When Disraeli said in his novel “Tancred” that the East was a career, he meant that to be interested in the East was something bright young Westerners would find to be an all-consuming passion; he should not be interpreted as saying that the East was only a career for Westerners. There were – and are – cultures and nations whose location is in the East, and their lives, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West. (1)
Edward Said, talking about the East in his book “Orientalism”, is analyzing the primarily British and US attitude to what might now be called the Near- and Middle-East – the Arabic and Islamic countries. However, what he has to say could to a large extent be applied to our attitude to Soviet Union and Eastern Europe now, at a time when a liberalizing process is occurring (on the surface at least) in the governments of Soviet Union, Poland and Hungary and equally significant retrenchment has taken place in British government.
In 1948, at the outset of the cold war, when the US was anxious to consolidate the political and cultural affiliation of Western Europe, Stephen Spender wrote an article in the New York Times headed, “We can win the battle for the mind of Europe: the Europeans, even those behind the Iron Curtain, can still be swung to Western culture”. This highlighted a blatantly political exercise – the influx of apparently ‘apolitical’ US culture, including exhibitions of abstract expressionist work, to Western Europe. Today, information about the visit of advisors from the right-wing Adam Smith Institute to instruct Solidarity representatives on Thatcherite economics and privatization is hidden in small article in the quality press: the frantic scrabbling of young East Germans to get to West Germany is given huge TV and press coverage, while the officially supervised emigration of hundreds of Soviet Union citizens to Western countries recently was almost ignored. The East is once again flavor of the month culturally, with the menu heavily leaning towards the ‘unofficial’: a Nobel Prize as an aperitif, rock music as a first course, a various dissident and underground artists for the entrée, and a major state-backed company as the set-piece dessert.
All this presents many potential pitfalls and problems both for the Eastern artists whose work is shown in the West, and for the Western consumer of that work. The fullest understanding of the cultural implications may only be assessable in hindsight. Now, we are faced with the complexities and paradoxes of an encounter between a gallery visitors in Glasgow – itself a city in culturally and politically marginalized quarter of the UK, yet soon to be the ‘European City of Culture’ – and work by Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov – artists who live in the capital city of the country which was our ally in the Second World War, yet which is now packaged for us as the horrific ‘Other’ to our own ‘Free World’; whose leader however has been pronounced as someone our country can ‘do business with’. To add to the complexities, Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov are artists who have never had any official recognition in their home country; and the Third Eye Centre where they are showing work in Glasgow has a reputation for exhibiting unestablished and relatively ‘dissident’ British artists, as well as more mainstream work. In short, our position as we stand in front of this work is utterly compromised if we try to asses it simply work along the lines of ‘is it good?’, and to think only in terms of our own understanding of aesthetics. These paintings, collages and drawings produce their most resonant meanings for us in quite other way.
The painter R.B.Kitaj is a Jew, born in the US, living and working in Britain; his grandparents were socialist Russian Jews who had to leave their country on the run from Tsarist police. His First Diasporist Manifesto, an artists manifesto, primarily addressed the issue of the artists of the diaspora, but in it he recognizes the links between what he is saying for these artists and the situation could be described as one of dissidence or self-chosen ‘internal exile’ within the home country. He begins to open up some of the complexities facing such artists in the production of their work:
“The Diaspora (Jew, Black, Arab, Homosexual, Gypsy, Asian, Émigré from despotism, bad luck, etc.) is widely despised, disliked, mistrusted, sometimes tolerated, even taken up here and there and shown a nice life”. (2)
An artist whose work has to migrate in order to find its most public professional exposure (as with Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov, who are also Jewish and whose first major show this is) is ‘Other’ within their own country, and ‘Other’ in the country that hosts their work. Despised, disliked and mistrusted in the one place, and taken up and shown a nice life by the other, their work evolves a language which is not of either. To assimilate (if that is at all possible in either place) would entail a loss of integrity; yet not to assimilate poses necessary, inevitable, huge risks about how the audience reads the work and constructs its own meanings from the work. We can look at the recent tryptichs of Natalia Abalakova and the Anatomy of Culture series of Anatoly Zhigalov and construct narratives and significances from the images within them. We may reach an understanding on a rational, intellectual level of Natalia Abalakova’s use of a figure manipulating geometric symbols in the light of the history of Constructivist art, or of Anatoly Zhigalov’s irony in featuring a Malevitch-like black square pocket on a prison jacket. Initially, the richness that we get from the paintings is a product of a Western construction of what may or may not be ‘reality’ in the Soviet Union, which is then seasoned by Zhigalov’s quote from Foucault that geometry is a technique of social control. Similarly, the people within the Soviet Union who see the same works will get their meanings from them courtesy of their understanding of Soviet art history and politics, and the position that the Constructivists have occupied in terms of officially sanctioned art, and nuances of lived experience that cannot be interpreted directly in Western terms.
