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Mass Protest against Putin continue… in Venice. The Work of Factory of Found Clothes at the Venice Biennale

One of the pieces from the series Clothes for a demonstration against the false elections of Vladimir Putin, 2011-2015 by Petersburg- and Amsterdam-based artist Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaia (better known as "Gluklya" from Factory of Found Clothes) is a brown coarse woolen dress with a cheap jacket in a lighter brown over it. A large horn, like the one of a rhino, has broken through the dresses fabric and through the zipper of the jacket. The effect is disturbing; this of course is not a whim of fashion, but a vagary of nature. The mutation is also not one of the body but seems to concern the clothes themselves. These man-made objects seemingly become objects of nature. This even more so as these coarse, cheap clothes can most likely be attributed to a certain sociological type, a female pensioner, whose habitual resentfulness against Post-Soviet times and anger about her plight seem to have materialized in this horn.

image1 horn

FFC: Clothes for a Demonstration against the False Elections of Vladimir Putin, 2011-2015, Venice Biennale 2015, Arsenale

Artefacts bearing an apparition of the natural, the animal and the floral, have a recurring presence at this year's Biennale in Venice, curated by Okwui Enwezor. A case in point is the opening room in Arsenale, where Enwezor has combined the Algerian-born artist Adel Abdessemed and Bruce Nauman. Abdessemed's work Nympheas consists of bundles of machetes, converging in the tip and thus mimicking water lilies, which were a favorite subject for Claude Monet's exercises in liberating painting. The effect is beautiful and – with the machetes, of course, referring to Ruanda's genocide – quite disturbing. The walls display Nauman's neon tubes, most memorably Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain, Life (1985), in which the words are arranged in a circle. There seems to be an intimate connection between the world's beauty and the 'unredeemedness' of the people. A well-known passage in Rudyard Kippling's Kim came to my mind here: the hero of the novel, Kim, praises magnificent India: "This is a good land–the land of the South! [...] The air is good; the water is good. Eh?" The holy man, whom the boy is serving, answers: "And they are all bound upon the wheel [...] Bound from life after life. To none of these has the way been shown." Nauman's circular text installation at Arsenale seems to symbolize here the wheel humankind is bound upon.

This naturalizing of humankind's history may also appear to be the flipside of decentralizing the narrative of civilizational progress. Our multicultural world is, of course, endlessly beautiful, as beautiful as the canvases in the Arsenale of the Trinidad-based Young British Artist Chris Ofili, who masterfully combines manifold pictorial strategies, balancing on painting's edge, with the abyss of the ornamental yearning beneath. But as heirs of Hegel and Marx' we feel an anxiety in face of "All the world's futures". And does Enwezor even intend to reassure us when Marx' Capital is read continuously throughout the Biennale in an allusion to the "Akhand path", the ritual reading of the Sikh holy book? (1) Isn't reading Capital as helpless a ritual in face of humanity's incapability of mastering (its) nature as the recitation of any holy text?

Chris Ofili: The Caged Bird's Song (detail), Venice Biennale 2015

Chris Ofili: The Caged Bird's Song, Venice Biennale 2015, Arsenale (detail)

Naturally, Enwezor is at once accused of radical chic and cynicism (2). The only thing his critics have not told us, is how Enwezor was to avoid the "cynical" contradiction between the display of art, reflecting the misery of the world, and the glamorous defilee of art dealers and millionaires. By showing only formalist and decorative art (and let the lobbies of corporate headquarters show the socially engaged art)? Or maybe by at least excluding the participating group Gulf Labor, which during the Biennale has occupied Guggenheim Venice in protest against the exploitation of migrant workers in the construction of Guggenheim's new branch in Abu Dhabi as well as against unpaid and underpaid work at the Biennale, because it must seem even more cynical to do such a thing within the systemic framework? (3) It may prove hard to exit the system, when you are at the top of it, and – maybe I'm being cynical –: it's Venice, the birthplace of capitalism. If art life is not going to present it's decadence here, then where? In Kassel?

