The Fellowship of Delirium

Issue no2
April - May 2019
Magisch Realisme

The Moscow Museum of Modern Art opened the first retrospective of the New Blockheads, a movement that was active in Saint Petersburg between 1996 and 2002. It gave rise to many artists' careers.

Fried Eggs. Street performance. Liteyny Prospekt, St Petersburg. 23 May 1998 Artist: Sergey Spirikhin Photos: Alexander Lyashko

Four years ago, Petr Belyi, curator of the current retrospective, already made a show about the New Blockheads, summarizing their art activity and constructing a kind of timeline of the movement. It was part of the exhibition series Invisible Boarder that took place in a small Moscow gallery named Kultproekt and presented different art groups and movements from Saint Petersburg as historical phenomena. The current show in the MMOMA has the same curatorial approach: there is a timeline and lots of documentation – photos, artifacts, and texts.

The Movement of the Tea Table towards the Sunset. Seven Days of Travel. Performance in the urban environment

A statement about the MMOMA's show says that the New Blockheads were “one of Saint Petersburg’s most original yet little known art groups of the 1990s and the turn of the century”. But this is not correct. The individual artists of the New Blockheads (Vadim Flyagin, Oleg Khvostov, Vladimir Kozin, Alexander Lyashko, Inga Nagel, Igor Panin, Maksim Rayskin, Sergey Spirikhin) never formed a group. They were literally a movement, a disorganized and spontaneous entity, which was not easy to unite even for their own actions, happenings and performances (not to mention their exhibitions). They called themselves “tovarischestvo”, which means “fellowship” in Russian.

Also, these artists were not as original as the curator argues. The movement was definitely inspired by the legacy of other movements in Saint Petersburg (called Leningrad at that time) in the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s, such as Novye Khudozhniki (New Artists), Mitki and Necrorealists, and Moscow-based artists, like the Conceptualist and Post-Conceptualist groups named Gnezdo (Nest), Mukhomor (Amanita) and Chempiony Mira (World Champions). The latter were more organized than the artists from the “Northern capital”, but were practicing a more spontaneous and unconscious activity – like the New Blockheads. A big difference however is that the artists from Saint Petersburg did not pay as much attention to documentation or archiving (neither did they care about the presence of the audience) as their contemporaries from Moscow. That is why after the dissolution of the movement it got partly forgotten and was, as co-curator of the show Lizaveta Matveeva states, “ignored by the institutions”. Perhaps this is common fate for such kind of punk performance groups or movements, especially in Eastern Europe. For example, the Polish art group Lodz Kaliska, that is very similar, needed to wait years before curators and art historians recognized it as something worth showing and researching. And that is why this retrospective is so important.

Their reckless attitude towards documentation is very determinative for the exhibition. There are only a few videos and a dozen of photo series dedicated to the actions, and sometimes there is only a text. That is why it is unfortunate that the curator and the museum do not always give more information about the context of the performances. Sometimes it is impossible for non-professional visitors to understand what is to see on the pictures.

However, the show does represent the specific atmosphere of the New Blockheads' lifestyle very well, especially through those contextual gaps. The artists of the movement acted like hooligans and existential anarchists. Their actions sometimes ended up in a fight (usually between the participants themselves) or in a small scandal. Furthermore, they really liked looking ridiculous. Their strategy was based on a theory about reality as a delirium, and the political and social events that occurred at that time in Russia may easily be seen as prove. During the six years of the movement's life, there were two wars in Chechnya, a financial crisis and an endless interchange of prime ministers. So the artists decided to rave all the time. They were inspired by Dada, Fluxus, the Situationists, Joseph Beuys (his first exhibition in Russia was shown at the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg in 1992) and the early Soviet absurdist group OBERIU. The excessive alcohol consumption of the New Blockheads also relates them to the Situationists, besides the fact that their psycho-geographical experiences turned the performances into party-like chaotic events.

Jews, Come Back to Russia. Poster. Photos by Yury Nikiforov. 1999-2002 Artists and participants: Vladimir Kozin, Vadim Flyagin

One of their first actions The Movement of the Tea Table towards the Sunset is very representative of their work: the artists were walking around Saint Petersburg with a real tea table, two chairs and a typewriter. They moved through the city while drinking beer and typing out their talks, as they say, “about art, performances, Beuys”. They encountered a policeman, a religious, old woman and an Orthodox priest, and had conversations with them. The route wasn't fixed and changed under the influence of sudden emotion or impulse. Only the destination was planned: Saint Peterburg's Manege, where the second Festival of Experimental Arts and Performances took place.

Their performances usually balanced on the edge between political correctness and obscene joking. But they really touched sore points of the society. In an NSK-style project named Jews, Come Back to Russia (1999-2002), the New Blockheads set up a program of re-immigration for former Soviet citizens who had left for Israel. It's not a secret that after the Second World War an anti-Semitic wave spread across Eastern Europe, and at the time of the project hate crimes in Russia and xenophobia were arising. So the artists proposed to make a propaganda campaign with leaflets saying “Jews, Come Back to Russia!” and distribute them in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Paris, Berlin, London, New York and other cities.

The New Blockheads' initiatives differed from a magazine Maximka to Travelling Toilet Exhibitions which had a “blasphemous” reference to Peredvizhniki movement from the nineteenth century who also formed a “fellowship”. After 2002 some of those artists started a gallery named Parazit where many familiar artists started their careers.

The New Blockheads
Moscow Museum of Modern Art
21.06 t/m 28.08.2016

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2019