top of page



Vadim Zakharov

The Archive as Alien


The issue of “the archive and the documentation of exhibitions” is more important than ever. I believe that this has something to do with the fact that today the “exhibition” is understood differently than how it was for the past one hundred years, and that as a result, any discussion of the specifics of archiving will involve issues beyond the collection and preservation of information. Perhaps this is because the exhibition is now no longer the final culmination to which the curator and the artist aspire. Prestigious exhibitions like Documenta or the Venice Biennale are no longer the career pinnacles they were fifteen to twenty years ago. Many have begun to realize that art is not only participation in high-profile exhibitions and affiliation with important galleries, but a complex and dynamic process. To this one may add another important aspect—authoritative forms of documentation and presentation in journals, catalogues, and on television often become more important cultural events than the exhibitions themselves.

The precipitous growth in the number of exhibitions has transformed the dynamics of the international art system into an unstoppable, raging torrent. In response, the functioning of this system is now dependent on whether one or another curator or artist will arrive at a given locale, or whether an exhibition will overlap with the latest Basel art fair, etc. Thus the emphasis is not on the exhibition itself but on the “event,” which, in turn, becomes the focus of various means of documentation and archiving. This unstoppable rhythm transforms the event into an end in itself, thereby also introducing the element of amnesia—there will be no return to the past. The curators and even the artists escape, disappearing from the “scene of the crime,” and instantaneously erasing it from their memory.

The Archive of culture also adjusts to this rhythm. The artist now measures his creative life not by exhibitions but events—hundreds of important and unimportant episodes. The exhibition is now not an accounting of work accomplished, but a commercial. And in this capacity it performs a restructuring (perestroika) role in the system of the Archive—the process of archiving turns on its mechanism of aggression vis-à-vis the material. The Archive becomes the Other—the Alien in relation to itself. It seems as if curators and artists have accidentally switched on the mechanism of the monstrous flywheel of the Archive and then detached themselves from it, naïvely believing that that they could impose anything on it at will. But the Archive is still the absolute master and is very reluctant to countenance ambitions of another order, actively incorporating different methods for the destruction of material, its correction, loss, inundation with secondary information, as well as fires, wars, the actions of madmen, and much more. What remains from many important exhibitions of the past is at best a dozen or so photographs. Today, however, we have a surfeit of information, one that often has a rather distant relationship to culture. The paradox of the Archive of culture lies in the simultaneous unraveling of two mechanisms—the process of archiving and self-liquidation. Today, the emphasis is on erasure and deletion, not only in relation to the growing mass of “garbage,” but also arising from the fact that the Archive’s obligations to the material have partially changed. The Archive is transforming into a labyrinth in the depth of which the meaning of the mainstream is lost. The process of archiving is reaching global proportions, and the network of the labyrinth, increasing geometrically, forms “dead-end paths,” “sites of indifference,” and blind alleys. Herein lies the trap of the Archive as Alien, to which we voluntarily carry information about ourselves.


For more than fifteen years now, I have been diligently gathering materials—photographs, videos, catalogues, booklets, and invitations—on the activities of contemporary Moscow artists. Since 1989, I have collected information on more than one hundred and twenty exhibitions of Russian art in the West. This is unique material, given the fact that it is a record of an important period—Russian culture’s entrance in the West in the years after perestroika. The main question that arises for me is how to preserve all of this material. The first and most natural answer would seem to be to continue collecting the material in the hope that in time Russian culture will develop an interest in itself, and that there will emerge money and people, who will take it upon themselves to process this material. However, as an artist I understand perfectly well the archival tendency toward effacement, so my method (the second way) is based on the active utilization of the material and its implementation in the context of the body of Today. I have in mind that situation in which the archiving and the presentation merge into a single whole—at times becoming unclear where the material ends, and the commentary begins. The collected documents are then shamelessly included in other exhibitions, publications, and installations, once more crossing over into the category of the work of art. Thus a more complex figure of cultural preservation is created. It can be called “a personal, dynamic archive.” Such a non-traditional form is more difficult for the Archive-Alien to digest and hide in the concealed organs of its bloating body. The archivist-artist plays the role of Odysseus in this situation—running from all who attempt to leave him in one or another dead end or descriptive framework. At the same time a mythological narrative fabric is created that removes the real archival materials into the realm of poetry. The Archive of culture always verges on the poetic-mythological. Paradoxically, omissions, inaccuracies, errors, and manipulations, along with the feelings and emotions of those who describe various events, provide the Archive with greater opportunities to preserve its materials.


I peer intently at dozens of photographs I have taken in an attempt to give a complete picture of the events in question: here behind the space should be an important work of an artist, but for some reason it wasn’t photographed, and here the room seems enormous, although in reality it was tiny, and here there’s really something wrong—this work shouldn’t have been in the exhibition. It seems that at the time the photographs were taken, the Archive was already determining how the material would be seen by future generations. Nevertheless, we continue to speak of real events in culture. I look at my shelves where records of hundreds of events are stored, and I proudly and happily believe that this material has been preserved, perhaps not professionally but still purposefully collected, where it will at least remain in the history of Russian culture. But then I realize that within the next ten years not even one half of it will be left if I don’t begin the game with the Archive—spacing out the events, facts, and documents. In this process there’s no hard-and-fast rule for preservation of the material by any means necessary. On the contrary, the storage occurs here as part of the Cultural Scheme. But even here you cannot definitively escape from what we call the “law of natural selection.” It seems that this irrational cultural mechanism, this law, can be overcome through rational, positivistic means. In contrast to earlier times, the implementation of culture begins with the seizure of the Archive of culture. The work of art must first be placed on the prepared shelf and only then prove its superiority and its necessity, and not the other way around. This is the thrust today of contemporary curator-dealer practice. But against the background of a continually accelerating process of self-liquidation this practice is turning into a self-parodying system—an insane tea party in which seats are changed with ever-increasing frequency. It is precisely within this process that artists must re-evaluate their role.

It is incorrect to think that the problems of contemporary art exist nowadays only because of the inflated role of the curator. Artists are only too happy to place their fate in the hands of dealers and use their services, but are extremely displeased when the dealer does not meet their expectations. The artist’s passive role is naturally used against him. At the same time, a “curatorial” crisis arises when much of what was brilliantly prepared to last for eternity begins to fall at an ever-increasing rate from the shelves of the Archive of culture. Thus the Archive itself becomes aggressively unmanageable and turns into a monster—an alien, devouring everything in its path.

The problem is that the artist’s beggarly stance and the curators’ professional orgasm bring about the loss of the poetic and, simultaneously, a lack of accountability in culture, leading to a dry indifference to what was done yesterday. This is why today it’s impossible to collect materials about exhibitions in a senseless, mechanical manner. It is important to be responsible for the quality of the information. In any event, I, as an artist-archivist, can and must, while creating my photo and video archives, be responsible for them if the times demand it, entering into a new, active dialogue with the Archive of culture and offering co-authorial arrangements to curators and dealers. The artist’s personal responsibility, and the curators’ rejection of the positivistic idea of utilizing the Archive of culture as a mechanism for achieving their goals, could become a turning point in the understanding of how and toward what goals we aspire in art, and what will remain after us.



Translated from the original Russian by Daniel Rishik.

bottom of page