Reaction as an art practice.
The art and life of Valera Cherkashin in the sixties.

Matteo Bertelé


Valerii – shortened to Valera – Cherkashin was born in 1948 in the industrial city of Kharkiv (Khar’kov in Russian), on the border between the Ukrainian and the Russian Soviet Republics. Far away from the centres of Moscow and Leningrad, and the birthplace of such Soviet enfants terribles as Boris Mikhailov and Eduard Limonov, Kharkiv is a significant argument for the, though modest, permeability of the Soviet periphery to cultural phenomena propelled by the centre. During the Cold War, Moscow attracted several foreign diplomats and journalists, who played a primary role as supporters of a private underground art market and as importers of Western products and trends[1]. Moscow also played a dominant role at the national level: Cherkashin himself used to go to the capital to consult the book collection at the “Leninka”, the main state library in the USSR. On the local level, he had access to printed material mostly through personal relationships: the mother of one of his fellow travellers, Boris Gluzman, worked in the largest book store in Kharkiv, giving him access to rare books[2]. From a young age, Cherkashin tried to overcome the deficit in outside news and models. In his struggle against any form of isolation, the artist states: “I never felt cut off from the outer world”[3]. His art practice can be seen, therefore, as an understandable reaction, first of all, to the internal paranoia of “being surrounded and spied on by the enemy”, launched by Stalin and moderated only in the late years of the Thaw. Reaction, not action: this semantic juxtaposition is highly relevant, with “aktsia” defined  in the arts vocabulary as an open-ended (and often open-air) performance, as in the conceptual “actionism” of the Collective Actions group from the Seventies, or in the militant “actionism” from the Nineties, both developed in Moscow. If action is propelled from the centre, reaction, in Cherkashin’s case, is a peripheral practice. Reaction should be understood as neither a political statement, a conservative act of restoration, nor as a subversive counteraction, but as an essentially physical response to an outer stimulus, a physiological reflex and need to claim one’s own presence.

“I had the wish to acquire a camera when I heard about the first Sputnik being launched into space. How the two things were connected, I don’t know”[4]. In these two sentences, the art and life of Valera Cherkashin converge in his first childhood memory, when he was nine years old. The recollection of the Soviet artificial satellite, the first ever sent into orbit, is closely connected with technology and mass-media, perceived by young Cherkashin not as a collective phenomenon, but rather as a private episode: he recalls his family gathered around a radio, listening to the broadcast of this pivotal event[5]. The discrepancy between the Soviet society being devoted to the conquest of space, and in general to scientific progress, and the daily life, marked by a manifest lack of means constitutes the two poles of attraction in Cherkashin’s work from the very beginning. The economy of means was considered more chance than privation. Having no toys or other distractions, the artist could concentrate on the minimal aspects of daily life: in 1962, at the age of fourteen, a few months after Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, he got his first, long-awaited camera, a Smena model number 6[6]. He immediately devoted himself to mise-en-scène in front of the camera, mostly shot by himself. Only twenty years later, he would start calling such works kheppeningi [happenings] from the suggestion by Ilya Kabakov, an artist who, at that time, already had frequent contacts with the international art scene and a knowledge of Western art history[7]. All the works analysed in the following pages are reported in chronological order and date back to the first decade of Cherkashin’s activity, when, still an adolescent and before his studies in the art field, he lived in his parents’ house in Kharkov.

The first kheppening ever recorded, I Am a Soviet Athlete (1962, Ill. 1), is dedicated to a figure that enjoyed high status in the Soviet Union: the athlete. Sport was a popular activity in public life, generally supported by the authorities. One of the first battlefields of the Cold War was sport competitions, and on many occasions the USSR triumphed, as was the case in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, when its national team won the largest number of medals. Sport also constituted for many citizens a chance to escape the daily routine, to separate from the masses and, with enough practise, to have the opportunity to obtain some privileges, like travelling abroad. The process of the appropriation of this celebrated figure is emphasised by the title of the performance, starting with the first-person singular personal pronoun. Cherkashin collected abandoned transport material, such as wagon wheels and wooden railway ties, and adapted them to use for weightlifting.

Both sport and photography were familiar in Valera’s family: his father used to train daily, while two uncles practised amateur photography. After the war, cheap cameras and equipment were produced in large amounts and became so accessible to many families that in the Fifties Soviet photo amateurs numbered in the millions[8].

