Valeriy Gerlovin, Rimma Gerlovina

Semantics of Possible Worlds


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Not on display

Valeriy Gerlovin
Rimma Gerlovina born 1951
Cotton bound card folder, printed papers and 31 works on paper, black and white gelatin silver print on paper and printed paper
Object: 270 × 370 × 30 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2019


Semantics of Possible Worlds 1977 is a textile-covered bound album that contains thirty-one unnumbered, loose-leaf thick card sheets, each of which bears one photograph and one piece of text. Wearing a black leotard, a female figure is positioned against a white backdrop in a studio, altering her pose into various shapes from one take to the next as she stretches, squats and reaches. A chair acts as a prop in a small number of the shots. Above and below her, film perforations are left visible on the photographic prints, leaving a trace of the photographic process. Each photograph is accompanied by an individual English-language typed label, cut out and pasted beneath, making propositions such as ‘The module exists simultaneously within the present, past and future’ and ‘The module has one and the same features in different worlds, i.e. plays the same role in a certain set of different worlds’.

The wife and husband duo Rimma Gerlovina and Valeriy Gerlovin were key figures within the first generation of Moscow conceptualism, both separately and through their collaborative practice alongside artists such as Ilya Kabakov (born 1933) and Viktor Pivovarov (born 1937). Semantics of Possible Worlds is part of a diverse practice that resulted in objects, performances, photographs, concepts and works using language, and incorporates within it aspects of each of these. To make the work, the artists repurposed photographs that had originally been produced for an official state commission. In 1977 Valeriy Gerlovin was commissioned by Russian state publishing house Znanie (Knowledge) to create the images and design for a book titled An Urologist’s Tips for Women, a medical publication offering information and guidance, including physical exercises accompanied by photographic demonstrations. Rimma Gerlovina took on the role of the model, performing these prescribed exercises; the photographer was Vladislav Danilov. The cover of the subsequent album containing the repurposed images describes Semantics of Possible Worlds as the ‘Script of [a] Sci-pop film by Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovin … directed by Valeriy Gerlovin’. For the album, the artists appropriated the material of the book commission for their unofficial art practice. Produced in two editions, of which this copy is the second, Semantics of Possible Worlds transformed the notion of the photographic model into the artists’ concept of the ‘module’, which they have described as:

the personi[fication of] different states of psychological and visionary experience … There is, or at least has to be, some kind of concord between the micro-world of each atom in man and the macro-world of the universe (as articulated by the Hermetic dictum ‘As above, so below’, among others). According to this view, one may express the universal through the human presence, reflecting ‘the face’ of the world in man’s face and dimensions – an embodiment of the principle that we exist in all that exists. Therefore, instead of photographing all that exists, we photographed its representations, using ourselves as modules.
(Rimma Gerlovina and Valeriy Gerlovin, Photoglyphs, 2010, paragraph 1, accessed 3 April 2017.)

As a ‘module’, Rimma Gerlovina performed in front of the camera using the language of gesture, articulating the artists’ specific belief systems. Having trained as a philologist, Gerlovina explored the possibilities of visual language as a way of articulating complex concepts. Describing their practice more broadly, the couple explained, ‘It was an art of thinking through concepts using a formally complete and independent language … Mythological and philosophical ideas conditioned our approach.’ (Quoted in National Centre for Contemporary Arts 2012, p.47.)

The dual existence of the photographs as the foundation for Semantics of Possible Worlds and in the publication An Urologist’s Tips for Women problematises the hard and fast division between official and unofficial artists within the Soviet Union, where artists whose practice was associated with nonconformism also existed within the state structure. This includes fellow first-generation Moscow conceptualist Ilya Kabakov, whose installations, such as Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) 1990 (Tate T07923), are likewise counterbalanced by his earlier practice as a state-sanctioned children’s book illustrator.

Both Rimma Gerlovina and Valeriy Gerlovin had independent artistic practices, but Semantics of Possible Worlds is of particular importance as a joint work. Sharing spaces such as studios and communal flats meant that collaborative output was a significant working method for nonconformist artists in the Soviet Union. Immigrating to the United States in 1979, Rimma Gerlovina and Valeriy Gerlovin continued their separate and joint practices, developing their notion of the ‘module’ into an ongoing Photoglyphs series, which features both Rimma and Valeriy in front of the camera. Semantics of Possible Worlds thus links the performative, photographic and language-based works that defined their Russian years with their subsequent works made in the United States.

Further reading
Yuri Albert (ed.), Moscow Conceptualism: The Beginning, exhibition catalogue, National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Nizhnii Novgorod 2012.

Dina Akhmadeeva
April 2017

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