Stones and Hard Places

Various – Cosmic Shift, Russian Contemporary Art Writing (Zed)

This is the first anthology of Russian contemporary art writing to be published outside Russia. It includes Barte de Baere, Anton Vidokle, Bogdan Mamonov, Pavel Pepperstein, Dmitri Prigov and Masha Sumnina. However, the book was perhaps unsurprisingly begun via a chance meeting at Goldsmiths College, London.

This book, on its way through its approaches to art, also explores the communism of old and the communism to come. It does so in relation to representational questions. It does so in relation to the arts of the former Soviets, with some leeway (for instance Boris Groys is included, a German who grew up in Russia).

My review, then, will suggest what use this book might have to Manchester artists, because many of the ideas in this book – ideas that are common currency to those who lived through the hard grip of communism and its eventual dropping of them into a void – are much needed by the modernistas, neo-radicals and posturers in the city. Many of them cluster around the urban art scene.

This book both is and isn’t about the ‘Various Times’ of the European mid-century. It raises the spectres of Poland, Germany, in the late 1930s and 1940s, without meaning to.

But this book is also about an emerging period of New Things and I want to suggest to you that those older Various Times are being lost in that, at the same time as they resurface in new forms: The idea that Jacobin magazine is straightforwardly the alt-left opposite to the alt-right of Vice magazine: The Good against The Bad. The White Hats out to outgun The Black Hats; be wary.

I have spoken of the managing out of postmodernism from the university elsewhere. What we are seeing is the rise of a culture which is wilfully trying to close the gap between signifier and signified. What Jodi Dean has described, via Zizek, as the capitulation to new forms of submission. Look at the article on ‘The 1917 Peasant Revolutions’ in Jacobin by Sarah Badcock and Be Aware. If facts can be presented selectively enough to become lie, then that article is a damn lie.

What we aren’t seeing in the text is a sense that the artists of the former citizens of the Tito regime brought to bear on their work, artists such as Mladen Stilinović, that, as the title of the wonderful retrospective show at Nottingham Contemporary, curated by Lina Dzuverovic explained: ‘Monuments Are Not To Ne Trusted’. Stilinović is an exemplar here, distrustful of both capitalism and communism, he existed within both as a kind of permanent dissident and his work is better for it.

More recently Engels has returned again in the statue the artist Phil Collins brought back from the Ukraine, which was ‘unveiled’ on the 16th of July, 2017. This statue was the centrepiece of the closing event of the 2017 Manchester International Festival, an event called Ceremony, a title that ties the Soviet-era statue to the Manchester band Joy Division and the general revival of the post-punk and modernist aesthetic in Britain.

Engels’ return to the surface of Manchester, now he has been ‘uncovered’, whether uncovered at the back of a factory in the Ukraine, by archeologists, or in the written textual surface of his explorations in and around Angel Meadow, invariably means a set of investments in fragments of material from the past. All archeological sites are characterised by the projections of their present moments into that past.

The statue of Engels lay unwanted because it had become a toxic symbol. All iconography associated with the former Soviets was taken down, a final dictat enshrined in legislation: In 2015 Soviet monuments became illegal. The Holodomor and the moving of ethnic Russians into satellite states, including the Ukraine are not simply ‘of the past’; they are of recent times. The Putin regime have entered the Ukraine aggressively yet again.

While these tragic occurrences are not necessarily tied to the socialism of Marx-Engels, the Engels statue, in the Ukraine, became a site of projection for all the geographical terrors of Russian military managerialism. This is why it was given away by the town of Mala Pereshchepina to Manchester. How very strange then that a YBA should then have it driven to Manchester. How odd that an artist associated with the invented new hyper-capitalist art market of Charles Saatchi in the 1990s, as the older art markets atrophied, should dabble with this particular object and its constellations of significatory dust.