Body-building in the USSR (1963, Ill. 2) visualizes Cherkashin’s metamorphosis from amateur weightlifter to professional body-builder, while the setting has moved to an indoor location, an improvised photo studio arranged in his bedroom. Here the action is reduced to zero, through minimalistic scenery: Valera is wearing swimming trunks, which, if needed, can be unzipped on one side and taken off, even with his trousers on. The only actors in the scene are his own body and the light produced by two studio lamps standing on each side of the camera, and projecting a double shadow on the backcloth, the woollen blanket hanging behind him. His body is showcased as a body image, and every art device plays a primary role in its definition: it is displayed in a suggestive chiaroscuro effect and in its total plasticity, both on the recto and verso. In his first two works, Cherkashin moves from a sport discipline, weightlifting, to an aesthetic practice, body-building, from the essence of strength to its appearance. As the professional body-builder Bob Cicherillo has stated: “It’s not how much weight you can lift. It’s how much you look like you can lift”[9]. In this case, the kheppening is conceived as Cherkashin’s personal reaction to the Polish magazine Sport dla wszystkich [Sport for everybody], distributed within the Soviet Union with reprinted materials from professional American magazines devoted to body-building.

Beginning in his childhood, Cherkashin incarnated a programme: the body as his own art and life project. This self-awareness and self-determination is generated and manifested by the photos captured by his camera, his favourite and only toy. This reveals new perspectives on the comprehension of his programmatic project as a game, despite common associations of body-building with authoritarian doctrines and practices. Body-building in the USSR does not represent the starting point of a new discipline in the country, but rather the initiation of the artist’s self-construction as a Gesamtkunstwerk, as a “total work of art”. Body-building specialist Jörg Scheller wrote: “The body-builder is a museum of the body, a body as an artwork, a body curator and a body conservator in one person”[10]. They are three facets of the same personality, which can be considered valid and cohesive in the artwork of Valera Cherkashin. Finally, one should consider the Russian word for body-building, kul’turizm: far from bare hedonistic implications, it is deeply rooted in “cult” and “culture”. Paraphrasing Stalin’s formula of the artist as “an engineer of the human soul”, Cherkashin seems to be his eloquent counterpart as the “engineer of the human body”. In this work, he is emulating the language of socialist realism, in which the naked and physically fit male body incarnated the myth of heroism, devoted to the universal cult of “humanitarianism”[11]. He is appropriating this language, by transferring it to his parental milieu. As the art historian Andrei Erofeev has written, “within the framework of one’s domestic private existence, an individual was freed from playing the hierarchical and ideological role assigned to him or her in the public 'performance' staged by the authorities”[12]. Being still a teenager, Cherkashin did not free himself from such roles; on the contrary, he arrogated them, mimicking the adult world in a playful practice of acquaintance with his own body, which, during puberty, was subject to constant evolution and permanent self-confrontation.

Group of Body-building (1964, Ill. 3) can be considered Cherkashin’s first collective action; in solo shots, the presence of other members of the group is hinted at by their shadows projected on the grass. When alone, Valera took self-shots: in order to check his posture he used a mirror, which in several cases appeared in the frame, revealing his backside to the camera. This artistic device can be seen as an avant-garde strategy to “show the trick”, to lay bare the structure of the depiction and therefore emancipate photography from its restraints as the simple imitation and impression of nature. In this series, the artist ironically includes objects extrapolated from other contexts or disciplines, such as boxing gloves, which have basically nothing to do with body-building.

In Narcissus (1965, Ill. 4), the subject is derived from mythology, though embedded in a domestic interior enriched with typical Soviet props, such as the carpet with oriental motifs hanging on the back wall. For this solo shoot, the artist selected his best outfit, his favourite tights and house slippers, and is waving a plastic rose. His main purpose is clear from the very beginning: building up confidence in his own image, through a search for beauty, a test of how photogenic he is. He is training in order to learn how to pose and to approach the camera; in this work, the mirror does not appear as a distancing object, but as a narrative tool, loaded with allegorical implications, with the main reference to Narcissus. It is no longer on the edge of the frame, but occupies the centre of the image, reflecting not only the artist’s face, but also veneration for his beauty, to be shared with the only viewer of the whole scene, himself. It is an intimate practice between the artist’s and the camera’s eye, emphasised by a second photo session of himself completely naked, and later burnt by the artist (this time in the role of the censor, or destroyer, rather than the “conservator”)[13].

