Specters and Spirits of a Parallel Avant-Garde
Edited by Georg Schöllhammer and Ruben Arevshatyan
Executive editor: Melanie Ohnemus
Published by Sternberg Press and tranzit, 2014
English, 17 x 24.5 cm, 528 pages, 350 b/w ills., artists’ inserts in color, hardcover
Thaw and the Poetics of Soil
In 2006, the Moscow artist Dmitry Gutov made a video which he titled Thaw. This single-channel production runs for three minutes and forty seconds, and its main motif is Gutov himself, in the middle of an impassable country road in the spring. But the title of the video is not only an obvious reference to the landscape the artist portrays, but also contains a cultural-historical allusion. The Thaw, published in 1954, was a novel by the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg which heralded post-Stalinist liberalization. Moreover, the era following Stalin’s death (the second half of the 1950s and the 1960s) derived its metaphorical name — the Thaw — from Ehrenburg’s novel. Gutov’s choice of a romance by Dmitry Shostakovich composed in 1965 —precisely in the era of the Thaw — as the soundtrack of his video confirms that this allusion was intentional.
Strictly speaking, however, historians take the Thaw to mean only the years
1953–57, in other words the transition period that followed Stalin’s death and ended with the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, proclaiming a new political path toward modernization. As such, the Thaw was a fairly short period of uncertainty during which the country moved away from decades of repression and was absorbed by a euphoric lightness of being. “It’s all over, it’s all beginning — let’s go to the movies!” the Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky wrote in 1957. In art, this condition was expressed by the artist Yuri Pimenov with a suite of landscapes, sunlit and urban, where slender girls in flared skirts flit between puddles of spring meltwater.
Khrushchev’s mobilization put forward a different set of artistic poetics: the “severe style.” Paintings and films of these years tend to present a new existential hero who experiences a tragic confrontation with the world, from which he sometimes emerges as the loser. The world with which the hero clashes is usually embodied in the principle of nature — the surface of the earth, portrayed not as tender and bathed in spring sunshine, but covered with a hard, frozen scab. “A naked man in a denuded land,” is how one contemporary researcher characterized the poetics of the Severe Style1.
The conflict between a man and the world is also present in Gutov’s Thaw. The landscape shows a few vernal signs, but it is a bleak, early spring, still in the clutch of winter’s frosts; at the end of the three-minute video, the hero lies wallowing in ice-encrusted muddy water. As such, the video can be seen to refer to the early “sweet sixties” and also to their end, linking in with their beginnings, which were joyful and emancipatory, and at the same time tragi-heroic. One can also add that Gutov, who appears in the film himself, tells us that the video is dedicated not only to the hopes and disappointments of the 1960s, which were the lot of his parents’ generation, but also refers to a second thaw — the age of perestroika and democratic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s — which his own generation was fortunate enough to experience.
Gutov’s dialogue with the era of the 1960s began in those years, when he was setting off on his own path in art. One of his earliest works, Iskusstvo v byt (Art to Mode, 1988), was a small assemblage consisting of the doors of a typical 1960s’ sideboard, onto whose surface a linear, geometric pattern was applied and a tall drinking glass attached. The suspended glass referred to the image of a rocket soaring upward, while the lines on the sideboard door “reveal impressions of real life: tracks left by skiers in the snow, ice with lines scratched by skaters, the trails of jet planes in the sky, seaweed growing, the trajectories of space satellites, and paths of elementary particles. The whole vagrant world, incapable of halting at a point of rest.”2 We see here a different image of the 1960s: an age of scientific and technical revolution, the rationalization of life, and vigorous social development. Another set of poetics characteristic of the 1960s is also part of Gutov’s frame of reference here — the geometric abstraction of Yuri Zlotnikov, the group “Dvizhenie” (Movement), and others, which rehabilitated the tradition of the Russian avant-garde.
