What is Modus R?

The title of the exhibition – Modus R – is a word puzzle. The Latin word modus refers to a measure, image or way, while the enigmatic letter R is the first sound of a name. So Ðœodus R can be deciphered as the Russian way, as an image of revolution or a method of reconstruction. The title can also be read as an abbreviation popular in the 1920s, when the new made itself known by using the phonetic sounds of opening letters, which consequently acquired their own objectivity. In the words of avant-garde poet Velimir Khlebnikov, R was the radius of the earth, united by the new international of art [1]. In the “common human alphabet” of the self-styled Chairman of Space, the letter R meant the division of the body, like a “flat cave”, as a “trace of the movement of another body through it” [2].

So Modus R is the trace left by modernism in contemporary Russian art. A “flat cave” dissecting the body of modernity. The traditions of the Russian avant-garde, liberated from the ideological burden and aesthetic cliches, re-experienced today. Artists rejecting narrative, the addressing of Formalist principles and, at the same time, the reinterpretation of the history of modernism as a tale of utopian impulses. A “flat cave” is an oxymoron altering our perspective of the avant-garde. The glimmering of the near and the far, the surface and the depths. Modus R is the trauma of modernism, returning to us from the future.

Why Formalism?

Russian Formalism was an influential school of literary criticism in the 1910s and 1920s. Does it bear any relation to the exhibition? The answer is both yes and no. It is, of course, no accident that a reference to the Formalist school appears in the title. Directly linked to Futurism, the Formalists themselves addressed contemporary art. The object of their analysis was not only literature, but also such important phenomena of the day and age as painting and cinema.

The best formula defining the importance of Suprematism belongs to one of the founders of the Russian Formalist school, Victor Shklovsky, who said that the Suprematists did in art what chemists did in medicine: they brought out the active part of the resources. The “active part of the resources” brought out by the Formalists in poetic language are the constructive meaning of the element, the rejection of ideological significance, the extraction of the word from speech automatism and the study of the internal laws of language. Victor Shklovsky wrote: “In the theory of literature, I investigate the internal laws of the language. To draw an industrial parallel, I am not interested in the state of the world cotton market, nor in the politics of trusts, but only in the thread count and the ways of weaving them” [3].

For Shklovsky, art was a device, the aim of which was to “give the sensation of the object as seeing, rather than recognizing” [4]. In the words of Roman Jakobson, the device is the only hero of the science of literature. Bringing out the material and device as the constructive element, the Formalist method of literary criticism can be compared to the “elements of artistic activities” formulated by the Russian avant-garde artists when working on the concept of the Museum of Artistic Culture: (1) material; (2) color; (3) space; (4) time; (5) form; (6) technique [5]. Russian Formalism today is modernism – only modernism that does not claim to be universal. Rather, it underlines its geographic position, placing the accent less on time and more on place.

Russian Formalism today?

The dictionary of the Formalist school is a tool helping to describe the strategy of contemporary art addressing Formalism. There is no attempt here to return to the sources of modernism. The most important things are the modernist impulse, unfolding retroactively in the restored word, and the accent sounding in the acoustics of Russian Formalism.

One of the key concepts is defamiliarization (ostranenie), which was not only a feature of Russian Formalism, but also of Bertolt Brecht’s theory of Verfremdungseffekt and Roland Barthes’s analysis of modern mythologies. Defamiliarization – which Shklovsky called the main device of art in his fundamental piece of writing Art as Device (1917) – is a slowed down, complicated perception, aimed at bypassing and the process of vision itself, rather than the recognition of the object. Defamiliarization overturns the relationship between the subject and object, concentrating not on the result, but on the process. When something commonplace appears as something strange and unrecognizable, one can say, recalling Jacques Lacan’s anecdote of the tin can, [6] that we not only look at the object: the object also looks at us.

The concept of defamiliarization is applied, first and foremost, to visual arts linked to prolongation. In Victor Alimpiev’s video, defamiliarization draws the action out of customary automatism. In Nightingale and Sheet Lightning, the group is united by a simple mechanical action. The Formalist features of the ritual, such as repetition and the collective nature, are not linked to the task of symbolization. On the contrary, the process of recognizing is complicated and even impossible. The unnatural aniline tones in Alimpiev’s videos, pictures and objects also contribute to the effect of defamiliarization. The artist creates a special sensation of space, combining the opposing facets of Khlebnikov’s “flat cave,” the near and the far, a Suprematist projection of the world seen from outer space and an objective materiality going beyond the plane of the counter-relief, Malevich and Tatlin.

Vladimir Logutov defamiliarizes an everyday documentary scene with the help of computer montage. The effect is only discernable when peering closely. The invisibility of the device seems to reproduce the irrelevant nature of everyday life. A group of people moves slowly about a park. They are reflected in the surface of a lake, only their reflections do not coincide with the originals. In the crowd standing on a staircase, the same figures appear twice. An unassuming crossroads (Twilight) turns out to be a place of implicit breakdowns – the red traffic light is reflected in the puddle as green. The artist articulates the effect of relocation in the documentary shot, from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera to the modern surveillance camera.

