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The Prodigies Return

Andrew Solomon finds that success in the West has brought new problems for young Moscow artists.

Kostia Zvezdochetov at Furmanny

Kostia Zvezdochetov at Furmanny

“It was not a shock for me to go to the West,” said Andrei Roiter, a leader in the Moscow conceptualist movement. “I had imagined such a place so many times that each new detail seemed only a confirmation of my dreams. No, the shock came later, when I returned to Moscow after my months abroad, and I saw this country for what it is for the first time.” That shock is a new commonplace for Soviet vanguard artists. In August 1988, passports and visas began to come through for them and they immediately started to travel, usually conjunction with exhibitions of their work. By November, Moscow was empty; the members of the vanguard, virtually without exception, were packing itineraries with as many cities and countries as possible, determined to see the world before their newfound freedom, abrupt in its origins, met the equally swift end their habitual pessimism predicted.

This June, they at last drifted back to Moscow, rationalising their position as Soviet artists whose work addresses the issues of Soviet life. The return was predictably difficult; this group of people, who had been virtual cohabitants for decades and had finally parted company, were often unwilling to explain their private triumphs and failures to one another. A community founded on shared secrets, united against the brutalism of the KGB and the censorship of the Ministry of Culture, was suddenly broken by the secrets each artist had from the others. Moreover, there was much they could not explain to one another even had they been inclined to do so. They no longer had the almost identical points of reference which were the source of their mutuality; and that mutuality, which had been their primary artistic subject in pre-glasnost days, had therefore to be reborn as painfully as it had originally been created, from a tangle of suspicions.

The status of the artist in Soviet society at present is both exalted and ridiculous. The same taxi-drivers who two years ago announced that they could change your money and introduce you to a beautiful sister/cousin/niece ripe for marriage now volunteer to change your money and to introduce you to a sister/brother/cousin who is an artist and will sell you paintings at a good price. The active members of the Union of Artists — long in the powerful position of “officialdom” — are going to increasingly great lengths to identify themselves with the vanguard conceptualists whom they have always disdained, and for whom they showed little sympathy during the long years of oppression. The vanguard artists, in many instances tremendously successful in the West, have returned from their travels triumphantly bearing video cameras, cars, computers, and vast quantities of Western currency, which has facilitated the purchase of decent food; but unlike the Union bigwigs they cannot get livable homes or studios, and they continue to encounter difficulty obtaining art supplies and other items necessary for their ordinary lives. Many of them are still working in squats, serving tea in broken cups to rich ladies from Switzerland and portentous curators from undistinguished museums in the American Midwest.

Furthermore, though the successful members of the vanguard are in many instances just in their late 20s or early 30s, there is a network of new young artists on the Moscow scene, people between the ages of 16 and 25, who treat their successful seniors as fogies and sell-outs and who live their lives as art, wearing wild clothes and throwing wild parties and trying, with great pretension, and limited success, to recreate the East Village in Moscow. These newcomers have grouped under several banners; many are associated with the “Champions of the World,” a group which formed casually some years ago, but which now, abandoned by its founding leaders, has turned into a sort of trendy club for facile aspirants. Also to be found in Moscow are artists who actually have sold out and make no bones about it, artists who have figured out what the West really wants and who do paintings in office size and drawing-room size, in colours to co-ordinate with most post-modern interiors. These are disparagingly referred to by everyone else as the “Fish Mafia” because the most successful exponents of the style — Sasha Zacharov and Valery Yershov, whose roubles are numbered, it is whispered, as the stars — are both Pisceans.

Two years ago, some rooms in a half-deserted building in Furmanny Street were taken as studios by a group of seven artists — Vadim Zacharov, Yuri Albert, Andrei Filipov, Sven Gundlach, Kostia Zvezdochetov, and Vladimir and Sergei Mironenko — all of them young, contentious and gifted. The curators and collectors who came to Moscow from the West between 1987 and 1988 all went to Furmanny because they wanted to see the work of these artists, whose names had crept into the press; artist friends of the seven would spend long hours socialising at Furmanny and would sometimes invite Western visitors to their own studios thereafter. So Furmanny became not only a social but also a commercial centre, a place where vanguard figures met one another and met powerful Westerners.

While the seven were off on their travels this year, other artists began moving into Furmanny. The building itself is owned by a co-operative which has agreed to sell it to the army, and it is standing empty while everyone makes and alters plans for it. Artists have taken over most of the building, floor by floor, as squats; some use these only as studios, but many live in them. Some of the apartments are used by soldiers, who bring prostitutes to them. There are no telephones. Only one or two studios have gas and hot water. There is no rubbish collection and the hallways are piled with rotting refuse. Men in army uniforms stand in the courtyard looking purposeless. The building is under constant threat of demolition. Some artists are trying to organise official residence in the place, to pay rent, to save Furmanny; others revel in this inevitable next disaster in what they glorify as their continuing oppression; still others feel the place has had its day and say that its destruction is necessary for the progress of Soviet art.

The original seven artists still have studios in Furmanny, but many of the people pouring in from the West don’t know which they are, and go off to see the Champions or the Fish Mafia or any of a dozen other groups — some very good, others very bad — instead. The community of artists is transformed. The members of the original vanguard, who have travelled the world, are overwhelmed with the sense of their own nobility in returning to Moscow; they have lost much of the immediacy of communication that formed the basis of their work and have instead achieved, by way of negative compensation, a poignant nostalgia. They address one another in tones of great affection. They sit and drink tea together, because, for them, Moscow is almost vacation territory and the West is where work gets done. They talk about their exhibitions and spend hours considering the merits of one gallery over another, or of one kind of computer or car over another, and discussing in world-weary tones the failings of all the new artists around them.

They feel displaced in the West, but they also feel displaced in Moscow. They recognise that they are able to respond only to what they know, and that that is Moscow; but how can they justify cutting themselves off from the world artistic community which is so eager to receive them? And why should they return to daily lives so filled with petty difficulties? Unlike the problems of the Brezhnev days, these are ones that do not easily become the subject of works of art. “Of course, no one’s work is interesting now,” said Kostia Zvezdochetov one afternoon in July, “including mine.”

As for glasnost itself: the fashion in Moscow — as, increasingly, in the West – is to dismiss perestroika as Gorbachev’s high-minded fiasco, a prime specimen of the morally righteous cupidity any good-hearted liberal might suffer given the task of running the Soviet Union. The failing economy seems a sure sign that the end is at hand; one artist spoke of glasnost as meaning that “the billboards at the end of my block, which used to be ideological, now carry advertisements for quality Soviet goods — a new transparent fiction to replace the old one.” For the artists of the vanguard the process of recognising the tragedy of their country’s failed communism is inextricably tangled with the discovery of how deeply they are its product. At the same time, their realisation that what is replacing communism also does not function is almost a comfort. A voice of irony, the only voice they can trust, will remain the strongest element in their work. “Things that are too pleasant make me uncomfortable,” says Ira Nachova, a conceptualist painter. “I don’t like it when it’s sunny every day. When it’s grey and sometimes rainy, that’s normal, and I like it better.”