V. Podoroga



“Life is hard, but, thankfully, brief”
an exhibition by Dmitry Gutov at Triumph Gallery (March, 2014)

Graffiti in the history of a life

The exhibition “Life is hard, but, thankfully, brief” by Dmitry Gutov raises a series of questions that are involuntarily asked when you want to understand what is happening today in modern art. The aura of the prior aesthetic cult has disintegrated, not because the work of art has turned out to be technically replicable, but because the original artistic gesture has lost its force. We don’t notice it anymore. The slow return of the epoch’s scene back to a time when, through inertia alone, much was still moving forward – the orchestra on the sinking Titanic plays on, though it gets worse and worse…

I remember the exhibition at Garage at the Moscow Biennial (2009). A successful variety in the exhibited objects, an accessible understanding of why and for whom this had all been done. All of the exhibits/objects had been placed in the exhibition space as if they knew how they should be looked at. It was enough to see them once, and then you could do whatever you wanted. The brightly dressed up, glamorous atomic power station “corpses” nailed to the walls by AES+F and the self-propelled wheelchairs with their dummies of old men were memorable. One video installation really stood out, however. It was sited in a small room with a screen, on which was exhibited a “good” shot, the only one: a small girl, exhausted by a mortal hunger, crawling, no doubt, to where she might find salvation. A little further off, in the depths of the shot, a vulture awaits her demise. There is another character – the author of the photograph, whose face, with a happy, frank smile, makes us witness to a human tragedy. It’s Kevin Carter, the photographic journalist. On the screen, in falling lines, we see the story of his life. This, of course, is kairos1  – the opportune moment for a photographer, and his first and last triumph. The Pulitzer Prize (1994), then drugs, headaches, nightmares, and, finally, suicide (July, 1994). The photograph of the dying girl made a very strong impression, but what’s astonishing is that, out of longstanding habit, the global information consumer responds to such images with complete indifference. Modern mass media are packed with catastrophes, disasters, the tortured, the dead, the murdered, exploded and maimed bodies, we look at the world through them. And would what Kevin Carter was a witness to have made it into the shot if he had carried the girl to a soup kitchen?

Does modern art not start where empathy for human suffering is abandoned, where, skirting many prohibitions, crimes against humanity are aestheticized?2 Our gaze, assiduously avoiding tension and the pain of others, falls into a trap; it transpires that it is vulnerable, it overflows with pain and empathy for a little creature… Just one snap of the camera, and before us appears an image that is prolonged throughout time – isn’t this the model for modern art? Of course, this isn’t the gaze of the photographer Kevin Carter, it’s specifically our gaze, we see it, not Carter, and that which we see amazes us. We see what we shouldn’t be seeing. The present detonates in pain, and now we know, even if only to a very limited extent, what hunger in Africa is.

The last Moscow Biennial, in 2013, was something else entirely, in its own way providing wonderful testimony to contemporary art’s loss of its drive towards the modern, towards the achievement and capturing of kairos. The curated project “More Light” in the Manege, it transpired, was a collection of a relatively small number of artifacts: some video and video installations, wall graphics and sculptural elements. Everything that I saw whilst going round the exhibition halls, which were too large and didn’t let you sense the space, was simply lying there, where it had been placed, at rest, as if in a museum. The impression from the exhibition was very weak and didn’t take the interests of the spectators into account. It was as if all these things were saying: You can look at us, or not look at us, but that will change nothing, we’ll carry on being here… It’s possible that at the beginning of the 1990s, a collection of this kind would have elicited “incomprehension” and even shock, but today it is nothing more than not entirely successful copying of the old models of modern art. It’s almost not art. As soon as the passion for novelty and discovery, that powerful kairos, leaves the exhibition space, it is transformed into a run-of-the-mill warehouse, the conditional borders of art weaken, dust appears, cobwebs, a sleeping attendant…
Perhaps modern art is a place where nothing more happens, and nothing more can happen? Have we not lost the ability to deal with time that arises at the transition from one instant to the next, where all of the force of kairos builds up in order to immeasurably strengthen our position when viewing the global totality3?


Rejection of the Work

“…in fact, however, Duchamp strives
to create a work of art which, at last,
expresses nothing.”