The multiple roles of the artist’s body highlight the centrality of the masculine corporality in the whole performance, his role as a unique actor. Piotr Potrowski has stated: “Early psychoanalytic studies applied to visual culture subjected those issues to an extensive and probing analysis. Unlike the female body, the male body was never objectified from the perspective of external viewing. It was always treated as subject […] It was therefore more associated with action than exhibition”[14]. Cherkashin’s body is the catalyst of the whole practice, playing the roles of both subject and object, action and exhibition. It is a self-generated reactive practice, where the male gaze is contemplating and being contemplated at the same time, in a vicious circle of (self-)voyeurism, challenging “Freudian issues of autoerotism and narcissism”[15].

Gladiator (1965) is Cherkashin's first conscious reaction to the outer world, in this case to the film Spartacus, directed in 1960 by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas. Even though it was only officially distributed in the Soviet Union in 1967, Cherkashin had access to it two years earlier. In this series, he does not embody the historical character, but re-enacts Douglas playing Spartacus. At that time, both Russian and foreign actors were regarded as aesthetic and behavioural models, dictating beauty canons to young Soviet citizens[16]. Here the model is not provided by the much appreciated and distributed European art cinema, such as Italian neorealism, but by Hollywood productions, and especially by the extremely constructed genre of peplum - also known as “sword-and-sandal” films – produced in studios in the Fifties and Sixties. The appropriation of Western mass-culture products based on historical subjects triggered a double shift - both synchronic and diachronic - in the artist, giving him the chance to imagine and reconstruct a journey both in time and space. Profound exposure to overseas culture was provided by events held in Moscow, such as the World Festival of Youth and Students (1957) and the American National Exhibition (1959), where Western products fascinated Soviet viewers through consumerism, hedonism and eroticism[17]. Such showcases generated in the young urban milieu several emulators of the American way of life, especially in fashion and music, for whom the term shtatniki was coined. The US lifestyle was transferred to Cherkashin’s work not only through aesthetic models – such as beefcakes – but also by charismatic and hedonist intellectuals, such as Ernest Hemingway, who was among the most acclaimed foreign writers for the young Soviet generations[18]. In the process of absorbing such cultural icons, through more or less mediated channels, Cherkashin elaborated his own imagery, in a practice stretching from iconic assimilation to ironic reinterpretation.

An Artist’s Monologue (1966) can be considered the debut of Cherkashin as an artist. The original meaning of the Russian word “artìst” gets lost in translation, since it refers not to the visual, but to the performing artist. On the occasion of his eighteenth birthday, Cherkashin celebrated reaching adulthood and his self-awareness as a mature performer. He is portrayed flirting with the camera, as if trying to convince it of his newly achieved status. This series is not a response to an outer phenomenon, but to an autobiographical circumstance: the artist had just declined an offer to be enrolled in an acting school. Not interested in playing others’ roles, he would play only himself.

In Jaw. Acting in a Hospital (1966, Ill. 5), Cherkashin takes the opportunity to play himself in an un-staged outfit: the mask on his face is not a theatre maquillage or prop, but a temporary prosthesis, which he had to wear after his jaw had been broken. His costume is a striped uniform, with associations not only with the forced labour-camp prisoners from the previous decades, but also to the new inmates of the Sixties, non-conformist artists segregated (or threatened with segregation) in psychiatric hospitals by Soviet authorities. At the time, psikushka [nut house] had made its way into Soviet cultural rhetoric, regulating through “clinical metaphors” and threats any deviancy from the general accepted (Party) line[19]. The “clinical language” was applied to the verbal discourse much more than to the visual one. In this work, Cherkashin violates this taboo: even though depicted in full vulnerability, he does not behave as a martyr, as a segregated non-conformist; on the contrary, he is involved in a rehabilitating process, lifting a heavy stone and staring at the camera with a (forced) sardonic smile.

