Komar and Melamid

A Catalogue of Superobjects: Supercomfort for Superpeople

1975, published 1976, photographs reprinted 2016

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Not on display

Artist
Komar and Melamid born 1943, born 1945
Medium
36 photographs, C-prints on paper and 46 works on paper, machine-typed text
Dimensions
Support, each: 253 × 203 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Ronald and Frayda Feldman 2015
Reference
P14983

Summary

A Catalogue of Superobjects: Supercomfort for Superpeople 1977 is a loose-leaf portfolio of thirty-six photographs and texts that are displayed framed. The work was made from negatives and texts produced by the artists in the Soviet Union in 1976 and published in New York in May 1977 by the Ronald Feldman Gallery. Although the total number in the edition is stated as 100 (and this is how the edition is numbered), only fifty were actually printed in 1977 – to coincide with the artists’ solo exhibition in New York at the Ronald Feldman Gallery – and a further eight printed in 2008. Tate’s copy is from those printed in 1977 and is number thirty-seven in the edition.

Komar and Melamid conceived A Catalogue of Superobjects: Supercomfort for Superpeople as a play on the concept of a common mail-order catalogue, selling their invented ‘superobjects’ instead of everyday items. Each ‘superobject’ is described in a printed text using persuasive marketing language that is over-enthusiastic and humorous in tone, alongside a colour photograph of the object being demonstrated by a posing model. The transparencies and text were delivered to Ronald Feldman Gallery via Alfred Friendly, a correspondent for the American magazine Newsweek who often helped transfer Komar and Melamid’s works across the Iron Curtain from Moscow to New York. The objects themselves were produced in Moscow in 1976 using cheap, flimsy materials, and were damaged during the photoshoots, such that the artists thought it pointless to send them.

The catalogue comprises nine categories of Superobjects, with invented names that describe their purpose or function, including: ‘Prestigeants’, which increase the user’s social prestige; ‘Sensationizers’, which heighten the senses and feelings; and ‘Auto-Probes’, which allow for greater insight into the user’s own innermost desires. Other categories include ‘Clotheables’, ‘Cultivatents’, ‘Defendables’, ‘Energy-Loss Abaters’, ‘Furniture to Wear’ and ‘Floorists’. For example, Olo is a Prestigeant ‘language ornament’, shown as a giant pearl worn on the tongue and offering ‘proof of (one’s) ideal marriage with Truth’. Stong is also a Prestigeant, but this object illustrates the metaphor of holding one’s head up high to ‘[break] the humiliating habit of … fawning before the powerful of this world’. Ksushna is an antenna that, when strapped to the back of the head, connects its wearer to ‘the irrational sensations of the Invisible Ideal … inexpressible in human language’. Other objects function to remove or prevent negative situations, such as the Spirit Clotheable, a sort of glove or straitjacket which protects the wearer from the sins of their own ‘slave-hands’.

A Catalogue of Superobjects: Supercomfort for Superpeople satirises both the dogmatic materialism of Soviet Marxism and the capitalist optimism of Western consumerism. Crossing the Iron Curtain, this work is a response to Soviet reality and the desire for the ‘unobtainable West’ as an imaginary, exotic elsewhere. The texts accompanying the images often mention precious materials, such as rosewood, silk and gold, which contrast with the cheapness of the household materials – curtain fringe, plastic flowers and wires – which the artists used to construct their prototypes. On the one hand the disjuncture between the description of the object and its representation in the photograph suggests the poverty of materials available in the East to reconstruct the wealth of the West. On the other it highlights the failure of consumer objects to help us really know ourselves or speak the truth.

The work opens with a satirical manifesto by Komar and Melamid parodying the ideological disconnection between East and West:

The Socialisation of the Modern World is a reality. It is propelling the relentless unification of the material and the spiritual. The wild utopias of Marx and Corbusier, of the surrealists and the socialists, have materialised. The art and ideology of secret social clans demand the unity of mankind – that the shining future of the world be shared by all.

The artists’ own sense of disappointment in the failure of the utopian vision is reflected in their Catalogue. This is demonstrated in the Auto-Probes section, where the desire to protect oneself from external stimuli by gazing, listening and smelling inwardly alludes to the internal exile Soviet intellectuals and artists were forced into by the obtrusive surveillance mechanisms of the state. The object Tyairp, for instance, is described as ‘a device for contemplating the Inner World’ but, consisting of a mouthpiece that connects to a pair of opaque glasses, looks more like a disorientating torture device. Yet equally this work suggests that in the West the notion of utopia had been replaced by the reality of a lonely and dissatisfied consumer. The curator John Everett Daquino commented that it suggests that ‘the line of separation between the United States and Soviet Russia was not as thick as it seemed, since both countries suffered from an overproduction’ – one of consumer goods, the other of ideology. He described how ‘by appropriating the inflated and often hollow promises of both Western advertising and Soviet rhetoric, Komar and Melamid show how both cultures rely on a mythic language to persuade and influence the masses’. (Quoted in Gurshtein 2014, pp.211.)

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid met while studying at the Stroganov Institute of Art and Design in Moscow (1962–7) and began working collaboratively in 1965. They invented the term Sots-Art in 1972 – a compression of the terms socialist realism and pop art – to describe their own artworks. Under this moniker they began creating works that focused on the mass slogans and political images that formed an omnipresent backdrop to life in the Soviet Union. Komar and Melamid’s creative collaboration resulted in conceptual works, paintings, installations and performances. Alongside Russian-born painter Eric Bulatov, Komar and Melamid were the first artists to rework the codes and symbols of Soviet propaganda. Their work was seen as controversial by the Soviet state and both artists were expelled from the youth section of the Soviet Artist Union in 1973. They emigrated from the Soviet Union to New York in 1978, via Israel, and then became naturalised citizens of the United States. They stopped working as a duo in 2002 to pursue solo careers.

Further reading
Melvyn B. Nathanson (ed.), Komar/Melamid: Two Soviet Dissident Artists, Carbondale, Edwardsville, London and Amsterdam 1979.
Ksenya Gurshtein, ‘Utopia by Mail: Komar and Melamid’s A Catalogue of Superobjects: Supercomfort for Superpeople’, Getty Research Journal, no.6, 2014, pp.203–13.

Juliet Bingham
January 2015

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