|A microcosmos of creative energy |
Elīna Dūce, Visual Arts Theorist
Art Festival Cēsis 2011
|I do like watching how children busy themselves with some contraption, something that they are able to see in a new light and make into the Big Thing of the moment with real delight. The thing itself is not the most important, but it is rather the pulsating energy which stems from the necessity to create, because five minutes later the child is somewhere else and constructing a new thing, another space, another world.|
Culture and art provide similar feelings to that restlessness inside and the urge to create – a need for playfulness, unusual combinations, solutions, a little bit of mischievousness. And this can always be experienced at the Cēsis Art Festival, which just took place for the fifth year in a row.
The music of Sofia Gubaidulina and Erik Satie, a film by René Clair L’Entr’acte (1924) starring “actors” such as Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Man Ray, the anti-Cage symphony on the roof of the Cēsis Old Brewery, with Rubik Mad Dog as the DJ (famous for putting on the first Russian rave parties) – these were the warm-up events on the opening day. This last act called for a paraphrase of the creative discussion that took shape earlier in the day: where there is excellence, there are experiments. Or the other way round.
This time the usual energy and vitality of the visual arts at the Cēsis Art Festival was rather subdued in the exhibition of works by Baltic artists.¹ It couldn’t be said that it was because some of the works had already been seen in Riga (the paintings of Jonas Gasiūnas, for example, were displayed in a much more appropriate space here), but the overall impression did not meet the expectations of what one might want to see in a contemporary art show of this scale.
All of the hubbub centred around the granary of Cēsis castle, which was the home of the installation Kas man ko slēpt, sēžot vienam rožu dārzā (‘What do I have to hide, sitting alone in a rose garden’) by Sarmīte Māliņa and Kristaps Kalns and the multimedia project Džons Miltons Keidžs Krievijā un pasaulē (‘John Milton Cage in Russia and The World’) by a team of authors led by Sergei Bugayev aka Africa. And not for nothing.
View of the multimedia exposition 'John Milton Cage in Russia and Worldwide', Cēsis Art Festival. 2011
|Sergei Bugayev Africa (born 1966) is known in the West as the grand-master of Russian contemporary art who works with installations and performance, while the art elite of Russia knows of him as a man without confines, because it would almost be easier to write what he has not done in his CV.|
Africa (the nickname was given to him by his friend Boris Grebenshchikov) reached the zenith of his fame after his portrayal of Bananan in the perestroika generation cult film Assa (1987). While in the USA, he worked as a designer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In 1999, together with Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who were also living in the USA, he represented Russia in the 48th Biennale of Venice. Today Africa, one of the grooviest underground artists of St. Petersburg in the 1980s and whose zeal is said to be comparable to the work of Kazimir Malevich in the field of avant-garde, is a passionate promoter of contemporary art.
Sergei Bugayev Africa once revealed to a Russian newspaper that Timur Novikov was the one who had got him used to the creative process and forced him to create art. And that was when he realized that “the main thing in art is not what you create, but the lifestyle you have”². He has been crossbreeding cats for 15 years now: the hairless sphynx with the Russian blue (resulting in fon-rex, which brings people luck), believes in science and says that “art can and it must awaken in the human being a new level of sensitivity”³.
Africa had brought with him to the Cēsis festival a new work; its origins can be traced to 1988, when John Cage came to St. Petersburg and, due to an unbelievably lucky concidence, they (Africa, Timur Novikov and Sergey Kurehin) were able to spend time with Cage in an unofficial atmosphere. That’s
when the performance Water Symphony took place as a symbolic act of the merging of cultures, where they poured tap water from Smirnoff (capitalist) un Stolichnaya (Soviet) bottles into one enormous transparent bottle without any label at all.
Sergei Bugayev Africa tells the story: Everything we put on show at Cēsis was related to our meeting with John Cage.
The project united together several people who knew John Cage, or had been friends with him and had worked with him, and these are people who follow the approach of John Cage and not Andy Warhol in contemporary art. If we take a good look at the contemporary art of the second half of the 20th century, we will see that Andy Warhol obviously achieved global victory, but to me, to continue with the ideas of John Cage seems so much more of a stable path. These ideas are connected not only with contemporary art, but also with theology and research into the supernatural manifestation of God as perceived by the human being. That is why, in this exhibition, we tried to gather together people who think along similar lines.
One of the participants of the exhibition was Dove Bradshaw, who worked with John Cage for almost 30 years. She sent a work from long ago – a portrait of Marcel Duchamp, which she had printed in the format of a postage stamp, glued it to an envelope and sent to Russia. This illegal stamp, without any nominal value, went through the postal systems of two countries. Even more so, these mechanisms of the USA and Russia which we call post offices accepted the stamp as real.
