It’s all very Russian. The work for which Komar and Melamid became famous was about the frightening absurdity of the Soviet system, and was directed toward the dismantling of that system. Now that the system has been dismantled, Komar and Melamid are the kings of nostalgia, ardent for the very sorrows that once gave them a claim to tragedy. Like all victims of child abuse, Russians are paralyzed by the loss of the abusive parent– not simply because that abusive parent defined their lives, but also because (nature is perverse) they loved that parent with a depth of emotion obscure to nationals of more genial and less controlling lands. Komar and Melamid’s recent work is an attempt to articulate their grief; though it is presented in ironic, humorous, and often cynical language, it is in fact at least as tragic as the ironic, humorous, and often cynical work they made in protest against the ills of the Soviet system.
“Death and Immortality,” is one of a series of shows that deals with the disappearance of Soviet architectural monuments. The esthetes among us join with Komar and Melamid in protesting the architectural merits of these works. However, for the artists the salvation of these monuments takes place not in spite of their origins, but in honor of those origins. Russian history has gone in waves of architectural destruction: there was the burning of Moscow before Napoleon; then the destruction of Tsarist and religious buildings by the communists; now the annihilation of Soviet monuments by the democrats. Stop this madness, cry Komar and Melamid, for when you destroy in the name of some putative new good you do not accomplish good. It’s a trope drawn half from Freud and half from Santayana: only when you confront your own past and accept it and make it part of your living present can you escape from its bondage.
“Death and Immortality” is in three parts: a group of paintings (called Death, all works 1993) that showed “an anonymous man” (who has the face of Stalin) undertaking a dreary suicide in a dreary American motel room; an installation called Immortality that related to the preservation of the Lenin Mausoleum; and a long text that linked “Death and Immortality” to the recent “Monumental Propaganda” show in New York and Moscow, and to a performance done on Lenin’s birthday this year at the Mausoleum.
Though the Stalin pictures smack slightly of self-consciousness, the two-room installation as a whole is a profound success. It has a lightness of touch that one has missed in some recent Komar and Melamid works; like all the best Sots art, its concrete meanings are obvious and theatrical, but are given foil by a quiet Cassandra-like awareness of how our society (the artists’ adopted one) echoes the failures of the Soviet state.
Komar and Melamid have aged better than many Soviet artists in this post-Soviet period, better than any of the other long-term emigres. One might have thought that the demise of their enemy would have left them with nothing much to say, and for a moment, with installations like Searstyle, 1992, they seemed to be indulging themselves in a humorous but not very meaningful engagement with kitschy America. With “Death and Immortality” they have manifested the most basic Soviet survival tool: they are altogether adaptable. This work, at once ironic and moving, shows that Komar and Melamid are not–like so many Eastern and Western champions of freedom–artists carried high on the chance winds of political circumstance, but are, rather, among those who, by insistently penetrating personal and political and artistic history, contrive neither to repeat nor to lose it.