The social status of Soviet citizens was determined by their education and profession: having no specific training or membership in the Artists Union meant, de facto, not being recognised and accepted as an artist, and being deprived of any access to job opportunities and work materials, of any right to publicly call himself an “artist”. By refusing his potential status as a Soviet (performing) artist, Cherkashin reaffirmed it through his own experience, in his first mature work. At the same time, he eluded the behavioural code of the underground artist: to him art was not an inner spiritual vocation, oppressed by ideological dogmas, but a physical practice. Like any discipline, it required self-control, devotion and daily exercise. In First Kissing-art (1967) Cherkashin staged close encounters with multifunctional artefacts, which can be contemplated, kissed, lifted and worn; the use of plaster models is a clear reference to academic lessons, which the artist refused to attend. Therefore, his First Model (1967) is not a nude girl posing as a still life, but a sort of vivid French mannequin, trying to be à la page. The artist stated: “Girls closely followed Western fashion and tried to imitate it. Although they had nothing similar to wear, inside they felt very fashionable and modern”[20]. Fashion represents modernity, both for women and men (the artist is speaking de facto for himself). Cultural studies scholars Petr Vail’ and Aleksandr Genis have stated that Soviet détente made its first appearance in fashion, as a symptom of a youth rebellion against aesthetic conformism to the “Great Style” of the Stalin regime[21]. Style was the core of the debate: youngsters affirming their identity through imported fashion were labelled “stilyagi”, where the suffix “-agi” is pejorative, but the term was soon proudly embraced by youngsters themselves[22]. Cherkashin referred to himself as a dandy, another codified subculture of that period, where even greater attention was given to any detail of the outfit, from the clothes and shoes to the hairstyle and manicure. In the performance Playing with a Fingernail (1964), he let his pinkie nails grow as an anti-conventional and anti-functional gesture, since he had to wrap up his fingers with cellophane tape in order to protect them. Most of the clothes worn by Cherkashin in his early years belong to the canonical wardrobe of the Soviet dandy, essentially composed of items scarce in the Soviet Union, relegated as a result to the defitsitnye tovary [shortage goods]. Such high-demand articles generated a new trend towards minimalism in men’s fashion, beginning with the spread of tight trousers within the subculture, soon expanded to the nomenklatura[23]. This tendency is evident in Cherkashin’s early  works, from the swimming trunks used in the first sport performances mentioned, to the dandy, custom-made, pointed shoes worn in the mid-Sixties[24].

Even though touching upon unprecedented topics, such as sexuality, his next work, Night with a Pioneer Leader (1967, Ill. 6), can be ascribed to a general tendency in the arts in socialist Europe, where gender - not to mention feminist - issues were fundamentally ignored by contemporary artists and critics[25]. It is also the first project where Cherkashin was not involved as the performing artist, but only as the photographing artist, the “manipulator and documentary-photographer”[26], staging a performance planned and conducted as a scientific experiment. Hence he reports an inventory of all the involved persons and tools, the number of the shots taken and the location of the performance, the family flat in Kharkiv, furnished with Soviet iconic items, such as trel’yazh, the dressing table with three mirrors. This ubiquitous article plays an ambivalent role in the performance, as a “ritual corner” in everyday life, being the “work place” for daily grooming, as well as in art history, with its associations to a triptych. Here it serves as an altar, mundane and sacred at the same time, where the “sublimation of sex energy in art” is celebrated, through a simulation of an act of sexual coercion[27]. The sacral aura of the mirror altar is shattered into several reflections and perceptions, which unmask, through the artifice of photography, the manipulator’s identity in the whole experiment. Under Stalin’s rule, the manipulation of documentary photography was a widespread strategy to direct and divert collective memory, removing from public images personae non gratae, and eventually replacing them with new ones[28]. In Cherkashin’s work, manipulation is manifest: the viewer realizes that the oral sex act is a pure simulation, as is clear from the pioneer leader’s open - and empty - mouth, blurred in the very foreground, while its deceptive reflection is focussed in the centre of the mise-en-scène. Here, Valera’s gaze plays multiple roles: he is looking, being looked at and recording. His gaze dictates the whole space and captures it with the camera, which, for the first time, we see “in frame” (in other shots from the same series).

Night with a Pioneer Leader had a persistent Nachleben in the following process of art production and historization of Cherkashin’s work. Some photo prints from this series were acquired by eminent art institutions in the United States[29], while homonymous solo shows were held in Russia, in one case accompanied by collateral events, such as Soviet shared practices, revitalized as post-socialist adaptations of relational art[30]. As a result, Night with a Pioneer Leader has become the most iconic work of Cherkashin’s early production, often used to date the origins of his “vivid non-conformism”[31].

