Ideological Deconstruction / Cultural Reconstruction: 
the Anti-modern Photographic Installations of 
Valery and Natasha Cherkashin

Steve Yates

Curator, Fulbright Scholar, Artist, Collaborator

Valera and Natasha Cherkashin continue to develop a series of artistic programs concerning the socialist epoch of word culture - and more. Their site-specific installations assimilate  years of Soviet history, symbols, and values. What they borrow from the past, they reuse for a new kind of visual expression. Their art is a mirror of the diverse fabric of Russian society today. It is a multidimensional collage of past with the present that asks more questions about life as it changes quickly in the 1990s.

Modern art history from the 20th century helps us in understanding this complex photographic art. The Cherkashins do not work in the traditions of photography. Their unconventional room-sized works cannot be categorized by style or subject or medium. They are part of a new generation of artists who rekindle the innovative spirit of the European avant-garde early in this century but for more than formal purposes.

These photographic installations share the anti-art sentiments of Dada in the 1920s. Like the Dadaists, the Cherkashins reject art principles from the past by referring to them, with temporary materials (like pages from Pravda) and aesthetics that only reflect the changes of the 1990s. Berlin Dadaists such as Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausman, George Grosz, and John Heartfield were some of the first artists to appropriate photographs by others _ usually from magazines - to reuse in their work. From this these four artists developed photomontage as a fine art form , to replace traditional forms of painting and drawing.

As Hoch has said, they did it "to integrate machine-made objects from the world of industry into the world of art". Dada photomontage not only reflected the modern machine age, but a cognitive space of German culture against accepted art forms and styles. In many ways Dada is the forerunner to postmodern devices.

While the Cherkashins do not rely on photomontage or any other single art forms, they do combine the heroic subjects and values of Soviet history, including its art. They join other ideas, symbols, and styles from one of the richest cultures in history, much as the Dadaist cut photographic reproductions from popular German and American magazines. The history of culture, especially the ideological culture of communism and modern art become a springboard to meaning for the Cherkashins. However, they do not stop postmodernism - as it, too, becomes a part of their three-dimensional montages. The Cherkashins deconstruct ideological myths while reconstructing culture during this period of radical change in the former USSR. This is the art of conceptual parody, irony, and satire. it is a mixture of fiction and reality. communism is turned back on itself in postmodern terms.

Photographic expression becomes more than a leitmotif in their work. Besides including mundane pictures made of people and sculpture in public place, most recently they also traced living subjects on Red Square and in an American Museum. Muscovites were outlined on pages from Pravda while American counterparts (including a museum curator and director) were traced and cut out from pages of the Wall Street Journal (the capitalist's Pravda). These figures together were suspended from the exhibit hall ceiling as they walked towards the  two locked doors ("the only ones now in Russia" say the Cherkashins)  to Lenin's Tomb. These real life cut-outs not only refer to Dada puns and irony, but as silhouette tracings they also make reference to the beginnings of photography early in the last century. The actual photographs used in these installations deny fine art contexts, much as Dada photomontage rejected bourgeoisie painting. These pictures are not beautifully printed masterpieces or technical achievements. They serve as markers to reality and values, life scales and reference to add worldly experience to what we already know and can easily imagine. The Cherkashins' use of everyday scale, people, and object helps animate the hidden dynamics of their designs in architectural and sculptural terms as well as photographic. Another inventor of photo

montage not related to Dada, Gustav Klucis, gives another clue to the Cherkashins' multidimensional works.

Trained as a painter in Riga, Klucis worked with Kasimir Malevich and was influenced by a genius in design, El Lissitzky. No single point of view can be found in Klucis' photomontages, as the viewer can look at many points throughout each picture to derive ideological meaning. While this idea was practised by Malevich and Lissitzky and based in Suprematism, Klucis developed a more dynamic use of changes in scale to magnify (or diminish) human and ideological values in his art. Also working with his wife, Valentina Kulagina, the Klucis team converted photographic fragments into graphic compositions that remain powerful today - usually from life-sized posters created at the height of Lenin's reign in the early 1920s.

The Cherkashins extend this expressive use of space and scale in architectural terms, onto a real-life stage we can walk into. Instead of idealizing the world of socialism as Klucis did by making Lenin an icon in his photomontage "Electrification of the Country," the Cherkashins use a bed made of a newspaper with references to Suprematism by suspended photographs and geometric shapes. Malevich's references to floating in space without any orientation are countered by the Cherkashins ironically stating that the bed offers only one orientation: horizontal, This play with reality and use of art history opens the doors to visual expression after postmodernism.

The use of heroic scale and design for amplifying ideology with elements of photography is best exemplified by El Lissitzky in 1928. By this time, four years after Lenin's death and in the face of Stalin's grip on all aspects of life, artists could only turn to the state for expressing specific forms of information. At the height of his artistic career, Lissitzky transformed his art and theory into pure architectonic expression. The Soviet Pavilion combined photography, design, architecture, painting and drawing into one comprehensive room linking all art forms. Lissitzky's brilliance and vision can be found throughout every detail of this work. Ironically it signals the end of the freedom of artistic expression in the USSR and at the same time includes everything Lissitzky worked for artistically and theoretically. It was the death of these artists' laboratory period and experimentation and the beginning of one of the darkest eras in human history.

The Cherkashins take this history and more into their own hands when they create their anti-heroic environments from history. They also use many mediums but design remains anti-modern in complexity, rather than in a reduction of form to convey a message for propaganda. While the Cherkashins' art upsets traditional photographers and painters, perhaps it is time again for art to move beyond modern "isms". At first their message does not appear to be clear any more than life was in the former USSR in 1994. Their art exists on many planes of meaning every time you walk into their temporary installations.

The Cherkashins are helping to break down the principles of modernism and ideological form of culture through an open-ended process of invention that uses art history while denying it. If the postmodern era reconfirms the end of modernisms - in part as a conceived mirror echoing itself - then the Cherkashins are helping to lay the groundwork for a new era of possibilities in Russia and beyond. Their art, within the present photographic milieu, is necessary to understand another history that is being written.

 

Steve Yates

Curator of photography, Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts

Artist, Fulbright Scholar

 

© International copyright by author.

2002