Nikolay Oleynikov, mural at the show Chto Delat, The Urgent Need to Struggle, ICA, London, 2010. Photo courtesy of Chto Delat
To Negate Negation
April 29–June 16, 2013
April 29, 2013 (Monday):
5 p.m. – Discussion (in English) with Chto Delat (Dmitry Vilensky, Olga Egorova, Nikolay Oleynikov), Jan Sowa, and Jakub Szreder
7 pm. – exhibition opening
Awangarda Gallery (Wita Stwosza Street, 32, Wrocław)
Curators: Alicja Klimczak-Dobrzaniecka and Patrycja Sikora
Download press materials here
Chto Delat, The Russian Woods. Installation at the show Lessons of Dis-Consent, Stadliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, 2011. Photo courtesy of Chto Delat
TO NEGATE NEGATION
Philosopher Georg Lukács once said that orthodox Marxists should not believe in this or that thesis, nor in the exegesis of a sacred book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. By method, Lukács meant dialectics as a means of analyzing and representing the whole of society as a totality of struggling contradictions.
To speak about dialectics makes particular sense at BWA Wrocław. Its architecture confronts the ruin of an old palace with a new modernist intervention, facing us with obvious conflicts between the classics and modernism, between the old functions of exclusive noble privacy and the modern public institution. The current exhibition responds to this living contradiction by presenting a survey of many old and newer Chto Delat projects in a specially developed dialectical display whose main point is to “negate the negation.”
All graduates of socialist schools and universities will remember this negation of negation as the third principle of dialectics, culled from Friedrich Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. What could this principle mean in art today? Confronted with a simple dumbly positive postulate of an artwork, the viewer reacts with a very basic question: why should I care? It looks like the artists are trying to brainwash me but for what reason? I won’t believe it, I’m not that simple; the characters are so conditional, it must be a Brechtian device. Why are they constructed in such a way? And why do they still give me aesthetic pleasure? Perhaps there is something beyond this simplicity? It is with such questions that the negation of negation begins.
We invite the visitor to a tour through a show where art works only communicate by calling one another into question, making complex things simple and simple things complex, as the work of negativity turns into the play of its own negation. But make no mistake. Art is never just a self-referential game. It always suggests further implementations and resolutions outside the gallery space in real life. As Mao once wittily remarked, “Theory (read also art) is the negation of practice while the opposite of practice is of course non-practice. In turn, only when theory is further negated in practical activity is a higher development of man’s knowledge of the world achieved.”
Dmitry Vilensky and David Riff (Chto Delat)
The Dialetical Play of Opposite: About Chto Delat in the Institutional Framework
Chto Delat have embarked on a quest for a currently attractive, emancipatory potential of leftist ideas. Chto Delat strongly criticize the reality of contemporary political and social life in Russia, art institutions, and Western capitalism. Chto Delat flourish in the international institutional art market, operating in the convenient framework of the capitalist system. Chto Delat embody the dream of engaged Russian art in the Putin era, dreamed of by curators from the West. At the same time they rarely show up in the official salons in Russia. Each of the above statements is true: this is a conclusion one can draw upon a close inspection of the exhibition in Wroclaw, reading the numerous descriptions, theoretical and polemical texts, or studying the performances and documentation of actions published on the collective’s website.
To Negate Negation is a unique exhibition, as it is the first presentation of contemporary Russian art in the Wrocław gallery Awangarda after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also the first exhibition of the group Chto Delat in Poland, presenting the whole panorama of its activity. As part of the show, we will find all themes characteristic of the artistic practice of Chto Delat, including, in particular, references to the Hegelian and Marxist dialectical struggle of opposites, inevitably driving social change. The title To Negate Negation already contains direct references to the terminology originally borrowed from the idealist dialectic of classical German philosophy, and specifically to one of the three universal laws formulated by Hegel’s dialectic – negation of the negation. In turn, individual projects of the collective shown in the exhibition relate to the dialectical principle of testing the reality which involves the disclosure of its existing contradictions, the study of the clash of these contradictions and the resulting changes, that is, in short, to the principle underlying the methodology of Marxism.
At the core of the exhibition lie projects commenting on the current situation, social and political events in various countries (Russia, Serbia, the Netherlands), petrified by allegorical methods and visualized primarily in film productions, the so-called Songspiels. The actors embody various sections of the society, represent various (age, professional, political) groups and their aspirations, interests and visions, as well as the existing opposition between them, building tension and conflict. Both these projects and other documentary and para-documentary recordings reveal interest in “classic” leftist work – the epic theatre of Brecht and Godard’s New Wave cinema. Apart from film showings, the arsenal of devices employed by Chto Delat consists of a few simple methods. Institutional space, annexed by the group in various parts of the world, is usually organized in a similar manner – by means of simple elements of stage design, reminiscent of home-made banners or mock-ups, as well as prints, murals, flags, posters and publications. These elements are often accompanied by on-site actions, meetings and discussions. Each of these devices is invariably associated with the language of propaganda and agitation, a message addressed to the widest possible audience. In each case, an institution turns into such a propaganda mouthpiece, becoming at the same time the (knowing) object of the collective’s genuine contempt. Yet the collective declares the aim of protecting the institution against the “economization, and subordination to the populist logic of the culture industry,” only to say: “That is why we believe that right now it would be wrong to refuse to work in any way with cultural and academic institutions despite the fact that the majority of these institutions throughout the world are engaged in the flagrant propaganda of commodity fetishism and servile knowledge. The political propaganda of all other forms of human vocation either provokes the system’s harsh rejection or the system co-opts it into its spectacle. At the same time, however, the system is not homogeneous – it is greedy, stupid, and dependent. Today, this leaves us room to use these institutions to advance and promote our knowledge. We can bring this knowledge to a wide audience without succumbing to its distortion.” Institutions inviting Chto Delat decide to play this game. This is the case this time as well. In Wroclaw, the game with the institution takes on another dimension – the game with the potential inherent in the relationship with the audience and with the surrounding reality. Thanks to Chto Delat the monumental windows of the Awangarda Gallery, overlooking a busy street, become stands. The gallery turns into the audience, and the street turns into a performance. There is a clear reversal of the viewer-institution relationship, ascribed to the building by the very architectural device of unveiling and glazing the top coat of the facade of the historic palace ruined during WWII – and, in this way, opening up its institutional interior to constant public view. The metaphor of game and the play of opposing forces present inside and beyond the institutional framework does not merely serve the purpose of turning the set relationship between an art gallery and the external world inside out, but rather of evoking a critical reflection on the observed reality, seen as a potential that can be offered to the viewer.