In the second half of the Sixties, the artist started to organize collective happenings, often as personal responses to the Narrative of the Cold War and setting them in some of its hottest spots. In Threatening Help to Vietnam. Here it is (1966), the artist and a friend played the roles of two Soviet partisans fighting in Vietnam and trying to broadcast home clandestine messages, using an aluminium tube intended as a radio antenna. The friend’s sister, suffering from Down’s syndrome, took some photos, which, to the artist’s astonishment, turned out to be well-focussed and centred, and so they were printed in a number larger than usual. On the verso, the author included some text, often as parody of obscene military jargon. The “dirty” war can be fought only by the volunteer soldiers called GM, where G stands for govno (shit). The formula quoted in the title of the performance can be regarded as an allusion to the Red Army posters and signposts with the slogan, “Vot ona, proklyataya Germaniya” [“Here it is, damned Germany”], which celebrated the liberation of Europe from the Nazis, the end of World War II and, de facto, the premises of the Cold War. The alleged support of the two partisans for socialist propaganda on a global scale is here translated into a work which involves different languages, as is shown by the first appearance in Cherkashin’s work of written text. Born as an accidental happening with a friend, Threatening Help to Vietnam. Here it is (1966, Ill. 7) turns into a lo-fi multi-media piece, with relevant references to documentary forms, such as radio broadcasts, reportage photography and war memories.

In Cherkashin’s work, the presence of poor material, and its potential use for noble purposes, such as the antenna-shaped aluminium tube, can be regarded as a legacy of the great utopian projects of the Russian avant-garde: the Monument to the Third International was conceived by Vladimir Tatlin as a 400-meter-high tower, broadcasting the socialist creed throughout the world from the radio station inside it and the antenna mounted on its top. As is well known, the biggest dilemma in Tatlin’s work was the lack of technological proficiency and materials, so that their projects remained on paper as prototypes[32]. In Cherkashin’s work, the intertwining of technology and mass-media is left at the potential level, with no utopian or collective ambition, then elaborated and translated into his own personal language and purpose.

A ubiquitous medium in Soviet mass culture was the picture postcard. Millions of them were printed and distributed every year throughout the country, not only as postal products, but also as collector items, in the field of deltiology, which in the USSR was considered an “applied branch of historical science”[33]. The value of a postcard was determined by the number of prints, and this information was unfailingly reported on the backside, as it constituted the unit of measurement of its potential circulation[34].  Postcards were a highly canonized product of the mass culture, restrained in their standard format and layout. Cherkashin re-appropriated this medium, creating unique pieces. During his first adult trip in 1969, through several Soviet republics, he sent home numerous self-made postcards, by drawing pictures on a blank piece of paper on the recto, and a postage stamp on the verso. He, therefore, personalized not only the blank divided back, dedicated to private messages, but also the picture side, which usually featured reproductions of artworks, designed motifs and other standard images. His personal intervention did not prevent the postcards from circulating in the mail system, and reaching their final destinations.

In Prague’s Picnic (1968, Ill. 8), Valera Cherkashin, with a group of friends, celebrates the feeling of freedom perceived after the introduction of reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968, just a few months before the country’s invasion by Warsaw Pact troops. In the Soviet press, alarming reports from the brother-socialist state were ubiquitous, as is evident from the newspaper article - here used as a tablecloth - published under the title Prague’s Box. The road to a “socialism with a human face”, together with the echoes from May 1968 events in Paris, brought some fresh air and hope to the young non-conformist generations, even in the Fatherland of Socialism. Nevertheless, the happening is anything but politically subversive; on the contrary, it is a typical maevka. Initially loaded with political meanings associated with May Day, maevka referred in late Soviet time to a short trip organized outside the city, to mark the beginning of the fine weather. In Prague’s Picnic, liberation is perceived not as a political achievement, but as an emancipation from bourgeois morality and gender taboos: female picnickers are portrayed as engaged in strictly male behaviour, such as smoking, drinking vodka from the bottle and initiating sexual encounters. The evoked freedom of thought here is practised as a freedom of behaviour. The natural environment constitutes the most appropriate location for this kind of activity, experienced as a shared practice of liberation from the restraints of dull Soviet society. The setting is not provided by the tselina, the virgin soil propagated by Khrushchev as new lands to conquer, but by this primordial form of turizm, out-of-town trips into the wild Russian forest, which emerged at the dawn of the Thaw as an escape from the over-regulated urban environment[35]. This practice had also acquired an acknowledged status in the art sphere, as is proved by the bronze medal awarded in 1966 to an amateur photographer from the Moscow region, L. Asanov, for his plein-air snapshot Birch Trees[36].

