Art Scene

Initiative in Kaliningrad, or the Technique of Vertical Take-Off

Auf der Kurischen Nehrung. Foto: Alisa PrudnikovaAuf der Kurischen Nehrung. Foto: Alisa PrudnikovaIt would be strange if the situation with art in Kaliningrad remained the same as in other big cities in the country, as this regional city, with European destiny, is so peculiar and odd - both the past and, surely, in the nearest future. On the one hand, Kaliningrad is interesting as until recently there has been no environment of "contemporary art" here at all, the culture has been deeply provincial and at the same time overloaded with official ideology. However, the proximity of Europe and the diversity of local people who have their roots partly in central Russia, the atmosphere of waiting for changes and of an intriguing future, have given rise to such processes in Kaliningrad over the last ten years, that are only taking shape or not even showing in other places. This refers to the appearance of people, the mood on the street and even to the new Russian culture, which is seemingly the same as everywhere else, but nevertheless a little bit different. This also reflects on the state of art dynamism and the art scene.

Of course, there is no art scene here in a real sense. Moscow is probably the only place in Russia that has one. And besides, it seems to me that the art scene on the whole has been rapidly losing locality features of any kind and is becoming simply an art scene connecting artists and curators from all kinds of places. Perhaps because there are few Kaliningrad artists and they act in such a special place, situated on the outskirts, that the exterior character of all their activities seems so catchy. Its symbol contains important things such as the work of Dmitry Bulatov, on compiling "world-wide" encyclopedias of sound poetry and bio-art or the plain air at the Curonian spit that has gathered artists from various cities and countries, including China.

I would call demonstrative running from regionalism, a characteristic and essential feature of Kaliningrad actual art. Moreover, it is quite successful. All the productions of Kaliningrad, connected with actual art are not provincial, are marked by European techniques and by the understanding of contemporary art strategies. The concepts of a cultural mother country and cultural provinces are completely blurred today as there are no more capitals and no more informal centers of cultural and art power left, and also, a province is not a sad non-participant nowadays. Quite the contrary, remote things are more attractive, actions from the periphery obtain specific overtones. In this sense, Kalinigrad has an enviable location in the world and in time, and that is why it is so interesting for "capital" people.

„The Examination Love“, die Serie von Jelena Tswetaewa über eine Frauenklinik, 2001. Foto: Jelena Tswetaewa. © NCCA Kaliningrad Another common feature of Kaliningrad processes, is typical for the whole of Russia and unusual for more mature European and American development. That is, the undivided, syncretic character of processes. Creative and organizational processes, the process of learning the basic techniques of life in the modern world and the process of specific isolation of an artist against the background of life as a whole, communication as a whole, management as a whole – everything converts into one another, flows together, is organizationally and formally inseparable. The Kaliningrad Centre for Contemporary Art originates from activities of young artists that used to work in the Kaliningrad Art Gallery; they were occupied with museum and exhibition work. They were "art critics". After the opening of the Centre the "art critics" became curators who were joined by like-minded people and they all started doing something that can be called organization of art. However, it is a well-known fact that one of the problems of actual art in Russia is the lack of artists. Where are they, how can they be found, how can they be produced? I have a suspicion that this problem exists not only in Russia, but in this country it is acute, because the form is, as usual, inseparable from the content.

There are "no artists" in Kaliningrad as well, or there are very few of them. Under these circumstances curators have nothing to do but become artists themselves, put more and more individual creative sense in curator projects. And it should be stressed here that the initiative in Kaliningrad differs greatly from others as it is fundamentally complete, bespoken and enriched by reflection.

What do I mean by the technique of vertical take-off? This is, of course, a start without acceleration, without gradual development and without a transition from horizontal movement to a vertical rise. The citizens of Kaliningrad have become what they wanted to be almost without drafts, both in creative work and in management, right in the form that is conceived as the most modern, technically flawless. This development is very significant, it cannot be found and it would be impossible in the capitals of Russia with their gradual history. Vertical take-off is also a resolute perception of reality, synchronized in a vertical cut when themes and techniques of art look as if they were viewed on from a birds-eye perspective, on a planetary scale: geography and biology, city culture and world-wide word creation, home Kaliningrad and great history.

„Chanukka“, 2000–2005. Foto: Jewgenij Umanskij. © NCCA KaliningradTo my mind, the main thing in the art of Kaliningrad, in the sense of form, is the presence of multiple media, the interpenetration of old and new media. Although there is no painting here as such, there is traditional photography in the finest sense of the word (a series of photos about a women’s clinic by Elena Tsvetaeva). And even a social research project called "Hanukkah" realized by Evgeny Umansky which generated objects of quasi-painting, photo pictures as the final result.

