Olga Chernysheva, In the Middle of Things
Olga Chernysheva is, in many ways, representative of the generation of artists and intellectuals that came of age in the late 1980s during the turmoil and uncertainties of perestroika, and matured in a struggle to establish one’s individuality during the 1990s, in what could be considered the lawless years of “primitive accumulation of capital” that defined Russia under Boris Yeltsin, through to the increasingly authoritarian neoliberal and nationalistic pseudo-democracy of the 2000s under Vladimir Putin. But Chernysheva’s practice, which is remarkably diverse in terms of media (including paintings, watercolors, sculptures, found objects, photography, and installations), has followed a unique path among a handful of Russian artists who have resisted the dominant market trends of commodity production and spectacle, and embarked on a re-evaluation of art’s methods as well as of its position and responsibility in relation to society. The exhibition In the Middle of Things at BAK presents a view into Chernysheva’s extensive practice by bringing together works produced for this occasion alongside new additions to existing series, a selection of key pieces from the past decade, and a display consisting of fragments and images drawn from a number of series.
The exhibition is conceived following closely the artist’s method of decomposing the ubiquitous yet often hard-to-grasp surrounding reality and recomposing it—revealing it, even—as a more legible phenomenon, a maneuver of disassembly that allows the whole to be reconfigured into a critical panorama of society. In that sense we might consider the exhibition as both an examination into the global human condition marked by the fall of the Soviet Union and the voraciously expanding neoliberal system that has dominated life since, as well as an exercise, starting from Chernysheva’s own methods and subjectivity, of looking at the role of art and its available tools in interpreting these realities. What are the mechanisms through which artistic practice reads, interferes with, and affects society? What are the boundaries and intersections between representation and criticality?
Chernysheva actively refers throughout her practice to a certain tradition of realism, with particular attention to the vocabulary of Russian realism of the past two centuries. But this interest is not formal art historical pedantry, but is rather an investment in a method of criticality that allows her to represent a wide range of contradictions embedded in the immediate society. Take for example two watercolor series, Citizens (2009–2010) and Movable Feast (2010), which delicately capture images of Russian streetscapes—scenes of unexceptional daily rituals of survival in a changing society— in a technique highly reminiscent of nineteenth-century Russian realist representations. Among the new series produced for the exhibition, To Moscow (2010) shows coaches driven by men who are natives of Central Asia, a large but invisible community that is on the periphery of current discussions in Russian society. The drivers are depicted behind the wheel, preparing to head to far-off destinations in the isolated Russian provinces, melancholically retracing the paths of migration and exile that defined so many historical developments in Russia. Another work, the 2007 series of photographs On Duty, portrays employees in the over-staffed Moscow metro, remnants of an age with a different view on efficiency. The images capture the workers’ expressions on the job, which range from anger, bemusement, or wonder to melancholy, all somehow indicative of the condition of individuals who have fallen between the times. However the gaze of the camera candidly and empathetically underlines their subjectivity, making it clear that what we have in front of us are individuals, rather than didactic or exploitative illustrations of a condition. The same approach is to be found in the series Guard (2009). Here Chernysheva shot life-size portraits of security guards, who have become ubiquitous in the uncertain and corrupt times following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the collapse of social bonds was replaced by isolation, seclusion, and fear. However, the guards in these images are not the actual perpetrators of tension, but rather pawns used to protect the wealth dubiously accumulated by a few. Literally and symbolically, they are charged with enforcing the boundaries of separation in the new society.
But how is the relation between criticality and representation to be understood in Chernysheva’s works? And, having spoken about the references to realism in her practice, can we also trace a connection between Chernysheva’s position and the intellectual and artistic tradition of the avant-garde, another path that sought to re-imagine the fundamental relations between art and life? Here we might refer to both a historical genealogy of the avant-garde grounded in the late 1910s and early 1920s that lingered nostalgically throughout the Soviet times as an unaccomplished artistic utopia or as an overachieved social program, and to the western developments of the avant-garde, to which contemporary understandings of the place of the political in art pay tribute.
Within this complex set of associations, Chernysheva’s work could be described as a kind of strategy of inversion, albeit one by no means unfaithful to the spirit of the avant-garde, which theorist and art historian Boris Groys has characterized thus: “During the course of the twentieth century there was a lot of talk about bringing art into life. Especially Russian art of the last century was fascinated by this idea—from the early Russian avant-garde through the monumental art of Soviet times up to contemporary Russian visual culture that is very much about design and glamour. Olga Chernysheva takes an opposite route: she tries to find art in life.”
