Moscow Conceptualism and the ArtKomiks of Gosha Ostretsov

By José Alaniz (University of Washington, Seattle)

No single art form so precisely conveys the ongoing dumbing-down and debasement of humanity as does comics. It wasn’t comics that tore down the age-old edifice of Harmony, as the moralists decry. Comics simply reflected—to recite Herbert Marcuse—the demolition of multi-dimensional man and his transition to one-dimensional man, his psychological diminution down to a few simple desires. Comics is the mirror to man’s collapse, the cheery pictures that accompany our own decomposition.
― Erofeev, 447

The multi-media artist Georgii “Gosha” Ostretsov, sometimes compared to the East German Sigmar Polke, has worked in the Moscow art scene since the mid-1980s, when he advanced the so-called “man style” (chelovek-stil') of avant-garde fashion, and participated in projects of the Detskii Sad group. At that time he also formed a partnership with the artist and komiksist Georgii “Zhora” Litichevskii, one of the very few Russian artists to utilize comics iconography in his work as early as the 1970s. They called themselves “George & George” a creative partnership that remains active to this day. From 1988-1998 Ostretsov lived in Paris, working for the fashion designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. He also took part in projects by Jean Paul Gautier, L’officiel, and Vogue. While in Paris his interest in latex masks, comics, and the representation of power led to his large-scale, ongoing, multi-media project—The New Government (Novoe pravitel'stvo).

Comics in Russia: A Very Brief Sketch

I take as the object of my study that form of visual arts practice variously called comics, fumetti, la bande dessinée, manga, tebeo/historieta, etc., which the American theorist Scott McCloud defines as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” While one often sees an overlap with closely related practices such as caricature, cartoons, animation, and other graphic art, I, following McCloud, maintain a distinction for the comics medium and its particular meaning-making practice based on sequentiality.

Due largely to Soviet ideology, 20th-century Russia proved to be an unwelcoming soil for comics to take root in. Although it bears similarity to other forms of visual production that combine word and image (like the lubok or wood-block print), the comics medium was banned by the Bolsheviks for its “bourgeois” Western origins after the adoption of Socialist Realism in 1934. Despite occasional appearances in children’s magazines—like Murzilka, Veselie kartinki, Chizh i ezh—the form largely remained “underground” until the perestroika era. Under the new freedoms, collectives like the KOM and Tema studios sprang up to take advantage of state-subsidized publishing and put out beautiful hard-cover albums in large print runs. But with the collapse of the USSR, a brutal market economy sapped almost all opportunities for komiksisty to publish comics work.

Since the early 1990s, Russian comics practice has balkanized into three largely separate areas, the Mainstream (for example, the children’s monthly Nu, Pogodi!), internet or WebKomiks (such as the manga series Nika by Bogdan), and ArtKomiks (found in galleries). Each tends to disdain the other. Yet all three continue to swim against the tide of an ingrained Russian prejudice against comics as anything other than a low form of mass culture suitable only for children, half-literate morons, or art snobs who, of course, only read them “ironically.”

ArtKomiks and Moscow Conceptualism

In his artist statement to the 2004 group show “Bubble: Comics in Contemporary Art” at Moscow’s Guelman Gallery, Litichevskii described the situation for komiks in the post-Soviet era:

We cannot ignore the fact that, before anything else, comics is a complex and somewhat alien phenomenon for Russia. And if in America the comics medium was elevated to an elite status by Roy Lichtenstein as early as the 1960s, in Russia it is looked upon with derision to this day. Precisely for this reason Russian artists working in the comics style find themselves in a dual position: they ironicize traditional comics, engaging in its deconstruction—while nevertheless, at the same time, inculcating comics into their audience, propagandizing for it. This constitutes the chief difference of our position from that of the West: however freely and casually we ourselves may deal with comics, we must simultaneously convey our conviction [to a skeptical public] that comics [itself] is a phenomenon worthy of attention. (Litichevskii and Ostretsov)

ArtKomiks artists—heirs to the sots-art movement of the late Soviet era; the 38-year-old Ostretsov, in fact, began his career as a “little conceptualist”—work in a cultural milieu pre-conditioned to view comics exclusively through the prism of Pop Art, something that cuts both ways. Can one, in Russia, ever say something “serious” through the comics form (as one can in France, Japan, the US)? As Ostretsov has noted:

In the Russian tradition a different artistic language, that of conceptualism, took root, so comics, a somewhat “alien,” exotic, colorful, mass culture form, inevitably polemicizes with the profound, rather heavy-handed conceptualist approach, which is oriented more towards text (as opposed to the simple exclamations of comics). (Litichevskii and Ostretsov)

For the Moscow Conceptualists—whose ranks include the installationist Il'ia Kabakov, multimedia jokesters Vitalii Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, and the poet-artist Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov—the discursive practices and iconography of Soviet culture serve as fodder for ironic reproduction, reappropriation, recycling, and redirection. In the words of Elizabeth Sussman, sots-art “inscribed itself in a reflection of the banal, the quotidian, as signifiers of the social. It defined itself as an underground practice situated between mass culture and the avant-garde” (64). In these works of “total quotation,” language, including visual images, has lost all links to its referents; the conceptualist works to reproduce its codes meticulously, so as to subvert its ideological underpinnings from within. This proved especially appealing in Russia during its communist phase, when, as noted by Mikhail Epstein, the country was “spiritually and materially poor but rich in ideology.”

