Underground Wedding (1993):
The Nexus of Privatization and Desire
Ruth Rischin Ph.D.,
Women's Independent Scholarship Enterprise
The art of Valera and Natasha Cherkashin has a contemporary focus and profound aesthetic and philosophical links to the international post-Modernist praxis. "The Underground Wedding," completed in January 1993, transforms a public statue into an expression of the changes in Russian social psychology, prompted by the privatization regulations of the early 1990s. But how and where is this new consciousness to be discerned? For the Cherkashins, it is perceivable in the desires of ordinary people as they interact with the institutions and artifacts of the world around them.
"The Underground Wedding" project embodies a dimension of this new consciousness that can be called, 'privatization and desire'. How so? "The Underground Wedding" takes as its focus an official Soviet sculpture, the figure of a peasant that stands in one of the Moscow metro stations. The formerly 'public' state-owned statue is joined by a member of the private sector, a viewer, a living woman commuter, whose new attitude towards the statue provides the essence of the wedding concept. Her understanding of the privatization process is that formerly state-owned artifacts, pleasing to her, are now 'hers'. And so, the sculpture of a peasant elicits warm feelings in her. As the artists explain, the commuter thinks, "Why, there is my object sitting there, my dear one," and she "woos" him and "wins" him.
The project has a certain piquancy since such statues in the public arena do not appear to have been included in the Privatization Law of June 1991, nor in its amendment of June 1992. There would seem to be nothing to that effect in the advisories of the Minister for the Economy, Evgeny Saburov, or even in the 1990 Property Act which recognized "the right of all natural persons [whatever that may mean] to acquire plots of land for possession and enjoyment" (Roman Frydman et al., "The Privatization Process in Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltic State," Budapest, London, New York, Central European University Press, 1993, pages 38-39, 28). Rather, the concept of the Cherkashin ensemble emerges from a malapropism--the misreading of a new promulgation on the part of the ordinary citizen, and as such, reveals the social psychology of the common folk. Privatization, understood as a process of something entering into a Russian's private life, is conceptualized in the courtship narrative around the project. In the next phase, the woman and the statue whom she desires are engaged, after which, in order for them to "marry," either the peasant statue must be brought to life or the woman commuter must be made into a sculpture. Thus, the making of a new consciousness is given an artificial form, achieved by creating a living sculpture--a newspaper wedding gown is designed for the woman, she is lacquered with bronze paint, and she carries to her "wedding" a bouquet of flowers, bestowing a kiss on the lips of her "husband." At their "wedding," the couple is cheered with champagne, photographed by the media, and toasted by the guests.
The finished ensemble is a statement of the evolution of a concept in the social psychology of the ordinary Russian citizen of today--the concept of "mine." This use of a statue to trace out the nature of social awareness, so wittily treated by the Cherkashins, in fact, looks back to the writings of the French Enlightenment thinker, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780), who, in "Traite des Sensations" [Treatise on the Sensations, 1754] uses the example of a statue which gradually acquires sensations, to advance his theory that all of our mental concepts derive from sensory data. In Condillac's celebrated treatise, the statue first acquires the sense of smell, followed by the other senses. Once given a rose to smell, the statue is able to distinguish its former state of 'sensationlessness' from its present ability to sense a fragrance. The statue is next given jasmine to smell, upon which it notes the difference between the two fragrances, that of the rose and that of the jasmine. This ability to differentiate between the two and initial the recognition of identity when presented with the rose are manifestations of the mind's power of judgment. In Condillac's theory, memory also is considered a function of sensation: the statue retains an impression of the rose while attentive to the jasmine. Pleasure and pain, too, are not innate but learned responses to the mind's reflection upon the various sensations that come through to conscious experience by the sensory organs. Condillac attaches special importance to the sense of touch, arguing that only by touch does the statue come to have ideas of space, extension, and external objects, and to acquire an awareness of itself as something distinct from its own self. It is the sense of touch which allows it to be socialized, to sense its neighbors and others.
