The centenary of the Russian Revolution has seen some excellent publications on the subject, but very little of it from Russia itself. Conceived as the first anthology of Russian art writing outside of Russia, Cosmic Shift is, in the words of curator Elena Zaytseva, “a collection that explores the aesthetic and moral legacy of the Russian Revolution in the field of contemporary art”, bringing together a vast array of artists, curators, writers and the philosophers in a shared task on an epic scale. The results are discursive and idiosyncratic in their treatment of the subject.
Andrey Monastyrsky’s visits the relic that is the VDNKh (the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy), and ruminates upon nostalgia, state capitalism and the “transcendent” idea of the economy itself in Stalinist Russia. Joseph Backstein wonders what happened to the Russian artists (whom he compares to “angels”) that fell to earth after the fall of the Berlin Wall and their presence in a post-Soviet world.
So far, so abstract, in keeping with a wistful “other” sensibility that this anthology cultivates. More pertinently, Artemy Magun’s Soviet Communism and the Paradox of Alienation is a thoughtful and engaging essay transposing the collective and the isolated, focussing on the past, present and future of “communism” as an idea and the impact of atomisation on ordinary people in present day Russia.
One of my favourite contributions is a poem by artist Alexander Brener, a glorious paean to the artist Kazimir Malevich, transforming his painting Black Square into both a city square and a mischievous black cat. The section entitled “Russia, Today” is the most revealing about attitudes to the Russian Revolution a century on. Firmly grounded in Marxist ideas, Ilya Budraitskis’s essay A Heritage Without an Heir is a more conceptual companion to one by Alex Callinicos in the latest ISJ, and Dmitry Venkov’s film script Krisis is a powerful dialogue between politicised young people regarding the destruction of Soviet era statues in Ukraine and Russia itself.
For all the positive aspects of the book, there are inevitably problems with such a diverse approach. As a book of art criticism, it is pitched at a theoretical level that can make the book rather inaccessible, and with the constant references to Adorno and Marcuse, many of the contributors display their adherence to the ideas of the Frankfurt School of Philosophy.
Some contributors also unhelpfully still refer to October 1917 as a “Bolshevik coup” and the continuity thesis myth of Lenin leading to Stalin sadly goes unchallenged. For an insight into the words of Russian artists themselves from Constructivism to Socialist Realism, I would recommend John E. Bowlt’s collection Russian Art of the Avant-Garde. However, Cosmic Shift stands as an excellent new contribution to art criticism and engagement with that country’s cultural and historical legacy.