Russian ArtKomiks has had to carve out its own space within the conceptualist sphere in order for the medium to go beyond humor and, in a sense, “beyond irony,” while retaining its subversive edge. That comics appear so prominently in Ostretsov’s category-defying multi-media arts practice demonstrates both his commitment to the genre and his ongoing attempts to redefine it on Russian soil.

The New Government

In his New Government project (on which he has been working since the late 1990s, but which synthesizes themes and iconography present throughout his oeuvre), Ostretsov uses conceptualist irony, but only as a pivot for a parodic Gesamtkunstwerk on the nature of power and despotism in post-Soviet Russia. Recalling the 1980s NSK project in Slovenia, NG combines masks, painting, sports, text, fashion, advertising, photography, performance art, video, komiks, and other media to create a parallel world in which “masked aliens” have taken over Russia and—aided by a compliant mass communications industry—rule it with an iron fist. Ostretsov himself plays various roles in the project, both masked and unmasked, including the leader of the new regime, its propaganda minister, and even a dissident. [NG Hymn]

     

In one of many press dispatches, Russia’s new rulers proclaim:

As the acting organ of power, the New Government must demonstrate its operative status; closely watch over the mass media, so that the reality of historical events does not undergo distortion; react quickly to disasters; carry out a policy of scientific-technological progress; provide for the evacuation of the globe’s population in the event of planetary catastrophe; vigilantly ensure general adherence to the Constitution; act as a punitive power; give some attention to the development and support of cultural-educational activities; and engage as much as possible the intellectual potential of man. (Ostretsov) [1]

   

Providing, in the artists’ words, a “wonderful and safe opportunity to realize a social utopia,” the NG program (brought to life through Ostretsov’s exhibits, installations, publications, and performances) has everything we’ve come to expect of a totalitarian regime: triumphalist visits to factories and electrical plants by state bureaucrats, national monuments, politburo meetings, sporting matches, propaganda posters, torture of political dissidents, and much else, all executed by soulless figures in bizarre latex masks whose shapes conform to ranks within the new society. Everything is based on efficiency, spectacle, and “remaking” oneself into an anonymous consumer. As the leaders tell their citizens: “We don’t need to see your face, and you don’t get to see ours” (Ostretsov). The New Government has even spawned its own antithesis: anti-government demonstrations by the émigré community, held safely in London.

 

Though Ostretsov’s organizing questions throughout the project—Does power have a face? Do people have a predilection for tyranny?—could apply globally, [2] NG has several features that identify it as particularly neo-Soviet, in ways that resonate quite strikingly with the rising authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia. Most obviously, its masked autocrats dress in modern Western fashion, speak frankly about world domination, and have learned the Madison Avenue trick of slick presentations, impressive monumental statistics, and efficient management.

   

Annual Report of the New Government (ArtMoskva 2003)

But other props and culturemes denote specifically Soviet nostalgia, such as propaganda placards and billboards, and the color red. Other illustrations convey and mock xenophobia, conspiracist paranoia, and total domination of existing human power structures. Lastly, NG boasts the ultimate validation for its continued existence: a costly imperialist war (the subject of the cycle “Heroica”), whose dead and mutilated soldiers are rendered with the clean sleekness of advertising graphics. [3]

       

Litichevskii describes Ostretsov’s “New Government” as

a radical realization of the categorically artistic imperative to visualize the unseen. The artist, stepping into the unusual role of the partner/antagonist, foists upon the invisible state power his own rules of the game, compelling the latter to reveal and manifest itself in the traditional form of a high-ranking person. Although, of course, the rank, the person, and, in general, the face is only a guessed-at, desired, a potential result. The reality or, if you will, the artistic truth that the artist manages to impart, assumes the shape of masks, which are both frightening and alluring at the same time. (Ostretsov)

And, I would add, pathetic, since, in one performance piece, Ostretsov shows the NG autocrats brought low by traditional Russian vices such as anomie, alcoholism, and stagnation—absolutely corrupted by their own power-mad pretensions. The paradoxical impotence of these usurpers, like that of all leaders to most people most of the time, is signaled by the presence of Lenin at the table, uselessly pontificating to his benumbed political successors.

