Curator Margarita Tupitsyn describes presenting Russian art in the West as a ‘Sisyphean project’, but she isn’t easily deterred. In organizing ‘Rodchenko and Popova’ at Tate Modern last year, she examined the birth of Constructivism through the lens of the two artists’ practices. Titled ‘Moscow Partisan Conceptualism’ and co-curated with her husband Victor Tupitsyn, at Orel Art UK this exhibition-as-synecdoche formula was applied less convincingly to the legacy of the so-called Moscow Conceptual School (MoKSh) of the 1970s and ’80s, with Irina Nakhova and Pavel Pepperstein providing the focus.
With pieces dating from the mid-80s to today, this was a far from historical exhibition. While MoKSh was presented as grounded in the Perestroika era, it was shown to be still alive in Nakhova and Pepperstein’s more recent work. Nakhova’s Resuscitation (2008–9) contradicts the monumentality of Soviet sculpture: two sets of outsized hearts and heads – one in plastic film, the other in grey parachute silk – inflate and deflate in a mechanical breathing action. Easily folded down to pocket size, Resuscitation has the impermanence of many works developed by Nakhova and others during MoKSh’s early days when, in the absence of any institutional recognition, exhibition opportunities had to be made and display techniques improvised.
First realized for the 1995 installation A Pipe, or an Alley of Longevity by Inspection Medical Hermeneutics (a collective formed in Moscow in 1987 by Pepperstein, Sergei Anufriev and Yuri Leiderman), Pepperstein’s series of watercolours tackles life cycles more directly. The baby-faced Kolobok – a character from Russian folklore occasionally used by the artist as a self-portrait – is repeated frame after frame, contrasting with a collection of grey old men, their hair and wrinkles spreading in rivulets over the paper. Each visage is captioned with an age, from 11 months to 921,000,000,152 years; childhood and old age are shown as unrelated states.
While the series casts a retrospective look at the USSR, Pepperstein’s V.I. Lenin on a Vacation in Gorki (1986) was a direct response to the late-1980s debates on the potential closing of Lenin’s museums and mausoleum. In a text displayed nearby, the artist explains that the red drawings have been made by the leader’s sisters or his nephew, probably after his second assassination attempt in 1918. Lenin is sketched playing tennis, hunting and welcoming Stalin to his country retreat. While this desecration might have been resonant at the time of making, shown in contemporary Western Europe, where such displays of intimacy are commonplace in any politician campaign, its impact withers – from political stance it turns to weak mockery.
Elsewhere, the curators’ argument for MoKSh’s contemporaneity verges on the programmatic. In the sound piece Apollo-Soyuz (2010), Pepperstein raps in Russian about history and the state of the world. (The translated lyrics are engraved on four Perspex plates.) The same somewhat tokenistic nod to youth sub-cultures goes on in Nakhova’s series of latex skins printed with tattoo motifs (‘Skin’, 2009–10) and coupled with grotesque stories of ‘capitalism’s victims’ (‘Badri became a broker on Wall Street […] One of the senators mistakenly shot him right beneath the 12th vertebra’).
MoKSh occupies a crucial place in contemporary Russian art and it deserves to be better-known, but this exhibition’s broad time frame and its narrow selection of two artists confuses the point. ‘You fucking predators, murderers of nature’, as Pepperstein himself raps, ‘you deserve no better than this.’