I will emphasise two substantial thematic aspects – the city and natural cosmos. This wording makes it sound almost traditionally romantic. On the one hand, artists often analyze forms of city culture, of a city man and work in the sphere of city art. On the other hand, they always keep turning to nature that penetrates their works both directly, as it is the case with Yury Vasilyev, or indirectly – in the form of snow and juice, birds and sand, the sea-line, water and the human body. It is easier to feel nature in Kaliningrad, there isn’t any stuffiness of a studio here, any closed societies or kitchens. If you want ,you can even see something of Koenigsberg, something Baltic in it. Even the aspect of body so openly highlighted in Kaliningrad, carries a touch of natural coolness and aloofness. Perhaps the initial health of nature, soil and air are doing their parts, sensuality has no time to become stagnant.

One of the most important problems of Kaliningrad art, if not the most important, is its "Kaliningradian" character, its specificity defined by the place – a former German city, a former closed Soviet city etc. The official Soviet art used marine, fishing, military and patriotic genres as specific themes for Kaliningrad. Romantic grotesque, the fairy Middle Ages and a passion for Hofmann became candidates for the role of "Kaliningradian" signs in the 70s. This trend gained strength in the post-Soviet period and acquired some vulgar traits, art nouveau or the modern style were exploited without restraint, baroque and rococo were also put to use. It is not that easy to define the peculiarities of local actual art with a background of common cultural and decorative development, the more so since all artists want to overcome the attachment to local themes and motives.

It can be said, in summary, that the role of the specificity of Kaliningrad is, firstly, the understanding of the geographic factor, the location of the city on the crossing of world roads, between the East and the West, between Russia and Europe, between the Baltic and the mainland. There is also a new address to Koenigsberg here, as Kaliningrad was always treated as the extreme, the farthermost point of the USSR, but not as a junction of world communications. Secondly, it is an evident repudiation of Koenigsberg as a complex of historical fragments and a nomination of Kaliningrad itself as the featured actor, i.e. interest to the real home city, to a post-Soviet regional centre, its texture, social processes and people. The project "Hanukkah" by E. Umansky is very significant in this sense. The artist takes pictures of hundreds of painted over mutilated inscriptions with the Jewish word "Hanukkah" that had all of a sudden, for some unknown reason, appeared in the city. The attitude to the Jewish inscription is what Umansky is fixing and showing. As an "aesthete", he is surely interested in decorative features of the appeared "pictures" with the text, but as a "conceptualist" he wants to research the city society.

„Russkij krasnyj“ („das russische Rot“), 2003/2005. Foto: Jurij Wassiljew. © NCCA Kaliningrad

I would like to denote a special place of expressionism in Kaliningrad. A long time ago, during the German times, the city was perhaps not bright, but was a distinctively marked centre of expressive art, and the most important thing was that it attracted big expressionists (Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein), who were looking for a heightened sense of spontaneous nature, might and tragedy. It was not without reason that this land gave birth to Kaethe Kolvitz with her anguish and somber pathos. No expressionism has been revealed in Kaliningrad since the war and hitherto.

Nevertheless there is an artist from Kaliningrad that has recently been attracting attention on the Russian scene of contemporary art, whose creative work combines abruptness and soberness, gravity and screaming, blood and moaning. This is Yury Vasilyev. His themes and texture are very Russian. The name of a multimedia project that he is promoting is "Russian Red". The content of this work is multilayered: there is not only "psycho", not only "pathos" here; this is political art in its acute, problematic form. It seems to me that it is not simply a tribute to "political art", but a truthful – let the readers forgive me for this unintellectual word – expression of the state of art environment, that can be described as "weariness with a lack of sense".

The mood of self-criticism in the art of Kaliningrad is not as distinct as, for example in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The climate is different here, and I feel that on the whole it is radiating optimism and vitality. Everything is blooming here and nothing vanishes without leaving a trace. Nevertheless it seems to me that the bloom of bourgeoisness in Kaliningrad on the basis of old German bourgeoisness should give rise to more worried, more brutal forms of art than those that are popular in the city now. The wish that I’m stating here is not retrograde. It is calling for real ventures of experimentation, its dream is not of vertical take-off following the grades of "social prestigiousness of art" (D.A. Prigov), but of a real transcendence, transgression and performativity, that is rapidly vanishing from performance, which is becoming a trifle of cultural routine.

With abridgements, the whole text was published in the magazine рН №3, 2002,

Ivan Chechot 2002
candidate of science (art criticism), head of History and Fine Arts and Architecture Theory Section of the Russian Institute for Art History of RAS, docent of philological faculty of St. Petersburg State University, member of Administration of the Institute Pro Arte (St. Petersburg), member of St. Petersburg Regional Committee of Art Historians, of the International Bureau CIHA (Committee of Art Historians), member of Max Beckman Association (Munich). Author of more than 30 publications in Russian and foreign print media. Has many years’ experience of lecturing in the universities of Austria, FRG, Great Britain, Italy and Cuba; participant and organizer of a number of congresses, conferences and exhibitions.

Translation: Evgeniya Svetlakova

    in Kaliningrad