Not on display
Gestures of Appeal 1979 is a group of seven red-tinted vintage photographs from the larger series Ideal People in Society 1979, a group of photographic works documenting performances by Vadim Zakharov – one of the key figures of the second generation of Moscow conceptualism in the 1980s – and Igor Lutz, which were staged in an art studio in Moscow and various public locations in the city. For Gestures of Appeal, Zakharov and Lutz, at the time both students of the art and graphic design faculty at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute, were photographed assuming seven different poses reminiscent of those of Soviet public monuments. Dressed only in boxer shorts and sneakers, standing side by side on a low platform against a makeshift white screen too small to provide a full backdrop for the photoshoot, the artists strike poses with their arms raised or resting on each other’s shoulders. Each pose was assigned a slogan-like title: ‘Maintain the power of our country!’, ‘For piece, friendship and collaboration!’, ‘Forward towards the new victories!’, ‘Strengthen friendship and fraternity amongst the workers of all countries!’, ‘For the triumph of communist ideals’, ‘Fight for the unity of the peoples of our country!’ and ‘Equality to all nations!’ The prints were tinted with red pigment at the developing stage of the printing process. In the context of Soviet Russia, this gives the compositions the appearance of ideologically charged imagery, which at the same time is undermined by the makeshift setting and casual outfits of the protagonists.
Ideal People in Society also comprised a number of performances which represented a significant step forward for Soviet unofficial art of the late 1970s, being the first consistent practice aimed at developing the public space of the city as a creative ground for contemporary art practice. Such public spaces were out of bounds for unofficial artists in the Soviet Union, as manifested during a brutal confrontation between Soviet state authorities and nonconformist artists which took place at an open-air show known as the ‘Bulldozer exhibition’ on 15 September 1974. The staging of public avant-garde performances in the USSR ceased from the 1930s, but in 1977–8 The Nest group made an attempt to revive the practice of public street performances with actions such as The Demonstration 1978. Zakharov and Lutz devised a series of carefully documented performances in 1979, working directly within public spaces, performing a number of apparently conventional activities such as planting trees in Making Moscow Green – Planting Trees 1979 (Tate P82181), sweeping the streets with brooms in Keeping Moscow Clean 1979 (Tate P82182), or promenading down the Moscow river bank in the vicinity of Government buildings, an elite housing estate and the Udarnik cinema, the masterpiece of constructivist architecture, in Patrolling the Moscow River 1979 (Tate P82183).
Zakharov has explained the genesis of Ideal People in Society:
From 1978 to 1980 I worked together with Igor Lutz. We focused on a problem we called ‘functioning in culture’. This concept combined many aspects. One of them – an inconspicuous parody of the socialist system as well as Sots art, a movement pioneered by the artists Komar and Melamid in 1972. It was dominating a tiny Moscow artistic circle, until its crisis of 1978. By then our generation of artists grew disenchanted and even exasperated with Sots art. As Sots art treated both our socialist reality and American pop art with irony, our actions could be seen as a parody of their irony or even as transparent political actions. We embarked upon our collaboration with the development of a language of Soviet gestures, which corresponded to Sots art’s subversive approach to doctrine. Soon we shifted towards public actions that were borderline invisible to passers-by, KGB officers and even other Moscow underground artists, because they did not recognise in them direct actionism or motion. We just swept the streets, planted trees, patrolled the Moscow river, as did many Soviet people and members of communist youth organisations. This apparent ‘invisibility’ and the lack of an artistic motion were very new, radical manifestations of the approach through which we tried to develop a new practice in contemporary art.
(Vadim Zakharov in correspondence with Tate curator Natalia Sidlina, 20 May 2017.)
The series was created at a time when metaphysical painting, conceptual art and so-called Sots Art (a critical, conceptual form of pop art based on the appropriation and subversion of socialist realist iconography) generally defined Soviet unofficial art. With the emergence of a second generation of artists from the late 1970s, artistic life became differentiated. Historian Ekatrina Bobrinskaia has elucidated:
By that time, there was also considerable change in the atmosphere and stylistics of the unofficial culture in Moscow. Hypertrophied intellectualism, visual asceticism, and a highly emotional concern with social issues were replaced by an aesthetic dominated by spectacle and play. Artists began to return to figurative art and to make active use of the images and stylistics of mass culture. The persona and behaviour of the artist, directly linked to his artistic strategies, took on ever greater importance.
(Ekatrina Bobrinskaia, ‘Moscow Conceptual Performance Art in the 1970s’, in Rosenfeld 2011, p.175.)
Ideal People in Society was exhibited in 1979 at one of the first apartment exhibitions – which in the 1980s grew into an art form in itself – known as the AptArt movement. The exhibition took place at the apartment of the artist Yuri Albert, a fellow student of Zakharov and Lutz’s. Zakharov worked with Igor Lutz from 1978– 9, this being his first creative collaboration. After graduating from the Institute, Lutz continued working in publishing, designing the first Soviet colour weekly journal Sobesednik, while Zakharov became the key figure of the unofficial art scene in Moscow in the 1980s. Zakharov continued to work independently as well as in collaboration with other artists. In the work of the second generation of Moscow conceptualism, there is a shift in cultural paradigms favouring group identity or universal subjectivity over the actions of the individual, thus differentiating younger artists from what had by then become a mainstream practice, as favoured by the first-generation artists such as Ilya Kabakov (born 1933) and Viktor Pivovarov (born 1937).
Ekaterina Degot and Vadim Zakharov (eds.), Moskovskii kontseptualizm, a special issue of the World Art Museum (WAM) journal, no.15/16, Moscow 2005.
Vadim Zakharov: 25 Years on One Page, exhibition catalogue, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow 2006.
Alla Rosenfeld (ed.), Moscow Conceptualism in Context, New Brunswick 2011.
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