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Dorothea Zwirner

“Vadim Zakharov: Don Quixote against the Internet”



During the many hours that I have spent with Vadim Zakharov sitting in front of a computer screen in his Spitzweg-style attic room,1 have come to realize that typography is more than just a craft or a means of earning a living to him; it is something that has formed his entire way of thinking and working on a fundamental level.2 At the same time, there is a significant contrast between the romantic atmosphere of his garret, which bears witness to the diversity of his activities as an artist, editor, collector, and archivist, and his hi-tech workstation. Upon visiting Zakharov’s Cologne home in the Gleuelerstrasse 22, one is submerged into a peculiarly Russian environment, in which Zakharov’s roots in the nonconformist tradition of Moscow Conceptualism are unmistakable even 16 years after his move to the West. Be this as it may, his artistic means of working with modern technologies as well as his extensive travels to Spain, Israel, Japan, Thailand, and (again and again) Moscow point toward the global orientation of his work. Once the computer has been started up, its screen opens a window to the world, as if through a keyhole. No matter whether they are his own or those of other artists, Zakharov conjures images and texts from all over the planet, sifting and sorting them, choosing and scrapping, cutting and cropping, setting and foreshortenening, formatting and displacing, inventing them and setting them into scene.

            In correspondence to the working atmosphere described above, there are two contradictory strategies of dealing with linguistic and visual artifacts from different cultures in Zakharov’s oeuvre: one of these consists in condensation and focusing, while the other explodes and forces them open. Condensation corresponds to the key-hole perspective of the attic chamber; its focus could in turn be linked to the optics of the photo- or video-camera that Zakharov frequently uses. The principle of explosion, however, corresponds to Zakharov’s overflowing “self-evolving” system, which has no borders and no hierarchies. The following text will attempt to explain how these strategies work together, using a few examples from Zakharov’s Pastor Zond Editions. After having done so, it will trace the development of this Don Quixote in his battle against the Internet, a battle that has been raging ever since Zakharov moved to the West in 1989.

            In the three editions “On One Page”, Zakharov condenses the texts of Dante’s “Inferno” (1998), Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” (1998), and “100 Russian Folktales” (2001) onto one single golden page, which is run through a laser printer again and again, until the entire over-printed text becomes so dense that it takes on the structure of a relief. Texts that have been inscribed into our cultural memories often lose their legibility, but are condensed to an auratic text-image, becoming a kind of icon.

            Zakharov also invites us to explore the dense structure of our cultural memory in the edition “A Supplement to the Second Book of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls” (1994). In this piece, he enlarges a single floor tile to the extreme, uncovering 30 portraits of the novel’s characters, as if through a Rorschach test. In a similar vein, the extremely enlarged images of peanuts in the edition The “Fundamental Netsuke” (1996) awaken the impression of being the kind of netsuke heads that were carved from wood, ivory, or nutshells in Japan during the 17th-19th centuries.

            Such are the ways in which Zakharov visualizes the cultural process of linguistic or symbolic condensation, always in a playful and humorous manner. However, the movement of zooming in can also be applied in reverse in order to enhance the mystery of the symbolic form itself. Zakharov chooses this kind of fleeing perspective in a photo series shot in Bangkok in 2002. Its images lead the gaze through dark passageways and corridors toward the central constellation of Buddha statues. The ambivalence of the “vanishing point” or the “run-off point” is contained within the exhibition title “Fluchtpunkt Moskau”: it is unclear whether this point is a point of convergence or refuge (Zuflucht) or an occasion for flight (Flucht).3 After all, focusing and reducing something to one point can also lead to hardening and ossification, leading into a cul-de-sac. Incidentally, “The Dead-End as a Genre” (1997/98) is also the title of an edition in which Vadim Zakharov and Sergei Anufriev have collected their conversations on various types of dead ends.

