Issue 2/2003 - Time for Action

Moscow Actionism: Origins and Applications

Herwig G. Höller

There is no doubt that contemporary art in Moscow in the nineties was heavily influenced by actionist art forms. It is not as if actionism was by any means alien to non-conformist Soviet art, as was made clear in the eighties by the numerous »Trips to the Country« carried out by the artists group »Kollektivnie deystviya« (»Collective Action«) associated with Andrei Monastirsky1 or in actions by groups like »Chempioni mira« (»World Champions«). However, a fundamental difference can be noted. For reasons that are understandable in such a socio-political context, in the Soviet era practically all actions tended to take place quietly and secretly in the non-public sphere. Only when state repression began to crumble in the early nineties did performances move into the public sphere, one early highlight being in April 1991, when members of the group »E.T.I.« (»Expropriation of the Territory of Art«) lay down on the almost sacrosanct Red Square to form the swear word »khui« (»cock«) with their bodies.

Source: Literature

These early forms of Moscow actionism by no means drew on similar western movements, such as Viennese Actionism, for their inspiration, as one might be tempted to think. Rather, they had their roots in literary movements, particularly Russian Futurism. For example, one of the seminal moments for Moscow actionist art was a literary seminar on »Terrorism and Text«2 in the autumn of 1989 at Moscow State University, where the then unknown Anatoly Osmolovsky extensively quoted the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), but also referred to western Marxist sources à la Barthes and Godard. Alexander Brener, who joined the Moscow art scene in 1992 upon his return from Israel, for his part repeatedly referred to the poet and artist Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), who was a futurist and actionist before the terms were even coined. Brener dedicated a highly eulogistic poem to him in 1997, for example.

From actionism to activist forms

At at time when many values were being reassessed, considerable public attention was paid to central representatives of actionism such as Osmolovsky, Brener and Oleg Kulik. Moreover, there was intense debate in both print media and electronic media about actions such as that surrounding the »Bassein Moskva« on 27 May, 1994, a huge swimming pool in the former palace complex of the Soviets, which had to make way in 1994 for the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour torn down by Stalin in the thirties. This important symbol for a new Russia was finally completed in the late nineties.
From the mid-nineties onwards, a definite slackening could be observed in the actionist movement. This was partly due to the fact that important representatives of the movement changed their field of action – Brener left Russia for several years in 1996, making international headlines in 1997 with his Malevich dollar-spraying action in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, while Oleg Kulik took off his dog costume and directed his efforts towards the western art market, and later also to the emerging Russian art market, where he achieved ever-increasing success.
A changing group surrounding Osmolovsky, on the other hand, shifted the focus of its activities towards a type of activism that imitated western models. A »Vnepravitelstvennaya kontrolnaya kommissiya« (»Controlling commission outside of government«) was intended to recall the »extraparliamentary opposition« of the sixties; Daniel Cohn-Bendit sent a telegram congratulating it on the Moscow »barricade action« on the 30th anniversary of the May protests in Paris. In the same way, actions entitled »Against all parties« and the very spontaneous way a »Against everyone« banner was hung on the Lenin Mausoleum should be seen as references to the political philosophy of western intellectuals like Michel Foucault. Guy Debord’s situationism3 also became a further point of reference, even if this occurred relatively late, at the end of the nineties, because his writings were not translated for a long while.

Radical art & »polit-technology«

In retrospect, however, the superficially neo-Marxist political correctness of many activities can be called into question. A case in point is the above-mentioned »Against everyone« action a few weeks before the elections in December 1999, which – even if this is denied4 – could be understood as a classical »polit-technological« tool that – if the corresponding media support had been there – could have prevented many a voter critical of the government from voting in favour of the communist opposition. »Polit-technology« became a central element in Russian domestic politics by the 1996 presidential elections at the latest, when it was employed to secure the re-election of an obviously critically ill president. The same sort of thing happened when parties that had been designed at the drawing board by »polit-technologists« won hands down at the Duma elections in 1999 and, shortly afterwards, when Vladimir Putin, who had been practically unknown one year before, was elected president by an overwhelming majority. And indications are growing that, for the Duma elections at the end of 2003 or the presidential elections in 2004, almost no means and methods will be left unused to ensure that the current political and business elite (particularly in the face of the opposition provided by a rather senile Communist Party) remains in power. And as far as the methods are concerned – this could be something specific to a society that is only slightly diversified – Russian spin doctors were fairly quick to discover the creative potential of the radical art scene, especially for »black PR«5: for media provocations intended as a rule to compromise the image of political rivals.
Punk musician Sergei Zarikov, who at the start of the nineties decisively shaped the image of Vladimir Zirinovsky, had already been an example of a well-known artist working for political goals. And in the mid-nineties Marat Gelman, the gallery owner catering to the radical art scene, also began getting involved political technologies. Together with the former dissident Gleb Pavlovsky, he promoted General Lebed at the 1996 presidential elections, whose image was worked on by Anatoly Osmolovsky, among others. Lebed achieved a succès d’estime, which ensured further commissions. What is more, in 1996 artists were even asked to draw up flyers calling for solidarity between the Orthodox Church and communists, purportedly in the name of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. For his work during the 1999 Duma elections and presidential elections in 2000, Gelman, who lives in an apartment with a lot of contemporary art, but – perhaps an irony of fate? – with a direct view of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, was rewarded in June 2002 with the post of vice-director of the biggest state-run television station, »Pervii Kanal«. There, among other things, he seems to promote Putin’s political line. The official biography on the station’s web site6 does not mention any concrete field of activity, only making a broad reference to his activities as gallery owner, which he continues unabated.

