Vadim Zakharov

 

 

 

Vadim Zakharov

The Shiva Method: Archive, Collection, Publisher, Artist

 

There is nothing new or surprising about an artist being a collector and an archivist at the same time. The artist’s world accumulates, dust-like, documents, letters, and gifts on walls, shelves and cabinets – whether or not the artist wants it to.  The artist is covered with this “dust,” he lives in it, and functions above all as a “dust-gatherer.” This is what could be called the Dust Archive (or Dust Collection). Then there is the Garbage Archive:  the artist actively transforming all human garbage into an archive (but one could also say that a human archive turns into garbage).  This is precisely the kind of collection and archive, on a global scale, represented by the work of Andy Warhol, Dieter Roth, Ilya Kabakov, Hans-Peter Feldman. There the “dust” grows into “garbage of universal significance”.

The third type of archive (and by this I also mean a type of collection) is the very kind I am actually trying to present. This is the archive-as-hired-assassin, the Hit Man Archive. In this arrangement the archive and the artist are equated in their claims to authorship, the development of the latter linked inexorably to the expansion of the former. It is sometimes easier for the artist-collector to hide behind the mask of a gatherer (in case his own position is insecure), but the danger lies in the archive’s potential for completely obscuring the artist, forever burying him in its catacombs. The Hit Man Archive treats the artist as if he were merely the subject of one of its files; it collects itself and comments upon itself. It bursts through all the barriers constructed by the artist.  It is intolerant, hungry, and dangerous.

I distinctly remember the moment – I was 22 – when I resolved, privately at first, that many things around me demanded to be examined closely and be archived.  Even then I felt the grip of the archive – gently caressing at first, contracting tighter and tighter around my throat as time went on.  Back then, in the early eighties, I amounted to nothing more than a “coat rack” that had been left in the right place at the right time. All kinds of materials made their way to me – for instance, when artists left the country and passed everything they had on to their friends and acquaintances. Back then, one emigrated forever, entering the new world free of all material possessions, casting off one’s garments, as it were – and not of one’s own volition. This is how I became the “receptacle” for the works of several Moscow artists, including those of Viktor Skersis, with whom I had co-founded the SZ Group in 1980. Among which was the “Musical Instruments” series – fanciful shapes cut out of regular paper that one was meant to blow at. Another series (144 sheets) was called “A Model of Art;” onto which Viktor drew and wrote something, restricting himself in time (five minutes) and form.  Later, when he was already in New York, Viktor gave me these and other works as presents.

Even as I developed this “coat-rack passivity”, I was also beginning to take an active interest in the tradition of unofficial art that had come into being by the early eighties; I was primarily interested in the system of linguistic codes and hierarchies of “the Moscow Underground consciousness.”  It was at this point – for the first time, perhaps – that intra-group relationships themselves came to be viewed as appropriate subject matter for artistic projects (many of Yuri Albert’s works explore this theme).  In 1982 I conducted a survey.  Along with the conventional questions such as “Do you find an affinity between the creative output of so-and-so and your own work?”, there was also a request that sounded like a provocation:  to evaluate the work of the artist in question on a five-point scale.  Naturally, many artists declined, outraged by the suggestion.  Yet the materials I collected then are of exceptional interest today.

My 1983 piece “Inscriptions Upon a Hand,” or, as it came to be called later, “I Acquired Enemies,” was the product of a similar, actively provocative examination of the world that surrounded me.  This project, unfortunately, for many years ruined my relationship with certain artists of the older generation.  The piece evoked the hackneyed title of the notorious 1912 artistic manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.”  It contained both an “insult” and at the same time a “slap” in my own face, which was in fact the key to understanding the authorial stance.  I attempted to imagine the tiny underground milieu as the Establishment.

Also in 1983, Georgy Kizevalter and I put together a book entitled “At the Workshops” (12 copies).  It, too, was motivated by an attempt to come to terms, visually, with the scope of artistic challenges offered by the Moscow artists of the early eighties.  But this book provided the KGB with its final pretext, I think, for invading the affairs of non-official art.  A campaign against the artists who participated in the project began, and an article entitled “Fish in Muddy Waters” appeared in the bi-weekly newspaper Soviet Culture.  But ultimately it all calmed down.  Different times were on their way and the KGB, I think, was already getting ready for perestroika. 