Thierry de Duve


At the beginning of the 1990s, the contemporary production gesture was addressed to something beyond, towards something specific, which is to say that it almost always had a precise address. The artist, acting in the sphere of the contemporary, voluntarily rejected the expression of individual experience and, first and foremost, rejected the form in which it could be presented. The desire for direct contact was strong. The rejection of the work was so radical that any definition of art in aesthetic terms was immediately repudiated, mocked, pushed out and, in essence, forbidden. No aesthetics or philosophy of art, no theories of the beautiful, no Geniuses/Authors/Artists, no lawmakers of social taste, those servants of political tyranny4. Almost every contemporary artist knew his or her method and was fairly skilled in using it. The artist tried to shock, to attack, to impose “their” war on the conservative majority and the authorities. I remember the first experiments carried out in the contemporary by Oleg Kulik, Dmitry Prigov, Vladimir Sorokin, Viktor Pelevin, Viktor Miziano, Dmitry Gutov, Anatoly Osmolovsky, Yuri Leiderman, Giya Rigvava, Vadim Fishkin, Vladimir Salnikov, Nina Kotel, Alexander Brener, Tatyana Dober, Alexander Alexeyev, Vladimir Kupriyanov… True, it was an advantageous time when the majority, this folk choir, the guardians of morals and Soviet traditions was knocked out of the saddle by Yeltsin’s regime, falling silent for tens of years (like, in fact, the bulk of the Russian population in the 1990s, which was also preoccupied with survival)5.
As an example we can take the seminars that were held at the Laboratory of Visual Anthropology in Yakimanka (1993‒1994)6. The participants in the seminars were set the following question (true, it wasn’t formulated immediately, only being developed through a search focusing on the essence of contemporary art: What does it mean, to not make a work of art? The avant-garde, the new avant-garde, the post avant-garde, the rightist Moscow Arts Union, the leftist Moscow Arts Union, Artist 1 and Artist 2 – they all create works. Nobody can “not create” a Work, you can’t exhibit a Non-work, everybody strives to do something that will make an impression, that will be valued, and that, at the end of the day, will bring a result and a little money. Everyone wants to be Artists. And I realized at that point that talking of a work’s “not having been created” is absurd, an echo, as it were, of Hegel’s ideology of “the end of history.” But it is an attempt to answer that question that can help us to understand if modern art is art. And so, the aim was to create an art that would demonstrate that it can get by without the Work7.


The rise and fall of the contemporary Artist

Again I ask myself the question: What happened? Taking the last Biennial in 2013 as our starting point, we can identify certain temporary stages. 1970-1990 – in these two decades we can see an attempt to master the present in all its forms and transmutations, to find the kairos of the Soviet era, a technique, ideology and art of the concept is built up. 1990‒2000 signals a departure from the scene of “advanced” art, Russian conceptualism (Moscow conceptualism, one might say), the appearance of different forms of artistic practice (specifically, actionism). 2000‒2010 — the energy of the 1990s is clearly waning, the copying of former “contemporary” models begins, and then even that borrowed experienced begins to collapse. At the Biennial in 2009, there were still indications of the search for the kairos of the 1990s, and in part it was restored, which could not be said of the subsequent years. 2010 and after – the slow process of the dissolution of the contemporary experience into global contemporary art.
Here are the signs of the process of the de-contemporarisation of contemporary art:

  1. The appearance of an inert artistic environment that makes any radical or “risky” gesture unnecessary or, to be more precise, is addressed to no one: there is no longer any Viewer/Reader/Listener/Author; a developing frontal domination of interactivity. The art object is addressed to whom? Essentially, to whoever is on the other side, the person who must perceive, and that person is just as much an author as you are.  
  2. The expansion of the fields of influence of mass-media culture, enveloping everything that previously belonged to art and, first and foremost, aesthetic reflection.
  3. The devaluation and insufficiency of a separate, individually expressed artistic gesture – it is now corporations , collectives and classes that are needed; it is not the I, but the We that is needed, we need multitudes!
  4. The appearance of a repressive political environment that transforms any productive action into a politically challenging act, and the artist into a victim. In a society of authoritarian rule, regulated with a reliance on “the victorious majority”, the chances are high that there will be a rejection of any contemporary aesthetics.
  5. And, of course, a decisive rejection of the ideology of the Work.

The contemporary artist is now the Non-artist. The old post-Soviet normative culture was attacked from various positions and, of course, couldn’t take the onslaught. Its fall has been crushing… But contemporary art hasn’t taken into account that this fall is its fall too, and that in attacking the post-Soviet ideology it has become a part of the Reality that has been dispatched by its onslaught.