According to Enwezor, the "Garden of Disorder" is meant to serve as one of "three intersecting filters" (4) (the others being "Liveness: On Epic Duration" and "Reading Capital") through which the things gathered at the Biennale should be looked at, The "garden" is a rich metaphor. Enwezor points to its origin in Persian antiquity, where it is meant to be "a type of paradise, an enclosed space of tranquility and pleasure" (5). "Exploding gardens" then, first and foremost, lets us contemplate about the strange exhibition grounds of Giardini. This is a confined space with a certain lot of national cultural embassies, its selection being relatively arbitrary. The curator examines its historical evolvement closely, highlighting the historical rapture of fascism, when the exhibition was boycotted by many nations. The Giardini have witnessed catastrophic historic processes: the birth of, the struggle for survival of, the death of empires and nations (the latter being the theme of Ivan Grubanov's work in the Serbian pavilion). The contemporary spreading of pavilions all over the Arsenale grounds and beyond art's territory, over the city center – the garden's "explosion" – "testify to the unquestionable allure of this most anachronistic of exhibition models dedicated to national representation" (6). This curator's statement seems very curious. Can the Biennale's "exhibition model," which is embodied in the pavilions, be anachronistic? Is it not a property of culture as such, unquestionably deserving protection – according to a postmodern logic? And: is national representation really an outdated "exhibition model" or isn't it rather the persisting model of national sovereignty that is outdated given our huge regional refugee crisis, global warming, and multinationals evading taxes? If, as a matter of fact, the political model of the nation has become dysfunctional, then its representation on the Biennale may prove quite adequate and timely; even more so if we consider the fact that there is a "Swatch Pavilion," absurdly disrupting the exhibition model on a logical level. To illustrate the absurdity think of the board game "Risk" – a map of the world, cleanly divided into nations, and yes, quite naturally, there is this one territory, named after the game's sponsor.

In Kantian aesthetics beauty is bound up with the disorderly and the dysfunctional. That's why for the philosopher the 'garden of disorder', the English garden, is beautiful as opposed to the absolutist French model. Freedom of imagination is offended by the absolutist manner of forcing nature into symmetrical and geometrical forms (7). A work of art is beautiful only insofar as it is conceived as a product of free imagination (i.e. not of nature), at the same time bearing the apparition of nature (8). The Biennale thus shows the great potential of our multicultural world for beauty – and what better surrounding than historically soaked, ever-decaying Venice. The flipside, the horror in this state of things can also be explained by alluding to Kant. For Kant there is a reflexive faculty of judgment, which he also treats in the Critique of Judgment. This faculty enables us to think of nature as if it is was arranged according to human needs and ends, and as if history was moving accordingly. This faculty indeed seems to be endangered when times seem critical. Then history appears to be a revolving door. The fate of people is decided in a never-ending round dance of affects. The land is beautiful... but the people are bound upon the wheel.

Bound upon the wheel as the protagonist of Maria Papadimitriou's installation in the Greek Pavilion. In a film-interview the artist has portrayed the owner of an Agrimiká-shop, a place selling animal hides and leather, which she has rebuilt in the inside of the pavilion. The poor old man tells of the grim time of his apprenticeship as a boy, his life's work and his decision to buy the business as his future means of existence. Now nobody will buy animal hides, and the neighbors complain about the stench coming from the place. This shopkeeper was made as useless and outdated by social evolution as the seemingly grotesque animal hides pinned to the walls of the run down Greek Pavilion. Papadimitriou's "contemporary allegory of the dispossessed" (9) is a heartbreaking, subtle and precious commentary about the Greek crisis. It shames the ideological resentment permeating the political debate, prevailing especially in the countries dominated by a neoliberal mindset. Considering the moral rottenness of the EU's handling of the Greek debt crisis, which is after all mainly the outcome of the nationalization of risky foreign loans to Greek banks in response to the financial crisis 2008, we also might begin to wonder, if money coming from Germany's generous state funding of the arts stinks less than corporate money. Would there still be a meaningful symbolic difference if Hito Steyerl's jolly film Factory of the Sun, envisioning a future in which Deutsche Bank kills people with drones, was being shown not in the German Pavilion, but in a "Deutsche Bank Pavilion"? So let's give a shout to Venice: Venice, at least you are far from Frankfurt, and unlike Kassel, you are not located in the federal state of Hesse! (Curator Adam Szymczyk, of course, has adressed Europe's division head on and has promised to split documenta 2017 between Kassel and Athens – and this can be seen in the tradition of Enwezor's spatial expansion of the quinquennial exhibition in plattforms in different cities around the world in 2002).