In contemporary art everything slots into a system of various levels of sensitivity. In this concrete case, the system in place for the exhibition united people who are linked by an uninterrupted line, a single tradition which has stood the test of time: these are artists from Duchamp to Bradsaw, Bill Anastasi, Dimo or Dmitry Gelfand and Evelina Domnitch. And I am interested in things which can last longer than a human lifetime – what I mean is that here we have the level of perception that is characteristic of the people of Tibet, for example. Their archaic and ancient system is based on continuity, where the pupil carries out what the master has started. That is how rebirth takes place. And Cage is important in the sense that he enlivened the somewhat banal and dry tradition of Western art by bringing in a few elements of Buddhism.
I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of communication with John Cage, so I can compare him with others. He had the right attitude towards the objective reality that surrounds us. He tried to live according to the system of macrobiotics, which follows the slogan familiar to all those who do yoga: we are what we eat and see. Cage promoted certain eating habits as a matter of principle. We all are within a closed cycle of cosmological processes, that is, in the space of the planet Earth, where, given that the breathing and food is correct, the thoughts also will become correct.
We could, of course, compare John Cage with his friend Robert Rauschenberg. They were two completely different people: one of them a terrible drunkard and vagabond, and the other– almost a religious fanatic. And it turns out that the drunkard lived five years longer than the one who had maintained a healthy lifestyle. But that is no argument, because what is really important is how those years were spent. Now we turn our attention to the texts and music of Cage, because that is a tradition which will definitely attain its logical development. If at present an uncomplicated perception of contemporary art has taken hold of the planet, connected with the totalitarian victory of the American machine with its main symbol Andy Warhol, it does not mean that the other part of the mechanism, which is connected with John Cage, will not dominate in, let’s say, fifty or a hundred years.
I am attracted to the way of thinking and the artistic principles that operate in the American avantgarde superproject – the Merce Cunnigham Dance Company. They introduced the public to the most up-to-date choreography, music and visual arts, and on the stage they always merged several dance styles, if not in a spontaneous improvisation, then certainly in quite free interaction. Those dancing on stage didn’t know what the set design or the music would be, because the composer, the costume designer and everybody else who was involved in the performance all worked separately. This is one of the principles of avant-garde which I think leads us towards an understanding of the avant-garde. And this is one of the aspects of artistic creativity that I am interested in, that is, things which have not been previously realized and not always clearly formulated or possible to comprehend 100 percent, because something that can be easily understood and is accessible refers if not exactly to design then definitely to a finished product.
View of the multimedia exposition 'John Milton Cage in Russia and Worldwide', Cēsis Art Festival. 2011
|The Institute of the New Human Being|
Olesja Turkina and I are working at the School of Curators, which is a department of the Institute of the New Human Being. This is a specific structure which works with people who already have obtained higher education in culture or art and who want to expand their knowledge. This is because we are confronted with the problem that not everyone has a clear understanding of what is part of contemporary art and what is not; it is difficult to demonstrate contemporary, future-orientated thinking with artworks alone.
We have devoted special attention to people who have created influential art institutes without huge investments. One of them is Gerald Matt, the founder of the Vienna Kunstahlle, who illegally placed a Transatlantic container in the centre of Vienna and started organizing exhibitions there. Later on he acquired premises, and today the whole thing is backed by the state.
The biggest problem of contemporary art is its relationship with the traditional museum system. Even though we have a special programme – Contemporary Art – at the city museum, as soon as we start discussing preservation, cataloguing and other systems of adapting contemporary culture in present-day terms, we meet with a range of problems. That is why we place our hopes on our students. Some of them who have been attending out institute for the last two years are already writing their own projects, and one would think that they will find cooperation partners and create alternative venues for contemporary art.
Here once again we can mention John Cage, who was known as a mushroom man (mycologist – E.D.). If a new species of mushrooms were to spring up, you would have to look for them not in a forest, but, for example, among the plates of reinforced concrete. As Viktor Tsoi used to sing: Я сожаю алюминиевые огурцы на брезентовом поле... (‘I am planting aluminium cucumbers in a field of tarpaulin…’). Contemporary art is like a new species of mushroom and at the same time cucumbers, which grow in a different soil, are harvested differently and have to be displayed in a different place and a different way. At the School of Curators we try to find solutions to these issues in a wholistic manner. There have always been alternative institutions, because obviously the Soviet tradition not to resist but to coexist has taken deep roots, and the unofficial art has united us.
