Throughout the early 1920s, Aleksandr Rodchenko took many photographs of his friends and colleagues. Some were snapshots, others author photos for book covers, and still others would be used in his propaganda collages for the Russian Telegraph Agency.
Kevin Kinsella discusses the current exhibition on view at the Radiator Gallery, This Is How My Brain Works, which offers a keen curatorial selection of collage art by various artists.
Bells and whistles aside, early slot machines were simple gambling devices with reels that spun when a lever was pulled, resulting in a pattern of symbols when they stopped spinning—and hopefully the clatter of a few coins dropping into the till. Over time, they got a bit more sophisticated. Nowadays, slots are high stakes affairs. And while the bells and whistles remain, the rules of chance have long been refined.
In most 20th century slot machines, numbers representing symbols are assigned to stopping positions and entered into a random number generator to control the payout odds of each position. While the owner could tweak the odds a bit, Lady Luck was still either with the player or against him. Today, computers inside the machines allow their owners to assign a different probability to each symbol on every reel allowing any odds to be set. While you might think that you just missed a jackpot, odds are, you weren’t even close. The inherent randomness of chance and risk is mitigated by deliberate checks—or filters. Still, you were this close to beating the house. Sure you were.
Now, at Radiator Gallery in Long Island City, Queens, the stakes just got higher. In “SLOTS,” multimedia artist Maximus Clarke employs the metaphor of the slot machine to consider randomness in the life of the artist, only the payout isn’t anything like a deluge of coins; rather, it’s Western culture itself. The piece, a projection-mapped video installation, is a part of This Is How My Brain Works, a group exhibition organized by first-time curator Michael Lee that examines the practice of collage in media ranging from works on paper to artist books, photographs, sculpture, textiles, and video. According to Clarke, collage is a practice that can extend across any and all media and “SLOTS,” which questions whether there’s a set of steps that the artist can credibly climb to achieve significance, or if it’s just a game of chance, a “digital, multimedia embodiment of that practice.”
Few countries have undergone more radical transformations than Russia has, so it’s easy to assume that with each geopolitical quake the country’s cultural continuity gets split along the resulting fault lines.
Добро пожаловать в Россию! Bomb blog contributor Kevin Kinsella reviews Squaring The Circle: Winners of the Debut Prize, a new anthology of Russian writers, which highlights ten years of winners of the Russian Debut Prize for Fiction by writers under the age of twenty-five.
Kevin Kinsella takes issue with the Gagosian Gallery’s framing, both literal and figurative, of Russian Supremacist Kazimir Malevich.
Just before the 1915 opening in St. Petersburg of “0,10 The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition,” the main exhibitors came to blows. Kazimir Malevich, whose new Suprematist school of painting was to have its debut at the show, and Vladimir Tatlin, a founder of Constructivism, were in violent disagreement over the validity of abstract art.
Malevich and his followers conceived of art as a spiritual activity whose purpose was to give man a new vision of the world; their nonobjective paintings were intended to free man from the shackles of natural forms. But Tatlin and the other Constructivists dismissed abstract art as amateurish and useless, advocating instead that art be integrated with the material world and that it serve society.
Octobriana has been turning up in comics since the ’70s. But who and what is this illustrated Soviet sex bomb? Kevin Kinsella gets to the bottom of her strange story.
In 1970, Petr Sadecký slipped across the border of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia with a cache of illegal comic books and the fantastic story of the dissident Russian artists who risked everything to create them. A year later, the publication of Octobriana and the Russian Underground, with its lurid illustrations and the suggestion of secret organizations staging drug-fueled orgies behind the Iron Curtain, was just the thing to send the anxious Western imagination over the edge.
Something must have been in the air. In a Cold War waged to this point through the calculated machinations of diplomats and trade organizations, suddenly there was a ratcheting up of tensions. The British government announced the drunk-driving arrest of a Soviet agent posing as a member of the USSR trade delegation in London. In exchange for asylum in the UK, Oleg Lyalin gave up the names of other spies working in Britain, leading to the high-profile expulsion of 105 Soviet officials from the country. Now, throw into the mix a book full of illustrations of an absurdly buxom and near-naked Amazon with a forward penned by the novelist Anatoli Kuznetsov—himself a prominent defector from the Soviet Union—to lend it credibility and the media quite literally has a bombshell on its hands. A bombshell so explosive that the story of Octobriana still enjoys cult status here among comic book artists and enthusiasts a full 40 years after it was published. One need only read David Bowie’s diaries from the 1980s or see the tattoo of the Soviet superwoman on Billy Idol’s arm to feel the far-reaching effects of Petr Sadecký’s story. Problem is, it doesn’t hold up.
“It is a disgraceful world, populated by some creatures that were once humans, but now these living beings are degraded, ghastly, appalling.” Kevin Kinsella discusses the photography exhibition, Boris Mikhailov: Case Study, which runs at MoMa until September fifth.
This year marks the 450th birthday of what is probably Russia’s most recognizable landmark. Although originally consecrated the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat, most know it simply as St Basil’s Cathedral, referring to Basil the Blessed, a so-called “holy fool” who was buried on the original site before the present church with its five famously motley onion domes was erected. As part of the commemorative festivities, Moscow’s State History Museum, whose holdings include the cathedral itself, is presenting an exhibition detailing the lives of St Basil and other “blessed” fanatics.
