A section of the exhibition showcasing the examples of productive absence and elimination of the author’s position in art.
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?
We tend to assume an artwork to have one or several authors, we expect that it is signed by someone. Today, attribution is one of the most important aspects of the museum business, used to determine a work’s value, meaning, and context. This said, throughout the twentieth century, theorists and critics have repeatedly demanded that the reign of the author be brought to an end in order to make way for the reader or viewer. The author is simply a function, and not a universal one at that: the absence of the author figure only raises questions in literature and art, while in scientific works, for example, the figure is not so crucial. The figure of the author is inextricably tied up with concepts of authenticity and distinctive style, of ownership and individuality.
Since the 1960s, many contemporary artists have sought to break the firm ties between a work and its author. In doing so, they have challenged ownership, and as it were appropriated works. This practice became known as “appropriation art, ” and involved the deliberate reproduction of existing works under different names— copying was not only unconcealed, but prominently displayed. The original author ceased to dictate the way in which their work was interpreted, while the “appropriation artists, ” who refused to take responsibility for any formal, conceptual, or figurative decisions besides the appropriation, rejected the pronouncement of art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001) that everything we see in an artwork is a product of the will of its author.
The appropriation of ready-made images ultimately showed that originality and innovation are not indispensable to a work of art, and further broadened our ideas of what can be considered art.
The constructive role of elimination and the blurring of the author’s position in art can also be seen in other examples: anonymity and pseudonyms, mystification and fictive collectivism, delegated performance, the use of printers and other technical methods that break the organic connection between brush and canvas. In generative art, the work is wholly or partially created by algorithms or autonomous systems, and creation becomes the product of collaboration with non-human agents (living organisms or neural networks).
The works of Daniel Lefcourt (b. 1975) are not paintings in the traditional sense. His relief works combine painting, digital photography, sculpture, 3D-modelling and found materials, thus deconstructing the process of creating an artistic canvas. The starting point of his Untitled is a random configuration of paint, dust, and debris captured on the macro lens of a digital camera and then transformed into 3D computer models using remote sensing and photogrammetry, before finally being translated into a larger scale, covered with paint, and transferred to canvas. The artist preserves the subtlety and caprice of his material. The resulting objects abolish the opposition between the digital and material, the natural and the technological, the direct and the mediated, the image and the object.
Wade Guyton (b. 1972) is known for his “printed paintings”—canvases passed through large inkjet printers. The artist does not not just delegate creating the work to a machine, but withholds from subsequent interference, leaving occasional errors, displacements, and imperfections untouched. Guyton’s relinquishment of control and of the role of the artist as as sovereign creator allow him not just to re-examine the function of art in an era of image oversaturation, but to reinvent the very language of painting, which no longer comes to life through the hand of its creator, but rather through the whimsical play of coincidence.
The installation Medusa’s Ocean by Alexei Buldakov (b. 1980) is a speculative illustration of a future scenario in which the depletion of natural resources has destroyed biodiversity and disrupted ecological cycles all over the planet. The world ocean has turned sour and been taken over by a symbiosis of bacteria and fungi: a semi-transparent substance, in many ways similar to Medusomyces (kombucha), that has extended its brownish offshoots into the oceanic depths. What is left of the ocean is known as Medusa. Meanwhile, the land has been covered by an extremely poisonous species of hogweed—Hercules (Heracleum militaris). To prevent these two aggressive species from taking over the planet entirely, humanity must learn to live with them, either by submitting to controlled infection or by making acts of sacrifice. These temporary alliances and fragile coalitions are an ambiguous interplay of parasite and host, which may lead to the return of flourishing complexity and diversity of life forms. The work on display, in which the author and the characters change places, can be seen as an act of taming and charming an unruly substance through communication with it.
The project Painting Without Boundaries by the NONSNS group consists of monochrome canvases resembling chroma key—a green background that can be replaced in the editing process—as well as a merch store and TED-style video presentation. Using marketing methods and the figure of the motivational speaker, NONSNS foreground the ironic parallels between the historical avant-garde and today’s Silicon Valley visionaries: “What if anything is art? What if your possibilities are limitless? What if life can be art?” Artists behave like real-world owners of digital monopolies—even if their platform does not make a profit, they show us that anyone can become a full-fledged author, so long as they have a green surface on which to project something on.
The epic digital collages of Natalya Perova (b. 1995) are an attempt to depict a technogenic disaster, a cyborganic dystopia in which humanity has merged into an indivisible whole with electronic gadgets and network algorithms. Using neural networks, the artist shows how this hybrid creates new visual codes, myths, and cosmogonies.
