top of page



Nicholas Cullinan

Bureaucracy Unbound: Vadim Zakharov’s Archive Fever


Artist, archivist, collector, designer, editor, publisher: Vadim Zakharov is a polymath. But more than this—his work across all these diverse disciplines and roles steadfastly refutes any notion of stylistic coherence or teleological progress. It is a baffling body of work, and all the better for it. The guises and functions Zakharov takes for himself are not only eclectic; they are also potentially overlapping and conflicting: provocatively so. Initially engendered by the institutional and bureaucratic void with which to support artists in the Soviet Union in the nineteen-seventies and eighties (which many artists around this time also responded to, as we shall see), Zakharov has maintained, and even amplified, this strategy of autonomous and multivalent modes of production, after his move to Cologne in the early nineties.

As Boris Groys astutely observes: “In order to become autonomous, an artist needs to become an institution himself, replacing all functions of contemporary art institutions with his own activities. Of course, life in the Soviet Union considerably facilitated the understanding of this truth, since the Soviet Union had no art institutions whatsoever in the contemporary sense. In addition, Zakharov orientated himself toward a number of examples of autonomous or self-institutionalizing practices of the kind such as those evident in the work of Ilya Kabakov or Andrei Monastyrski.”1 This, in part then, is a continuation of the autonomous samizdat tendency in unofficial Russian art from the seventies and eighties, whereby artists were compelled to self-publish their own handmade material in order for it to ever see the light of day—as manifested in the samizdat volumes of the Collective Actions, which documented the group’s series of contingent performances in the countryside outside Moscow during the seventies and eighties or in the Moscow-based underground film club Cine Fantom’s dissemination of information on alternative forms of “parallel cinema” during the eighties and beyond.

This essay, which of course borrows its title in part from Jacques Derrida’s 1995 study Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, first given as a lecture for a colloquium in London on the topic of archives and memory, will examine Zakharov’s work chiefly from the lens of his autonomous activities, the role he has adopted as archivist, and the concepts of bureaucracy which shape and inform much of his work.2

In order to situate Vadim Zakharov’s work aesthetically, as well as historically and philosophically, it is important first to consider the milieu from which he arose. The development of the Moscow Conceptual School or movement originated in the late seventies. Despite its diversity and the seemingly random series of events that took place under its auspices and which constitutes the movement—a feature also shared by the work of Zakharov and one that is often perplexing to Western eyes—Moscow Conceptualism can be clearly identified as a coherent tendency, unified by shared antiauthoritarian attitudes born out of the artistic experimentation and avant-garde activity already taking shape in unofficial, nonconformist Russian art of the period from 1953 to 1986 (after the death of Joseph Stalin and until the advent of perestroika and glasnost). Put most simply, the term “Moscow Conceptualism” describes work produced outside the aesthetic and ideological constraints of Socialist Realism. Moscow Conceptualism was, at least in part, a reaction to state sponsored Socialist Realism and the restrictions placed upon artistic freedom in the Soviet Union between the mid-fifties and the arrival of glasnost thirty years later.

The poet Lev Rubinstein defined Moscow Conceptualism as the “art of approximations,” which foregrounds the defining quality of this group as springing from their beliefs and processes rather than from any tangible or singular identity. Moscow Conceptualism tends to deal thematically with voids, blank spaces, and flatness. However, Moscow Conceptualism is neither an art movement nor conceptualist in the strictest sense—the artists affiliated with this tendency or term have not all produced works along the same lines, and they are not so ascetically or textually minded as the Western conceptualists (rather, quite often their texts are narratives). Instead, the group to which Zakharov is affiliated can be defined as more of a collection of like-minded people. Nowhere is this last point more apparent or made more manifest than in the work of Andrei Monastyrski and the Collective Actions. The group was founded by Monastyrski, Nikita Alexeev, Igor Makarevich, and Elena Elagina in 1976 and came to form an alternative art community which privileged contingent

events, such as performances and installations, over static objects. Despite the shifting lineup, there is a fairly stable “core,” and many of the Moscow unofficial art circle have been participants or audience members at one time or

another. In various times, other participants in the Collective Actions group have included Sergey Romashko, Sabine Haensgen, Ilya Kabakov, Pavel Pepperstein, Ivan Chuikov, Eduard Gorokhovsky, Sven Gundlach, Vadim Zakharov, Yury Leiderman, Vladimir Mironenko, and others. In the early years, for example, the “actions” of the group consisted of events like going out to a field on a deserted farm near Moscow and instructing the members of the group to perform various prearranged tasks. Once these actions were completed, they were extensively documented and analyzed by members of the group and the wider Conceptualist circle. The participants were often unaware of what the action was to be before being given the instructions, and the actions were frequently purposeless—dragging a rope in different directions, walking in circles in the woods, holding up a banner without knowing what it says, and so forth. The textual material was then collected in samizdat volumes. As we shall now discuss, all of these aspects provide a crucial precursor and context with which to understand the work of Vadim Zakharov.

