ART Strelka Cultural Center
Moscow, Bersenevskaya nab., 14, bldg. 5
DJ Fakie Mistake: minimal warm-up
Kirill Medvedev and Prohor: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “On Violence” and other poems (industrial hip-hop)
DJ Spirin: antifa disco
We invite all PEOPLE who do give a fuck about the wild outburst of neo-Nazism in its most disgusting forms; PEOPLE who have noticed how the new fascists have been transformed from pimple-faced pubescents in high, thick-soled boots into quick-witted, well-read champion athletes; PEOPLE who, nevertheless, have not stopped feeling disgust when they encounter THESE fascists; PEOPLE who do give a fuck that war and hunger have come to visit and are sitting on your couch with you and drinking your last cup of green tea; PEOPLE who do give a fuck that art has been turned into a cheap inside joke; PEOPLE who are fucking tired of being made to laugh.
IT’S NOT FUNNY ANYMORE.
* * * * * * *
Bearing the declaratively uncompromising, angry title NOFUCKINFUNNY, Nikolay Oleynikov’s new show opens the season at the Paperworks Gallery. The ten gouaches and one album on display here are models of traditional, even somewhat naïve, easel art; on the other hand, they are quasi-comics whose content is one part radical politics, one part existential philosophy.
Pen and brush stroke, just like the impressive dimensions of the pieces (from 1.5 x 1.2 meters to 1.5 x 2 meters), do not operate here as attributes of “mastery” in the classical, religious sense of the word. Neither are they effects of “technique,” which in contemporary art compensates and forestalls the absence of “mastery.” Mastery, as sacred title, and technique, as its capitalized, fetishistic substitute, retreat before the texture and facticity of the artist’s labor. The word labor, which had almost been consigned to oblivion, acquires new life and recuperates its purloined honor. Oleynikov as it were solicitously dusts off Soviet agit-posters, thus reminding us of the proletarian element in art. And, although there is painterliness and polish in his images, there is also something in them that is profoundly unpleasant to bourgeois taste.
The chief unpleasantness has to do with the utterances that Oleynikov puts in the mouths of his characters. First, however, we should say something about these characters themselves. As the artist himself confesses, most of them are “handicapped” beings: animals, half-animals, children, and chimeras. The last of these remind us not only of Goya’s Caprichos, but also of the martyred monsters of mythology. Thus, for all his monstrousness and physical strength, the Minotaur is lacking in wit, and that is why the hero Theseus is able to kill it. On the contrary, a lack of cleverness—animal stubbornness—is likewise a token of another type of strength. The Minotaur can only be killed: you cannot change its mind.
The man-dog (who does not merely criticize but wholly rejects the style of worldly-wise sarcasm so popular on the art scene) and the beautiful man-bird with the face of a young man (who tells an exceedingly odd tale of self-immolation) are heroes who lack the sense of humor that enables ordinary folks to glide lightly over the surface of things. However, they can talk: as is the case with Kafka’s animals, the insolubility of painful contradictions helps them to acquire language. That is why there really is nothing “fucking funny” in their speech. If it does reserve a place for laughter, this laughter is unfunny. It is the devastating laughter that is generated from the abyss between words and things, whose depth is revealed to the animal’s gaze despite the fact that man showers it with hypocritical jokes or simple lies.
Talking animals (or half-animals) are an important motif in Oleynikov’s work. These include a bird going through passport control before boarding an airplane (the show 3 Albums, 2007); monumental, life-sized horses who discuss the pros and cons of involvement in the contemporary art system (Stall, 2008) (paradoxically, Kommersant’s reviewer failed to “notice” them); and the wolf-girls in the latest issue of Chto Delat newspaper.
Nikolay Oleynikov is an active member of the group that publishes the newspaper. The issue in question, which deals with perestroika, was “accidentally” confiscated during a police search of the printing plant. The little wolf-headed girls depicted in the newspaper personify the elemental forces of history—that is, they are the sum total of all such “accidents.” On the other hand, they remind us that history also has a subject.
Chimeras are not the only heroes in Oleynikov’s new series. Under the portrait of a second-grader (white collar, ribbons in her hair, an Octoberist’s star pinned on her school uniform) we read the following caption: “The only war that I’d go fight without a second’s thought is a war against fascists.” The directness of adult speech from the mouths of babes is a manifestation of the selfsame method that, despite the seeming laughableness of the exposition, turns the works into the antitheses of jokes.
The theme of children in Oleynikov’s work also has a history. For him, the child is a militant, a revolutionary. The child wages a secret struggle against authority and capital—like the boys in the album Battle Against the Background (2008), or the girl ballerinas from the show Phantom Brigade (2008). The child fights militarism and fascism—all those things that “adults” find it “funny” to fight. The characters in yet another album—a young woman and a young man—spend a pleasant evening drinking beer in a café and turn out to be ordinary . . . fascists. (Their conversation happened in real life: the artist overheard it and recorded it in full.)
Human speech in the body of the animal and adult speech in the body of the child remind us of the absurd, contradictory nature of subjectivity. Its emergence and maintenance doesn’t just happen; it requires superhuman effort. The secret lies in the fact that, while these characters can speak, they cannot lie. That is why their utterances are artless, crude, naïve or “improper.” And that is why they are pronounced by beings who, by virtue of their weakness, are forgiven these lapses.
“My heroes,” says Oleynikov, “can’t help admitting their weakness (they’re not idiots!), but they also can’t hold back their rage. They understand that rage is futile, but they nevertheless stand their ground to the end.” That is, they obey the ethical imperative proposed by Alain Badiou: to find “that point from which it is possible to think and act” and “to hold that point come what may.” According to Badiou, this means “forcing the human animal inside us into becoming a subject.”
—Oxana Timofeeva, philosopher