Finally, in 1995, Gutov created the large-scale installation Nad chernoi griaziu (Above Black Mud). The whole floor of the spacious Ridzhina Gallery was covered in moist black soil, with rough-sawn planks of light-colored wood laid on top. Visitors walked through the premises on these boards, trying to keep their balance. The motif of muddy earth in this installation anticipated Gutov’s video Thaw, while its blackness and the alignment of the superimposed, light-colored planks are reminiscent of the geometric pattern on the black surface of the sideboard in Art to Mode. Interestingly, the motif of duckboards over spring mud goes back to the painting Svadba na zavtrashnei ulitse (A Wedding on Tomorrow’s Street, 1962) by Yuri Pimenov, that lyrical spirit of the Thaw, and is a recreation of this genre scene. A young, newly married couple walks on planks along a churned-up suburban street, where new blocks of flats are going up; the scene is flooded with spring sunshine, and the young couple stride forward into their future life, which is sure to be happy.
We can therefore separate out some consistent ideogrammic motifs in Gutov’s work that embody the era of the 1960s. These are hope and defeat, end and beginning, plunging into depths and soaring into space, formlessness and geometry, spring slush and harsh earth, below and above, and many other contrasts. This system of opposites uncovered by Gutov can also be seen in Heidegger’s classical dichotomy Erde (Earth) and Welt (World), where Earth stands for the ontological foundations, and World means history and culture. This association is all the more germane because it was formulated by Heidegger in his text Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (The Origin of the Work of Art), which was reworked for publication in two new versions in the 1950s and 1960s, and also because the existentialist tradition and Heidegger’s philosophy were the subject of much pensive absorption, even becoming an intellectual fashion, in the Moscow of the 1950s and 1960s. But Gutov’s poetics does not realize these ideas as much as reveal and dramatize them: he deals with their counterpoint, showing where they overlap and are interdependent. A similar poetics to this is mirrored in the way the American art theorist Edward Casey, complementing Heidegger’s dichotomy, defined Land: as an “indefinite midway zone” or something “both literally liminal — a limen or threshold between earth and sky in our direct experience — and liminal in the more expanded sense that it is the arena in which earth turns toward world and thereby gains a face.”3 Here soil is the intermediary principle mirrored in the “landscapes of the World” (another of Casey’s terms), like the geometric abstractions of the 1960s presented in Art to Mode, and also in “landscapes of the Earth,” like the “detotalized totality” (yet another term of Casey’s) of mud and slush in Thaw and Above Black Mud. One can add that soil itself is the bearer of a whole system of established motifs in Gutov’s poetics: being suspended (like the glass in Art to Mode), balancing (like the visitors on the wobbly planks in Above Black Mud), and finally the very motif of the thaw as a state of nature in transition, with its changeability and connecting of opposites.
It is important to add that this system of oppositions we have described, as well as the dialectics of their mutual intersection, is to be found in practically all Gutov’s works. A “landscape of the Earth” can be seen, for example, in his 1993 installation 60-e: Eshche raz pro liubov (The Sixties: Once More about Love) — its programmatic title again refers to the era of the Thaw—where wood shavings covered the floor of several exhibition halls like sand on a beach. His 1992 installation Volany (Shuttlecocks), in turn, which consists of three thousand suspended shuttlecocks, is a programmatic example of the “landscape of the World.” Another marked instance is his 2000 video Moskovskoe leto (Moscow Summer) showing girls in flared skirts, as if straight out of the “thaw” in Yuri Pimenov’s paintings. They are viewed from below ascending an escalator, standing like characters from the “landscape of the World” should, and rising upward, while the soundtrack of the video is a song by the vocalist Arkady Severny, whose familiar, husky voice is suggestive of the lower stratum of the body and also the Earth.
