Repetition and Difference:
the Periodicals of the Cherkashin Metropolitan Museum
Jane A. Sharp
Curator of Zimmerli Art Museum,
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Much has already been written on the Cherkashins' photo installations, beginning with the Suprematist Bedroom, and indeed, the entire The Cherkashin Metropolitan Museum project. They have been seen as a continuation of the historical avant-garde concern with mass-media, based on a progressive social vision--or as an inversion of the same, a skeptical "anti-modernist" assessment of our place in the present. Either way, the works themselves speak for the interdependencies of Russian and Soviet culture; they materially bridge moments and esthetic systems considered mutually exclusive of each other until recently.
The purpose of this brief essay is to suggest that the project's ambivalence, while it seems to accede to a questionable apolitical stance, in fact diagrams the difficulty of historical representation itself--especially in Russia--where silence and suppression typically accompanies insistent, authoritative images and statements. The Cherkashins do not appropriate avant-garde styles indescriminately; there are no allusions to Cubo-Futurism, or even, properly speaking, Constructivism. Rather, the explicit quotations are from Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism, cross and square, and monumental artifacts of Socialist Realism: the sculptures in Ploshchad' Revoliutsii metro station, those populating the Druzhba Narodov fountain at VDNKh, and other recognizable buildings such as MGU on Lenin Hills.
In the Periodicals of The Cherkashin Metropolitan Museum, the authority of one is overlaid and trumped by the other; the Socialist Realist code legitimized through the newspaper, Pravda, is countered by the square or cross, black and red. It is difficult to see this double focus unambiguously as a reclaiming of the historical avant-garde from the recently suppressed past, although in some images the colors applied to the surface of the newspapers, black and red, literally blot out the message conveyed by the type. This works in the other direction too: the square is represented by a whole unblemished cover page of
Pravda. Thus, if the Cherkashins' work subverts the urgent message of party leaders, slogans, and denunciations they extract, neither is their effort particularly kind to Malevich. Their appropriations disrupt the purity of geometric forms, papers are folded, turned, reduced in scale. The primary code of Suprematism, and its universal appeal, is interrupted, reordered, opened to question. Neither Malevich's voice nor that of the Soviet State ultimately gains priority in this dialogue.
If we are accustomed to seeing individual framed works alone--this is not how the series best communicates its tentative statement. Seen in sequence, and no matter in which order, the images equivocate; they offer a certain nostalgic solace on the one hand, and challenge the stability of systemic presentation on the other. As copies and quotations from past works, they point to the mythological nature of singular art historical discourses, yet they also compulsively revisit the historical divide that modernists (historians and artists) love to cite, when one measure of originality was disenfranchised and another promoted. Although the copy, as Walter Benjamin suggested, drains and mimics the aura of the original, in the case of the Cherkashins' series, it may be augmented, depending on who is viewing the work, where, and how. Our presence and responsibility as interpreters of our own culture is always assumed by the act of repeating, in various formats, the minimal vocabulary of rectangle, cross, and text. The various histories we impute to these works shade value in many gradations. Standing in the Kremlin provides one frame, the gallery--a very different one.
If this is not exactly a provocative act that proposes an ideal reordering of society as the historical avant-garde had envisioned, neither is it a fully ironic postmodernist, or "anti-modernist" gesture. Too much depends on the moment in time, the historical lens generated by a particular installation. In that sense, the copy functions as it always has--as an open and ever-changing image/text.