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Works From the Underground, Freed by Glasnost

Lost Russian artists, ruined work, missing materials, all put right at a huge show in Munich

Konstantin Zvezdochetov, The Battle of Kulikovo 600th Anniversary, 1991.

Konstantin Zvezdochetov, The Battle of Kulikovo 600th Anniversary, 1991.

Not since the demise of mad King Ludwig has Bavaria seen a project of such magnificent and lunatic proportions as Kraftemessen: Contending Forces. This project, in five locations across Munich through July 30, is the culmination of a three-year dialogue between the most important figures of the Moscow vanguard art world and the Munich-based conceptualist painter Haralampi G. Oroschakoff. It includes more than 50 artists in three consecutive major exhibitions and a parallel program of secondary exhibitions, readings, performances, a symposium and a huge book.

There has been unrelenting high drama — lost artists, ruined work, missing materials. But Russian chaos gave way to German efficiency as the first three exhibitions opened to great acclaim earlier this month.

It has been a long time since these artists’ work was displayed like this. The unofficial art made by such underground Soviet artists as Ilya Kabakov and Komar and Melamid enjoyed a tremendous vogue in the early days of perestroika. In 1988, when it became possible for ordinary Soviet citizens to obtain exit visas, there was a rash of group shows across Western Europe and the United States for which artists traveled to install their own work. In the last few years, however, Russian vanguard art has to some extent been remarginalized, financing for grand exhibitions has been thin, and the visionary circle that kept the very idea of art alive in the darkest days of Communism has fragmented.

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, these artists saw themselves as guardians of the light who were constructing the framework for a viable moral existence in a profoundly degenerate society. Their work can be understood not by examining its appearance but by identifying the complex moral and visual techniques with which its high purpose is communicated. “Contending Forces” is one of the first projects to recognize this.

“Usually in the West, we have been exhibited because it was somehow P.C., politically correct, to include the Russians in your shows,” said Kostya Zvezdochetov, a Moscow conceptualist whose work is on view here. “And we were ourselves supposed to be P.C., very in favor of democracy, hating Communism, etc.

“We are, of course, not P.C. at all, because we are Russians, so that’s a ridiculous idea. No, for us what is important is the spirit and vision of the work, and I think that in Russia it’s possible to be mystically correct, M.C., which is unusual in the West, and that we are very, very M.C., and this is a very M.C. project.”

“Contending Forces” has a tangled history. In the early 90’s, in response to their abrupt immersion in Western art life, a group of Moscow artists set up the Aptart International program. They invited to Moscow Westerners whose work they liked and let them live in their apartments and studios and immerse themselves in local art life. Among those who came was Mr. Oroschakoff, who had captured the imagination of the Russians by working on the subjects of Orthodox Christianity and Empire. Mr. Oroschakoff found in the vanguard an answer to his own eccentric sensibility and conceived of a “small exhibition” in the West. So “Contending Forces” began.

In the West, Russian curators have often been consulted but have seldom been given full responsibility for projects. Mr. Oroschakoff, who wished to celebrate rather than control the Russianness of the work, couldn’t decide which of the three most important Soviet critics should curate the exhibition he had imagined, and so he invited Margarita Tupitsyn, Boris Groys and Viktor Miziano.

When Mr. Oroschakoff reviewed their plans and realized that some of the finest artists had fallen between the cracks, he hired the central hall of the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (the room where de Chirico and Kandinsky first exhibited) and invited them to install whatever they liked in “Positions.” The other parts of “Contending Forces” soon followed as Mr. Oroschakoff’s concept expanded; his witty and patient wife, Johanna zu Est Oroschakoff, who has been a prominent figure in the German museum world for years, organized the sponsorship (more than $300,000 in government, corporate and private money), the public relations and the endless practicalities.

For anyone with a long-term involvement in the Russian vanguard, this event has a certain “Big Chill” feeling about it; all the artists are staying in a small hotel near the Akademie, and the mood of affection and intimacy and hilarity has run high. The Russians, with their usual aplomb, have integrated themselves easily into grand Bavarian society, but they are nonetheless very much themselves: working, drinking, collapsing, working again. Elegant dinner parties in the homes of local aristocrats blur into expeditions to buy vodka at a gas station, and then on to discussions of art, truth, politics and philosophy, or to rousing choruses of revolutionary songs, or to reminiscences about the cold war. Most nights, the last revelers go to bed after dawn.

The organizers, meanwhile, have had occasion for sustained hysteria. On Tuesday, May 30, for example, the last participants were due in Munich, and Mr. Oroschakoff and some artists went to collect them at the airport. The Aeroflot representative said the plane was still in Moscow. He didn’t know why. So they headed back to the Akademie, where the work from abroad had been delivered, and found much of it damaged. The transportation company had put a bronze Lenin on top of several fragile paintings and constructions, and the crushed work looked like an archeological excavation. Ivan Chuykov‘s installation, on loan from a private dealer in Germany, had disappeared altogether.

Then Andrei Filippov mentioned that he would need, for his installation, seven large industrial spools of the kind commonly found on the streets of Moscow. Such spools are not found on the streets of Munich. So while Mr. Oroschakoff and the artists repaired their work and Mrs. Oroschakoff issued press material and negotiated for insurance payment from the art transportation company, the beautiful Diana Countess von Hohenthal, who was organizing a related drawing exhibition, got into her station wagon and set out to search with Mr. Filippov.

Oleg Vassiliev, Mayakovsky Square: Erik Bulatov, 1995.

Oleg Vassiliev, Mayakovsky Square: Erik Bulatov, 1995.

Near midnight Aeroflot suddenly said the flight would land within minutes. Mr. Oroschakoff jumped into his car, which had unfortunately been parked during a rainstorm with the roof open, and drove damply to the airport, where the plane was being held by the police because of some border formality.

When the artists finally arrived, they explained that Moscow was experiencing a heat wave and that the runway, constructed for Russian winters, had started to melt. But meanwhile, someone had found the missing Chuykov piece, Leonid Sokov had rebuilt his shattered sculpture, other artists had addressed the damage to their work, and Diana von Hohenthal had hung her drawing exhibition and located the spools.

The first show was Margarita Tupitsyn’s “Damaged Utopia,” opened by the Mayor of Munich. Ms. Tupitsyn was one of the curators of the Guggenheim’s “Great Utopia” show last year in New York of work from the idealist avant-garde movements of the 20’s.

“I thought someone should take note of what happened to the Great Utopia,” she said, “of how idealism and ideology continued to interact even when that ideology was corrupted.” Her exhibition here of first-rate work by Komar and Melamid, Andrei Roiter, the Peppers, Oleg Vassiliev, Leonid Sokov, Igor Makarevich/Elena Elagina and Monroe shows the artists at their best while illustrating Ms. Tupitsyn’s larger and deeply moving point.

With the elegant exhibition of drawings at the Hohenthal & Littler gallery, and the remarkable installations by Filippov, Zvezdochetov, Chuykov and Nikita Alexeev, “Contending Forces” demonstrates conclusively that some kinds of moral and artistic imagining are particular to Russia and have no counterpart in the West. Though these artists’ utopia has been damaged, it has not been destroyed; within the context of Western contemporary art, their mystical correctness seems not only correct but also inspiring.

Konstantin Zvezdochetov, The Semenovs, 1991.

Konstantin Zvezdochetov, The Semenovs, 1991.