Defamiliarization has a clearly technological character in the Bluesoup video. The three-dimensional animation of the modeled spaces reflects the largely virtual nature of the modern perception and the tele-presence in video games, war or space shots. Inclusion in a picture of the world, in which every action on the screen is accompanied by a reflexive movement of the body, is underlined in the Echelon video installation. The train rushing at the audience, which once evoked panic among the first cinema-goers, is arranged in a real three-dimensional projection. Echelon is a form of phonetic landscape [7] in which the acoustic effect plays a form-creative role.

Media-aesthetics are the basis of the defamiliarizing device in the works of Philipp Dontsov. Modeling family relationships with the help of blocks of figures from a standard program, he debunks the traditional ties between family members. The Family Portrait series demonstrates the denaturalization of the myth. The realization that Jessica and John are not linked by anything other than a cultural cliche is shown in a series of computer prints and animated family portraits, rather like the science fiction projected in such films as Blade Runner [8].

The works of Kerim Ragimov combine the mechanical nature of a traditional technique – painting or graphic art – with a detailed reproduction of mass-printed “originals.” The latter are either the artist’s own photographs, as in the Road Off series of drawings, or mass media images taken from newspapers, magazines and television. The media aspect allows the artist to concentrate on “art as a device”, overturning the relationship between the copy and the original.

Irina Korina works with displaced perception. The attention shifts from recognizing to seeing in Models, in which domestic accumulator wrappings, made to be thrown away, are greatly increased in size. Exploiting the modernist ideas of economy and functionality and becoming invisible, the packaging returns in large-sized objects. Such magnification is also a gesture of resistance to consumer ideology and the movement towards smaller and smaller technical gadgets.

In Anatoly Osmolovsky’s Wares, the defamiliarizing effect is also based on the return of form from technical design to art. Formalist art acted on design and the turrets of the tanks recreated in Osmolovsky’s objects are a retroactive response to camouflage, which was borrowed from monochrome Cubist painting during the First World War.

In Pyotr Bely’s Danger Zone, something once linked to the projective nature of the avant-garde becomes a model of the trauma caused by modernism, incarnated in the physical damage to the surface. As Alexandra Shatskikh notes, the Suprematist canvases were, for Malevich, “sign-projects containing pointers to the prototypes of the technical specimens of the future” [9]. For Bely, Memorial Modeling is a device directed not at the future, but at the plastic prototypes of the foundation of a utopian idea.

While defamiliarization is the deliberate complication of perception, another key concept of Formalism – aphasia – is linked to the disruption of understanding. The theory of aphasia helps us to analyze the differences in the contemporary addressing of modernist icons, materials and strategies.

The concept of aphasia implies the loss or impairment of the ability to communicate through speech. Roman Jakobson classified aphasia on the basis of two mechanisms of vocal impairment – selection and combination [10]. When the ability to select is lost, the context of the message is extremely important for the speaker. Words are grouped according to their spatial or temporal continuity, in contiguity.

Aphasiacs, whose selective abilities are impaired, resort to metonymy. When the ability to combine is lost, the contextual fabric of the sentence is destroyed. People whose contiguity is impaired employ metaphors. Jakobson applied the theory of aphasia to fine art, pointing out Surrealism’s orientation on the metaphor and Cubism and Dadaism’s orientation on metonymy.

In a direct reference to Roman Jakobson, Sergei Bugayev calls his method “aphasiac.” In the Aphasia of Representation series, the “alien” images of Assyrian warriors, astronauts and microorganisms are sewn onto Soviet flags, in the same technique as the “original” state symbolics. The artist demonstrates a metonymic model. This also acts in the Anti-Lissitzky series. Retaining the scheme of El Lissitzky’s famous poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, Bugayev replaces the text and color composition. In the Industrial Unconscious series of enamel photographs, the artist reproduces the images of the modernist archive.

When art directly addresses the Formalist tradition, it attempts to retain the temporal and spatial continuity of modernism. The artist becomes an archaeologist. He re-experiences the modernist trauma, filling it with new ideological content. Reproducing avant-garde icons, Andrei Molodkin’s objects fill these universal signs with oil – Crude Oil in the Form of Malevich’s Black Square, Crude Oil in the Form of Malevich’s Black Cross and Crude Oil in the Form of Malevich’s Black Circle. The pathos of the restructuring of the world returns in a new political gesture of resistance to our dependence on the raw material market.

The story of modernism is deliberately complicated today. This is no longer an anecdote about a utopia: it is a partial loss of understanding, realized by the artists; an inheritance and a rejection of traditions. One can only list what is always in front of the eyes, metonymically substituting one for the other. The black color of geometric abstraction becomes the color of crude oil or asphalt.

