Anton Vidokle: This Is Cosmos, 2014, HD video, 31 minutes. 

The exhibition title “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” suggests an angst-ridden premise. But in the hands of curator Boris Groys the proposition turns ambiguous. Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, Germany, has written numerous critical tomes, including The Total Art of Stalinism (1992), Art Power (2008) and Introduction to Antiphilosophy (2012). “Specters,” as conceived by Groys, explores Russian “post-conceptual realism,” an artistic practice in which artists shift attention from isolated art objects and performances to their social and political context. The show, which runs through Mar. 28, takes place at two venues: The James Gallery at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in Midtown and e-flux’s Lower East Side space.

1) It’s safe to say that the artists in your exhibition are both post-Soviet and post-Communist. But I would hesitate to call them postmodern. Would you? Could you discuss e-flux founder Anton Vidokle’s video This Is Cosmos in this respect?

That is a question of definition. This is Cosmos is not about “the cosmos” but about the cosmic dreams and projects of Russian thinkers before and after the October Revolution. They believed in progress, technology and social revolution. And they believed that, eventually, mankind would become immortal and make all of outer space its home. So the video is a piece of memory—memory about certain radical modernist projects that we still experience today as fascinating and motivating. Is such a piece of memory postmodern or neo-modern? To be honest, I do not believe the question of defining these terms important for the contemporary spectator.

2) Please explain Vladimir Putin’s “participation” in “Specters.” Is Putin even aware of the exhibition?

Arseniy Zhilyaev made an installation in which he used copies of publicity images produced by Putin. Zhilyaev interprets these depicted actions, such as finding an antique Greek amphora on the bed of the Black Sea, as artistic performances. Is Putin aware? I do not know.

3) The word “sacrilege” can take on a second life in your writings. Pussy Riot, in their Punk Prayer performance, was attacking not only the Orthodox Christian Church but also the Church’s alliance with Putin’s state. Did Pussy Riot commit a sacrilegious act?

Yes. But the question is: Can art avoid being sacrilegious? I do not think so. Our museums are full of the ritual objects of ancient religions—Egyptian, Greek or Incan. These objects are placed into a secular context. Their sacredness is denied. What is that if not sacrilege? Walter Benjamin spoke of the loss of aura and the substitution of exhibition value for ritual value. But art, as we know it, is not merely a result of the loss of aura. Art is a machine for the destruction of aura—a machine of sacrilege. Art believes that an image is merely an image—a material object having this or that particular form. By its mere existence art denies to images and things their sacral and magic dimension. Art and religion are incompatible—and this incompatibility shows itself from time to time.

4) For example?

As I read reactions to Pussy Riot’s action on the Russian Internet I came across a short text that is relevant here. One woman wrote: “In the museums there are also holy icons, but I do not come to museums to pray. So why does Pussy Riot come to the altar of my church?” She obviously believes that she practices self-censorship and tolerance, respecting the beliefs of the museum visitors, and that the icons there are no longer holy. I think, actually, she gets the point.

5) You have linked Pussy Riot to 1990s Moscow Actionism—an art movement not unfamiliar with sacrilege. Can we position Punk Prayer within the context of the recent gunman assault on the “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” seminar in Copenhagen or the Charlie Hebdo massacre?

Yes. These are events of the same order. Christians, including Orthodox believers, are mostly resigned to the fact that Christian symbols are permanently subject to desecration in the name of art. But there are cultures in which art has not yet taken root. And we should not forget that our culture is not so free from the belief in sacral images and their magic power. Waves of iconoclasm roll continuously over post-Communist Eastern Europe. There are still images that hurt the feelings of believers in Western values.


“Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” is on view at The James Gallery at Graduate Center of the City University of New York and at e-flux through Mar. 28.