M I T Press

In THE MUSEOLOGICAL UNCONSCIOUS, Tupitsyn asks: what are the optical conditions that provide the context necessary to understand a work of art? The Museological Unconscious reveals that there is a “perceptual gap” between Western and Russian views of what appears on the surface to be similar art.

Tupitsyn himself is situated both inside and outside the “non-conformist” Russian art scene that the book describes. He was an art critic closely involved in the unofficial Russian art scene, but emigrated to the USA in 1975. Although not an artist, he was member of a nonconformist group, the “Kazimir Passion”, staging actions and happenings. In 1974 he participated in the violently-suppressed “Bulldozer” exhibition (an unofficial art exhibition on a piece of waste ground in Moscow). In the USA, while working as an academic mathematician, he has played an ongoing, instrumental role in familiarizing Western audiences with contemporary Russian art.

The result is a book that is both an exciting tour of a little understood yet important art phenomenon, and a book which reflects its academic provenance. The critical text contains within it an uneasy relationship or cross-referencing of western academic discourses and Russian conceptual discourse; this relationship, while very interesting, renders much of the critical text confusing to anyone not fully conversant in both discourses.(In addition, the reader does need to have a reasonable knowledge of both Russian-Soviet history and contemporary Russian art. Otherwise the historical references will be confusing, and the art references meaningless.)

The book is strongest on colourful description. Tupitsyn describes both why and how Russian art was resistant to recuperation. Russian conceptualists such as Kabakov created a visual language of “unheroic” everyday experience into art, thus expressing things that official institutional culture could not. But in the lack of a commercial imperative, there was no little chance that the official culture would co-opt the unofficial one, turning their radical ideas and images into safe and commodified ones – as happened in the west).

Within this “communal” space, Russian artists managed to create a kind of autonomy in relation to “official” institutions, an autonomy that was never possible in the capitalist West. Without directly referring to situationism here, Tupitsyn points out that there appears to be nothing that the Western “culture industry” cannot appropriate.

Tupitsyn points out that already in the 80s some soviet artists, aware that there were journalists, diplomats and academics collecting non-official Russian art, started to make work for this market. We all have certainly seen that by the late 90s-early 2000s there were exhibition of “Russian” art everywhere, of varying quality. And for most of the western visitors to the exhibitions the work was largely opaque, because, as Tupitsyn asserts, the western audience did not, could not, understand the psycho-social dynamic that gave the work its meaning to its sovietised audience.

Tupitsyn clarifies the “communal mindset” and its artistic representation in Russia for the western reader.He points out that, far from the art history of 20th c Russia being one of inheritance and questioning of tradition, the works of the early Soviet Russian tradition of Malevich, Lissitzky and so on were actually buried in the state archives and museum basements. Russian artists encountered these works through Western artists that were themselves in turn were inspired by the early-Soviet collections in western museums (and by books such as Camilla Gray’s 1962 text, The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922).

Tupitsyn also brings home to the Western reader the very real threat that alternative artists were under in the Soviet times: arrests, incarceration in mental hospital, and exile.

The author himself experienced this threat.

Dubravka Ugresic, in The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998) has a wonderful passage where she describes attending a performance of Ilya Kabakov, in Berlin in 1994. Kabakov’s evocation of communist/communal life was, according to Ugresic,”a requiem for a vanished epoch, its sad resume, the very heart of the system…. Kabakov ‘s performance pulled a thread of undefined sadness in me, that of a shared “Eastern European trauma.”

Tupitsyn is scathing towards the artists who we in the UK might be more likely to be aware of: the so-called telesniks such as Alexander Brener (best known in the UK for publicly shitting during the 2008 panel session ‘Violence to Endurance: Extreme Curating’ at the ICA.) and Oleg Kulik. He goes on to attack Giancarlo Politi of Flash Art for his support of these artists. The very fact that we are more aware of these artists than any other post-Soviet artists, because of how they fit nicely into the “sensationalist” programme as “a source of amusement for some museum curators in the West” (Tupitsyn, C, 2008). While I agree with much of what the author says about the telesniks, to my mind Kulik is a more thoughtful and interesting artist, who deserves more than this cursory dismissal.

Despite its flaws, Tupitsyn’s book is the only English-language publication available right now that gives a reasonably comprehensive history of “unofficial” Soviet and post-Soviet art, and serves us well as an introduction to the contemporary Russian art scene.

Tupitsyn’s entertaining description of the energetic and dynamic activities of the Non-Conformists to make sense of their controlled world thought are actually inspirational.

But this is the very thing that inevitably leaves me with some serious questions. Is democracy the natural guardian of artistic independence? Or has the cultural policy agenda of neo-liberal democracy led us now into a bureaucratic “instrumentalization” of art, umbilically connected to the functions of the market and the state? We artists are, right now, in a cultural predicament, and we need to begin to find some answers.


Links for further reading:

Mikhail [email protected], The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism

Interview with Oleg Kulik,

‘Violence to Endurance: Extreme Curating at the ICA’:

Victor Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconscious. Introduction by Susan Buck-Morss and Victor Tupitsyn 2009