Actions 1978-2015 – an attempt at a typology
The art historical terms action, performance, happening, as genres, are currently in need of a thorough reappraisal and analysis. And the contemporary activity of artists must also be looked at anew. For art historians, gallerists, museum and archive workers, it is understandably easier to have one set of standardised terms. But it is impossible to use something that has already lost its inner meaning. As an artist, today I feel a lack of contemporary analysis of the processes that are taking place in contemporary art. I don’t have the words, the terminology to describe what it is that I do. Naturally, I’m forced to come up with new ones that are as yet unknown, that sound strange, and they are treated as the quirks of an artist who is deliberately moving away from classical designations. The methods of working employed by contemporary artists are changing very quickly, but art historical theories use old schematics to describe what is happening. It seems to me that we need to start addressing this, and not only because new forms of activity have appeared, such as the flashmob, for example; but also because there ARE things in the past worth looking at again in relation to this question. Whilst preparing for my presentation, to my horror and surprise I suddenly found that much of what I had done over 38 years in the genre of the action does not entirely fit with what we understand this term to mean.
I think that out of the dozens of actions I have conceived, either by myself or as a co-author, only one of my actions could be considered a “classical” action; namely, the very first one, from 1978. This was in fact my first work. It was called “An Exchange of Information with the Sun” – I made a print with my thumb on a pocket mirror and angled the reflection towards the sun. I was nineteen years old. It was photographed by my friend, the artist Yuri Albert.
From 1978 to 1980, I worked together with Igor Lutz. We began working on the development of a theme that we called “functioning in culture”. This idea encompassed many aspects. One of them was the almost unnoticeable parody of the social system, but most importantly, also of the Sots-art style, which the artists Komar and Melamid had invented in 1972. As Sots-art adopted an ironic attitude both in relation to our Socialist reality and towards American Pop Art simultaneously, our undertakings you might rather describe as a parody of irony. Also I can call them “invisible political action”. Here are some examples.
From 1980 to 1984, I worked together with Victor Skersis and our co-authorship was called the SZ group. We continued working on the idea of “functioning in culture” and developed new ideas: Filling the Voids, Simulations in Culture, Phantoms, Symbiosis, Co-authorships and Bypassing. These directions in our activity themselves became important terms for the group. But they could all be united under the word Activity. For example, the SZ work “Logical Organisation of Urination of Dogs”, falls better under the term Activity than action. We hung up old cloths that had been urinated on by Fedya the dog, corresponding to the constellation Canis Major. The same applies to another sizeable series, “Self Defense Against Things”, 1981-1982. This involved, for example, scaring a chair or a toilet bowl. You have to understand that you are threatened with danger by the things that surround you. Our task was to prevent a conspiracy between the table, the toilet, the door and the wardrobe. To achieve this, we held “Courses of self-defence against things” in the woods, with Victor Skersis as the instructor. This is Activity, and not actions. And the same applies to the rest of SZ's works. The term Activity describes more fully what was taking place. Even the repetition of the Collective Actions action “Lieblich”, which we undertook as part of the unofficial exhibition “Apt-Art en Plein Air” in 1983 is better described as Activity (it was, incidentally, the first re-enactment of a contemporary artwork in Russia).
If you look at my solo actions from the beginning of the 80s, there are two major series. The first is “Stimulation”, 1980, where I provoked the actions of others. I stimulated them to carry out particular movements. For example, by laying out little paths of five-kopeck coins first thing in the morning along or across the street, I stimulated morning exercise and the strengthening of people’s back muscles. Or by issuing an announcement (in the MANI folders) about my willingness to pay for hours-long pulling on the ear, nose, lips, I planned to change the faces of artists using the hands of the artists themselves. The first stimulation was aimed at casual passers-by, whilst the second was aimed at a group of artists who are now considered classic figures in Russian art. The group of artists completely ignored my proposal, which is a shame, because otherwise today we would be see Kabakov, for example, with a huge ear, Monastyrsky with a fat lip, and Albert with a finger sucked to a point like a lollipop. I wouldn’t call such works actions. A more accurate name is stimulation body act.
The second and most famous of my series from the 1980s fall under the strange designation zond-works. Despite this fact, in all the catalogues these works are included in the actions section. Some of them – “Little Elephants”, “I Have Acquired Enemies” – were done in the apartment of the aforementioned Yuri Albert. He is also the photographer. In other words, no actual action took place at all. I knelt on all fours and threw marble elephants onto myself, for the photograph. The two or three people who were present were helpers rather than viewers. Yes, and the goal of these works was the ensuing reaction of the Moscow conceptualist artists, they were not conceived for an immediate reaction. For me, what was important in these works was the sounding out (zondirovanie) of the professional reaction towards something strange, which up until that point had not existed in the Muscovite discourse. The work “I Have Acquired Enemies” was also of a provocative character. It sounded out the adequacy of the reaction of the elder generation towards new developments. Not all of them passed the test – and some took offence.
The works “Papuans” and “Well” were made in Crimea, in Novyi Svit. And again, these were, if I can use the term, staged actions. Friends helped to paint me as a Papuan, and then helped to secure the text to the ground. Then they watched as I clambered around the tree. Before being photographed in the “Well” along with a text about a boy who doesn’t know if he will be able to climb out of the well or not, I first climbed into one pit, placing the text there, and then climbed into the pit next to it, depicting loneliness and helplessness. After the photographs were taken, I climbed out without any major difficulties. Thus, these actions are also in fact staged actions.