Marcel Proust once wrote that a human being is an octopus whose tentacles are constituted by myriad social and personal connections. Of those connections, the interaction among artists in a group seems the most mysterious, and its chemistry, unlike that of love, under-researched. For the group show ‘Impossible Community’, prominent Russian theoretician and curator Viktor Misiano tried to get to the core of this kind of artistic team-thinking.
The idea for ‘Impossible Community’ originated two years ago as a retrospective of ESCAPE, a collective of four artists (Valery Ayzenberg, Anton Litvin, Liza Morozova and Bogdan Mamonov) who were active as a group during the last decade and are currently pursuing solo careers. Founded by Ayzenberg in 1999, ESCAPE were anti-commercial before there was an art market and stayed underground when there was no establishment. In 2005 they represented Russia at the Venice Biennale. Litvin, Morozova and Mamonov left shortly after that, and Ayzenberg currently runs ESCAPE with two other artists. In the process of preparing their retrospective, Misiano and the original members of the group decided to radically expand the project in order to present, as Misiano puts it, a ‘portrait’ of ESCAPE through their own work alongside pieces by other artists with similar approaches, including Jeremy Deller, Paweł Althamer, IRWIN and others.
The majority of ESCAPE’s works in the show suggest that an effective group dynamic requires constant therapy and compromise. In Chorus (2005), a video in which the four artists, dressed in white, appear to sing different songs, the only sound we hear is that of applause after they finish. In this work, as in any group endeavour, temporary unity calls for a negation of dissonance. Every ESCAPE work includes a diagram of each member’s individual input, made by Ayzenberg. This degree of self-centredness is unparalleled in other works in the show, with the exception of two artistic groups from the former Soviet Union, one old (Collective Actions), and one young (SOSka from Ukraine). From the works collected here, it looks like ESCAPE’s main goal was to be (only) human, no mean feat in the post-conceptual landscape of Russian art in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Other contributions direct the show away from the perils of team-building and towards revisiting the 1990s field of relational aesthetics and performance. This may be a return to the ‘pre-Putin era’, as Misiano calls it, but it looks distinctly of its time for the Russian art scene. The collective image of the artist, according to ‘Impossible Community’, is that of a humanitarian worker trying to make a slight difference in the world while distancing him or herself from organized forms of social service – something like preaching outside the confines of organized religion. This may be why politically charged groups like Voina or Chto delat? were not included in the show: their work is too programmatic for the poetic space one finds here. An instructive example: two artists in the show engage in voluntary repairs and cleaning. Didier Courbot repairs French streets (needs, 1999–ongoing), while Althamer’s group of neighbours actually got to clean Moscow as part of his ongoing Invisible Hand project. Jirˇí Kovanda employed a Russian artist to sell roses at the opening (What Means To Work, 2011) and in Adrian Paci’s video Appearance (2001), the artist reunites his Italian-born daughter with her Albanian relatives via a video-chat. Together, they sing a folk song in what looks like the kind of thing Skype was invented for.
Misiano and the museum also took pains to introduce art works to the urban fabric of Moscow. Recent developments in Russia’s capital have marked a significant turn away from the upgrade of Soviet monuments for the capitalist city. Roman Abramovich’s allies rebuilt one of the theme parks in the city centre into something resembling New York’s High Line, and former industrial zones are turning into event spaces for the West-leaning middle-class. Misiano and ESCAPE’s anti-noughties sentiment looks just right for a city that is turning away from the monumental growing pains of post-Soviet capital. Litvin installed his work ESC (2011) – modest street signs with the work’s title inscribed in white on black – on the boulevard near the museum and on an atrocious, recently erected memorial. Seeing his signs in this context transports the mind of a flaneur to a better, though markedly virtual, reality. For his work Lighthouse (1996/2011), Vadim Fishkin synchronized his heartbeat with a red light blinking from the tower of an expensive restaurant. Though it may well comply with the avant-garde guidelines of introducing art to the city, Fishkin’s work, like most of the others in this exceptional show, does the opposite: it decreases the artificiality of the public space, be it city or museum, giving it a shot of pure, unconditional existence.