CHTO DELAT (WHAT IS TO BE DONE)?
What is Chto Delat?
The Russian group Chto Delat is a platform that unites representatives of various areas of artistic and intellectual life: artists, philosophers, writers, activists, and social scientists. The group is guided by the principles of collectivism and self-realization. As described by its members, the core of the group is formed by a team of coordinators who cooperate closely with grassroots workgroups that share the principles of internationalism, feminism, and equality. Their activity represents the entire platform and provides a common context for interpreting their projects. Permanent activists of the collective include: Olga Egorova aka Tsaplya (artist, Petersburg), Artemy Magun (philosopher, Petersburg), Nikolay Oleynikov (artist, Moscow), Natalia Pershina aka Gluklya (artist, Petersburg), Alexei Penzin (philosopher, Moscow), David Riff (art critic, Moscow), Alexander Skidan (poet, critic, Petersburg), Oxana Timofeeva (philosopher, Moscow), Dmitri Vilensky (artist, Petersburg), and Nina Gasteva (choreographer).
Where did they come from?
Chto Delat was established on May 24, 2003, in the action “The Refoundation of Petersburg,” during which a group of artists, architects, and critics symbolically founded a new city centre on the city’s outskirts. Inspired by the pompous celebrations of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, the event was seen by the police as a disruption of the ceremony. Shortly afterwards, still unnamed, the group began to publish the newspaper Chto Delat, targeting the international audience. The name of the newspaper, and later of the collective, was borrowed from Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828–1889), a philosopher, journalist, writer, and socialist, who in 1863 published the novel Chto Delat, one of the creative harbingers of the Russian Revolution. In 1902, Vladimir Lenin referred to the novel in his pamphlet bearing the same title, in which he presented a new look on the problems of self-organization of work groups. In this context, the artists and intellectuals working in the collective see themselves, by way of analogy, as a self-organizing group of “cultural workers.”
What do they do?
Chto Delat actions integrate different fields of intellectual activity: visual arts, literature, journalism, film, theatre, philosophy, and political thought. Created with a variety of tools, their work is a collective action, which means that it has a common context and stems from a deep theoretical reflection. The group realises its principles issuing a newspaper, creating movies, theatre, plays, installations, prints, murals, performing actions.
Chto Delat are preoccupied with the issue of cultural autonomy, considered from the point of view of the artists who can’t perform in the post-Soviet Russia and create outside the mainstream, but also who are active in Europe. The group expresses its concern about art, today often perceived as a commodity or an element supposed to provide entertainment to the audience, a part of a system in which museums and galleries are instruments of power having monopolised presentation of art, while they should be institutions that help art search for truth about the world. The essence of art is to create the viewer’s awareness, to develop forms of critical perception of reality, and to be a tool for independent functioning in the world. This is a public activity, so that no authorities or institutions should have a monopoly over its “distribution.” In their projects Chto Delat discuss how culture functions in the machinery of western and post-Soviet capitalism, showing the culture’s dependence on the money, state, and ideology. Thus the emancipation of art guarantees human emancipation as such, and the role of artists and intellectuals is to expose the current situation and try to define the optimal conditions for the development of free creativity. For them a way to achieve these goals is to return to the original ideas of the Left and fulfil them in a fresh combination of actions from the sphere of art, radical thought and politics.
Where do they work?
Defying the Russian cultural establishment and politics in general, the group operates outside the mainstream of the art world at home, on its outskirts. At the same time, Chto Delat is a very active group, constantly present and performing in the countries of Western Europe, the USA, or Australia. However, the “activity” and “existence” of the group can and should also be seen in a non-material way. Theoretical work, publishing an online newspaper, online meetings and lectures are just as important as the institutional dimension of their activity. The group’s projects have been shown in numerous group and individual exhibitions, including Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki (2004), Museum of the History of St. Petersburg (2004), Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel (2005), Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow (2006), the 3rd Prague Biennale (2007), 11th Istanbul Biennial (2009), the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (2010), the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden (2011), Smart Project Space, Amsterdam (2011), Gallery 21, St. Petersburg (2012). The collective’s works are exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, National Museum Reina Sofia in Madrid, Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, the Library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Chto Delat has participated in many conferences, seminars, open discussions, meetings, lectures, e.g., Documenta 12 in Kassel (2007), Working Title: Archives at the Lodz Museum of Art (2009), and Former West in Berlin (2010, 2012).