If one attempts to briefly define the basic issues that Abalakova and Zhigalov touch upon in their TOTART performances they can be summarized as follows: firstly, an investigation of the unconscious mechanisms and the ways in which art functions; secondly, an exposure of the basic hidden structures and perceptions that are inherent in the system of the cultural communication.
Unlike the majority of Moscow artists, TOTART often employs symbolic elements to which specific cultural meanings adhere (for example, the use of black, white, red and gold which refer to their symbolic role within the conventions of icon painting). The action of the performance opens up the layers of cultural stereotypes to reveal their unconventional core. The performance leads each participant and the audience to reconstruct the primal mechanisms of the stereotype freed from the overlay of contemporary meanings. In other words, in TOTART performances situations are created in which the traditional culture signs and symbols are deprived of the specificity of fixed and frozen meanings and thus are in a state of permanent fluctuation between culture and nature. By constructing the action in this way, an emphasis on play and parody has become an important element of their work.
In June 1985 the artists put up a notice for voluntary Sunday work in the “Kvant” Housing and Maintanance Office, where Zhigalov worked as a supervisor; it was signed TOTART. On the day the event took place fences, benches and litter bins around the building were painted gold. The performance was called Golden Voluntary Sunday. (1) This and other performance events were parodies of particular aspects of Soviet social life.
The avant-guard strategy unexpectedly reveals itself in every-day situations, as emphasising the awareness of its own absurdity. The introduction of such a symbolic colour as gold into this paradoxical situation deprived it of the conventional, conceptual baggage which it had acquired over the ages. The action represented the colour not as a cultural sign but as a natural element. This desire to reveal the deeper archetypes of the subconscious determines not only the deliberate maner of execution, but also the plastic expressiveness of TOTART works. They appeal to unconscsious and purely emotional levels of perception. Several performances are directed towards the plastic transformation of various objects during the course of the event. The central theme of the performances is the study of boundaries between two forms of space, the chaotic and that which is structurally organized, how they are created and how they are overcome. The construction of the cube that encupsulated an idea of spatial perfection played a major part in several works. In the White Cube performance (1980) the frame of a cube was created from wooden beams in a space of a room. The participants then bandaged up the cube and the resulting object divided them into two groups. It was possible to re-unite the participants only after the cube had been destroyed ( by severing the bandaged surface). The physical actions of the performance were quite straight forward. However, by displacing the meaning of the actions from their usual context they were deprived of any practical aim. The message could not be rationally expressed in language and was therefore stressed to the level of unconscious feelings and emotions. The imperative of making manifest the immediate primeval aspect by high lighting the conventional cultural framework likens this and other TOTART events to religious rituals.
In the performance Sixteen Positions fos Self-Identification (1985) this effect was achieved literally by physical entry into the space of art work. Having found oneself inside, one was deprived of one’s usual estrangement from the art object. In being excluded from familiar living space the participant is unable to find the reassuring support of familiar patterns of behaviour and as a result is obliged, perhaps for the first time, to “grope”his way in the new environement. We can say that this performance represents the picture making process from within the space of a picture inself. In an enclosed room the artists move round the wall painting each other’s sillouettes with red and gold paint. At the end of the action, having returned to the original point of departure, they painted each other. Thus their painted bodies, as it were, dissolved and merged with the surrounding space. In the course of the action the room imperceptably turned from being the object into the subject, and thereby gained an independant power of action. The performance was sufficiently expressive to be comprehensible to all participants. By such an immersion “inside” art, as well as a breaking away from the conventional framework and the awakening of the deeper archetypes of the consciousness, the action eradicated the significance of everything conditioned by social and cultural norms. All that remained was that which is common to all mankind, the “generic”.
Major themes determining many of the artist’s works are: the collective and the individual, its boundaries, its interrelationships and the limits of their constructive and destructive possibilities. The action of an entire series of TOTART performances is based, as the artists themselves defined it, on the principle of perpetuum mobile . This method was first used in the perfofmance Work (1983). Its action was laconic in the extreme and involved taking pieces of dry clay from one pile to another. Abalakova took the clay from the first pile to the second and Zhigalov took it from the second pile back to the first. The performance was constructed, theoretically, as an endless and closed process. At the same time, this deliberately simple and ordered activity, by repetition of the same event ad infinitum, at a certain moment begins to be perceived as something that is deprived of structure and is therefore chaotic. Because of its theoretically infinite nature, i. e. the absence of a point of reference for its beginning and end, Work did not allow an individual human being to find a stable system of co-ordinates and thereby discover a definite and personal position to the whole.
“TOTART expresses itself in the language of masses and adresses the masses”- this is the definition given by the artists in explaning the peculiarity of their position. Their actions construct situations which blur the boundaries between the rational and irrational, between “self”and “other”and between personal and impersonal. From behind the facade of mundane and familiar actions an unknown dimension suddenly emerges which cannot be calculated logically.
It is precisely such borderline and unstable situations which determine and expose the mechanisms of contemporary art that TOTART examines in its performances.
(1) “Voluntary Sundays”and “Suturdays” were important Soviet institutions. On appointed days the masses were encouraged to fulfil their civic duty by doing necessary tasks (painting, tyding up, fixing things etc.) at their place of work and where they live. Red was the colour of the day.