            A way out of this dead end can be found in Zakharov’s second strategy. It is here that he attempts to explode and force open entrenched structures and ideological boundaries. For instance, he literally forced the memories condensed in the Proustian madeleine pastry to explode. First, he tested the effect of the madeleine pastry on those of his artist friends who had also emigrated to the West, all of whom are also on a kind of search for lost time. The texts written immediately after partaking of this pastry were collected in a book that could be understood as the collective subconscious of the Moscow Conceptualists. However, in the actions that followed, the process of searching for lost time was put on trial, a trial that ended with a death sentence for the madeleine pastry. On September 28th at 19.56, the madeleine pastry was executed by a rifle marksman in Graz. Finally, the composer and pianist Ivan Sokolov wrote a “Requiem for the Madeleine Pastry”, which premiered and was recorded at the Kreuzkirche church on the Hohenzollerndamm in Berlin. Documented in a multi-part edition, consisting of a book, a video, and a CD, this process can be read as a strange crossbreed between Kafka’s “Trial” and Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”: Zakharov turns the collective experience of arbitrary arrest and persecution against the collective culture of memory.

            However one interprets this paradoxical act of vigilante justice, it represents an accurate marker for the situation of an artist group whose historical oppositional culture disappeared along with the political turn in 1989. If Ilya Kabakov became the great installateur of the post-Soviet culture of memory, Vadim Zakharov took over the responsible as well as humble task of acting as its pastor. By founding a journal of the same name and in publishing the Pastor Zond Editions, he underwent and thematized the ideological transition – phonetically Pas-Tor, or passing through the gate – from East to West. In doing so, he also saw himself as a pastor in the sense of a shepherd who seeks out – zond means probe in Russian – and carefully holds together the scattered flock of his artist friends. In this way, the journal Pastor became a kind of forum for discussion and a home away from home for artists that had dissipated to all corners of the globe since Perestroika, especially since the journal Pastor appears as a continuation of the familiar tradition of samizdat, the hand-made print productions of the unofficial Russian cultural scene. If the hand-made publications of samizdat were once produced against the backdrop of a totalitarian system and its mechanisms of censorship, Zakharov now cultivates this mode of production from a position constrained in terms of both content and finance. It is not without a nostalgic undertone and not without irony that this publication raises the question of what exactly sets the conditions of production in a “free” country apart from those in the publisher’s totalitarian home? And what exactly is the difference between hand-made production and mechanic reproduction in the digital age?

            In his capacity as a pastor, Zakharov has also taken on the task of an archivist, documenting the artistic activities of his friends and colleagues in an extensive video-archive since 1989. His activities as Pastor Zond Editions also include independent installations, actions and object that, in turn, flow back into single editions as well as books, catalogues, albums, documentations of performances, videos, and archival material.

            For in the beginning, there was the word, but in writing, the word became an image. Zakharov tracks down the written image or the image in writing in all of its forms: in the secret codes encrypted in the tatoos of Russian prison inmates, which Zakharov fixes on Japanese scrolls in his “Tatoo Sumi-e” (1997), in the “Japanese Alphabet for Shamans” (1997), in the form of monster portraits from a game for Japanese children, with whose help one can learn Japanese, in the “Dictionary of Nonverbal Vocabulary” (2001), which systematizes the words of sounds made in comics, in the readings in four dead languages (Latin, Ancient Greek, Gothic, and Old Irish), which accompanies the video installation “Cults, Prophets, Image” (2000), or in the literary texts by Dante, Proust, Gogol, Cervantes, and those of many other authors, which Zakharov treats in his oeuvre.

            Notwithstanding the diversity of various images in writing, formats, and media, all publications by Pastor Zond Editions are marked by their stringent aesthetic appearance, which follows the timeless rules of classical typography. The individual pieces are structured into series and sequences, collated into collections and ordered according to genre in their own catalogue raisonné. Throughout, Zakharov’s method of an overflowing, “self-evolving” system is always counterbalanced by the tendency to compile his work to date in retrospective. However, his strict organization of his own oeuvre and his voluntary submission to the basic rules of typography not only bear witness to the artist’s modesty and understatement, they also supply him with a self-imposed corset that serves to bring all of the over-extravagant fantasies, absurd whimsies, audacious ideas and spiritual flights of fancy between two book covers again and again.