Perhaps there is an inner bureaucrat speaking within me, but I have always had an insistent thought that we, a united community of artists that live by the Baltic Sea, should create a platform which would allow the proximate regions to cooperate more intensively. I realize that there is also a political aspect, because nobody really understands who is integrating with whom, who is in NATO and who is not. But if we, the cultural practitioners, are not able to step over these barriers, it will mean that we will be the ones who will lose, and the winners will be those who work on other culture projects. Maybe this is just an illusion – to create a project technically, because if someone were to relate it to the Soviet Union or other forms of cooperation, then this dialogue must stop, and we have to wait for the decisions of our politicians. I am not excited about that, because in my view culture specialists are much more interesting people and they have much more interesting ideas than politicians. Besides, the active life of a politician is unfortunately very short and they will move on elsewhere in a few years time, but an artist is someone who will always be there.
A New Civilization
Avant-garde artists like thinking about the Universe, about the boundaries of the world and intellect and the emergence of the new human being. I am not speaking about the Brain Research Institute in Berlin-Buch, where at the time of Hitler a new man was created by cutting open the skull and inserting electrodes into the brain. We support the creation of a new human being without physical intervention.
Here another question arises – what resources are contemporary artists using for their work? What emotions do they arouse in the viewers? Today, when we live in the age of multimedia technology. A large part of the information that at the moment appears in the field of information, (which, I would like to remind you, was created by Goebbels), does not refer to culture. For example, it is difficult to imagine Cage creating works in order to try to make someone act against their own will. Each of us is a free agent, and having come to an exhibition or concert has the right look, turn around and leave, or the opposite – to spend as much time as we want on things that have aroused our interest. Within the frame of an avant-garde project everyone traditionally tries to implement a new way of thinking, which can be divided into two types of expression. For example, we as Futurists or Dadaists with our declarative expressions can shout that we are about to create a “new human being”. Or otherwise – we can, simply speaking, work with ourselves.
Three or four years ago I was in Daram Island, where I attended a scientific conference on research into the human mind. The differences in approach of the various countries were very obvious – the Japanese, for example, were stimulating the brain with the help of electric shock, the Americans were scanning the brain, and the Russians were drilling through the scalp and doing various manipulations. The most humane approach to the research of human mind is in Tibet, and this is the one that is the closest to me. Other approaches, unfortunately, are based on the wish to touch, to smell, and that cannot justify itself.
A postcard sent by Dove Bradshow to art curator Olesya Turkina. 2006
The nicest thing of all is that in the 20th century the artists have achieved victory. This, precisely, is what explains the repressive attitude on the part of the state; states are afraid of artists. They try to create artists themselves in order to prevent the emergence of artists who they won’t be able to control. But the victory lies in the fact that, thanks to artists, there is a new universe called cyberspace. That is a fully drawn universe. And one of those responsible for the creation of this space is one of the leaders of the avant-garde – Wassily Kandinski. He was the first to create a reality which does not relate to the reality of our existance. And that was the foundation for a new flight of thinking.
The fact that the world was first drawn is also the view of the grand theoretician of contemporary art, Marshall McLuhan. After Nietzsche, who said that God is dead, McLuhan said that God is like a bureau of architects without any form. He is closer to the point of view of the Hindus and the Ancient Greeks, who did not draw the gods together as a uniform substance, but rather as a system of scattered units.
But the idea is that this world in which we live now had already been drawn before, by artists. And today, artists have drawn another world – cyberspace. In other words, artists have ruled this world for ages. Business people think that they own the cyberspace, but we, artists, are convinced that we have drawn this world, just that for the time being business people are making money with it. Unfortunately, the issue is that all the resources that exist in our usual reality are brought into cyberspace, hence an unavoidable revolution is brewing there. And this is all because creative people, who once upon a time created cyberspace, are dissatisfied that the world created by them has turned into the same kind of meat-grinding machine that is our daily reality, where some individuals exploit others, where some individuals and countries increase their wealth at the cost of the freedom, sweat and blood of others.
Artists have long dreamed about an ideal world. Such dreams were drawn by Henri Matisse in his La Danse, where naked people are holding hands, dancing, getting joy and satisfaction from the dance. And taking into account that nowadays instead of dancing we get the grinding of meat, culture workers have to take a much harder line and endeavour to make their thoughts and ideas heard.
/Translator into English: Vita Limanoviča/
1 The participants of the exhibition Interstice were: the Anna Varna group of artists (Aigars Bikše, Liene Mackus, Māris Bērziņš), Māra Brašmane, Ivars Drulle, Jonas Gasiūnas, Helēna Heinrihsone, Reinis Hofmanis, Flo Kasearu, Tõnis Saadoja and Alnis Stakle; curator – Inese Baranovska.
2 www.lookatme.ru/flow/posts/art-radar/40343-sergey-bugaev-afrika. Published 28.09.2008.
3 Elena Kutlovskaya. ‘Changes, we are waiting for the changes…’. Независимая газета, 18 July 2008.