Maria Papadimitriou: Agrimiká, Venice Biennale 2015

Maria Papadimitriou: Agrimiká, Venice Biennale 2015, Greek Pavilion

So what then is – according to the work of Factory of Found Clothes the state of things in Russia, which is, for all we know, like Greece, another problem case for 'modernization'? A subtle ballet dress refers to a feature of Russian high culture which was held in high regard internationally even during the Cold War; or maybe even especially then, when it was seen as a relic of bourgeois culture, inspiring some kind of confidence that the "Bolsheviks" had preserved the human faculty of holding (feminine) beauty in high regard. But classical ballet also symbolizes an imperial high culture's claim to authority and legitimacy, and moreover discipline, which is in Russia still a more current technique, or source of power (as opposed to self-regulation dominating more 'civilized countries'). The rusty, medieval halberd the white dress is paired with, points this out.

FFC: Clothes for a Demonstration, Venice Biennale 2015

Gluklya has in recent years worked time and again with ballerinas (The Wings of Migrants, Umid and Natasha, Dumped Dreams, all 2012). This preoccupation with dance goes back to the project Utopian Unemployment Union (2009) in Amsterdam, where female alumni of the famous Petersburg Vaganova Ballet Academy and migrants in the Netherlands playfully intervened in the behavioral schemata – the habitus – of their counterparts, which had been shaped by extremely different social circumstances and experiences of power (10). This aspect of the utopian is very important here. While some of the most surreal assemblages, like the one mentioned above with the horn or – another example – a black dress with a bent knee in green tights attached to it's belly (as if it was to give the viewer a blow) are expressing a habitual aggressiveness as an reaction to being at the whim of those in power, there appear social actors who join in the union against unrestrained power. Students demand free education. They unite with pensioners who demand a pension which would enable a dignified living. Workers, represented by a blue boilersuit, ask where the work has gone. There is even a doctor's coat with a comic strip and the catchphrase "Vova won't let himself be treated" (Vova ne lechitsia), protesting against the violent subjugation of patients in psychiatric wards.

FFC: Clothes for a Demonstration, Venice 2015

FFC: Clothes for a Demonstration, Venice Biennale 2015

FFC: Clothes for a Demonstration, Venice Biennale 2015

Even though the above mentioned gestures of habitual resentfulness and distress are somewhat comically called "undetermined positions" by Gluklya – reminding us of the Soviet denunciation of people who have not yet recognized their "true interests", the 'determined positions' are certainly not the effects of a quasi-natural maturing of society in the course of history, as Soviet dialectic materialism wanted to have it (or Neoliberalism, according to which interest follows from particular social identities). The Utopian Union evolves in the space of art, of performance; it is a consciously idealistic and still somewhat naïve antithesis to a natural-cultural catastrophe. The utopian aspect may also be the reason why Gluklya seemingly has tried to bring history to a standstill. "Clothes for a demonstration" has "2011-2015" in the subtitle. The conviction of Pussy Riot 2012 already displayed a social backlash against the opposition movement in Russia. Last's years annexation of Crimea has mobilized large parts of the Russian population; nationalist fervor praises Putin's bold historical move and demands sacrifices in the face of western sanctions. Reading on one of Gluklya's shirts the genius word play of Petersburg poet and activist Pavel Arsenev "Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete" ("You want to represent us? You can't even imagine us"; s. image 7) which gained popularity in the course of the mass protests 2011/12, you might have the gloomy thought, that Putin had a clearer vision for Russia's people than the opposition movement.

FFC: Clothes for a Demonstration, Venice 2015

As her work gives the impression that protests were continuing, Pershina thus has compared her installation with the genre of "mockumentary" (11). At the same time the idealism of the installation may seem haunted to the viewer. Instead of human bodies, wooden sticks present the clothes. Instead of the presence of the human voice, we have labels with writing (Enwezor has wished Natasha to use her hand writing) identifying the participants. Have they slipped out of these clothes, and political subjectivities, to hide in their private realm, or even to become warmongers in Pro-Putin-Demonstrations? There is a ghostly presence to this revolution in the Arsenale, the victory of which was put into question even while it was ongoing. There is a piece of linen beautifully embroidered with a slogan which was originally carried to a anti-vote-rigging-demonstration by FFC in 2012 on a piece of cloth: "Should it really be, that we are like this old rag?" ("Neuzheli my vse kak ėta rvanaia triapochka?") (12).