Born in Dushanbe in 1959, Zakharov graduated from the Moscow State Teachers Training Institute. In 1978 he started participating in exhibitions of unofficial art and has worked in collaboration with artists such as Igor Lutz (1978–80), as part of the SZ Group with Victor Skersis (1980–83, and again in 1990 and 2004–05), with Sergei Anufriev (1993, 1997), with Ivan Sokolov (1998–2001), and finally and most recently with Niklas Nitschke under the name OBAMAINBERLIN (since 2009). From the very beginning of his career, however, Zakharov ploughed a particular furrow for himself that was not

only independent and solitary, but also strikingly transnational in its imperatives and aesthetics. Take one of Zakharov’s earliest recorded actions: in the Stimulation series of 1980, he offered to pay an hourly wage to participants who agreed to try to alter their appearances through the repetition of simple exercises, such as tugging on their ears and lips in order to enlarge them and wrinkling their noses to encourage lines to develop. The photographs of Zakharov demonstrating these exercises seem to chime more with international tendencies of Body and Performance Art during the seventies, such as

those practiced in Europe by Michel Journiac and Gina Pane, of artists who used their own bodies as the site of their investigations, rather than anything specifically “Russian.” However and conversely, for other works from around

this time, Zakharov has cited the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky as an important influence, as have other prominent Russian artists after him, such as Anatoly Osmolovsky. This interest in the agitational comes to the fore in the photographic series from 1982, Hand Inscriptions, which also became known as I Made Enemies—and well might he have, with pugilistic inscriptions written on the palm of his hand held toward the camera, such as “Yankilevsky and Kabakov are a little like wolves! Watch out; it’s true!” and “Shteinberg, you’re a powdered Malevich. Please make this clear to yourself.” This provocateur tendency in Zakharov’s practice was also fostered by his various collaborations, which often went far beyond the social codes then accepted in the Soviet Union.

The samizdat tendency of autonomous organization and dissemination of artistic activity, as developed in the nineteen-eighties by projects such as “MANI Folders”, for which Zakharov was a pivotal figure, was continued and developed upon markedly in his solo work. For example, the project “The Blue File of Castle Eybesfeld” from 1992 was initiated when the owner of the eponymous castle in Austria sent Zakharov a blue ring-binder file containing a wealth of information regarding the castle, its history and topography, in the hope of persuading Zakharov to make a sculpture for its grounds. Zakharov instead made a counter offer to engage in the long-term documentation of Castle Eybesfeld, relating to various ideas such as “The Archive in Action” and “Bureaucracy Unbound.” In this way, Zakharov engages in the “aesthetic of

administration,” as Benjamin Buchloh has written of the practices of Western conceptual artists such as Mel Bochner and Robert Morris.3

Another pivotal role in Zakharov’s multifarious practice has been his editing of the “Pastor Zond Editions”, from 1992 to 1995, which numbers more than sixty publications. Here he serves multiple roles, such as designer for the thoughtful and elegant typography deployed within the publications, and continues the aforementioned tendency of the samizdat publishing of handmade books and periodicals. Crucially, however, Zakharov’s work in this realm goes far beyond the boundaries of just tasteful design and provides the impetus for some of his most probing and rigorous conceptual projects. Chief among these is a testing of the potential and limitations of the digital. For example, in the three discrete projects of “On One Page”, Zakharov juxtaposes the entire texts of “Dante’s Inferno” (1998), Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” (1998), and “100 Russian Folktales” (2001) onto just one page by running the respective textual material

again and again through a laser printer to form an inky palimpsest that obliterates the text.

If the resulting black rectangles of these textual projects are inescapably reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich’s epoch-making Black Square of 1915, this talismanic work of the Russian avant-garde—emblematic of a brief moment of intellectual freedom which has still perhaps to be recovered in Russian culture ever since—is also nodded to, and a similar occlusion enacted, in a 2004 series by Zakharov. The artist holds a black screen in front of the camera (in an echo of Malevich’s famous work), such as in “Red Square behind Black Screen” of 2004, where the famously photogenic site of Moscow’s main square is obliterated behind the black rectangle held up to largely occupy the camera’s field of vision. The camera obscura origins of photography are thus redeployed to reconsider the fraught relationship between figuration and abstraction, depiction and obliteration, in Russian art during the twentieth century. As Zakharov astutely notes: “In part, Malevich’s achievement lies in the fact that he pointed toward the necessity for a balance between the excessive blackness of the centre (and the author and culture) and the non-verbal (unknown) space of the periphery. Here, Malevich’s ambition has reached its apogee. If there is no balance, both the square itself and the frame that saves it disappear. And in this sense, the author who carries him like a black solid plate in front of the lens is the canon of ‘understanding Everything,’ even if almost nothing of what the artist was thinking can be discerned on the photograph itself.”4