One could assume that Gutov’s revelation of the oppositions present in the poetics of the 1960s and his dealing with them are the result of historical distance — something made possible by his dispassionate view of this bygone era. But to be fair, this is only partly the case. Casey had already linked the category of soil to art and the ideological experience of the 1960s. Indeed, Gutov’s poetics of soil not only borrows motifs from the imaginaria of the 1960s but also has a whole string of analogies in that epoch. Here I will adduce the most striking, if possibly somewhat unexpected, example of this: we find a range of motifs close to Gutov’s — similar also in terms of their substantive character and frequent repetition — in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. The repertoire of imagery in Tarkovsky’s films is formed by the contrasting motifs of terra firma and mud, flights and falls, form and entropy, a balancing between actuality and dream, or reality and reflection. Moreover, for both Gutov and Tarkovsky, this range of motifs is characteristically consistent and insular. Both artists keep returning to them, and the new connections they weave refer back to their previous works to continue them and comment on them. It can be said that they both essentially produce one and the same work their whole life long; even though their projects have a certain uniqueness and integrity, each of them basically expands one general meta-narrative or “legend,” as a contemplative researcher of Tarkovsky’s poetics has termed it.4 This hermeneutical insularity of the poetics of soil means that their creation is typically not so much about development as about disclosure. That is why even their early works — Tarkovsky’s graduation project Katok i skripka (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1960) and Gutov’s small assemblage Art to Mode — essentially present their authorial poetics in finished form.
It is significant that the motif of soil, which recurs constantly in Tarkovsky’s work, is often identified with the creative principle. This can be seen in the film Andrei Rublev (1966), in which the eponymous icon painter, who has renounced art, flings dark soil at a white wall prepared for fresco, thus displaying what amounts to an act of tachistic calligraphy. Creativity is therefore understood as an impulsive, calligraphic gesture — the same method on which Gutov’s paintings are based. Andrei Rublev also shows the creation from earth, using knowledge of its composition, of a mold for a bell — a metaphor for art with its universality and suggestive power. As such, creativity is also understood as the alchemy of elements; any poetics of soil is built around this, as shown by the example of Gutov’s works above. In Tarkovsky’s film Solaris (1972), it is the image of the planet Solaris that provides the vivid metaphor of soil as a zone uniting Earth and World. The planet has the appearance of pulsating magma, creating images through its organic discharges. A similar understanding of creativity as organic pulsation, as a life-giving torrent, is a salient feature in the work of another eminent figure of the 1960s, the philosopher Merab Mamardashvili. Known anecdotally as “the bookless philosopher,” his discourses took the form of lively, Socratic-style discussion. The main point here was the principle of “falling into thought,” i. e. immersing oneself in a state of meditative concentration like a Zen monk and tapping into the elemental production of ideas through mental exertion. In the poetics of soil, thought and imagination occur in lively discussion and are distinctively physical and material. “The time has come to say goodbye to the rat race of reflection,” is a favorite saying of Gutov, who advocates the anchoring of creativity in material reality.
A significant detail is that the creations of Solaris were the physical realization of images of human memory. Solaris was thus a metaphor for the creative principle, reproducing excerpts from individual and collective consciousness. This once again takes us back to the originality of the poetics of soil. Such quotations, repeated from work to work, form their own context and a corresponding spatial-temporal field — a “chronotope of cultural dialogue.”5 Gutov’s allusions to the 1960s are therefore only one part of the body of quotes that his work draws on. By analogy with Tarkovsky, the spatial-temporal structure of his poetics is not linear but centristic and insular, as if within a sphere; there is an eternal circulation of time here, and the most varied historical voices enter a dialogue with each other. Precisely such an understanding of culture as something insular and engaged in an inner, super-historical dialogue — rather than being linear — was characteristic of the leading Soviet philosophers of history in the 1960s, Vladimir Bibler and Leonid Batkin, and Gutov’s generation imbibed their writings.
