Russia Redux / Schroeder Romero Gallery
NY ARTS Magazine, November 2005

text: Isabelle Dupuis

"Russia Redux #1," Schroeder Romero'sopening show of the fall season, is an incisively critical-and successful–counterpoint to the Guggenheim's latest blockbuster "Russia!" Conceived as such by its curator, Elena Sorokina, and the sixteen artists and artists collectives she assembled, it also holds its own as a smart and compelling group show.

The Guggenheim's "Russia!" is as impressive in its scope as it is in its superficiality. In the end, it is no more than a dazzling sampler kit of 900 years worth of painting, with a hint of sculpture, leaving one with an unnerving dissatisfaction. Considering the complexity and richness of Russian history and culture, what the Guggenheim proposes is a startling conventional and totalizing representation of what Russian art is.

The issue of representation-of oneself, of the other–is precisely the impetus behind "Russia Redux #1." When the Guggenheim's exhibition list began circulating this summer, Sorokina and the artists-most of them Russian, though the point here is not to create a reductive show of the creative impulses that may exist in Putin's land–decided to propose a more critical and ultimately more interesting examination of Russia's contemporary condition and the representation thereof.

The first impact is aural. The Russian national anthem wafted through the gallery, faint yet omnipresent, emanating from a tape-recorder set next to an empty chair outfitted with a forbidding "Do Not Sit" sign. The installation by Anatoly Osmolonsky functioned as a reminder that finding a cohesive historical footing is anything but obvious in a country where the hegemonic plates keep shifting. Written in 1944, the anthem's lyrics were first purged of Stalinist references during the Thaw, replaced altogether after the fall of the Soviet Empire only to be re-instated in 2000, cleared this time around of any communist or Soviet references.

The theme of disintegration-of the state, of livelihood, of the economy-was omnipresent throughout the show. The collective Chto Delat and Dmitry Vilensky explored the economic ruin of the country in Sandwiched, through interviews with the many sandwich-men and women lucky enough to etch out a meager living on Moscow's streets. The video also included excerpts of a performance during which the artists distributed blank leaflets to passersby. Alina and Jeff Bliumis' drawing, Viruses "Colored Revolution" #1, visually illustrates the disintegration of government with a brown map of Russia, its dullness gnawed on the east by the democratizing orange of Ukraine and pink of Georgia. Will the pastel revolutions ever reach the Kremlin?

Human trafficking, the unwelcome bi-product of the free-market economy that turned a handful of men into oligarchs and sent thousands of others to the streets, is the underlying subject of Yevgeny Fiks' Factory Moments. For this photography installation by proxy, Fiks asked Russian sex workers in various European and Asian cities to take pictures of their daily surroundings and prized possessions. The result is moving in its banality–snapshots of a car, a view from a balcony or a favorite street.

For his Cradle Project, Taras Polataiko, a Ukrainian artist based in Canada went to Chernobyl's alienation zone, stayed there long enough to become radioactive and returned to Canada where he promptly underwent a full blood transfusion. He also took some pictures which were exhibited here, an intense black and white grid depicting fragments of an utterly ruined landscape, a birthplace no longer of life but of mutants and a decisive moment in the Soviet Empire's collapse. Alas, the flask of Polataiko’s radioactive blood that is normally part of the installation was not included here.

Tsaplya's (Olga Egorova) audio piece 35 Years After the First Commune examined generational differences in a situation where the present is ideologically and radically divorced from the past. A young Russian radio reporter, weaned on capitalism, interviews an elderly woman about her life under communism. The result is a succession of exchanges that border on the absurd; each side firmly encroached in its ideological trenches, trying in vain to reach an understanding of the other. "How could you develop a competitive spirit?" is one of the recurring questions which is invariably met with nostalgic reminisces about the joys of the communal kitchen.

The Lifshitz Institute, one of the most prominent artist collectives on the Russian art scene, has been exploring the writings of a previously obscure Marxist Soviet art critic (after whom it is named) for over a decade. According to Sorokina, due to the Institute's work, Mikhail Lifshitz is now becoming part of Russia's art criticism canon. The 45-minute video piece presented here–a biographic documentary made by Dmitry Gutov, whose work is also on view at the Guggenheim–was bookishly dull, but the process of intellectual excavation undertaken by the Institute is rather interesting; a small but compelling attempt to deconstruct the totalitarian monolith of Socialist Realism, the Soviet Union official artistic legacy. On a nearby wall, a series of digital prints by Konstantin Bokhorov depicted Institute participants following one of their public discussions in a Moscow art gallery. Each person is photographed in front of an exhibited work-Basquiat, Warhol and a host of other Western artists whose work commands the six-figure market price not yet attained by their Russian counterparts.

The free market does not make us equal amongst others and West and East still face each other across a profound abyss. So much for the Guggenheim's rosy spectacle.