But this search for “art in life” should not be read as a reactionary dwelling on those islands of escapism within life that are isolated from reality’s palpable demands and urgent questions. On the contrary, Chernysheva’s interest is to trace, with an investigative rigor and obsessive ethos, the pervasiveness of reality (as well as history) in the most unexpected corners of the quotidian. Forms, colors, gazes, stances, individuals, groups, communities, scattered people in a market, and lonely figures on crowded trains are not innocent images randomly extracted from an unreadable image of society, but rather they compose the matter which has inscribed in its very materiality the “objective structure of history,” as Marx would have it. For example, it could be said that another work in the exhibition, the 2008 video Untitled. Dedicated to Sengai includes an almost caricatured inclusion of avant-garde forms amidst a social panorama. It shows a woman on a crowded Moscow square who is selling the small magnetic drawing tablets so beloved as children’s toys, demonstrating for the passers-by the use of this object by constantly drawing intertwined triangles, squares, and circles (which immediately brings to mind, among other things, Kasimir Malevich’s famous Black Square(1913), only to erase them immediately after with one swipe of the toy’s lever. But the caricature in the work stops at the forms being mechanically drawn and erased, because the subject and the artistic procedure in the piece is to be found outside the forms, in the social interactions that the woman has with the people she encounters and in the urban landscape featured in the video. This layered set of references seems to make a case for art as an instrument of life rather than a closed, self-referential system. The social background, the effects of post-traumatic societal atomization, and a sense of isolation and even fear with regard to social fragmentation and public encounter are illustrated in two other videos in the exhibition: The Train (2003) in which, from the perspective of a camera lens, we travel throughout the entire length of a train, en route to an anonymous destination somewhere in Russia; and Marmot (1999), one of Chernysheva’s most striking video-portraits, which follows a woman preparing to leave a demonstration of people seemingly nostalgic for the Soviet era. The camera focuses on a woman carefully gathering up her belongings, which includes a portrait of Stalin. Shuffling about and arranging her fur coat, gloves, and other items, the woman seems irremediably puzzled by her surroundings. This sense of confusion is heightened by the fact that it is not immediately clear if she is simply lost or a bit overwhelmed in the harsh urban landscape, or if she is dismayed (or disappointed) by the demonstration, which she seems to leave early.
Chernysheva’s artistic procedures and methods, regardless of the medium she employs, can be likened to the one found in Dziga Vertov’s iconic avant-garde gem, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), where elements of reality are dazzlingly shown, materialized, taken out of their safe surroundings, and marked with visual names they never bore before, only to be reconstructed in an image of society that makes it both readable for what it actually is and hints at the ways it could be different. Though Chernysheva’s works mold the moments of the disintegration of society that was being imagined in Vertov’s film (both explicitly Soviet and also universal), and though the “way society could be” is in her works less a matter of certainty and unabashed idealism, society is no less stripped bare and confronted with its own contradictions and conflicts. Chernysheva explores these day-to-day realities as the litmus test of society, the place where ideological constructions reveal their grand failures. The disintegration of the Soviet Union is seen not only as the crumbling of a bureaucratic state and as a source of crisis in the organization of ideologies, but it is followed in its deepest consequences upon daily life, from its most intimate aspects to the different ways that people try to come together within the new social conditions at precisely the levels of the quotidian. For this is where the relentless work of conversion from the Soviet system to the capitalist one being done by the new neoliberal age is cornered and exposed most efficiently in Chernysheva’s works. And it is exactly through creating this thorough and sensible anatomy of reality that the critical moment in art is best revealed, as the point where art’s interpretative efforts expose the wider intellectual and political constructs that materialize in society, thus allowing art to both observe and perhaps even affect the narratives that organize our lives together.
 Boris Groys, “Documenting everyday art,” introductory text to the brochure accompanying the exhibition Olga Chernysheva, Works 2000–2008, Galerie Volker Diehl, Berlin and Diehl+Gallery One, Moscow, 2009.
A text written by Cosmin Costinas, the curator of the exhibition In the Middle of Things by Olga Chernysheva, on view at BAK from 23 January till 17 April 2011. For more information regarding the exhibition and its parallel public program, please see here.