However, the citability and referentiality of the poetics of soil cannot be reduced to a palimpsest or postmodernist manipulation by quotation. It is epigraphic, a term used by the philosopher Valery Podoroga when referring to the heritage of Mamardashvili.6 To start with, this implies that all creative work can be considered a commentary on certain other, existing cultural texts. A considerable part of Mamardashvili’s own statements was commentary on his reading of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, while for Tarkovsky the poetry of his father, Arseny Tarkovsky, had prime referentiality. For Gutov, again, the Soviet Marxist philosopher Mikhail Lifshitz is such a figure. Gutov sees all his creative work as a realization of the aesthetic ideas of this philosopher, that is, as a way of promoting and illustrating them. Incidentally, although Gutov cites Lifshitz and sets about expounding his ideas, he avoids touching on the essence of his philosophy. In practice — and this is a second feature of the epigraphic method — Gutov does with Lifshitz’s writings what Mamardashvili did with Proust: he seeks out a certain quote in his text, some expressive epigraph, and qualifies his own work as a further development of this idea. That is why all of Gutov’s texts about Lifshitz that promise to present us his philosophical heritage are actually more like anthologies of aphorisms and bon mots by Lifshitz — and not only him. The metaphoricity that, by definition, is an intrinsic part of the epigraph determines its thematic openness and also its polysemy, which intensifies through the epigraph’s reference to the body of texts and knowledge it is derived from, and whose scale and authority further expand its semantic plenitude. It is precisely for this reason that the epigraph calls for explanatory comment; the poetics-of-soil authors pretend to be prepared for this, but in reality they shy away from the challenge, compensating for this by producing yet another epigraph.
It is a fundamental fact that the status of an epigraph is considerably higher than that of a simple quote. An epigraph, placed as it is at the beginning of a text, pretends to comprehensively anticipate its content, and one feels that this claim could extend to any other text it might be used to preface. At the same time, it also represents the heritage of a certain author, as well as the traditions, schools, epochs, and the like, that stand behind him. As such, an epigraph refers not so much to a specific author as to the textuality itself, and thus to its significance and supposedly indisputable authority. Lifshitz is an extremely relevant figure for Gutov in this regard, not least because he, too, was partly an epigraphic author. Lifshitz’s main theoretical contribution was a reconstruction of Marxian aesthetics, which he achieved in the 1930s by piecing together Marx’s disparate statements about art — epigraphic quotes! — extracted from the enormous textual legacy. Through Lifshitz, Gutov moves in traditional Marxist terrain, and thus also in the field of European classics that informed this tradition: the heritage of Goethe, Shakespeare, Balzac, Pushkin, and others. One epigraph therefore entails a whole string of others.
Finally, since an epigraph (as distinct from a quote) refers not so much to a specific author as to the textuality itself, it can be easily appropriated. The wisdom of an epigraph and the experience it contains become part of the wisdom and experience of the author using it. By appropriating and repeating something that “initially seemed just a chance discovery, it becomes real and substantiated.”7 This is one of Lifshitz’s epigraphs, appropriated and used by Gutov, and it serves to sanction his epigraphic approach. In keeping with the materiality of the poetics of soil, Gutov sometimes appropriates and reuses epigraphs in his creations quite literally — they become very much part of his works. He physically inserts quotations from Marx, Shakespeare, Gogol, and other classics into his works. In order for the words of others to become yours in the poetics of soil, they have to become a material fact, a physical experience.
Following Lifshitz, Gutov was inclined to consider that “great people felt obliged to say quite different things to what they actually thought, so it’s up to posterity to work out what they really wanted to say.”8 He constantly refers to the deceptive simplicity of the classics and our unwillingness and inability to understand them. It follows from this that, even after appropriating others’ wisdom, Gutov does not make it obvious even for himself. The true meaning of an epigraph does not require commentary as much as decoding, clarification, and interpretation. Creative practice thus becomes a form of hermeneutical investigation: as the Zen calligraphers already knew, the ritual of repeating an epigraph by hand is the path to comprehending its secret meaning. But even decoding some of the significations at the root of an epigraph does not enable us to grasp its ultimate, universal meaning — an epigraph is merely a fragment of a text full of wisdom, and what we have been able to clarify is merely part of our interpretative experience. By deciphering the epigraphic meaning, we therefore also appropriate our own experience, feeling it to be the experience of another. This phenomenon of perception was described in detail by Batkin in his study of the Italian humanists, who, in interpreting texts of classical antiquity, began to consider themselves classical thinkers and ascribe their own thoughts to the ancients. What is most paradoxical here is that the Moscow man of the 1960s discovered something in the Florentine humanists of the 15th century that had a direct relationship to himself. While elaborating new, post-structuralist conceptions of culture, he constantly employed notions of the Renaissance Neoplatonists.
