Александру III занимает важное место.