            Not only Zakaharov’s editions, but even his installations and exhibitions testify to a typographic feeling for organizations, which expands to become a kind of three-dimensional layout. Thus, for instance, the exhibition “Typographische Erhebung” 4 in Cologne’s Galerie Sophie Ungers (1994) was divided into five chapters corresponding to the five stories of the narrow gallery venue, connected by a black pillar. The retrospective “The Last Stroll through the Elysian Fields” in Cologne’s Kunstverein (1995) was structured as a veritable park with seven avenues. “Many of these avenues have been traveled by the Moscow Conceptualists for years and have been described exhaustively.”5 Planned in a schematic drawing, this garden architecture immediately clarifies the connection to the graphical layout of a page. The typographical mold of Zakharov’s work emerged even more clearly in “Theological Conversations”, his contribution to the Venice Biennale in 2001, which narrates the ritual battle of Zakharov, wearing a pastor’s robe, with a sumo wrestler, on Japanese scrolls in what is almost a picture story. This thread in Zakharov’s work found its continuation in the installation “The History of Russian Art from the Russian Avantgarde to the Moscow Conceptual School”, which was Zakharov’s contribution to the exhibition “Berlin-Moscow” in Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau (2003/2004) and consisted of five huge walk-in document files, each of them branded with a corresponding lable.

            The use of wall texts, labels and print media of every ilk, the structuring of pieces into chapters and sections, the symmetrical constellation of elements, often pieces of furniture in space, only accentuated with curlicues here and there, the choice of colors – largely black, red, and gold – or the serial principle, which corresponds to the literary narrative – all of these devices stem from Zakharov’s typographic sense of order, from the the subtlety, delicacy and attention to detail that characterizes his handwriting (or typeface).

            This aristocratic, elegant form of typographical sensibility is no Russian specialty, but also marks the work of the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers and the Canadian Rodney Graham. Zakharov has designed monographic books for both with a great deal of delicacy, paying tribute to a great artistic affinity. In the end, all three artists have a similar sense of humor and a feeling for language; they also share a predilection for the romanticism of the 19th century and for the 20th century’s structuralism, a deep respect for figures of reference and kindred spirits, and a weakness for elegance and melancholia.

            If my reflections on Vadim Zakharov began at his workplace in the Gleuelerstrasse, then they will end in another scriptorium, in the “Monument to Theodor W. Adorno” in Frankfurt (2002/2003), Zakharov’s first commission in public space. However, in Adorno’s study, which is merely insinuated through a sparse set of props (table, chair, desk lamp, sheet music, the Suhrkamp pocket edition of the “Negative Dialectics”, and a metronome, all on herringbone parquet) and enclosed by a pavilion of glass, the direction of our gaze is inverted. Instead of anticipating the philosopher’s gaze at the outer world, we are afforded with an unhampered insight into his otherwise inaccessible private sphere. Our gaze is curious and deferential, directed at the holy of holies, the imaginary birthplace of Negative Dialectics, Aesthetic Theory, Minima Moralia and Philosophy of New Music, a gaze that hopes to come into closer contact with the author himself. This glass box is the constructed shrine that surrounds Adorno, as the founder of critical theory, like a saint, surrounded by the titles of his works, hewn in marble. The study is the memorable point of departure and convergence from which everything begins and to which we will return to, again and again.


1. Trans. note: The author is referring to the famous Biedermeier painting Der arme Poet (1837-39) by Carl Spitzweg, which depicts a destitute poet working in the bed of his attic room or garret. (See p. 106)

2. The first book project that we made together was the exhibition catalogue “Drawingroom, Zeichnungen und Skulpturen aus der Sammlung Speck”, Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum Graz, ëantz, Osfildern 1994. It was followed by “Marcel Broodthaers Correspondances”, Galerie Hauser & Wirth, Zürich; Galerie David Zwirner, New York, Oktagon-Verlag 1995. Vadim Zakharov has also developed the basic layout for the Dumont publishing house’s series Collector’s Choice. Künstlermonographien der Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, which I have been developing since 2004. He has designed its first three volumes on Rodney Graham, Thomas Schütte, and Pipilotti Rist.

3. Boris Groys (ed.), Fluchtpunkt Moskau. Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Ostfildern 1994. The catalogue was designed by Pastor Zond Editions.

4. Vadim Zakharov, Vom Lachen zu Anderem – Einige Bemerkungen zur Ausstellung im Kölnischen Kunstverein, in: Der letzte Spaziergang durch die Elysischen Felder. Retrospektive 1978–1995. Exh. cat. Kölnischer Kunstverein, Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag, 1995, p.16

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