Hence, the picnic in Kharkiv’s countryside assumes a symbolical significance as a tribute to the events in Prague and, in general, to unconventional ways of life under socialism, which, at that time, could be practised only outside the main centres of political power and control[37]. It is significant that Cherkashin started working in 1962, when détente had reached such a level that this period has been compared to 1968 in the Western youth culture[38]. The new horizons of Soviet geo-political and cultural interests are reflected in Cherkashin’s projects, where his references are extended from Western cultural models, both American and European, to hotspots of the Cold War, such as Prague and Vietnam.

The last kheppening here examined is conceived as Cherkashin’s response to his countless efforts to capture radio signals from abroad and to collect good quality records of Western music. In Ray Charles (1969, Ill. 9), the artist staged a performance devoted to this music icon and aimed at giving him back his sight by playing his own repertoire. Cherkashin intercedes for his idol through an iterated collective act of praying and singing, which inevitably leads to the miracle, greeted with ecstasy by believers. This kheppening should not be regarded as a blasphemous attack on the Church, but rather as an irreverent act against the state, since religion was basically persecuted in socialist society. The performance refers to Orthodox imagery - see the living Troitsa (Trinity), with the artist sitting in the middle in the role of a thaumaturge - as well as to such Afro-American rituals as gospel music, with Cherkashin mimicking his idol, wearing “black” accessories, such as sunglasses and gloves. This kheppening concludes Cherkashin’s works from the Sixties, and it builds a bridge to the 21st century, specifically to 2002, when the artist had the chance to meet Ray Charles in the US Embassy in Moscow, just two years before the singer’s death, and to tell him about his old performance.

A collection of similar transnational, diachronic cases can be found in Cherkashin’s series Analogy, as in the collage juxtaposing one shot from the series Group of Body-building with the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, shot ten years later (Ill. 10). This assemblage can be regarded as a virtual encounter, showing persistent connections between East and West across the Iron Curtain, between Soviet and post-Soviet times, suggesting unexpected twists and inversions in the generally accepted storyline. In this self-generated process of historization, Valera Cherkashin depicts himself a posteriori as a pioneer, a forerunner; for this reason, his work has also been described as the “unknown 'Western' facet of Soviet art of that time”[39].

A relevant feature of his work is the media involved, i.e. the different forms of Soviet visual mass-culture, including reproductions in magazines and postcards, radio and cinema, what is usually understood and labelled as “state media art”[40]. Cherkashin opposes to this a “private media art”, destined for individual consumption, since he had no audience, and even no second public-sphere. The shortage of money forced him to a moderate use of his photo equipment: he used to shoot a film a month, and to develop only a few selected negatives. For this reason few vintage prints have been preserved.

Since 1983, Valera has been working with his life and art partner, Natasha Cherkashin. Despite their constant and dynamic activity since then, their work is still bypassed by the “official” Moscow-centric art history of “non-official” Soviet art. The absence of their name from the main institutional sites generated and still generates different reactions, especially when confronted with the innovative character of Valera’s early work. In 2007, the ignorance of his kheppeningi prompted a prominent Moscow museum’s director and curator to ask him for a personal ID[41]. The art historian Mikhail Sidlin wrote about Cherkashin’s early work: “The first thing I’d like to shout is: 'I don’t believe it!'. This could not happen in the Soviet Union in one thousand nine hundred and sixty whatever year. At that time, there were no people, game or picture like that”[42].

This quote is taken from the introduction to their forthcoming monographic volume, edited by the artist couple in the absence of a proper literature on them, and which served as the main source of information for this essay, together with interviews with the Cherkashins. The book is conceived “not as a formal fixation of actions, art performances, happenings and ideas, but as an artistic narration from the perspective of the artists-participants”[43]. The text is reported on two different levels: the bold text as a description of the events, the italic as a personal account of memories and anecdotes, not necessarily connected to the featured works. The volume can be regarded as an essential collection and preservation of documentary recordings, a fundamental starting point for a contextualized and historized study of Cherkashin’s work as a whole. At the time this article was finished, the book was still in progress.