Those were the earliest works in which I directly engaged the language, the methods, and the traditions of the MANI circle.  It now seems that they gradually developed into the publishing and archiving activities of the nineties after I began working abroad.

Since the late seventies, my generation had been gradually rising to the appropriate professional level – a process marked by the emergence of the Toadstool (‘Mukhomor’) Group (Konstantin Zvezdochetov, Sven Gundlach, Sergei and Vladimir Mironenko), Yuri Albert, Nadezhda Stolpovskaya, and, slightly later, Andrei Filippov.  In the early eighties they were joined by a number of talented artists from Odessa:  Sergei Anufriev, Yuri Leiderman, Larisa Rezun, the Peppers (‘Pertsy’) Group.  Meanwhile artists of the older generation were busy working away; among these were Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov, Komar and Melamid (who even managed to emigrate to the US in ’77), Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vasilyev, Ivan Chuikov, Francisco Infante, the Collective Actions Group and the Nest (‘Gnezdo’) Group (Donskoy, Roshal, Skersis; the group received this appellation in the West for the piece they contributed to the infamous VDNKh show), – and many other wonderful artists.

And yet there was no market for contemporary art.  The going rate – even for the works of some older-generation artists – was hardly more that two to three months’ average salary, I think.  The buyers were mainly diplomats, and, naturally, the prices were negotiated anew in each particular case.  As a night watchman I made 72 rubles a month; later, as an art editor at Mir Publishers – 120 rubles.  “Selling” was never an issue for my generation before perestroika.  Even though there actually were auctions – a couple of them, I think – set up in private apartments.  Before Nikita Alekseev’s departure for Paris in 1986, for instance, an auction was held at his workshop in Furmanny Lane.  I bought two pieces at that auction, and one of them is on exhibit at the Kupferstichkabinett – “A Brief History of Contemporary Art, or The Life and Death of the Black Square.”  The size of this piece is 100x3600 cm.  I paid the “enormous sum” of 50 rubles for it (remember to take into account the monthly salary).  After the auction Nikita came up to me, baffled, and said:  “You’re crazy, I would have given it to you anyway – as a gift.”  I bought Konstantin Zvezdochetov’s “Istr…” for 25 rubles, I think, – but I received his other works (his best, in my opinion) as gifts:  “Silkography,” “Onto the Train, Proletarians!”, “Gorky Betrayed,” “Queers by the Bolshoi Theater.”  Each time Kostya would eye me (half-pensively, half-sardonically) and say:  “How about I knock off a ruble or so?”  Or else:  “Like this one?  It’s yours!”  In short, most of my collection can be said to have been a gift to me.  People gave me their work in part because they knew that this was the first collection of our generation, a collection put together by an artist.  But this also meant that a bomb with a long fuse was planted under Vadim Zakharov the artist.  As the collection and the archive rapidly gathered momentum, they were also affixing the artist’s feet firmly to the ground – slowly but surely.

Gradually “Collector I” came to be on a par with “Artist I.”  Collecting turned into an obsession.  I began to collect professionally.  I selected.  I begged.  I bought – no matter for how much.

And I always wondered why people with money (there were people with thick wallets back then, too) did not take – not even for free! – the works that without any doubt marked an important stage in the development of the Moscow art scene.  In the late eighties Andrei Reuter and Sergei Volkov gave me a few of their paintings as gifts.  After his first exhibition at the Avant-Garde Club, Yuri Leiderman took two large series (“Felenidka” and “Luk’ianchik”) off the wall and gave them to me.  As for the works of the World Champions Group that appeared at the dawn of perestroika – I “purchased” them for amounts which I am embarrassed to disclose here.

The artists did the collecting; there simply existed no other institutions for this purpose.  Many artists preserved unique works, texts, objects.  Collecting and archiving became one of the characteristic traits of the time.  It is not an accident, after all, that the title The MANI Files (The Moscow Archive of New Art, 1980-1982), and later the unofficial appellation “The MANI Group Artists,” placed its accent on an archive rather than on a manifesto.  The archive triumphed (and is this not, perhaps, one of the problems of contemporary Russian art?!).