The artist, immersed in the flow of ever-accelerating, eddying time, will wait for no one, all that remains for him is resistance, and that means that with all his strength he must bring about the transformation of Nature into a Concept (an ideal Object). It is possible that it is the process of transformation that we call modern art. The experimental avant garde and post-avant garde strategy in painting was constructed in order to destroy our bodily connection with the world that even Descartes had regarded as being secondary and impossible without the support of the ideal might of the intellect. The intellect is the primordial concept of the Divinity, it cannot be mediated sensually or bodily – in short, it is mediated by the Hand. Contemporary art, where it has developed a certain cannon (rules), rejects manual skills and technologies, it rejects techne in the Ancient Greek conception (M. Heidegger). We only see that which we mentally (conceptually) identify (intuitis mentis), and not that which we come into contact with, that we touch, that we grab, that we strike at or which we cast aside. The world of modern art is overflowing with ideal objects and essences, and it now has no place for the Body, for the Hand or for Passion.

Nobody has the ability to paint anymore, but nobody has to do any painting anyway – everyone happily hates the easels, the brushes, the stretchers and the frames, but most of all they hate the very smell of paint. Everyone hates the Louvres, the Prado, the Uffizi, and the State Hermitage. Nobody wants to touch anything or to do anything by hand. All the more so as the technical resources for the conveying, dissemination and reproduction of images (photographs, cinematography, video, video installations, images processed by computers and much more) are becoming increasingly widespread. The brain of the modern artist has become a screen, plans are sketched in it, designs and graphics for future works, it is absorbed with the architectural image, its ideal essence. The artist’s “handmade” work will be made by others who are unaware of the concept behind the work and the expected result, and are not in possession of the initial kairos. The copy does not push out the original – why should it, if there’s no need? Craft skills in art have been destroyed, the artist is no longer capable of handling the accelerated movement of the multitude of images of Reality if he is to remain attached to his craft. He does not have the strength to process them bodily, to provide them with authentic emotion, to draw them in to a familiar psycho-mimetic matrix.

The phenomenon of curatorship is arising and spreading – the management and control of objects of modern art where the artist, again not because the going is good, becomes his own curator. The aim is to so far remove himself from the world that it’s impossible to even approach him.


The entry of graffiti

Following a somewhat prolonged, albeit necessary prelude, we will try and apply the logic of the entire exposition to the new works by Dmitry Gutov.
Apparently somewhat carelessly, a fairly large quantity of canvases has been ranged around the exhibition space: we can see roughs, sketches, “dummy runs”, intricate patternings, codes, notes, reflected “things” – in short, all this appears to be the material from which works are usually assembled (or the raw materials, at least, that are used to make them). Overall, this pulsation of notes and records creates the effect of graffiti, a free play of signs that are usually left on the walls of buildings (we can note that they are usually in the poorest neighborhoods in the city, often in ghetto districts)8. This, for example, is how far Baudrillard goes in describing the meaning of graffiti:

“In a wall painting, the artist conforms with the wall, as if with the frame of his easel. Graffiti jumps from building to building, from wall to wall, to the window, or to the door, or to the glass of the carriage, or right down on to the pavement; it spreads, erupts onto whatever happens to be there, they crawl across one another (this crawling is akin to the denial of the material carrier as a plane, and going beyond its borders is akin to its disaffirmation as a frame); their graphics recall the perverse polymorphism of children, ignoring the sexual distinctions between people and the demarcations of erogenous zones. It’s interesting that graffiti is turning city walls and parts of walls, buses and metro trains into the body, a body without an end or a beginning, eroticized by their inscriptions in the same way that the body can be eroticized by the application of primordial tattoos. Among primordial peoples, the tattoo applied directly to the body, along with other ritual signs, turns the body into the material for a ritual exchange; without a tattoo, and in the same way without a mask, the body is merely a body – naked and inexpressive. Covering the wall with a tattoo, supersex and supercool, they are freed from architecture and returned to the state of a living, social material, to the state of a living, breathing civic body that is not yet burdened with a functional-institutional stamping. The square structure of the walls disappears – they have, after all, been tattooed, like archaic medals. Repressive spatial/temporal civic transport disappears – the metro’s trains hurtle forwards like hurled projectiles or living hydras, tattooed from head to toe. Something from the tribal orders again appears in the city, from ancient wall paintings, from preliterate culture with its very powerful, but meaningless emblems – meaningless signs inscribed directly onto the living flesh, expressing not personal identity, but a group initiation and continuity…”9