Condillac's Treatise on Sensations, in which he articulated his theory of cognition through the illustration of a statue that acquires the five senses and, on the basis of sensory data the power, to think and to judge, became a famous
example in the history of European epistemology, if not a seminal text in descriptive psychology.
Particularly striking, then, is the Cherkashin project, manipulating the concept of the nexus of privatization and desire for a society whose immediate aesthetics have been focused on the empirical and the instrumental. For indeed, the Abbe Condillac, a churchman, who by temperament was a rebel against Church dogma, favored the advancement of the natural sciences and a social agenda directed toward bettering humanity. The new market economy in Russia that came into being with the fall of Communism challenged the dogma of an earlier command economy, and while man is not entirely an economic person, the turnabout, calling into being a new social psychology, continues to inspire Russian artists of today.
Moreover, in "The Underground Wedding," the means by which the woman is remade mimics the process of concept formation that Condillac describes. Of course, the wooing of a statue into life is as old as the Pygmalion story of Greek myth, and to be sure, the interlocutor in the Cherkashin project reverses that procedure. But the Pygmalion story remains entirely a narcissistic metapoetic narrative of desire--a myth of infatuation with one's own work, whereas the eighteenth century variant, Condillac's example, was meant to illustrate a program in social psychology privileging the experimental. It is the experimental which lends itself to the post-Modernist impulse to manipulate, to remake, to combine high and low materials, as seen in the Cherkashin project in the use of bronze paint (simulating the "high" materials of sculpture) and newspaper, a "low" material (associated with the temporary, the trashable).
Readers of Russian poetry today will recognize that the work of Joseph Brodsky also contains a post-modernist manipulation of a statue in the public arena, as a concept joining public and private. His "Dvadtsat' sonety Marii Stiuart" ["Twenty Sonnets to Mary Stuart," 1977] also presents an ordinary Russian wooing a statue, but here, it is an expatriate Russian who wanders into the Luxembourg Gardens , where among other statuary of royal figures he encounters the statue of Mary, Queen of Scots by Jean-Jacques Feuchere. Here, the wooer's address to a statue, that also mixes high and low elements, is stimulated not by the hope of getting married, but simply as the consolation for being separated from the woman he loves back home, for being remote from his native land and language. The would-be courtier, viewing the Renaissance Queen through "sheep's eyes [s glazami starogo barana"] and in what remains of his native speech, praises Mary Stuart's "enfas i matovye plechi" (or her head and satiny shoulders). If the wooer of the statue in the Cherkashin ensemble of 1993 presumes her right to her peasant husband within the context of a primitive understanding privatization and so promises him future domestic bliss, Brodsky's middle-aged Russian émigré woos Mary Queen of Scots, recalling his infatuation with her through Zarah Leander's performer in the 1940 film shown in Moscow, "Das Herz einer Koenigin," but who then goes on to whisper to her of Marxian economics, and of trade relations between England and her colonies. And so he depicts ships to Glasgow carrying a cargo of "lapti, prianiki i atlas" [bast shoes, gingerbread, and satin], a highly improbable export freight, since prianiki are not prianosti [spices] and he puns on motifs associated with the wool and textile trade. In a word, the approach of each wooer of a statue is made from the perspective of a "folk" urban mentality, a procedure that is familiar to readers of Nikolai Leskov and Mikhail Zoshchenko. In sum, the Brodsky cycle thus creates an ensemble in which a former Russian citizen, viewing a sculpture, privatizes it, he makes it a part of his inner world, and in so doing, addresses the history of the country from which he is exiled.
Created worlds apart, the Brodsky cycle and the Cherkashin ensemble, each featuring addresses to a statue in a public arena, begin from the same impulse to mediate "an anguish unaccountable"--a fateful line that may always exist between individual desire and power of the State. Each proceeds from Condillac's imaginative address to a statue as a demonstration of how consciousness is a function of sensation. Clearly, to a public in and outside of Russia, eager to become conversant with the procedures of post-Modernism, "The Underground Wedding" with great brio illustrates the coming into being of an altered consciousness, brought about by an affiliation between the private and public that is as yet reconfiguring, as is the art of Valera and Natasha Cherkashin.