The specimen under examination surely hasn’t traversed the Atlantic since 1992. Long thinning locks, well-trimmed beard, matching brown corduroy slacks and jacket encased in an ankle-length wool coat with salt-and-pepper fur trim that matches his hair. He strides onto the train with a thirty-something woman on his arm. After efficiently depositing his companion on an empty seat, he leans over to a teenage girl, quietly inquiring in Russian about the vagaries of weekend subway routes and schedules.
Seamlessly, he transitions into her personal life, asking if she’s in school or if she has a job. «Вообще я работаю.» “Generally speaking, I work,” she answers. But this no man to be deterred by noncommittal answers. He probes for her opinion of the merits of car ownership in New York City. He mumbles this and that about traffic and where to shop for various products and how to get around Brooklyn. All the while, the other woman looks up at him admiringly with a slight smile and unblinking eyes. Finally, as the teenager exits the car, he gets her name.
“Katya,” she assents.
He sits down with his original companion in silence.
We get off the subway and board a New Jersey-bound train to see old Kamchatka Friend, who is currently writing up his dissertation in a lovely, haunted Highland Park apartment. Before we start exploring the greater New Brunswick area and its colorful local dives, we decide to duck into the Zimmerli Museum to get our daily quota of culture.
As soon as we walk into the place, I am assaulted by a flutter of older Russian women animatedly discussing something or another. As they flap by, I saunter into the Russian collection, marveling at how the curators managed to tuck a Goncharova in a dark corner in the back of the room. The work certainly isn’t one of the artist’s more notable achievements. How wonderfully egalitarian to dismiss it with an inconsequential placement, despite the big name attached to it.
But this room—even with its mesmerizing Roerich, wonderful old maps and revolutionary ceramics—is not the main draw.
I stomp over to the Dodge Wing with its collection of Soviet nonconformist art. And, as a man who values friends over objective art spectatorship, I skip the main collection and direct myself to the comrade-curated Collective Actions exhibit.
It is undoubtedly one of the odder exhibits I’ve ever experienced as the objects of analysis are not art itself, but rather the documentation of art. Or in the words of the overview:
…the Collective Actions group - a key grouping within the Moscow Conceptualist circle - invited audiences to travel to the fields outside Moscow to witness performances in the landscape. Documenting these performances through sound, photography, and video, the group kept a running record of its activities, and such factographic material was supplemented by interpretive essays and transcripts of group discussions – all of which was brought together in the folders of the Collective Actions archive.The strongest parts, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the videos of the artists discussing their work and philosophy; sadly only one of the three videos is fully functional, one being down completely and another missing headphones.
The least compelling element of the exhibit, I have to admit, is the photography. Most of the shots are lifeless and lacking action. I don't doubt that this is intentional; that doesn't make it more interesting to me.
In contrast, I am startled by how effective the other archival material comes off. Something about the essays and plans—the tight single-spacing, the flair of the sketches and frenzied writing, the long rambling paragraphs—communicates more about the group and its actions than the photographs of the performances. These documentations of the thought process, energy and investment make the group seem far livelier than the staid pictures mounted on the wall. I’m not sure what that says about the art, as art, that is. Other smarter people can ponder the question.
Then, it’s back out to the main exhibit. Most of it leaves me cold. Simpleton that I am, Oscar Rabin’s Ferris Wheel captures my head for a few minutes.
Then I spend some time with Leonid Lamm’s work, in part just because it seems to be the most carefully curated and comprehensive piece on display. The notebooks are a record of dream and nightmare at once.
On the way out, I pass a Russian-American family—mother, father, 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. As they walk by a portrait of Vladimir Il’ich, the mom cracks, «А вот дедушка Ленин!» “Look, it’s grandpa Lenin!” Neither of the children smiles. Why would they? They have no living memories of Yeltsin, much less of the Soviet Union. Their entire American reality has been Bush, while they presumably viewed Putin’s Russia from a distance.
Lord only knows what they think about Soviet nonconformist art.