Graffiti often signifies not only a recording of protest and challenge. I remember how in the Soviet era, along the whole electric route from Belorussky Station to my stop, Rabochy Poselyok (“Worker’s Village”), you could see endless rows of garages, warehouses and house walls with smudged, dirty daubings on them. Truly “folk” paintings and graphics, a single moment from the realist history of images that you read from window of a train. For some of my countrymen, in order to express yourself, it’s enough simply to mix something clean up with dirt, to blot something, to bring it down, “to degrade it”, to offend it or to simply smack it one in the face. In these scrawls the humane was all too human – curses, swearwords, indistinct but “well-drawn” images, slogans, insults aimed at the government or the general secretary, confessions of love, primitive porno, in large letters “Hail the Communist Party!”, and in smaller letters “Death to the traitors!” – the entire life of the Soviet country passed before your eyes. Groups swilling alcoholic drinks, those who were simply drunk, fighting, lost, lying under broken down Soviet cars, dogs barking, children running, passersby, sometimes you’d even see a man running out of his garage towards the train, masturbating, his face that of an epileptic…

But why do I choose graffiti as the exhibition’s basic gesture? Let us imagine Gutov’s work in separate stages.
First, the canvas must become a Wall: the canvas is primed, one layer of paint is put on top of another (dried) layer, layer after layer, and so on until the surface of the canvas is on an equal footing with the surface of a perfectly prepared wall. The color of this multilayered canvas-wall is random, it plays a role, but not a defining one, and, of course, it can’t be compared with the role that the surface itself plays. Every individual canvas is a piece of an ideal wall.
And then comes the inscription itself. Everything that is going on in the mind is in an instant achieved. There is no fear before a breaching (even a “defilement”) of the pure virgin surface that becomes the site from which the image appears. The artist merely awaits it, in order to seize it with a single flourish or stroke of the brush. Thus, from the milky-grey screen of sleep arises a dream, it is right before you, but we can’t “seize” it. Only traces remain…
Then, in order to “seize” this image and to reproduce it, you need the Hand, with full bodily support. And it has to be imbued with a certain skill, mobility and natural accuracy. The mastery of the Hand has to be learnt anew, it is the mediator between us and the world, through it access to memory is opened up, it is its guide and locator.
Then, Memory is needed, albeit a unique one, fast, almost instantaneous, which recalls in order to erase. It was noted long ago that all spontaneity in reminiscences, especially where they are as fast as in Gutov’s works, is closer to erasing than to a deepening and stopping of the image as something that is saved.
And, finally, despite all the activity of this memory-erasing machine, we mustn’t forget about the permanency of the qualities of self-identity. The ease and spontaneity of the inscription, as it is directed to oneself and does not require justification from the public or from colleagues. Every canvas becomes, for the artist, a mirror allowing him to observe himself, to make himself out, to address himself to both himself and his past (meaning that he can maintain self-identity within a fluid, variable time).


I don’t know what the main element in this range of images from Gutov and their interplay is – a drive to self-expression, the self-addressing or the attack on the status of the ideal object that stands in opposition to every inscription? As soon as a separate fragment of a city wall is freed of an inscription and made clean, a new inscription quickly appears, even more aggressive, with new variations on the “tagging” of anything clean. The aim of graffiti, perhaps, is not only for an unknown artist-transgressor to express himself, but also for the inscription to be able, in each and every moment, even in the most transient, to leave a trace. So that there won’t be a single clean wall or canvas in the whole world that doesn’t bear my signature…
And so, on the one hand, there is a pure, clean surface, a tabula rasa, limited by the edges of the canvas, and on the other there is the free inscription of all those letters, drawings, symbols, those careless scrawls that capture an image for an instant, in order to be immediately wiped away. In essence, the clean surface is in itself a modern objet d’art. The rupture is perceptible, and it seems apparent to me that this is entirely recognized by the artist. Gutov’s declaration of the war of the clean surface brings a dynamic to the material of images and memories, and we again discover a history of life that could be our own history10.


Recommendations for the hanging of the canvasses
(Advice for the artist)

11Giving advice to an artist is a thankless task, especially with regard to the hanging of canvasses. Nevertheless, I will give it a try.

First piece of advice: Let’s say that you’re planning on, in some way, dividing your mass of finished canvasses into themes and then, as it were, “by chance” grouping them on the unifying plane of a wall in the form of patches, or colored squares, or constellations that could easily serve as maps for the night sky. And as soon as you transpose the images into a condition of simultaneity and they can be taken in in one glance, between them transversal links form that previously weren’t there. When this happens, you lose the spontaneity of the “inscription” that is so close to the automatic writing of surrealism. What’s more, you lose the opportunity to study your own “stream of consciousness” (the priceless experience of “mistakes” and “crimes”).