When David Ter-Oganian reproduces geometric compositions on asphalt or animates them, he consciously rejects the gesture of distancing in order to preserve the spatial-temporal continuity of the context. Alexandra Galkina’s series of pictures with the image of a red miniskirt or her stencils of Suprematist linen are not an ironic metaphor, but a metonymic substitution.

A new generation of artists, such as David Ter-Oganian, Alexandra Galkina or Zhanna Kadyrova, rejects choice for the sake of proving the uninterrupted existence of modernism. Even when addressing an object by Jeff Koons, as Zhanna Kadyrova does in Diamonds, the most important thing is not the strategy of reappropriation, but the production of art, the rough materiality of concrete and tiles.

In Russia today, the vestiges of Formalist art are also linked to political realities, which are closely intertwined with its perception. Interest in the Russian avant-garde came in waves. The first wave fell on the 1960s. Did the art of the 1920s differ from the art of the 1960s? Ilya Kabakov claims that the art of the 1920s was the art of ascending hopes, while the art of the 1960s was the art of descending hopes [11].

In the 1960s, many unofficial artists regarded themselves as continuing the avant-garde traditions, forcibly interrupted in the 1930s. It was perhaps only the Conceptual artists who were distinguished for their alienation from the historical avant-garde. Ironically, this allowed them to make a greater contribution to interpreting the modernist project throughout the 1960s and 1970s, compared to those who concentrated on preservation and direct inheritance.

As a political or social gesture, the avant-garde project acquired new meaning in the late 1980s, during Perestroika. It was perceived as an historical parallel of the social-political revolution unfolding before the very eyes of artists. This tendency gave way to media and narrative art in the 1990s, followed by a fresh burst of interest in Formalism at the start of the new millennium.

This history is extremely schematic, of course, and does not reveal all the subtleties of the interrelations between Russian artists and the avant-garde heritage.

In The Return of the Real, Hal Foster claims that the avant-garde cannot be experienced by contemporaries [12]. The harsh rejection of tradition is too traumatic to be perceived immediately. Artists only return to the modernist experience a generation later, as occurred in the West, for example with Minimalism. In Russia, the formalist trauma was aggravated by the political trauma.

Only now, when a generation of artists has grown up without experience of life in a modernist state, the political and the formalist can be separated, if only to create a new configuration.

Olesya Turkina

1. Notes to the Text V. Khlebnikov, “Uchitel’ i uchenik”; quoted from Velimir Khlebnikov. Tvoreniya, M., Sovetskii pisatel, 1986, p. 586.
2. V. Khlebnikov, “Khudozhniki mira!”; quoted from Velimir Khlebnikov. Tvoreniya, M., Sovetskii pisatel, 1986, p. 622.
3. V. Shklovsky, “O teorii prozy. Predislovie” (1929); quoted from Victor Shklovsky, O teorii prozy, Sovetskii pisatel, 1982, p. 8.
4. V. Shklovsky, “Iskusstvo kak priem” (1917); quoted from Victor Shklovsky, O teorii prozy, Sovetskii pisatel, 1982, p. 15.
5. See Svetlana Djafarova, “Muzei zhivopisnoi kul’tury”, Velikaya utopiya. Russkii i sovetskii avangard 1915-1932, Bentelli, Berne/Galart, Moscow, 1993, p. 91.
6. See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Alan Sheridan, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1977. Jacques Lacan believed that we are included in a picture that we see and, at the same time, are separated from it by a screen.
7. The phonetic aspect was extremely important for Formalism. Articulation is the subject of Boris Eichenbaum’s article How Gogol’s Overcoat is Made.
8. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is set in Los Angeles in 2019. The replicants – mutated androids – display both the outer appearances and stereotypes of human behavior.
9. Alexandra Shatskikh, “UNOVIS – ochag novogo mira”, Velikaya utopiya. Russkii i sovetskii avangard 1915-1932, Bentelli, Berne/Galart, Moscow, 1993, p. 78.
10. See Roman Jakobson & Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language, Mouton & Co., The Hague, 1956; Language: An Inquiry into its Meaning and Function (Science of Culture Series, Vol. VIII, planned and edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen), Harper & Brothers, New York, 1957.
11. “The sixties were movement towards chaos. This was a very weak memory of ascending currents and vectors of existence, but it was a movement of extinguishing and falling. The twenties were movement towards new worlds, a purified movement. It is no accident that the new movements – Suprematism, Constructivism – were ascetic, meager and cleansed, throwing off everything superfluous and bringing out the essence – eternal, architectonic constructions” (Ilya Kabakov, “60-70-e. Zapiski o neofitsial’noi zhizni v Moskve”, Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Sonderband 47, Vienna, 1999, p. 227.
12. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: Art and Theory at the End of the Century, An October Book, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/London, England, 1996.