Elena Elagina

Pure

1987

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Not on display

Artist
Elena Elagina born 1949
Original title
Chistoe
Medium
Wood, paint, ceramic tiles, glass, plastic, rubber and liquid Furacilin
Dimensions
Overall display dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Acquisitions Fund for Russian Art, supported by V-A-C Foundation 2017
Reference
T14970

Summary

Pure 1987 consists of two distinct juxtaposed parts: the upper one is contained within a large white box frame, with the Russian word ¿¿¿¿¿¿ (translating as ‘pure’) composed out of white tiles assembled on a white background. Five white apothecary jars with firmly shut lids are carefully arranged along the lower edge of the frame. Only one disturbing detail sets this embodiment of hygiene off-balance – the red worms crawling around the containers. This upper part of the composition is made to resemble a Soviet-era pharmacy vitrine. The white frame is hung on the wall at eye-level and is connected via a medical rubber tube to a large transparent glass vessel positioned on an old kitchen stool beneath it. The glass vessel is filled with a muddy-looking liquid containing some worms. The discoloured liquid is a solution of the antiseptic Furacilin, widely used in Soviet hospitals. The connection between the immaculate-looking frame and the muddy substance in the jar distorts the meaning of the word ‘pure’. The Russian adjective can also describe something ‘clean’, or of a neuter gender and a pure quality, all elements contradicted by the other components of the work.

Describing a personal experience that was the impetus behind the work, Elagina explained:

When I was lying in the delivery room of the maternity ward after giving birth to my son, surrounded by white hospital linings and sterile medical equipment, the smell of antiseptic was filling the room. I turned my head and saw a cockroach crawling up the wall. I was in a sterile environment, which wasn’t clean. The absurdity of the situation struck me.
(Conversation with Tate curator Natalia Sidlina, Moscow, 3 June 2015.)

Pure is the first in a series of works dating from the years between 1987 and 1990, in which the artist explored the complex structure and meaning of adjectives associated with nouns of neuter gender. Other works from the series – such as Child’s (or That of a Child, ‘¿¿¿¿¿¿¿’) 1988, related to a neuter noun ‘¿¿¿¿’, and Tar (or Tarred, ‘¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿¿’) 1990 – similarly focus on a word in order to explore the depth of meaning, both visual and textual, behind it. Conceived in the early 1980s, during the artist’s work on the third folder of the Moscow Archive of New Art (MANI) (see MANI Folder 3 1982 [Tate T14971]), this series of works was begun in 1987, the year of the First Exhibition of the Club of the Avant-gardists (KLAVA), in which Pure was displayed. This exhibition was the first display of unofficial art which took place not in a private apartment or an artist’s studio, but at a state exhibition venue in the Proletarian district in Moscow. The exhibition marked the new stage in Moscow conceptualism where art objects and installations began to take centre-stage. Pure typifies this shift, which was in part caused by the appeasement in politics and culture of the Perestroika period.

It also exemplifies the Russian logocentric mentality that was at the root of the text-centered practice of Moscow conceptualism. In Ilya Kabakov’s (born 1933) early albums, a single word was introduced on a plain white surface; while in Erik Bulatov’s (born 1933) paintings, a word or a short phrase invades the picture plane. Elagina picked up where Kabakov had left off, removing the word from its pure white background, finding a readymade form for it and presenting it as a three-dimensional composition. Her work places the word centre-stage while deconstructing it at the same time, with a particular interest in exploring the neuter gender adnouns. The dichotomy of contrasting elements in her installations in this series calls into question the meaning of the adjectives at their core, complicating the ultimate interpretation of the works.

Further reading
Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina, Within the Limits of the Sublime: Objects and Installations, exhibition catalogue, XL Gallery, Moscow 2005.
Nadim J. Sammand (ed.), Makarevich & Elagina: Mushrooms of the Russian Avant-Garde, exhibition catalogue, Rochelle School/A-Foundation, London 2008.

Natalia Sidlina
December 2015

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