Second piece of advice: For a better understanding of the movement of the canvases in the exhibition, we could compare it with the continuity of the keeping of a diary. The date: year, day, hour, minute, and, perhaps, instant.
I recall here the reflections of Charles Baudelaire, who believed that landscape painters had a greater feeling for space than for time: only that which changes can be studied by the artist. The artist, aspiring to truth in art, should in a series of landscape images reflect the day’s changes in light. Every change is a landscape image.

Third piece of advice: When we use an entire wall of a room for the hanging of canvases, we involuntarily get a unified, albeit virtual image of the Work, a certain Sum of All Sums, an alchemic Opus Magnum, and we are returned to what was squeezed out and, it seemed, overcome…. And this is clear, as the space in which the exhibition is set out does not subordinate itself to the ideology of the rejection of the Work. Can the smallest space aspire to mastery over all the other, larger spaces to which it belongs?11

Fourth piece of advice: Would it not be better to hang the canvas under clear inscriptions dating the instant of their appearance?

The forgotten bodies of our dreams…




Here is one of the descriptions of kairos: “What is characteristic of modern art is that it is entirely uninterested in how it will be perceived. Absolutely. Why? My answer may appear paradoxical: the contemporary work exists in the moment of the influence (the stronger it is, the fuller and the more shocking in reality it is as a work of art). What is truly contemporary or modern is the instant of the flash, the blow, the time between two instants.” (Podoroga, V. A., “Kairos, the Critical Moment. A contemporary work of art on the march.” – M.; Grundrisse, 2013. – Page 34). For the most part, kairos, since the days of Ancient Greece, has meant the opportune moment, or, to be more precise, the opportune moment that is made use of. Kairos, in my understanding of it, is the only way that a work of art can exist in contemporary art; within it, the moment of impact/action is indistinguishable from its perception.

The author of this video installation – “The sound of silence”, 1995 – was the modern artist Alfredo Jaar.

The total absence of kairos. The works are placed in spaces (in halls) that are not only simply too large and voluminous, what is worst of all is that they are border-less. The exhibited items in them have nothing to support themselves with, the element of chance positioning arises, along with the alienation of the spectator.

Kosuth, J. Art after Philosophy I, II. — Idea Art. New York : Dutton, 1973.

Dmitry Gutov turned out to be one of the most active and influential of artists of the avant-garde during that stormy and, one might say, romantic decade. I would particularly like to note his involvement in the work on the Museum of Visual Anthropology.

The Studio of Visual Anthropology 1993‒1994. Moscow, KhZh, 2000. — pages 97‒98.

Today I can clearly see that this theme of “Art that has not been made” is a theory that has been thought through to a far greater extent than the avant-garde and the post avant-garde than was previously believed. In the works of Kraus and de Duve this can be seen very clearly (Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism; on Marchel Duchamp’s Painting and Modernity” M. The Gaydar Institute, 2012; De Duve, Kant after Duchamp. An October Book. — The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts — London, England).

Our wonderful sociologist B. A. Grushin, one of the pioneers of research into social opinion, for a long time collected inscriptions made on walls in the old beer bars of Prague. Eventually, this astonishing collection of writings was published: Grušin, B. In pivo veritas: sentence, aforismy a další pozoruhodné texty z pražských restaurací, hostinců a pivnic. — Praha : Merkur, 1985.

9 Baudrillard, J. Symbolic Exchange and Death. M.: Dobrosvet, 2000. Pages 159-164 (163)

In a conversation with the author of these lines, Dmitry Gutov insisted on the meditative-experimental, even trance-like nature of the effort of painting that he has decided upon today. It is as if the artist, having achieved the necessary level of self-absorption, is capable of producing an art which establishes a “mystical communion with the Absolute, skirting round the image.” Of course, this is possible, but then in this case there is no need for any artistic gesture, or for art, for that matter. And even more apt here are Wittgenstein’s words: “What we can’t see, we must think about.” (The essay collection “A New Wittgenstein. Ends and Beginnings of Philosophy”, soon to be published).

11 Let us assume that the exhibition space has an imperturbable and perpetual foundation, a form of forms, from which the exhibited item can’t be distinguished, something akin to White Cube. In identifying the parameters of such a close, “founding” space we, no doubt, discover the borders and the time of the perception of the work of art. (O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space. — London : University of California Press, 1986).