A selection of works whose authors question what it means to be a viewer, and consider how this role might be redefined.
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?
It was in the second half of the twentieth century that artists attempted to abolish the division between the artist and the viewer, involving the public in artistic gesture. As for Russia, in the late Soviet period, when the art market did not yet exist and the majority of associations had no formal status, viewers combined the role of guest at an apartment exhibition, participant in an event, ally and partner involved in discussing works by friends or Western news, and other forms of cultural exchange. Strictly speaking, the figure of the viewer in its traditional, nineteenth century sense suggests strict relations set by institutional frameworks.
In the 1990s, with the globalisation of the art system and the growing criticism of that globalisation, the viewer ceased to be a passive witness or addressee of known meanings, becoming instead a collaborator, partner, even protagonist in the artwork. Interactive and participatory art flourished. A purely aesthetic approach to art was replaced by situations that required the viewer to adopt an ethical stance, to become aware of their own subjectivity, and to integrate into the communities that formed around particular artworks or projects. This, in turn, led to a reconsideration and rehabilitation of the viewer’s position: in The Emancipated Spectator (2008), Jacques Rancière declared viewing an artistic action in its own right—comparing, juxtaposing, understanding, and actively interpreting what is seen transforms both the artwork and the relations between the artist (director) and spectator.
The idea of the performance Save My Soul came to Yelena Kovylina (b. 1971) on a train to the International Forum of Contemporary Art in Sochi in 2000. The artist decided to repeat the adventure of the Swiss Dadaist poet Arthur Cravan (1887–1918), who had set out on a rickety boat from the shore of Mexico to Chile (he lacked the papers for a safer voyage) and vanished without trace. On the day of the performance, Kovylina rented a boat and went out into the open sea, rowing with all her might and occasionally signalling ‘SOS’ with red flags to observers ashore. The coast guard, noticing something was amiss, forced idle viewers of the performance to become rescuers, take catamarans, and follow the artist, who by that time had almost vanished beyond the horizon. Later, Kovylina recalled that the viewers had been unwilling to get involved. “I don’t blame them—an artist must take responsibility for their public actions, even at the price of their own life, if the concept requires it.”
In the film The Private Life of Igor Nikolaevich (2020) by Slava Fyodorov (b. 1991), the main character works as a security guard at a housing office. On the surveillance tape recording, he notices a red glow in one of the rooms. He assures himself that there is no one there, but the glow remains, and he begins to investigate the sources of this “malfunction.” In parallel to the investigation, the private life of the character unfolds, consisting of numerous minor events, such as a film audition. Different dimensions of life are intertwined to the point of indistinguishability and the guard’s gaze ultimately becomes the object of our observation.
In the performance 10,000 Steps (1980), Nikita Alexeev (1953–2021) walked from the Kalistovo train station to the Radonezh village in the Moscow region. Every thousand steps, Alexeev stopped, photographed his surroundings and made two notes: one in an exercise book, the other on a paper card which he left lying in the snow. The combination of the formal scheme (counting the exact number of steps, the precisely recorded algorithm of actions) and the physical strain of walking (exacerbated by the snowy landscape and the amount of red wine he drank) allowed Alexeev to convey “the experience of a journey in its pure form.” In the notes left after the performance, the motive of constant movement, displacement, and a homeless life (“Just don’t stop, don’t put down roots, don’t build your own personal canon”) harmonise with thoughts from his Speech performance of the same year, which addressed the “total social unconditionedness” of the circle of Soviet conceptual artists who had freed themselves from the pressure of society.
The Collective Actions art group made field performances from the late 1970s: artists placed posters with paradoxical slogans, announcements, photographs, panels, books, and other items in otherwise empty landscapes. According to Andrei Monastyrsky, Slogans were “intended for an anonymous viewer… Their existence in this anonymous viewer’s zone was an ‘empty action, ’ an extrademonstration without event or happening with an unknown ending.” Slogan-2003 was a small portrait of Heidegger hung on four strings between trees in a forest glade in the Moscow region. The figure of the German philosopher was not chosen at random: in his work Country Path Conversations Heidegger introduced the concept of expanse, an open space in which things reveal their essence and no longer confront a person. In this case, Heidegger’s portrait was used as a reference to the pure ontological structure of landscape, which does not depend on the circumstances that fill it. Besides video documentation of the performance, A Brief History of Absence features original typewritten chronicles of Trips Out of Town (Volumes 1–5), which contain textual documentation of performances along with detailed commentaries.
Unofficial artists and figures from the Soviet underground of the 1970s and early 1980s were not allowed to exhibit in official venues. They had to make do with private spaces—studios and flats—where the gap between the creation and display of an artwork was minimal. The APTART project (a portmanteau of “apartment” and “art, ” as well as “art” written in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets) was located in the Moscow apartment of Nikita Alexeev (1953-2021) on Vavilov Street from September 1982 to May 1984. It became practically the first Russian private gallery—what would today be called a horizontal self-organisation, an artist-run space. It hosted fourteen events, which one of the participants, the artist and poet Anatoly Zhigalov, called “anti-shows” or “non-exhibitions.” Other participants included Mikhail Roshal (1956-1997), Vadim Zakharov (b. 1959), Viktor Skersis (b. 1956), Yury Albert (b. 1959), the Mukhomor art group (1978-1984), Natalya Abalakova (b. 1941), Georgy Kizevalter (b. 1955), Andrei Monastyrsky (b. 1949), Nikolai Panitkov (b. 1952), Sven Gundlakh (1959-2020), Sergei Anufriev (b. 1964), Yury Leiderman (b. 1963), and others.
During the first exhibition, Alexeev’s tiny flat, eighteen square meters in all, was filled with artworks—they occupied every available surface, including the ceilings (Alexeev slept in an inflatable boat, as there was no room on the bed). Natalya Abalakova wrote about one of these non-exhibitions in 1982: “The artists who gathered here broke the boundaries between the conventional notion of the artistic environment and real life, between the artist and the viewer… This was not an exhibition in the usual sense. This was a continuation of research work, one of its phases—not in a specialised artistic environment, but in this real flat. And the people who came here could expect work, involvement, not the usual contemplation of ‘objects’ of art. There were no objects of art in the customary sense here.”
A Brief History of Absence presents archival materials and preserved works shown at various times both at the APTART gallery itself, and at the travelling exhibitions APTART en Plein Air and APTART Beyond the Fence. Among these is Novel-Refrigerator, a work by one of the founders of Mukhomor art group, Konstantin Zvezdochetov (b. 1958), covered in texts and decorated with drawings and stickers.