FFC: Clothes for a Demonstration, Venice Biennale 2015

FFC: Clothes for a Demonstration

This device of "mockumentary" may of course be put into question: shouldn't an engaged artist look the evil, which has come upon us, in the eye and analyze the world more thoroughly? Be it as it may, even the last film by the Chto delat? collective, of which Gluklya is a member, clearly shows the fading of explicative sociological narratives in face of the retrogressive developments in the world. The Excluded: In a Moment of Danger (2014) was produced together with students of Chto delat?'s "School of Engaged Art", and heavily influenced by the collective's new member, the Petersburg choreographer Nina Gasteva. Dance and voice exercises, performed by the students collectively, lend an air of therapy to the project. A rehab for failed activists even. 'Therapy', evoking unknown bodily responses in performance – especially to rid the participant of fear – has been central to FFC's work since Gluklya and Tsaplya jumped into Fontanka-Channel 1995, "In Memory of Poor Liza", one of the defining suicidal woman characters in Russian literature.

In the context of the Biennale the Utopian aspect of Gluklya's work is very important. Even if art – the space, the coordinate system constituted by its most significant and timely positions as well as the art world – should reflect the world's contradictions and tensions, it should not merge with the political and social background, becoming decorum to catastrophe. Pershina's work does not (only) represent a social and cultural context – the "state of things" in Russia. It is rather a hypothetic subcultural space (once physically located as Shop of Found Clothes on Ligovsky boulevard, now residing in an informal network) communicating with the broader context. It is a heterotopia with a special function – a factory, reworking the garment society has shed.

 

Endnotes:

(1) S. Okwui Enwezor: "The Akhand Path: To Read Without Stopping", in: La Biennale di Venezia: 56th International Art Exhibition – All the World's Futures, 210-213.

(2) S. "Wenn Marx zum Künstler wird", at: Zeit Online, 5/31/2015, http://www.zeit.de/2015/20/biennale-venedig-zukuenfte-der-welt [last loaded: 06/12/2015].

(3) "Guggenheim in Venice is Occupied", at: Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, http://gulflabor.org/2015/guggenheim-in-venice-is-occupied/

(4) S. Okwui Enwezor: "Exploding Gardens", in: La Biennale di Venezia: 56th International Art Exhibition – All the World's Futures, 93 f.

(5) Ibidem, 94.

(6) Okwui Enwezor: "All the World's Futures"

(7) Immanuel Kant: Kritik der Urteilskraft, B71.

(8) S. ibidem, B 179 f.

(9) The Biennial Foundation, 02/19/2015, at: http://www.biennialfoundation.org/2015/02/maria-papadimitriou-will-represent-greece-at-56th-venice-biennale-2015/

(10) S. Natalia Pershina/Nelly Podgorskaia: Factory of Found Clothes/FFC. Utopian Unions. Moscow 2014, 64-65.

(11) "Gluklya: Na Biennale khochu sozdat vpechatlenie chto protesty v Rossii prodolzhaiutsia", Interview with Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaia, at: Peterburgskij avangard, http://avangard.rosbalt.ru/texts/2015/05_May/glyuklya.html [last loaded: 6/12/2015]

(12) S. ibidem, 106.

Matthias Meindl
Author: Matthias MeindlWebsite: http://www.slav.uzh.ch/ueberuns/mitarbeitende/litwiss/meindl.htmlCountry: Switzerland
Matthias Meindl (Dr. des.) is currently working in the research project "Literature and Art On Trial", funded by the Swiss National Foundation and based at Zurich University. He is co-editing (together with Prof. Sylvia Sasse) a collection of essays, case studies and documentation on this subject. 2014 he has defended his PhD-theses in Zurich about the Political Positioning of Artists and Writers in Post-Soviet Cultural Space, which he began writing at Center for literary- and Cultural Research in Berlin (until 2011) is. As a translator he is working (together with Prof. Georg Witte, FU-Berlin) on a collection of texts by Moscow poet and activist Kirill Medvedev.

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