Heidi Schneider is a fictional Austrian author invented by the Moscow artists Irina Petrakova (b. 1980) and Oleg Frolov (b. 1983). Their character came into being in the autumn of 2020, at the height of the pandemic. In the words of her creators, Schneider is “an artist, a figure with obvious human features, if only minimal, and at the same time an agglomeration of mental and logical tools, a useful fiction for solving specific artistic tasks.” However, at a certain moment, the tool begins to rebel against restrictions placed upon it by circumstance. And here the fiction gradually loses not just its credibility, but its anthropomorphic qualities: in the film displayed, the role of the Austrian artist is akin to the impassive gaze of the camera, observing how various performers and machines create works for her. Objects manufactured for the imaginary painter at specialised workshops (ceramic, silk-printing etc.) are sealed in time capsules, and the figure of the author finally splits into a series of fragmentary messages.
The photograms of Alexander Yegorov (b. 1987) were created without a camera, by simply exposing light-sensitive paper to light. Photography is usually associated with a certain degree of control and the ability to regulate many subtle parameters, but Yegorov is primarily interested in the unpredictable, the spontaneous, and in trusting his materials. The project takes place in a dark room, where “props” such as a bottle of wine, a laser pointer, and moving crystal glasses are used to refract beams of light, limiting the author’s involvement to the choice of colour solution: one only knows how the photo paper will react to a certain colour, nothing else can be foreseen or calculated beforehand. Yegorov notes his method’s resemblance to raku, the traditional Japanese technique for working with ceramic glaze, in which it is never entirely clear how an item will transform in the oven.
The works of Jan Ginzburg (b. 1988) are the result of scrupulous research into various documents related to lesser-known artists of the Soviet era. With the help of his finds Ginzburg creates dialogues between real-life characters from the history of Russian art and culture, showing how the processes of archiving and classifying visual images affect our perception of them. Fictional archives come to life, images appear in unexpected combinations that see them lose their original meaning.
For A Brief History of Absence, Ginzburg has turned to the legacy of the little-known artist Varis Khasanov (1941-2020). In addition to paintings (mainly landscapes), Khasanov left an extensive body of black and white photographs, roughly painted over with oil. Several hundred eerie portraits of models, acquaintances, or family members of the author have survived; the photographic image in them seems extremely nominal due to the layer of paint. In the series of collages titled Portfolio (2023), Ginzburg reconstructs Khasanov’s workshop, combining materials from his archive (unreadable diary entries, photographs of his mother and of his mother-in-law, artist Olga Sokolova, who worked in Uzbekistan, and of an unknown man, probably serving in the military) with Soviet postcards, as well as objects and fabrics that Ginzburg brought back himself from Tibet: his character, Khasanov, was once greatly impressed by the exhibition Tibetan Art, held in 1986 at the State Hermitage Museum. Ginzburg thus immerses the viewer in the universe of his fellow craftsman—unrecognised, forgotten by everyone, but still existing in his own world of twilight shadows.
The exhibition presents the first ever retrospective overview of the work of the For Anonymous and Free Art group, one the most striking phenomena of Russian counterculture of the 1990s: video, music, theatre, painting, texts, graphic prints—there was no format its members did not work in. Preaching rejection of professional art, DIY principles, impersonality, and material disinterest, members of the movement sought to liberate the creative energy behind the production of any work, to rid it of later impurities brought upon it by institutions, hierarchy, by commerce, the criteria of success, quality, and social approval. As one of the group’s programme texts stated: “In our opinion, any action may be considered creative, if it comes from passion and interest, and any fine art may be mundane and routine if it is created in boredom and out of necessity.”
For Anonymous and Free Art took inspiration from the most varied sources—early Christianity, utopian socialism, Russian avant-garde, French situationism, and Neolithic art—and searched for ways of making art accessible to all and of breaking the real and fictitious barriers hindering the realisation of creative ideas. The outcome of the search was not considered of great importance—a trip from Saint Petersburg to Moscow on the icy runners of a freight train, a punk concert, absurdist broadcasts on central television, or “anarcho-area studies” drifts through industrial zones and abandoned building sites. In 2001, the group announced its dissolution, but the SVOI 2000 association, known for the films Dust and Shapito Show, was formed on its basis. The Day of the Unknown Artist (March 1), invented by the group, reportedly continues to be celebrated by ex-participants to this day. A Brief History of Absence presents rare archival materials, leaflets, texts, and films of the art group.