Avdej Ter-Oganjan @ tranzitdisplay, December 16, 2010 18:00
tranzitdisplay art space organized an artist talk with Avdej Ter-Oganjan, a Russian artist who was persecuted in Russia because of his controversial artworks which supposedly “instilled religious hatred and political unrest”. He lives in Czech Republic now, where he received political asylum. One of his trademark actions was destroying cheap icons (i.e. religious images) sold in abundance around and inside of Russian churches. Another artwork which made him famous was a series of abstract images, resembling modernist-style paintings, with descriptive captions based on quotes from the Russian law code featuring sentences which are often used as a means to censor artist expression like “this image calls for assassination of president Putin in order to destabilize the Russian state” or “this image calls for hatred against religion”. This artwork was selected by a French curator for the “Counterpoint, Contemporary Russian Art” exhibition in the Musée du Louvre (October 14, 2010 to January 31, 2011). The original artwork owned by a Russian institution (I am not sure which one) located in Moscow was sent to France, yet it was halted by customs authorities based on the descriptive caption (as mentioned above) which was part of it.
The authorities stepped into the ideological trap set by Ter-Oganjan and went on in censoring the images titled by descriptive sentences from the law code, even though the images themselves consisted only of abstract shapes and colors. This situation was reported in the media and created a public pressure to let the artworks reach their final destination – and that is what happened in the end.
Nevertheless, Ter-Oganjan was still not happy about the situation and decided to hijack created media publicity in order to bring his friends case to attention – Oleg Mavromatti, another Russian action artist who also was accused of instilling religious hatred and political unrest, but was less lucky than Ter-Oganjan in receiving political asylum. He is in danger of being deported back to Russia for trial. Hijacking the original problem (censorship of Ter-Oganjan’s works) and raising the issue of Mavromatti was a logical step for Ter-Oganjan, who probably feels closely connected to this fellow artist. Yet it was perceived negatively by other artists participating in the Louvre exhibition and by the exhibition organizers. Obviously, each of them were following their own interests and they were not able to reach a common language: Ter-Oganjan was trying to help his “partner in crime” (according to Russian accusations) Mavromatti. Other artists participating in the exhibition were trying to maximize the positive effects of the exhibition while staying away from the political problem of Mavromatti. Finally the exhibition organizers and official government representatives on both sides were doing their best to keep the existing status quo without causing damage to the inter-country relationships.
So far for the description of facts. During his talk at tranzitdisplay, Ter-Ogavjan spend quite a lot of time making all this clear, based on his point of view. Everyone interested in this topic can google though the articles on livejournal blogs or other sources. The interesting experience of this evening in tranzitdisplay was to see how the discussion evolved.
Not many people showed up for the discussion. Besides Ter-Oganjan and a translator, there was Tomas Vanek who was chairing the discussion (and who knew the whole background story beforehand). Another guest who voiced his opinion very strongly was Jiri Cernicky. (Both Vanek and Cernicky are mid-generation Czech artists, successful in the Czech scene with some international exposure as well).
A dialogue between Ter-Oganjan and Cernicky wa shaping the whole discussion. Ter-Oganjan stated that the only real art is avant-garde art and that avant-garde art – in his definition – is the art, which is in constant opposition to whatever the mainstream is representing. Cernicky, on the other hand showed a complete lack of understanding for Ter-Oganjan’s position. He kept asking if not-radical art is “art too”, giving examples how he gets pleasure from works dealing with aesthetic or formalist topics. He kept attacking Ter-Oganjan on his ‘radical’ proposition. Ter-Oganjan’s position was indeed radical – and hopelessly romantic in some sense. But both of them seemed to be having a separate conversation with themselves instead of listening to the other. Cernicky refused to see Ter-Oganjan’s position through the other’s eyes, and Ter-Oganjan was not able to address Cernicky’s position, although he did not dispute it.
There seemed to be a discontinuity between Ter-Oganjan and Cernicky, which could not be bridged. Given our recent communist past – Cernicky was born during communism and went to school during that time – it came to me as a very absurd moment. How easy it is to forget? How come that Cernicky was not able to grasp the context of Ter-Oganjan’s statements and standpoint?
Cernicky was content with himself, he has “seen it all, done it all”. His successful artist career allows him to enjoy his life, enjoy art, and consume. He has reached the safe harbor of capitalist consumerism and isn’t going anywhere else now – why should he. He enjoys the intellectual and formalist pleasures of art, but lacks an understanding of any other context than his own. He was questioning the meaning of radical Russian action art of the 80’s and 90’s – there was no understanding of the local situation and political context.
Ter-Oganjan is probably equally known and established in his artistic career. Yet his intellectual and artistic standpoint is still connected to his recent past and current situation in Russia. He experienced censorship and prosecution in his home country, and a discourse of conflict is central to his work. He appreciates art as a political and/or intellectual challenge to the status quo. Art is an agent causing movement and change. He does not question classical art history, but what he enjoys are attempts that are still trying to step out of the line instead of fit into it, for example recent actions of the group Voina.
In my view, different artistic approaches need different readings. Often, art can only be understood in its own historical and political context. In the context of today’s Central Europe, some of Russia’s action art from the 90’s or even recent actions of Voina do not seem to be anything else than meaningless stunts or teenage jokes, yet in the context of Russia in the time when these actions took place, I believe there is a value and meaning to them which cannot be disputed. There is also a difference in the nature of Russian and Czech art, and I don’t dare to judge what it is, but all kinds of circumstances need to be taken into account before an appropriate reading can take place.
The lack of empathy or understanding displayed by Jiri Cernicky was disappointing. This was especially sad given the not-so-distant connection between ex-Czechoslovakia and Russia. I myself did not experience censorship and ideological persecution and communism is just a distant childhood memory for me. Yet I am still aware of the problems in societies where freedom of speech is still an issue. I experienced the ‘u-turn’ in Czech thinking where the newly gained post-communist freedom resulted in a worshipping of U.S. and liberalist market economy, followed by an E.U.-optimist brainwashing. Obviously, there were historical reasons why Czech turned their backs to Russia. As a result the topic of Russia was almost skipped from my education and it is only now that I see a slow return to ‘normal’, or even a growing interest in Russia. I feel it is important that we do not forget our own past and that we do not overlook the ‘otherness’ of other’s lives. We are all humans, but in order to understand each other we must be aware and respectful of the different background we are coming from. Similarly, when we are reading artworks, the context of creation must be taken into account – especially different historical contexts and the fact that there are other local contexts besides western capitalist hegemony.