Paper Museums: Moscow Conceptualism in Transit conveys sense of dissident excitement

By Mark Sheerin | 11 July 2014

Exhibition review: Paper Museums: Moscow Conceptualism in Transit, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, until July 19 2014

A photo of a Russian sign from the 1980s
Yuri Albert, Kabachok (1983)© Courtesy Vadim Zakharov Archive Collection
More dazzling than any of the work on display is the scholarship and narrative power of this current show curated, for the most part, by Elizaveta Butakova. But the heart of the display is a comprehensive round up of the contents of five artist archives known as the MANI folders. This took an equal number of additional curators to bring to fruition.

The folders are arranged in glass museum cases and indeed, as the show title suggests, your next visit to John Hansard Gallery could be more museum-like than gallery-esque. Running along with each case is a filmed and subtitled interview with the artists who first put this series of folders together in the early 1980s.

A photo of an artwork showing a four-pronged light beam in front of a forest
Oleg Vassiliev, Space and Landscape (1994)© Estate of Oleg Vassiliev, courtesy Faggionato
Stand and watch these films for as long as your attention and stamina will allow; you will soon come to realise the MANI folders are important pieces of art history. They fly as low under the radar today, however, as they did in the former Soviet Union.

There are no show stoppers in the art of Moscow conceptualism, no formaldehyde tanks or balloon dogs. But as former MANI editor Andrei Monastrysky says in his interview: “I get the sense that contemporary art is a kind of mass amusement and there are no amusements in the MANI folders”.

He is right. We are left with a sense of intellectual struggle. A deep seriousness pervades the photos, texts and two dimensional works here. And it’s as if a repressive regime has one worthwhile byproduct: artists develop a sense of social purpose. Earnings just don’t enter into the equation here, which makes the show a strange thing.

But illustrating the difference in making art on either side of the iron curtain, the show also includes of ephemera associated with A-Ya magazine. Edited in Paris between 1979 and 1986 by Igor Chelkovski, A-Ya is a colourful, well produced affair. But while the gloss may look more appealing, the language barrier is frustrating. There are three copies available to read if your Russian is any good.

The show leaps off the page only now and again. And despite the frequent hardships and privations of life as a Russian, or a Russian emigré at this time, the most striking series of artworks here are the drawings made by Nikita Alekseev in 1987: Nostalgia.

These document a number of exhibitions he staged in his flat in the early 80s. They are colourful renditions in felt pen, numbered with helpful keys. He is as likely to feature a spatula in the kitchen as a dissident painting over the sofa. And the results are easy on the eye and more vibrant than anything we might have come to expect from that era.

All of which reminds you, those who lived through the cold war perceive the era in colour rather than black and white. Maintaining artistic freedom might have been dangerous and near impossible three decades ago.

On paper, Paper Museums may be one of the year’s driest shows, but nevertheless, it conveys the excitement of surviving as a dissident artist.

  • Open Tuesday-Friday 11am-5pm (4pm Saturday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @JHansardGallery.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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