A few years ago, the Cherkashins’ works found a shelter in the Russian State Archive for Literature and the Arts (RGALI), which soon will house their complete collection of photographs, texts, documents and artefacts. That location is the most coherent and appropriate site for the Cherkashins’ work, whose nature can be considered, from the very beginning, a “huge family archive”, where records of every kind, from memoirs and reports to pictures and objects, have been collected and preserved. This practice can be ascribed to a general peculiarity of unofficial Soviet art of the Sixties, considered as an anti-museological and highly narrative “whole”[44], whose next chapters, in Cherkashin’s case, have still to be researched and written.





[1]           E. Degot’, Russkoe iskusstvo XX veka. Moskva: Trilistnik, 2000, s. 155.

[2]           V. Cherkashin, N. Cherkashina, Aktsii, kheppeningi, art-performansy i idei, 1962-2015. Moskva: Muzey Metropoliten «Cherkashina», 2016, s. 34.

[3]           V. Cherkashin, N. Cherkashina, Aktsii, s. 14.

[4]           V. Cherkashin, N. Cherkashinа, Aktsii, s. 7.

[5]           Ibid., s. 6.

[6]           Ibid., s. 7.

[7]           V. Cherkashin, written communication with the author, 5 April 2016.

[8]           V. Stigneev, “The Force of the Medium. The Soviet Amateur Photography Movement”, Beyond Memory. Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art. Ed. D. Neumaier. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. 67-73, here: pp. 67-68.

[9]           B. Cicherillo, in J. Scheller, “Hard Art, Soft Sculptors: Oration on the Afterlife of Renaissance Thought and Liberal Philosophy in the Subculture of Bodybuilding”, Hard Bodies. Ed. R.J. Poole, F. Sedlmeier, S. Wegener. Wien-Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2011, pp. 219-230, here: p. 220.

[10]         Ibid., p. 221.

[11]         P. Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta. Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989. London: Reaktion books, 2009, pp. 376-377.

[12]         A. Erofeev, “Nonofficial Art: Soviet Artists of the 1960s”, Primary Documents: a Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s. Ed. L. Hoptman, T. Pospiszyl. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002, pp. 37-53, here: p. 40.

[13]         V. Cherkashin, interview with the author, October 2015.

[14]         P. Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta, p. 376.

[15]         S. Kruze, “A Night with a Pioneer Leader”, Valera & Natasha Cherkashin: A Night with a Pioneer Leader. Moskva: Cherkashin Metropolitan Museum Publishing House, p. 3.

[16]         N. Lebina, Povsednevnost’ epokhi kosmosa i kukuruzy: destruktsiya bol’shogo stilya. Sankt-Peterburg: Pobeda, 2015, s. 340.

[17]         V. Papernyi, “Sovetskii inter’er”, Mos-Andzheles 2. Moskva: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2009, s. 66-69, here: s. 68-69.

[18]         On the influence of Hemingway on the Soviet youth culture during the Thaw, see S. J. Parker, “Hemingway’s Revival in the Soviet Union: 1955-1962”, American Literature, vol. 35, no. 4 (January 1964), pp. 485-501. Together with Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, Hemingway was one of Cherkashin’s favourite authors in his youth.

[19]         A. Erofeev, “Nonofficial Art”, p. 42. Some artists were indeed interned, e.g. Vladimir Yakovlev, whose stays in psychiatric hospitals were so frequent that they dictated his art production, e.g. the “hospital graphic series”, executed with material available in the clinics, such as pencils and pens (see M. Vanin, “«Il mio colore preferito è quello che non fa male»: Vladimir Jakovlev all’interno della cultura andegraund moscovita”, Esamizdat, III, 1, 2005, pp. 141-154, here: p. 153). An earlier case is provided by Vasilii Sitnikov: arrested and declared mentally ill in 1941, he was sent to several psychiatric prisons and hospitals up to the end of WWII. Once free, he was kept under control by the KGB and often threatened with being sent back for psychiatric treatments, until he left the country permanently in 1975.

[20]         V. Cherkashin, N. Cherkashina, Aktsii, s. 27.

[21]         P. Vail’, A. Genis, 60-e: Mir sovetskogo cheloveka. Moskva: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 1996, pp. 65-66.

[22]         G. P. Piretto, Il radioso avvenire. Mitologie culturali sovietiche. Torino: Einaudi, 2001, p. 235.

[23]         N. Lebina, Povsednevnost’ epokhi kosmosa i kukuruzy, pp. 324-326.