This paradoxical feature of the epigraphic method — when what belongs to others becomes ours, and we appropriate ours as if it belonged to others — is in fact an inherent characteristic of all hermeneutical thinking, which assumes the interrelatedness of explanation and interpretation. Another paradoxical feature of such intellection springs from this: on the one hand, it involves a constant search in the text to be decoded for its absolute, ultimate meaning; on the other, it entails persistent clarification of the point from which the interpretation is carried out. Mamardashvili’s verbal philosophizing always addressed this problem, and in developing this discourse-based thinking it constantly strove to “retain the link” to its point of origin. When commenting on his own work, Gutov sees his main goal in contemplating the acmes of classical world art, yet all the time he refers to the historical conditions in which he created his own works and emphasizes that now, in the changed circumstances, he would no longer be able to create the same kind of things any more. This is the starting point for the enormous diversity of techniques and genres in which he is inclined to work: installations, paintings, collages, videos, performances, events, documentaries, and so on. Every moment and every historical or existential point suggests its own optimum resolution, and success in creativity actually depends on the artist’s ability to find that point. Moreover, finding and retaining that spot is a task he deals with and implements quite literally. At first sight, several of his installations and metallic constructions therefore look like an arbitrary chaos of elements, but it suffices for the viewer to find a visual vantage point for everything to fall into place, and then an image appropriated by Gutov from classical European art shows through the chaos — a motif from a canvas by Rembrandt, a painted Greek vase, or the like. It is here that an exact, definitive location in space and time encounters the virtual timelessness of artistic contemplation. This is precisely the point where what belongs to others becomes ours, and we appropriate ours as if it belonged to others.
But it would be wrong to regard the experience of contemplation as something purely aesthetic. The poetics of soil actually presupposes a third point, too, which needs to be taken into account and must in any case be addressed. This is the faithfulness to the moment, or “fidelity to the event,” as Alain Badiou would call it, when a social ideal has come as close as possible to its achievement and remains in historical memory as a confirmation of its potential to become reality. For Gutov, following Lifshitz, the experience of the European revolutionary spasms of global renewal, and first and foremost the experience of Russia’s October Revolution, was one such impulse. Like all revolutions, it ended in defeat, without having realized its final goals. This theme of never-ending revolutionary outbursts and their ultimate doom was the hidden epicenter of reflection for that “Marxist fossil” Lifshitz, and it also gave rise to his apologia for classical art, which was later borrowed by Gutov. Lifshitz saw this in philosophical terms as “humanist resignation — a meek acceptance of the actual state of affairs in the universe, given the ‘real-exisiting balance of forces.’ [. . .] The striving for absolute contemplative calm, plasticity of harmony, perfection of form or extreme simplicity of content is inseparable from the tragic disaster which this principle of classical art is called upon to conceal.”8 It is precisely this ongoing retention of the link to three fundamentals — the euphoric launch of a social ideal, the period of decline, and the compensatory phase of artistic perfection — that allows us to view ourselves with detachment and a wry smile. The degree to which revolutions move from one defeat to another determines the extent to which the experience of ironic self-contemplation finds lasting artistic and ethical significance. The further modernity falls, and the more devastating our defeat is, the more we require humanist resignation and the more vividly we experience it.
To sum up, let us return to the video Thaw. It addresses the 1960s in the context of intermittent historical dynamics — the flux of revolutionary spasms with constant setbacks and defeats. Here the era of Khrushchev’s Thaw stands between Gorbachev’s perestroika and the Leninist 1920s, which of course were followed by the Stalinist 1930s. This early stage is represented in Gutov’s video by Shostakovich, whose composition (from his Five Romances to Texts from “Crocodile” Magazine No. 24, 30 August 1965, Op. 121) is heard offscreen. And although this romance was written in the 1960s, Shostakovich was a contemporary of Lifshitz in generational terms: he belonged to the age group that began its creative path in the years of the revolution, and then had to live through Stalinist repression. This romance appropriated by Gutov for his video is significant in its own right. The agonizing struggle we see on the screen — both that of his character and his own — as he tries to drag himself out of the cold, muddy slush, is accompanied by its grotesque text. The rich Russian bass sings a fragment of a letter from a Soviet citizen to the editor of the satirical magazine Krokodil complaining about the vicissitudes of everyday life: “Even though that hooligan Fedulov beat me up, I didn’t complain to the organs of our outstanding militia. I decided to confine myself to the beating I had already received.”10 Contemplating Shostakovich’s musical classics, the artist discovers the ability to put his life’s circumstances to one side and view them with a quixotic smile.