Left: "Lenin" pontificating during an NG performance at the opening of the exhibit, Russia-2, Marat Guelman Gallery, 2005

 

 

 

 

Government “Expansion” in Process

Ostretsov continues to develop NG iconography and personae in different projects, including a permanent mural installation he shares at the New Tretiakov Gallery. Often the NG bureaucrats come into conflict with other “alien” signifying systems, like American superheroes. Among these are Spyder-Girl, a three-armed, mohawked female version of Spiderman, and the “original” Spiderman himself. Similar to the “Ronald Reagan” figure in Dmitrii Prigov’s verse, these embody American cultural imperialism, rendered mockingly ghoulish. The artist recognizes in the superhero another form of a fascistic will-to-power veiled by clever, colorful masks. For his part, Ostretsov undermines the superhero’s “playful” appeal by, in part, brutally exposing its homoerotic subtext, as in his 2005 animated short film Pedos-2 (Pedy-2).

          

If, as Ostretsov writes, “The main thing is to free man from any encroachment on his individuality. His work duties shouldn’t influence his individuality because man changes, while the mask remains the same,” then a recent collaboration with Litichevskii serves as a dark reminder of the mask’s totalizing menace. “In Process,” held in 2005, took up a wing of the Moscow State’s Center for Contemporary Art, with Ostretsov and Litichevskii’s large wall paintings covering opposite sides of the room (the two halves meet and “overlap” in the middle, through the catalyst of a projected looping film starring George & George characters). [download In Process]

        

Ostretsov’s large panels feature blow-ups of 1970s Marvel and DC superhero comics—Superman, Batman, Spiderman—reworked into collages that incorporate NG iconography. One depicts Superman with an NG mask, making explicit the link between the corporate super-hero and Ostretov’s own power-mad creations. More darkly, the “people” in these panels literally have no words, or even thoughts, of their own: their speech bubbles have been “colonized” by alien imagery, such as Looney Toons and Disney characters. Text, which might have served as an escape of sorts, through its link to something beyond the image (as it potentially does in Lichtenstein’s canvases) is here absent, foreclosed. Like mirrors turned towards each other, mass culture has no referent or greater “reality” other than itself.

Only as Ostretsov’s comics start to transform into Litichevskii’s in the middle of the room do words appear, as the “ready-made” though realistic superhero collages morph into the plainly caricaturistic Primeval Forest, a continuation of Litichevskii’s “psychopathic ants” storyline. These riotous panels, which convey a nonsensical but coherent narrative, are filled with text—offering hope of some mode of agency or quasi-independent thought, even if absurd. This does not escape Erofeev’s Marcusian warning on comics as the merry pictures to our own decomposition, but it does point the way to something in the medium beyond “eternally ironic,” empty referents.

I do not argue for a return to full-blown logocentrism, but “In Process” clearly figures a progression, left to right, from a vision of the totalizing, image-based, infantilizing mind control of Ostretsov’s American corporate pop culture to Litichevskii’s text-driven, narratival, Kharmsian classic-comix approach of fairy tales and—at least a kind of—relative freedom.

That comics grammar possesses sufficient versatility to figure both the homogenization of thought and an alternative to such dystopias tells us a lot about Ostretsov’s choice to deploy the dismissed and “alien” signifying practice of comics to provide an explicit critique of (and to mock) the authoritarian turn of life in Putin’s Russia.

     


Notes

1] The catalog has no page numbers.

2] As the example of American corporate advertising shows: imagine a USA taken over by, say, figures from the Jack in the Box hamburger chains’ television/print campaigns.

3] Ostretsov explains in his artist’s statement:

By launching military missions, [the state] creates the illusion of itself as peacemaker ... By sanctifying its victims, the state presents its actions as the fulfillment of its sacred duty before the people. For its part, the people deifies its heroes, fashioning a historical epic about the victorious state.
As an artist living through this war taking place in my country, I tried, by turning to the plastic language of comics—as a popular and easily understandable aesthetic form—to bring the attention of my contemporaries to this subject.


Works Cited and Consulted

(Translations mine unless otherwise stated)

Alaniz, José. “Towards a History of a Stalled Medium: Comics in Russia.” International Journal of Comic Art 1.2 (1999): 4-28.

Alaniz, José, ed. “Post-Soviet Russian Komiks: A Symposium.” International Journal of Comic Art 7.1 (Spring 2005): 5-125.

Balina, Marina, Nancy Condee, and Evgeny Dobrenko, eds. End-Quote: Sots-Art Literature and the Soviet Grand Style. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2000.

Epstein, Mikhail. Cries in the New Wilderness: From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism. Trans. Eve Adler. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002.

Erofeev, Viktor. “Komiksy i komiksovaia bolezn'” in V labirinte prokliatykh voprosov: esse. Moscow: Soiuz fotokhudozhnikov Rossii, 1996. 430-447.

Museum.ru. “Komiks v sovremennom iskusstve,” Dec. 2004.

Litichevskii, Zhora and Gosha Ostretsov. “O vystavke” (interview) in Gif.ru, Dec. 12, 2004

Ostretsov, Gosha. NP. Moscow: Velta Gallery. 2002.

—. http://www.ostretsov.com

Sussman, Elizabeth. “The Third Zone: Soviet Post-Modern.” In Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism. Boston: MIT UP, 1990: 61-72.

José Alaniz© 2006

Updated: 19 Jan 06