This seems a good point at which to segue from the archive to the publications.  The MANI Files became the first important collective publication, even though only five copies of it were ever printed.  The distribution method was fairly primitive:  after familiarizing himself with the contents of a particular File, one artist passed the publication on to another.  The best artists and poets of the Moscow Underground movement took part in this unique publication.  The initial idea for this project originated with Andrei Monastyrsky.  Later Andrei continued to bring out the publication under a different title – as The MANI Collections.  He became the sole editor and set the tone for every issue.  It was also important that so many Moscow artists earned their keep in publishing houses as book illustrators and designers:  they simultaneously used the stylistics of book design in their experimental work (incidentally, this is the theme of Issue 3 of the journal Pastor). 

In 1988 the artist Nikolai Panitkov organized the MANI Museum, which served as a receptacle for important works of artists from different generations.  It is important that the original idea for this once again came from an artist.  All of the Museum’s holdings were gifts from the authors.  The collection was exhibited in Frankfurt in 1991 at the Carmelite monastery. But this same collection slowly began to incline Panitkov the artist towards collecting.

When interest from the West materialized at the beginning of perestroika, there was a demand for artists, not for archives and collections, which as yet had no price.  The Archive ceded ground to the Artist, but not for long.

In speaking at such length about the situation of the eighties, I am of course trying to illuminate the causes for my personal interests.  In any case, in this exhibition I represent the different techniques of Moscow Conceptualism to various degrees. 

I act as a collector, archivist, publisher and artist.  Such “many-handedness” could be called “the Shiva method”; and this is one of the central principles of Moscow conceptual art.  Practically all artists in this movement actively combine literary, archival, artistic and performance activities.  It is interesting that now, even though times have changed, even though the political and cultural situation is more open, and even though there have been numerous publications in Russia and in the West, it is somehow important for the artists of Moscow Conceptualism to keep holding back (with all eight hands, as it were) the materials that have accumulated over the past thirty years in what is essentially the semi-private sphere.  And this is not only a case of the state marginalizing the artists, nor the putative absence of technological means to publish, nor the lack of

a decent economic infrastructure.

From 1989 on I have been collecting material in my archive on the activities of Moscow conceptualist artists in the West.  Above all I have filmed (unprofessionally, of course) exhibitions, performances, readings.  As of today I have accumulated more than one hundred video pieces on exhibitions and performances, as well as joint trips, parties and other “family”-type goings-on.  Once again the archive declared war on me.

My activity as an artist in the West also began in 1989.  The first few years, through to 1992, were a time of experiments, a time when I made hundreds of mistakes. These were caused, first of all, by a fundamental lack of understanding of the Western system of art production – its dynamics, its rhythm. Much has already been said about this.  Many of my friends among the artists (and myself as well) were simply not prepared for it.  Many were broken by this experience, and not because they were mediocre artists, but because they couldn’t deal with the rhythm, and so ended up on the sidelines. 

One of the causes of these personal wrecks is that little if any attention had been paid to the context, the language and the techniques that had been developed by the Moscow Conceptualists over the years. There were hasty attempts to assign us to this or that Western movement, to include us in this or that group of artists. But I am not trying to shift the blame for the problems of Russian artists onto the Western system. Each of us, after all, had in fact been given a unique opportunity.  There was, in effect, an attempt to understand us, but the dialog was not especially productive.  This becomes obvious, I think, from the situation of the principal market – the Western market.

In 1992 I started to publish Pastor – the thematic journal of Moscow Conceptualism.  It appeared largely because of the events I just described.  I decided to go back and try to use that which had been developed and perfected by the Moscow art scene.  Pastor is a journal premised upon the traditions of small-run publications.  And even though it is published in Russian, it has proven to be precisely the kind of an old-yet-new platform that offered support and allowed us to move on to something new.  The choice of the figure of a pastor or a shepherd was justified by the situation by which the Russian artists were scattered all over the world.  The ideological mask of the Pastor succeeded in preserving and concealing behind it the old communal system of relationships among the artists and simultaneously marked the start of a new process of rethinking each artist’s individual position.  I gathered the already familiar authors on the pages of the journal, and also began to involve the artists who had left for the West in the seventies.  Later I expanded my publishing activity and developed the Pastor Zond Editions.  Separate series of publications appeared – “Pastor’s Covers,” “From the Life of the Drenched Old Man,” “The Pastor’s Children’s Library” and others, – on the pages of which many Moscow artists appeared together again.  And, like any publisher, I started to receive materials, letters, drawings, which were incorporated into the archive and the collection.  From 1992 on a “publisher’s archive” began to come together on its own (the collector, the publisher and the artist now stood face to face).  None of the authors really needed the traditional disclaimer “Any materials received by the publisher will not be returned.”  The authors gave their drawings as gifts and never asked for them back.  Dmitry Aleksandrovich Prigov, for instance, who made fifteen drawings for the “Children’s Library” publication on my request, gave them to me as a present despite my insistent attempts to return them.  Sergei Anufriev and Pavel Pepperstein gave me their books, drawings, and poems, invariably with a smile of delight.  My latest acquisitions include generous gifts from Yuri Albert, Larisa Rezun, Andrei Monastyrsky, Ivan Chuikov and Viktor Pivovarov.