Other conceptual projects by Zakharov have had a far more physically embodied manifestation. For an exhibition at Galerie Sophie Ungers in Cologne in 1996, curated by Zakharov and also featuring the work of Carsten Hoeller and the Inspection Medical Hermeneutics group, and spread across all five stories of the gallery, Zakharov masterminded turning the gallery effectively into a brothel: the windows of the gallery were illuminated with a gaudy red light, with “prostitutes” peering out at the passersby below, while visitors were greeted upon entering the first floor of the gallery with what appeared

to be a seedy bar. If Boris Groys was quick to note the seemingly diametrically oppositional tendencies of “romantic Moscow Conceptualism” in the seventies, then Zakharov adopts this erotic working-out of the “mind-body” problem posited by Western conceptualist artists such as Robert Morris.5 For example, in the series “24 Erotic Photographs, Made in Andrei Monastyrski’s Armpit” (2004), Zakharov takes a blurrily abstract series of extreme close-ups of the subject’s

anatomy, the only hint of whose corporal origins being the flash-colored shadows

that pervade throughout.

Seemingly in direct contrast to this last installation, in 1996 Vadim Zakharov donned the robes of his alter ego “The Pastor” and began a nomadic series of actions titled “The Funny and Sad Adventures of the Foolish Pastor”, which

spanned performances enacted in Russia, Germany, Spain, Japan, and Crimea. Zakharov’s peripatetic projects also include excavating and documenting forgotten histories particular to the places he has travelled. These include the project “Pilgrimages with a Flying Video Camera” of 2002, where Zakharov visited Israel and holy sites, including the Church of the Nativity, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Chapel of Dominus Flevit at Masada. For this series of works, known as “Apocrypha”, Zakharov visited sacred sites and found new ways to see them afresh by simply throwing a video camera

into the air and letting the resulting chaotic jumble of chance footage do what it would, in order to capture and conflate, in Zakharov’s words, “tradition and modern technology, absurdity and religious experience, humor and kitsch, the stupidity of actions and their clever results.”6 As Zakharov continues: “Practically all the works I did in my one-and-a-half-month stay in Israel were based on searching for depth in material that was already familiar, trivial, and spent, in spaces that have long since been abandoned by the producers of contemporary culture. I addressed narratives and themes that are

no longer of interest to contemporary commentary, as it were, places that no one pays attention to anymore because they have already been described so exhaustively. That is why I devoted my attention to a theme that everyone is sick of, namely the “Bauhaus in Tel Aviv”. With my video camera, I filmed around seventy Bauhaus buildings in ‘old style’ mode. This material was then transformed into the Bauhaus Torah.”7 Similar to the defamiliarization practiced by Zakharov’s obliteration of canonical texts, such as those of Dante, by making such intellectual totems illegible and mute, here the places that are inscribed upon our cultural imagination are rendered strange, while quasi-spiritual. Zakharov’s peripatetic activities in the guise of his alter ego The Pastor combine the fantastical with fabulation, the realm of the parodic

with the quasi-spiritual.

Often, Vadim Zakharov’s alternative guise and activities as an archivist make him keenly aware of the often tragic and always vexed history of Russian art in the twentieth century, spanning the immense optimism and freedom of the Russian Revolution to the aesthetic numbness and repression perpetrated by Stalin. His installation “The History of Russian Art from the Russian Avant-Garde to the Moscow Conceptual School” (2003–04) again adopts the form of oversized files, and the aesthetics of the bureaucratization of art. In this anti-monument, five ridiculously oversized ring binders—big enough

for a person to pass through, forming a sort of enfilade of taxonomies—are arranged in a chronological series, ranging from “Russian Avant-Garde: Utopia,” “Socialist Realism: Ideology,” “Non Conformism (Unofficial Art of the 50s–60s): Art,” “Soz-Art: Self-criticism,” and finally: “Moscow Conceptual school: Archive.”

Despite the different guises of Vadim Zakharov’s practice—ranging from objects to actions, artifacts to documentation, and encompassing an array of mediums, from photography and video or painting and sculpture to performance

and publications—the autonomy that underlines his practice remains the most striking and consistent aspect of his unique body of work. Through this refusal to be limited by style or indeed by nationality, but instead to invent and pioneer new modes and methods of production and dissemination alongside (and mirroring) his ever-changing and restless works and ideas, Zakharov’s consistent adoption of the samizdat principle brings the refusal of the restrictions of artists working in Soviet Russia in the nineteen-seventies and eighties into our globalized present and offers a prescient foretelling of the ever-multiplying possibilities presented by the digital age.


1 Boris Groys, “The Promise of Autonomy,” in Vadim Zakharov et al., Vadim Zakharov: 25 Years on One Page (Moscow, 2006), pp. 9–10.

2 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago, 1998).

3 Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the

Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990), pp. 105–43.

4 Zakharov 2006 (see note 1), p. 263.

5 See, for example, Rosalind Krauss, ed., Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem (New York, 1994).

6 Zakharov 2006 (see note 1), p. 98.

7 I bid.

bottom of page