[24]         Ibid., pp. 326, 330.

[25]         See P. Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta, pp. 376-378. For an account of the specific Soviet context, see Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconscious. Communal (Post)Modernism in Russia. Cambridge-London: The MIT Press, 2009, especially the chapter “If I Were a Woman”, pp. 169-185.

[26]         V. Cherkashin, N. Cherkashina, Aktsii, s. 28.

[27]         Ibid.

[28]         See D. King, The Commissar Vanishes. The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1997.

[29]         The photos have been acquired by the New York Public Library and the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Some of them were included in the group show Fluxus time 1959...1969...1979..., held in 2013 at the Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, and the following year at the Kharkiv Municipal Gallery.

[30]         The exhibition A Night with a Pioneer Leader was first shown at the Glaz Gallery within the Moscow House of Photography in 2006, and the following year at the Museum of Modern Art in Rostov on the Don. On that occasion, Valera and Natasha Cherkashin organized a series of events in Soviet style, including a buffet with food on sale for Soviet roubles, and a one-night opening of a Pioneer camp (see, last view: 20 January 2016).

[31]         S. Kruze, A Night with a Pioneer Leader, p. 3. The cover of this bilingual (Russian/English) catalogue shows the same photograph illustrated here (Ill. 6). Another shot from the same series was reproduced on the cover of the first layout of the monographic book by the Cherkashins (V. Cherkashin, N. Cherkashina, Aktsii, 11 January 2016). In a second layout of the same edition (2 April 2016), A Night with a Pioneer Leader was removed as an image but reinstated as the title of the volume by the authors, in order to stress the relevance of this work in their whole art career.

[32]         C. Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007, p. 180.

[33]         Ya. Belitskii, G. Glezer, O chem povedala otkrytka. Moskva: Svyaz', 1978.

[34]         On the function of postcards as media of cultural and ideological relevance within Soviet society, see M. Bertelé, “La cartolina illustrata come modello dello spazio quotidiano sovietico”, Le Muse fanno il girotondo. Jurij Lotman e le arti. Ed. M. Bertelé, A. Bianco, A. Cavallaro. Crocetta del Montello: Terra Ferma, 2015, pp. 90-103; M. Bertelé, “The Soviet Picture Postcard as a Transmedial Object of Mass Culture and Ideological Practices”, A Guide to Visual Worlds of Socialism. Ed. M. Rüthers (forthcoming).

[35]         G. P. Piretto, Il radioso avvenire, pp. 312-313.

[36]         V. Stigneev, The Force of the Medium, pp. 68-69. The photo, featuring an undressed young woman in the woods, was awarded a prize at the acclaimed Moscow group show Interpress-Photo 66, and was on display together with works by prominent international photographers. See also E. Barkhatova, “Soviet Policy on Photography”, Beyond Memory. Ed. D. Neumaier, pp. 47-65, here: p. 57.

[37]         A notorious case of solidarity with the Prague spring, organized in the centre of the Socialist hemisphere, is provided by a sit-in improvised by seven young protesters on August 1968 in Red Square: three minutes later they were arrested by the KGB, tried and sentenced (See L. Kopelev, R. Orlova, My zhili v Moskve. 1956-1980. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1980, pp. 19, 193).

[38]         See G. P. Piretto, 1961. Il Sessantotto a Mosca. Bergamo: Moretti & Vitali, 1998.

[39]         E. Lukashova, “Art in Life. Life in Art. Valery and Natasha Cherkashin’ Photo Actions of 1960s-1990s”, Valera & Natasha Cherkashin: A Night, p. 5.

[40]         E. Degot, “Zwischen Massenreproduktion und Einzigartigkeit: offizielle und inoffizielle Kunst in der UdSSR”, Berlin-Moskau/Moskau-Berlin. Ed P. Choroschilow, J. Harten, J. Sartorius, P. K. Schuster. Berlin: Nikolai Verlag, 2003, pp. 133-137, here: pp. 134-136.

[41]         Valera and Natasha Cherkashin, interview with the author, July 2014.

[42]         M. Sidlin, “Photography Game. The Early Works of Valery Cherkashin”, Valera & Natasha Cherkashin: A Night, pp. 28-33, here: p. 28.

[43]         V. Cherkashin, N. Cherkashina, Aktsii, s. 2.

[44]         V. Erofeev, “Nonofficial Art”, pp. 43-44.

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