BY Anke Bangma in Reviews | 03 SEP 96
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Issue 27

Andrei Roiter

BY Anke Bangma in Reviews | 03 SEP 96

Until recently, Russian art was defined by the binary opposition between the official and unofficial. In the former USSR, the official Artists Union monopolised representation. Its members were obliged to create imagery which, in the tradition of socialist realism, was dictated by state ideology and could serve as political propaganda. Other artists had no place in Soviet culture. There were no alternative academies, galleries, collectors or magazines to support their work. They had to form their own groups of friends and independent intellectual communities, meeting in private 'Rooms' outside the supervision of the state. For them, being an artist was an attitude to life, and the only way to create a personal existence outside official society.

Since the advent of 'Perestroika' at the end of the 80s, Russian artists have been free to leave their country and to connect to the Western tradition of art, from which they had been completely cut off. Like so many young Russian artists, Andrei Roiter travelled abroad. He stayed and worked in Brussels, Rome, Cologne and San Francisco, eventually coming to live, alternately, in New York and Amsterdam. For him, being an artist has become a nomadic way of life. Roiter has deliberately chosen not to be an immigrant, but a migrant, a tourist. Switching from one place to another, he avoids settling down. In being a permanent stranger, he attempts to escape any fixed identity. Roiter's urge to keep moving is a response to the need for self-reflection following the disruption of Soviet culture. It is meant as a comment on a specific inertia. His wanderlust is rooted in a local situation of 'post-official' art, and therefore should not be confused with the nomadic condition that has been described as the essence of postmodernism in the West.

Roiter's oeuvre is an index of what he calls his 'tourism'. The way he installed his work at the gallery was as if he had temporarily pitched camp in the space. A knapsack, filled only with paper chains, dangles from some branches. Entitled My Journey (all works 1995), it celebrates travelling as a liberating experience of weightlessness. Working with driftwood and found materials, the camper put together furniture - such as a little desk with books, to which he gave new titles. He also built a small one-person cabin with a peep-hole, which could serve as a mobile home, but also provide him with a vantage point from which the world could be viewed in safety. The portable cabin indicates that being a tourist also implies being a spectator: Roiter prefers to keep his distance.

The notebook, diary and camera, recurrent motives in Roiter's oeuvre, are attributes of a tourist too. This small exhibition is full of notebooks, but the viewer has no access to their content - they are closed, or consist of just a cover. Presented as private documents, the titles of these works, My Notebook or Self, for example, refer to the necessity of being able to form an individual identity and to write a personal history, as opposed to the collective identity and official history which Soviet censorship imposed. Roiter therefore refrains from filling the notebooks, and has left the labels on the covers blank. The only book that can be looked into is an artist's book in which Roiter has included, in addition to his pictures, blank pages for the readers to make their own notes. Just as the camera, the notebook or diary represent communication and all its associations with the censorship and propaganda of Roiter's past, these are now used as symbols of freedom of expression. Labouring an abstract concept, the notebook, however, runs the risk of becoming an empty sign.

Roiter's desire for dislocation follows on from his utopian hopes for the possibility of permanent change and self-transformation. My Revolution Self is written on a sign, placed in the centre of exhibition. Roiter's proclaimed chameleon-like attitude, however, is in conflict with the works that he produces. His imagery is based on a consistent vocabulary that is relatively easy to identify. Though Roiter's tourism-as-a-way-of-life functions as a significant critique of the communist system of art, he has apparently not been interested in maintaining a critical distance from the capitalist system, into which his works have slotted perfectly. It seems difficult to reconcile the role of 'tourist' with the fact that Roiter was amongst the very first Russian artists to become commercially successful in the Western art market.