Anna Karpenko From “5 Pravda” to Chagall: On the Question of “Stern Consumption of Cultural Revolutions”

Shabohin, "We are Stern Consumers of Cultural Revolutions"
© Alexey Kubasov

A culture and entertainment complex, a museum for the ages or a site of mass consumer culture: What will the UNOVIS building in Vitebsk be turned into after reconstruction is completed, and why is Marc Chagall a more likable figure to local authorities than Kazimir Malevich? The tragic dialectic of the avant-garde’s movement from East to West and from West to East in Sergey Shabohin’s project “We Are Stern Consumers of Cultural Revolutions” was presented in Minsk at the exhibition “The Border.”

As part of his ambitious art and research project, Sergey Shabohin considers not just the influential history of the art group UNOVIS, which was formed within the Vitebsk People’s Art School in 1919 and is directly associated with Kazimir Malevich, but, above all, the conceptual, cultural and sociohistorical movements that brought a clear border between Western and Eastern Europe into focus based on reception of the avant-garde.

Although the origins of Suprematism and other avant-garde movements directly connected with the names of UNOVIS, beginning with Malevich himself and ending with Suetin and Lissitzky, took place within the cultural context of Eastern Europe, the reception of the avant-garde’s key ideas and its cultural-historical rootedness was nevertheless accomplished in the West. From Vitebsk, a medium sized city in Belarus out of which one of Malevich’s principal theoretical works, “New Evidence in Art,” emerged in 1919, the avant-garde movement relocated to western Germany and the city of Weimar. Here, thanks to Lissitzky, participants at the Bauhaus School learned about Malevich’s Suprematism, which would forever redefine the subsequent development not only of contemporary art, but also of architecture and design in Europe. Paradoxically, the ideas of the avant-garde are now returning to Vitebsk (and the Eastern European context as a whole). This has already come in the form of the legacy of Bauhaus, having for decades and on the heels of Suprematism continued to complete a visual revolution.

In his piece “We Are Stern Consumers of Cultural Revolutions,” Sergey Shabohin directs the viewer’s attention toward at least two conceptual registers. The letters “W” and “E,” which begin the words “West” and “East,” alternate back and forth in a flickering mode, demonstrating the full cyclical nature of how the ideas of the avant-garde have moved from East to West and then again back East, with Malevich’s Suprematist compositions returning to Vitebsk in the form of visual objects of contemporary consumer culture, from the black square of the monitor to urban objects with visual elements adopted by advertising.

The second important aspect in “We Are Stern Consumers of Cultural Revolutions” is the culture of consumerism, understood in a wide sense and, to a large extent, predefining the entire sociocultural context of modernity.

Sergey Shabohin points our attention toward the diametrically opposite strategies of “consuming” cultural revolutions through the example of Western Europe’s appropriation and adoption of the avant-garde, and the consumerist indifference toward, if not outright rejection of, Malevich’s legacy in the context of Belarus.
Possessing the intact building of the Vitebsk People’s Art School—a unique site by international standards and where, at Lissitzky’s invitation, Malevich arrived in 1919 and as such where UNIVOS came into being—the official authorities decided that this historical object should be turned into the Museum of the History of the Vitebsk People’s Art School and that 5 Pravda Street, where the UNOVIS building is located, must be renamed after Mark Chagall, who left here in June 1920. In other words, for cultural bureaucrats, the figure of Marc Chagall turned out to be safer and preferable to the legacy of Malevich and his UNOVIS.

The history of the reconstruction of the Vitebsk’s People’s Art School building, which began in 2013, essentially repeats the ill-fated history of its emergence and development from 1918 to 1923, when its name changed five times and its director almost as many, with Dobuzhinsky, Chagall, Ermolaeva and Gavris all taking turns in the role. The very fact that restoration work on the People’s Art School building began is, on its own, a historical event, especially considering the fact that from the post-war period and effectively up until the mid-2000s the building was officially the property of a construction company called Trust No. 9.

Over the course of several years, two forces were simultaneously directed at the Vitebsk’s People’s Art School building: from one side, the official authorities, for whom the object without a doubt represented a potential trophy for purposes having little to do with culture, and, from the other side, the local intellectual and artistic elite, which sheepishly attempted to interfere with the “reconstruction of the century.”

 Marina Karman, an art historian in Vitebsk, was directly engaged in archival and analytical work with the goal of returning artistic workshops to the UNOVIS building. Through surviving photographs, written recollections, articles and archival materials, she was able to identify the locations of Chagall’s workshop from 1918 to 1920 and Malevich’s office from 1919 to 1922. During reconstruction, the autograph of the famous Belarusian sculptor Zair Azgur, who graduated from the school in 1925, was unexpectedly discovered. On the first floor of the future Museum of the History of the Vitebsk People’s Art School, they decided to install a marble mosaic of El Lissitzky’s  “Red Wedge.”

In numerous interviews regarding reconstruction of the UNOVIS building or “5 Pravda” as locals often called it, Andrei Dukhovnikov, the director of the Vitebsk Center of Modern Art and one of the supervisors of restoration work, has frequently emphasized that the museum is planned as being unconventional, interactive and for the ages.

“Our museum is unconventional. It will not be filled with the paintings of Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall. That was not our aim. Our aim is the creation of a museum of history… The museum will be created, and it will exist as a kind of accumulation of events and information.” [1]

Exactly which names and events will make up the “body” of the museum remains unclear for now. But based on materials that have appeared in the media and also Pravda Street being renamed Marc Chagall Street in 2016, it seems obvious that Chagall will dominate over avant-garde discourse in relation to the very birthplace of UNOVIS. [2]

In this sense, Sergey Shabohin’s research and art project “We Are Stern Consumers of Cultural Revolutions” serves, on the one hand, as a prophetic diagnosis of Eastern European art history, which essentially consigned the name Malevich and the “champions of the new art” to decades of oblivion and, at the same time, as a strategy for working with a vacant cultural space deprived of the masterpieces of Chagall, Malevich, Lissitzky, Khidekel, Chashnik, etc.

The strategy indicated contemplates the actualization of a fundamental question for the avant-garde: the question of the borders of art, the borders between art and life, the borders between an idea and its representation.

Does the availability of works by Malevich and Lissitzky in Belarusian museums constitute a guaranteed reception of the ideas of the avant-garde? Could the vacant space of the future Museum of the History of the Vitebsk People’s Art School become a form with moveable borders, taking on contemporary art’s most improbable interpretations of the legacy of the avant-garde? Or will a “museum for the ages” with three floors housing eleven galleries with a multimedia system and the spirit of “revolutionary romanticism” [3] sooner become a typical culture industry object, drawing tourists only through the prominent name of “UNOVIS,” which is itself absent even in the museum’s name?

Early on in the reconstruction, beneath a layer of sheetrock on the façade of the People’s Art School building, a capital letter “U” was found, briefly leading those present to assume this was where the main entrance of UNOVIS had been located. It turned out to read “Entrance to the polyclinic ” written in Belarusian.
Only time will tell how this “severe consumption of cultural revolutions” turns out for the very place where this revolution was born. The official opening of the Museum of the History of the Vitebsk People’s Art School, which was supposed to take place in 2016, has been pushed back to an undetermined date, now shifting the already temporary borders of a potential return of the avant-garde’s ideas to Belarus, where rare artists such as Sergey Shabohin are still working on its actualization.

Anna Karpenko is an independent curator and art manager (Minsk, Belarus).
Graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy of the Belarusian State University, Master of Arts at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania). Master degree in Sociology. Research interests: institutional criticism in the field of contemporary art, theory and history of curatorial practice. She lives and works in Minsk.