The combination of an archive, a collection and a publishing house, even one as tiny as mine, naturally attracts more and more attention insofar as it transgresses the limitations of a private collection. After all, now we are talking about some kind of purposeful activity, with definite goals, a style of its own, even a set of ambitions (the ambitions of the artist, above all).  And here is where we get problems, large and small, which, as an artist, I encounter every day.

Earlier I brought up the problem of being unfamiliar with the context. That problem comes to the fore when we are talking about a comprehensive, all-encompassing approach rather than about evaluating a particular work of art.  It is important that the question “Who needs all of this?” is not suspended perpetually in the background.  Other questions also arise – they are provoked by a narrow-minded critical perspective and a lack of understanding of the economic side of things: “Why should an artist occupy himself with something that’s really none of his business; wouldn’t it be better if he was professionally preoccupied with his own work?” or “Who pays for all these activities?,” or more to the point, “What kind of an idiot are you to be paying for all of this out of your own pocket?!”

To my great regret, I have yet to discover a way other than being a complete idiot and paying with my own time and money.  This is perhaps because I am preoccupied, above all, with what I am most directly interested in.  I do not need compassion or pity.  I am fully responsible for my own foolishness and my empty pockets. My ambitions as an artist are equal to the greed of the collector, the bureaucratic impulse of the archivist and the poise of a publisher.  The archive, the collection and the publishing house are not, in my case, a complement or an imitation of the artistic gesture, as is often the case when an artist invents fictitious publications, companies or museums; or when he uses fanciful backdrops to stage yet another segment of his invented “history” as an artist.  My case is just the opposite – it is hyper-reality in which nothing has been invented (other than, naturally, the artist Vadim Zakharov).  Everything in it is bona fide – the archive is an archive, and the publishing house puts out real books, albeit with a tiny print run.  True, I incorporate the archive and the publishing house into my installations, I use their status as the Other to emphasize and underline a particular concept of mine; but I never forget that with them as background the gesture itself sometimes acquires the status of the Other.  In such a situation one always needs to find a balance and to devise a survival strategy.  And this is where I see my individuality and uniqueness – I do not know who will survive.  I juggle dangerous objects which could hurt or destroy me if I stumble:  they could, for example, turn my entire activity as an artist into archival dust, and me into a petty Chekhovian civil servant, who leaves behind him nothing but stacks of neatly sorted papers.  Let us not forget that any archive, any collection, sooner or later buries the collector underneath itself as it grows.  The archive is a hit man.  The collection is a pickpocket.  The publishing house is a funeral home.  The artist is always the victim.  But sometimes the victim kills the Archive.  I did this once, using an Austrian policeman as my instrument.  In 1997, in Graz, a “single-point archive” – Proust’s Madeleine cookie – was exterminated by means of a single shot from an optical rifle aimed from the attic of a neighboring house. At other points the “pickpocket” takes over the dominant position in this endless juggling and exhibits the “loot” – not just anywhere but at the Kupferstichkabinett, alongside Botticelli, Dürer, Rembrandt, and other great “actors” of history and culture.

Is it not this very absurd predicament that we call “art”, and is it not this very circus that we hurry to see, elbowing each other out of the way in the process?  If this is indeed the case, I have ensured my own future.  Everything cannot be wiped out completely.  Either the archive or the collection, or the editions, or the artist will keep hanging onto the coat rack of history – somehow, somewhere.  I cannot be stamped out by lack of interest, nor by lack of money.  In my folly I am eternal.