The following article was published in N-SPHERE August 2010 issue.


Positioning themselves almost in competition with the Soviet totalitarian project of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Russian artist duo, Komar&Melamid, have tackled since the ‘70s virtually every possible issue one could imagine incorporated in the field of art, from the relationship between art and power and the evolution of art history, to inquiries into ecology, spirituality and politics. No stone was left unturned in their incessant process of dissecting and refashioning human experience, much like the Stalinist regime that attempted a total (hence, a totalitarian) organization of life. The only difference was that Komar&Melamid were perfectly aware of the lack of innocence this artistic project implies and were no strangers to irony or self–criticism, unlike their fellow artists of the radical Russian avant–garde of the ‘20s. The result was the “ironical iconoclasm” of Sots Art, a movement that recycled Socialist Realism, exposing the incongruities of propaganda and utopian thinking. Usually compared to pop art because of its appropriation of seemingly kitsch imagery, the purpose of Sots Art was not an assertion of critical distance and a rejection of power (as pop art satirized mass culture and the all–powerful market), but precisely an understanding of the tight relationship between politics and artistic practice, bound together by their similar will to power. Moreover, as Vitaly Komar admits, they “dreamed of making symbols that united heraldry and mandalas, irony and spirituality”. According to Boris Groys, Komar&Melamid wish to reveal the internal affiliations of contemporary myths, whether historical, artistic or religious. The duo pursued an almost structuralist endeavor of myth analysis, in the vein of Lévi–Strauss, that was concerned with identifying the underlying patterns of mythological thinking. Komar&Melamid selected bits and pieces of cultural production, demystifying and re–mystifying them, not dissimilar to another major theorist of contemporary myths, Roland Barthes. A holy trinity of Stalin, E.T. and Hitler appears in the painting Yalta Conference (From a History Textbook, 1984), referring both to the famous group photo of Roosevelt, Churchill and the Soviet leader as well as a family picture of Komar’s own, thus tracing the lines between personal and global history.

But what was the source of this undertaking, what was the moment to which Komar&Melamid related themselves? Born and raised in the Soviet Union, the artists experienced the aftermath of an utopian frenzy of unprecedented scale in world history. Starting off with the October Revolution of 1917, Russia witnessed a tumultuous reorganization of life. The civil war, the New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin, followed by the process of collectivization and industrialization initiated during Stalin’s regime, produced massive changes in Russian society. This was also the time of radical avant–garde, such as constructivism that proposed a total art in the service of revolution. During the ‘20s, the relationship between the communist regime and the avant–garde was that of fruitful collaboration, the artists being convinced that they are the engineers of a new visual grammar for a new society. But since both sides wanted complete control and autonomy in realizing their revolutionary projects, the avant–garde soon fell from grace, only to be replaced by Socialist Realism. Described as an art “realistic in form and socialist in content”, the style was declared in 1934 as mandatory at the first Congress of Writers Union, consequently being imposed to visual arts too. Aided by the fact that previously, in 1923, a decree was issued, stating that all artists should be organized in creative unions controlled by the communist party, Socialist Realism quickly became the only accepted style of cultural production. Its purpose was to educate and inspire the masses in their revolutionary struggle and therefore it employed a simplistic and traditional aesthetic, coupled with a pronounced didactic character.

Then, the fifties brought significant changes, initiated by Stalin’s death in 1953. A general thaw was observed all across the Eastern Bloc, along with the emergence of an unofficial, yet tolerated art, mainly focused on formalist explorations of the modernist aesthetic. The communist regime adopted a conservative and nationalistic attitude, culture was de–Stalinized and the official ideology of Marxism–Leninism was reinterpreted. Artists were now free to follow their individualistic fantasies of aesthetic autonomy, as long as they were politically disengaged. But Komar&Melamid understood that beyond the supposedly innocent façade of abstraction lied a will to power reminiscent of previous political utopias.

This is why in 1972 they founded the Sots Art movement, now a more encompassing term used to describe an artistic direction. One year later, they were painting deteriorated copies of 20th century art masterpieces, including works by Warhol or Liechtenstein, as if salvaged from an armed conflict, severe fire or archaeological excavation. A comment on the religion of modern art or the transient nature of culture? Nonetheless, Komar&Melamid’s work was not favored by authorities, and in 1974, one of the exhibitions in which they participated was shut down with the help of bulldozers and water canons, in the lighthearted fashion typical of repressive systems. During the same period, they investigated notions of biography and art history, by creating fictitious characters. One was Nikolay Buchumov, a one–eyed 20th century artist whose nose would appear in the left corner of every painting and the other was Apelles Zyablov, an 18th century abstract painter. By constructing an entire archive for these two artists, Komar&Melamid also parodied the style of Soviet historical writing, concerned with highlighting the cultural superiority of the USSR.

In 1973, they are excluded from the youth section of the Artists Union. Komar&Melamid decide to emigrate, but their request is refused. As a response, they create the Trans–State, complete with a declaration of independence, constitution and passports. Finally, they are allowed to immigrate to Israel, where they publish a bible with an added section of Russian exodus. Here, in Israel, is where they first start creating artworks in collaboration with animals, a constant interest of Komar&Melamid. Next year, they move to New York, where they still live. The western art world welcomes them as dissidents and they quickly integrate. One of their famous actions, during which they established a corporation for buying and selling souls, was advertised in Times Square, thanks to the support of the Public Art Fund. Being also the first Russian artists to receive funds from the National Endowment for Arts and to be invited at Documenta (one of the most important exhibitions of contemporary art, that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany), Komar&Melamid found a haven for their art. In spite of that, they express nostalgia towards the nonconformist art of their youth, adding that “both in Russia and in the West, we have gained much, but have forgotten much too”. Will their recent explorations of spirituality be able to revive lost memories?

Artwork: Vitaly Komar. Stalin Contemplating the Bust of Marx. Courtesy of the artist

by Simina Neagu

Full article here.