All over social media, the idea that Engels had been ‘brought home’ could be seen, that the statue is ‘coming back’. It is an idea absolutely cracked with contradiction. How bizarre that in Manchester, of all places, the statue is being seen as something ‘solid’, that what had definitely melted into air appears to have become concrete again. The Joy Division, who are invoked in the name of the Phil Collins artwork Ceremony – the name is taken from one of their song titles – were seen as proto-postmodern, in that they took their name from an SS brothel, its signifier rising above the signified.

The moment of the Manchester Modernist Society (MMS) is tangled up in all of this too: MMS is characterised by rescuing the reputations of modernist buildings from the categories of, for instance, ‘slum’ in favour of celebrations of minimal or brutalist aesthetics.

At the unveiling of the Engels statue there was a banner workshop. Some of the slogans displayed there included ‘communism is coming home’ and ‘when they write our history they will say this is where it started’. This thin trope, that Manchester is a ‘revolutionary city’ can be seen in many discourses about it.

From the great book edited by Peck and Ward, City of Revolution to the brochure of the 2017 Manchester Literature Festival and even thinner cultural references in the world of pop. But Manchester’s ‘revolution’, if it can even be called that, Industrialism, was a failed radicalism. Because in Manchester there was a bourgeois revolution instead of a political one. This may not be a point to mourn, as in France the very real political revolution turned into The Terror and yet another form of Nationalist Imperialism.

The later ‘revolution’ in Manchester we might point to includes Manchester City Council who out of sheer desperation began to seek money from all kinds of non-governmental sources. This essentially became the model for the neoliberal form of governance and statecraft in the 1990s, including the re-calibration of the Labour Party as New Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair.

Many of Manchester’s cultural players were formed in this period, including many of the Manchester International Festival insiders. George Osborne, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, greatly admires Sir Howard Bernstein, an icon of neoliberal city governance.

A new generation is emerging though. They often describe themselves as communist. The Stalin memes and hammers and sickles they deploy on social media are flexible, plastic, elastic even. They are semi-ironic. Yet at the same time, the Engels statue is seen as something solid for them and irony itself is openly disavowed. For many of them, the Engels statue is a solid icon of belief in the future. Let me be clear, the reduction of spectra of meaning into one dogmatic sign is one of the processes via which totalitarianism is delivered.

What is behind these assertions is the recent revival of the Labour Party under the current leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn himself, in many ways, has become a statue like that of Engels. The two signs became interchangeable at the close of Ceremony. But there is a tension here, as some of Manchester’s cultural players associated with Manchester International Festival are solidly New Labour, as is Manchester City Council.

The idea of Engels returning lies latent in E.P. Thompson’s reading of him as a kind of Timelord. However, Derrida writes well on how Marx and Engels actually advised for their lives after their own redundancy and death: ‘Who has ever called for the transformation of his own theses?’

Derrida explains that they didn’t simply ask for their work to be updated with new knowledge, but requested that the original knowledge be treated robustly. In this, the excessive warnings about Marx and Engels predicting history, about their work as a sealed hermetic system, as excessive and ill-read as similar charges against Hegel, need to be denied again. They need to be denied for a new generation of radicals who are erroneously making them solid.

If you do nothing else read ‘Soviet communism and the paradox of alienation’ in this book, an essay by Artemy Magun:

‘Communist government should be truly dialectical’, as opposed to ‘the pseudo dialectical liberal state’ and ‘the ideocratic dogmatism of the Soviet state’, to which (Boris) ‘Groys falsely attributes a dialectic’. Such a government ‘should be dialectical in its rationality and aesthetical in its virtuosity.’ It should be ‘harsh’, but ‘plastic at the same time, constantly preparing its own downfall and rescuing itself from it.’

This is not an argument for postmodern relativism, it is not an argument that says the young radicals are too communist, but it is an argument that says the young Corbynistas are not yet properly communist. Artemy Magun’s essay is a good place to start again.

Belgrade went from a cosmopolis in 1978 to the horrors of the 1990s in no time at all. ‘It couldn’t happen here’. Yes it could. We need the eastern semi-dissident voices more than ever as the communist sympathy increases.

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