»We – They«

Besides projects with clear political goals, such as festivals for the more liberal pro-Putin party SPS or the opening of a branch of the gallery in Kiev as part of an extensive campaign to extend Russian influence in the Ukraine, even bigger non-commercial projects are organised, like the recent exhibition »Mi – Oni« (»We – They«) at the art expo Art Moskva in April 2003. In her text on »Mi – Oni«, curator Evgenia Kikoje wrote that the exhibition, which brought together works of well-known »radical« artists, aimed to point out the outdatedness of a radical »leftist« or, conversely, »rightist« artistic position, while demonstrating a possible new, radical metaposition in which the unconditionality of the one or the other position is ironically called into question. This is an ironic approach that has been successfully practised in past years by Siberian artists like Vjaceslav Mitsin and Alexander Saburov, who in their deliberately provincial and anti-intellectual works take an ironic look at left-wing, intellectual Moscow actionist art.
Furthermore – and this was anyway a major artistic theme throughout »Art Moskva« – at »We –They« there were numerous portraits of politicians to be found, such as a (no long quite up-to-date) painting of »President Yeltsin Embracing General Lebed« by Dubossarski/Vinogradov or »Putin and the Black Square« by Dmitri Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeeva. However, the new, radical metaposition announced by Kikoje did not always receive a positive reception, as was shown in Anton Litvin’s work »Shines, but Does Not Warm«, in which an apparently burning Russian flag can be seen in an artificial fireplace. An obviously hired agent provocateur sneered so vehemently at this treatment of national symbols that the work was removed from the exhibition two hours after it opened – against the will of the curator, but with the sanction of the gallery owner, who was satisfied with the provocation.

Actionism loyal to Putin

The best-known representatives of radical Moscow art barely carry out any noteworthy actions any more: Osmolovski distinguished himself recently by one infantile and unmotivated action in which he first thoroughly beat up Alexander Brener, then proudly boasted about it; Brener has, since his return to Moscow, continued to devote his attention to literature together with Barbara Schurz. A while ago, they privately published another book7 full of exclamation marks, in which they get even with numerous representatives of the Moscow (and, on the side, Viennese) scene. Influential forms of action are now starting to come from the definitely opposite side of the political spectrum. The most successful action in recent times was doubtless one by the youth movement »Idushi vmeste« (»Going Together«), loyal to Putin, in which it called – admittedly in vain – for the works of the writer Vladimir Sorokin to be destroyed, using, among other things, a huge homemade toilet bowl. Sorokin, for his part, was able to enjoy an unbelievable media response and unprecedented sales. And was in the process of building himself a new dacha.


Translated by Timothy Jones


1. See the comprehensive documentation on »Kollektivnie destviya«. Andrei Monastirsky »Poezdi za gorod. Kollektivnie destviya« (»Trips to the Country. Collective Actions«), Moscow 1998

2. A theme that still seems to be highly topical for the Moscow scene even 14 years later. The first issue of a new theory magazine called »Nomer« (»Number«, Moscow 2003), whose editors include Igor Chubarov, Dmitri Gutov, Anatoly Osmolovsky and Kiril Preobrazenski, is again devoted mainly to the topic »terrorism«.

3. The translation of Debord’s principal work, »La société du spectacle« (1967), was published in 2000 by Logos-Radek. Besides Osmolovski, who was partly responsible for this publication, one could mention the hardcore new-rightist and »Eurasistic« geo-politician Alexander Dugin, who, having started off in the right-wing extremist underground – among other things as the ideologue of the nationalistic Pamyat movement and later as a co-founder of Eduard Limonov’s »National Bolshevist Party« - has now advanced to become the official adviser to Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev.

4. Anatoly Osmolovsky: »Bez iskusstva i bez politiki – v 21 vek« (»Without Art and Politics – into the 21st Century«), Khudozestvenni Jurnal (art journal) No. 30-31, Moskva 2000: »The »Against Everyone« campaign is not a pre-election trick, not a venture by contemporary artists in the polit-technological milieu or a speculation on the dissatisfaction of the people with the current authorities […]«.

5. The term »cherny piar« was used in the media from the mid-nineties, at first very sporadically. From about 1999/2000 it has been a part of the established political vocabulary. Originally a translation from Scientology jargon (»black PR«), the Russian word can now be found more frequently on the internet than the American original. See for example

6. Information about Marat Gel’man on the server of »Pervii Kanal«:

7. Alexander Brener, Barbara Schurz: Tuk-tuk! Ruite suk! Ili totalnaya rasprya (Knock, knock! Cut the branch off! Or a total split). Moscow 2003