But there are also other reasons for Gutov’s interest in Shostakovich. He was drawn to the composer’s poetics with its multifaceted inner world and plurality of expression. As is well known, Shostakovich’s poetics combined classical symphonism and dodecaphony with a highly melodic structure and appropriated jazz. He even employed readymades, such as the letter to Krokodil, and many other linguistic cameos. In other words, Shostakovich’s creations, with their tendency toward the alchemy of elements and ability to reconcile opposites, can be regarded as another example of the poetics of soil; Gutov virtually inserts himself into a line of creative figures, to which he can tailor his authorial position. Or, to put it another way, he embarks from his work and charts a course in poetics back through the 1960s to the 1920s — poetics that truly evolved throughout the past century. In this essay, this poetics has been termed the poetics of soil, and its discussion has led us from Gutov to Tarkovsky, Mamardashvili, Batkin, Lifshitz, and Shostakovich, albeit leaving aside a whole range of other figures. Their differences notwithstanding, each of them is distinguished by his adherence to an intellectual and creative orientation, which consciously shuns the two main intellectual-cum-aesthetic mainstreams of modernity: the artistic avant-garde with its hands-on utopianism, and modernism with its claim to creating a new artistic language. The poetics of soil with its resignation in the face of inevitable defeat has kept a distance from the duty to serve society. Not because, true to artistic autonomy, it considers this reprehensible, but because it feels that the hour has not yet come. At the same time, relying on contemplation of the classical canon, it sees no resources available for creation of a new language; once more, not because it considers this reprehensible, but because it feels that the conditions for resolving the task are currently lacking. A new language only becomes possible when its formal order is mirrored in the order of a new social reality. As such, the poetics of soil is a characteristic product of Russian history of the past century. It can be called the poetics of ethical survival in the difficult twentieth century and, at the same time, the poetics of intellectual expectation of better times.
Translated from Russian by Will Firth
Aleksei Bobrikov, “Surovyi stil: mobilizatsiia i kulturnaia revolutsiia” [The Severe Style: Mobilization and Cultural Revolution], in Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal [Moscow Art Magazine]. No. 51?52 (2003), http://xz.gif.ru/numbers/51-52/surovo/ (accessed October 12, 2013) [translated].
Dmitry Gutov, “Nad chernoi griaziu” [Above Black Mud], www.gutov.ru/texti/above.htm (accessed October 12, 2013) [translated].
Edward S. Casey, “Mapping the Earth in Works of Art,” in Bruce V. Foltz and Robert Frodeman, eds., Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Bloomington, IN, 2004), p. 263.
Dmitry Salynsky, Kinogermenevtika Tarkovskogo [Tarkovsky’s Cinematic Hermeneutics] (Moscow, 2009), particularly chap. 4, pp. 349–410.
Ibid., chap. 3, pp. 229–348 [translated].
Valery Podoroga, “Proekt i opyt” [Project and Experience], http://www.polit.ru/article/2004/07/06/podoroga/ (accessed October 12, 2013).
Dmitry Gutov, “Marksistsko-leninskaia estetika v postkommunisticheskuiu epokhu: Mikhail Lifshitz” [Marxist-Leninist Asthetics in the Postcommunist Era: Mikhail Lifshitz], in Svobodnaia Mysl [Free Thought], No. 2 (2007), pp. 125–41, http://www.gutov.ru/texti/Marx-aesthetics-R.htm (accessed October 12, 2013) [translated].