The holy fools—in Russian, yurodiv—often walked around stark naked or mortified their flesh by wearing heavy chains or filthy, lice-ridden rags. They fasted and slept out of doors, uttered prophecies, and, according to legend, performed miracles. The madness, or “foolishness,” of the yurodivy was ambiguous, and could be real or faked. St. Basil’s was thought to be divinely inspired, and therefore the tsar listened to his parables. Because no one could tell one way or the other, holy fools like St Basil dared to speak truth to power, being virtually the only group that could openly criticize the Kremlin and express the frustrations of ordinary Russians. Even Josef Stalin, personally responsible for the destruction of tens of thousands of religious buildings, spared the cathedral named for St. Basil.
In 1993 Alexander Floresnky nearly turned down the opportunity to illustrate the collected works of the great Russian humorist Sergei Dovlatov.
Of the Soviet writers who emigrated to the United States between the late 1970s and end of the 1980s, the Russian humorist and novelist Sergei Dovlatov probably had the most significant influence on the American reading public outside of émigré communities. Significantly, while several of his books have been translated into English, eight of his stories have appeared in The New Yorker. Indeed, Poet Joseph Brodsky, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, called it about right when he said that Dovlatov’s popularity in the United States was “natural” and predicted that one day he would be just as popular in Russia.
Dovlatov, who was born in the Soviet Republic of Bashkiria in 1941, studied at Leningrad State University, served in the Soviet army as a prison camp guard, and worked as a journalist for newspapers in Leningrad and Tallinn. He began writing fiction in the early 1970s, but failed to get anything published in the Soviet Union—his first collection of short stories was suppressed by the KGB. In 1979, after being expelled from the Union of Soviet Journalists (for publishing stories abroad) and conscripted into military service, Dovlatov left Russia for the United States.
Kevin Kinsella on the dark tensions within Ilya Kabakov’s work—and the political implications of the artist’s apolitical approach.
Art produced in the former Soviet Union between the years 1953 (the death of Stalin) and 1986 (the advent of Perestroika and Glasnost) that fell outside of the rubric of Socialist Realism is often crowded beneath umbrella terms like “noncomforist art,” “underground art,” “unofficial art”—even “dissident art.” But it would be a mistake to view all art not produced with approval of the State apparatus through the same lens. Indeed, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin for his crimes at a secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, his Thaw introduced a liberal atmosphere to the arts, giving more freedom to create work not previously sanctioned by the State without fear of reprisal.
The surprising move turned the notion of “official art” on its head. Formally approved artists like Alexander Gerasimov, who produced Soviet Realist portraits and idealized sculptures of Lenin and Stalin, had their stamps of approval rubbed off, as pretty much everyone else got the go ahead. Artists who had been producing work in secret, now could come out of the shadows and take part in public exhibitions.
Back-dated art works, Picasso’s frustration, and the transnational creation myths of Abstract art.
According to Gabrielle Buffet, her husband Francis Picabia invented abstract art in July 1912 on a drunken drive across France with Claude Debussy and Guillaume Apollinaire. Mix equal parts artist, composer, and poet in a car at the dawn of the modern age, let it bump around for a while, then throw the doors wide, and out pours a brand new cocktail of color, space, and time.
Of course, Vasily Kandinsky might have begged to differ—and he did. An often-told anecdote has it that the Russian-born painter and critic had stumbled upon Abstract art as far back as 1896. One evening, just after arriving in Munich, Kandinsky saw one of his own paintings leaning on its side in his unlit studio. He couldn’t make out the subject of the work in the darkness, but the forms and colors before him nonetheless struck him—an event sparking the revelation that “objects harmed my pictures.” Despite this epiphany, it took Kandinsky nearly fifteen years to bring an abstract painting into the light of day, so to speak. It is perhaps more illuminating that this story started going around in 1913, just as the same lightbulb seemed to be switching on in everyone’s head.
In Beyonsense, Eurasian artist collective Slavs and Tatars channels its inner Zaum in a celebration of the twists of language across cultures, histories, and geographies.
“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird?”
In Victory over the Sun, men from the future appear from out of nowhere and drag the bourgeois sun kicking and screaming from the sky, stuff it into a box, and replace it with a new energy source more appropriate for the times. A character called The Traveler Through Time declares that the future will be masculine and that all people will look happy, although happiness itself will no longer exist. Finally, an airplane crashes into the stage.
In 1913, the debut performance of this first Russian Futurist opera in St. Petersburg didn’t go over so well. Maybe it was Alexei Kruchenykh’s “nonsensical” libretto or Mikhail Matiushin’s chaotic music or the outlandish costumes and stage sets designed by Kazimir Malevich—or maybe the audience just didn’t expect a plane to crash into the stage. Whatever the case, they reacted violently. To be fair, Kruchenykh wrote much of the libretto in Zaum, an experimental, non-referential language he developed with fellow poet Velimir Khlebnikov, in which Russian was broken down into its fundamental sounds, the words stripped of meaning to expose the primal Slavic essence of the sounds themselves.
Kruchenykh himself described the new language as “wild paradise, fiery languages, blazing coal.” Khlebnikov, who contributed a prologue to the opera, called it the “language of the birds.” It’s no wonder members of the audience reacted as they did. Robbed of familiar contextual cues and cozy linguistic references, it was as though they too had been stuck in a box and pronounced dead alongside the bourgeois sun.
One hundred years later, audiences are still trying to make sense of Zaum, but if it continues to evade understanding, it is because by its nature Zaum resists translation. There are no word-to-word correlations. It doesn’t make sense, it is trans sense, beyond sense. Not caged by culture and geography, meaning surfaces from within the depths of a primordial forest of sounds, briefly flits about, then returns to the cacophony of its murky woods. In the words of Pablo Picasso, “Why not try to understand the song of a bird?”