The closing part of the exhibition A Brief History of Absence, dedicated to the iconic work of artists Timur Novikov and Ivan Sotnikov, which turned into an incendiary manifesto.
The group exhibition A Brief History of Absence showcases works of art that lack the very thing which, conventionally, ought to allow people to consider them works of art. It could be said that it was in such a gesture of excision that what we now term modern art had its beginnings. The project focuses on various examples of productive absence and elimination. How does a work of art work when it loses its title? What happens to art when it leaves the confines of the exhibition halls? How does the abandonment of the traditional separation between a work of art and its contemplative public open up new horizons of aesthetic experience? Is it possible to add by removing?
On October 12, 1982, Timur Novikov (1958–2002) and Ivan Sotnikov (1961–2015) observed the assembly of an exhibition of non-official artists at the Kirov House of Culture in Leningrad. It was the first officially approved exhibition of the Society for Experimental Fine Arts (TEII), organised by Sergei Kovalsky to unite underground figures.
As the artists had no official status, the House of Culture administration considered the event insignificant, and provided faulty equipment. Novikov and Sotnikov noticed a stand with a neat rectangular hole opposite an idyllic landscape. The artists immediately declared this hole to be a “Zero object, ” and the rest of the exhibition merely a decorative frame for what they believed to be the only true artwork. A scandal erupted, Novikov and Sotnikov were banned from the exhibition, and the organisers soon hung an explanatory sign next to the hole “This is NOT a work of art.” Naturally, this only increased public interest.
The story continued: Timur Novikov assembled an entire Chronicle of the “Zero object”—a series of documents parodying the descriptions of artworks and cultural events accepted among the creative nomenclature. He then organised the Chief Directorate of Zero Culture—an imaginary organisation announcing in its first decree of October 14, 1982 that “Everything is Permitted.” On October 22, Novikov and Sotnikov, armed with a frame for a narrow slide, went to the Hermitage to disseminate the “Zero object” revolution in the country’s main art museum.
The very idea of the “Zero object” goes back to the nihilistic experiments of the Futurists and Dadaists—authors who at the beginning of the twentieth century used absurdist gestures to revise the nature of art, fundamentally changing the artistic landscape.
Novikov’s and Sotnikov’s revolutionary gesture proved to be just as vivid: they once again cast doubt on the very definition of the artistic work. But in the late Soviet Union, where two artistic scenes, official and non-official, existed side by side, an ongoing action that gave rise to a number of later events and gathered numerous supporters inevitably acquired the status of a political gesture. The “Zero object” turned into an incendiary manifesto with an unambiguous appeal to review the current situation, and not just in the sphere of cultural production.