As part of Performa 11’s official program, 33 Fragments of Russian Performance (November 2-21, 2011) was a joint project organized by Garage Center for Contemporary Culture and Performa. The exhibition, housed at the Performa Hub on Mott Street in SoHo, offered a foundation for one of the curatorial premises of this year’s biennial, Russian Constructivism. Taking the Russian futurist opera Victory Over the Sun (1913) as its starting point, 33 Fragments traced a fragmented genealogy of performance in Russia through archival documentation of the performances, actions and gestures that have shaped its history.
The show’s opening included an evening performance by Andrey Kuzkin, Natural Phenomenon (2011), in which the naked artist braved the chilly November air to balance upside down in the middle of the school courtyard, his head and torso hid in a trash bin and covered by surrounding foliage. He remained immobile for nearly an hour then proceeded to repeat the action. Personifying a high state of awareness and consciousness, while presenting himself as being inextricably tied to natural, organic forms, Kuzkin’s performance recalled the agendas behind the actions of his Conceptualist predecessors.
After Kuzkin’s performance, attention turned indoors. Set within the contours of the Performa Hub, a former Catholic elementary school, 33 Fragments mirrored its institutional setting unfolding in a typically pedagogic fashion. Photographs, posters, and videos relayed the chronological evolution of Russian performance through a selection of key protagonists and events. The whole was mediated by the abundance of explanatory wall texts that presented each artist and event, positioning them within the cultural and political context of their time.
The installation was roughly presented in two parts, dispersed throughout old classrooms on the third floor. The first was dedicated to the experiments of the historical avant-garde in the fields of visual art, dance, cinema, theater and music. Featuring documentation of works by Mikhail Larionov, Ilya Zdanevich, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Meyerhold and others, its considerations mirrored this generation’s most pressing concerns: A definitive rupture from tradition for the sake of constructing a new future and a new (Soviet) man fit to inhabit it, complete with new forms of art that would accompany it.
The avant-garde’s call to erase the boundaries between art and life momentarily allied with revolutionary Russia’s aesthetic and political aims. Culture became the mouthpiece for political messages and propaganda. It addressed the mass public in an easily digestible (read visual and performative) format: from Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, to ‘living newspaper’ performances by Blue Blouse amateur theater troupes, to the mass sports parades that offered a visual epitome of the state’s idealization of the indestructible Soviet body.
The installation’s second part took up performance’s re-emergence in Russia in the 1970s, tracing performance’s resurgence as an underground movement. Its protean manifestations were grouped in three chronological eras: 1976–87, 1991–98, and 2000–11. The exhibition’s attempt to raise awareness about the breadth of Russian performance, as well as its forms, concerns and sources – resulted in a mixture of representation. Some names included were figures already familiar to non-Russian audiences (Collective Actions, Komar and Melamid, Oleg Kulik) as well as those that haven’t yet achieved the same international status (The Toadstools, German Vinogradov, Liza Morozova, Andrey Kuzkin).
To be sure, the history of Russian performance can’t be neatly divided into two opposing camps. It isn’t simply a question of the historical avant-garde’s utopianism, nor its resulting collusion with state power, pitted against performance as a vehicle for free speech, and dissent during Soviet Communism’s mature period and the slow road to political stability and democracy in the post-Soviet era. 33 Fragments recognizes this thread, and so historicizes instead the avant-garde’s continuing influence on later generations of artists.
Yet it also multiplied the discursive channels linking performance practices from the 1970s onwards. Georgy Litichevsky’s The History of Russian Performance (2008), a canvas sheet of cartoon drawings that wound its way around one of the rooms in the exhibition, offered an alternative, internal dialogue with this rich tradition.
33 Fragments doesn’t claim to cover the entire history of Russian performance. This is a task that is beyond both its scope and intentions. Instead, as the title suggests, it offers selected fragments that can be taken up individually or moved and juggled around to create new constellations in a history that is still in the process of being written.