There is a currently fashionable notion of ‘difference’ within our culture; fashion magazines and clothes shops promote an almost bewildering array of styles; popular music has diversified in an unprecedented way, including the marketing of roots or world music; the same has happened with the visual arts, where any ‘school’ now seems both utterly localized and at the same time transglobal (the New Glasgow Boys being a case in point); feminist, gay and lesbian, and Black politics have ensured a cultural presence for these groups that is enduring, despite repressive legislation. As Stuart Hall said at the Association of Art Historians Conference in March 1989, in this post-modern world it sometimes seems that everyone wants to claim their bit of the margin, and that no-one is left in the mainstream. It is as if capitalism has gone crazy, and culture reached crisis point:
“However we chosen to diagnose its symptoms, postmodernism is usually treated, by its protagonists and antagonists alike, as a crisis of cultural authority, specifically of the authority vested in Western European culture and its institutions”. (3)
What would then be both culturally and politically dangerous would be if we become indifferent to difference, to enjoy difference for its novelty value alone, to attend to it in the most superficial of ways and not allow it to make any difference. In the specific example of Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov it would be a grave disservice merely to mythologise them and not to attend carefully to the nature and implications of their difference, particularly as their difference has been dismissed and mythologised in their home country (for instance, only with membership of the Artists’ Union would they be granted any right to exhibit; denied membership, they run the risk of being called parasitical or antisocial if they produce work. Some artists in this position, rather than get a job, have been hospitalized for a while as ‘schizophrenic’, which at least entitles them to a small disability pension). To mythologise would be dishonest on our part and disastrous for them:
“Those who left for the West, often ultimately for Israel or the USA, have rarely maintained the reputations which had gone before them as major artists of the avant-garde… Some of these artists must reflect with bitterness that the world’s press which followed their activities so avidly during their careers in the Soviet Union has shown considerably less interest in them since their departure”. (4)
What Alan Bird is talking about in the above quote is the inevitable consequence of being indifferent to difference, of lauding the artist for reason of benefit only to us, while not attempting to engage with the work. Kitaj put the same thought another way; while insisting that the Diasporist artists produce work that should be valued, he said: “I also know that if Diasporists become treasured, their theatre will close, and open under a new sign and name, maybe with a curse on it”.
An example of the necessity not to be indifferent to difference could be our experience of looking at Natalia Abalakova’s collage, Black Hole. For the British gallery-going public the first connotations are likely to be along aesthetic lines, with reference to other artists who have used collage such as Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch. We are geographically illiterate about our own country (a recent survey showed that a high percentage could not name the spots marking such towns as Cardiff, Newcastle and Edinburg on a map) so it could well take some time to figure out that the ‘black hole’ is a map of the Soviet Union. The representation of the Soviet Union as a black hole could signify several things to us: in Reaganite terms, it could signify the ‘evil empire’ (the work was made during the Reagan years): or, as it is formed by a gap torn out of texts, it could mean we see the Soviet Union represented here as the place from which we get no information; or we could see that blackness as a place of infinite possibilities and dreams. An unknown quantity is the text: fragmented anyway, much of it is in Russian. Some of the text in English refers to unofficial Soviet art; many of the images – the family photos with some individuals cut away, the artworks, the maps – we can only speculate about, Beginning to understand the position of Natalia Abalakova as an artist who is not a member of the Artists’ Union (some of the consequences of which have been outlined above) opens up the significations that would be there for a Soviet audience of the representation of the Soviet Union in this way in an artwork. We, the Westerner audience, are essentially on the outside looking into this work: she is on the inside looking out (in terms of the ‘black hole’ of this title). To fix one reading of it as being ‘correct’ is impossible; to consider it only in terms of Western aesthetics is to limit its potential richness.
“If a people is dispersed, hurt, hounded, uneasy, their pariah condition confounds expectation in profound and complex ways. So it must be in aesthetic matters…
Diasporist art is contradictory at its heart, being both international and particularist. It can be inconsistent, which is a major blasphemy against the logic of art education, because life in the Diaspora is often inconsistent and tense; schismatic contradiction animates each day. To be consistent can mean that the painter is settled and at home”. (5)
One striking aspect of the work of Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov is its formal diversity, even considering its twenty-five year span. A critique of the Western art college system is that it encourages student, as if they were wielding shovels, to go over and over the same spot in the way in which they think about making work. In this way, they aim to achieve depth; the reality, it has been said, is that they end up in a rut and are unable to move significantly in any other direction for the rest of their lives. The result has been that until recently a clear majority of artists and critics have been fully able to discuss the formal aspects of work, while almost ignoring the content and wider context of any work. It has been largely a discussion of marginality – particularly with regard to class, gender and race – that has blown this open (and incidentally, made the ‘margin’ the most productive position to be in, in the West). The language of the margin is not always immediately accessible to the mainstream; at its most fluent/fluid, as here in Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov’s work (particularly that of the 1980s), it is not working in any fixed oppositional mode.
When looking at such work we are therefore thrown back on ourselves and made to question our notions of expertise, universality and objectivity – both with regard to the artists, and to our own ability (bounded as we are by our own institutions and expectations) to assess a canon or tradition of work. In this way , any notion s of a canon of work, capable of retaining its own integrity through universal standards against which all art-works should be judged, are shown to be limited to the particular ideology that proposes the canon – and in addition, limiting to our understanding of creativity:
“To acquire position of authority within the field is, however, to be involved internally in the formation of a canon, which usually turns out to be a blocking device for methodological and disciplinary self-questioning… expertise is therefore supposed to be unaffected by its institutional affiliations with power, although of course it is exactly those affiliations – hidden but unquestioningly – that make the expertise possible and imperative”. (6)
Ultimately, the strength of Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov’s work, as we see in Glasgow, is that it has become increasingly resistant as a body of work to any classification that we might try to impose upon it. Their own particular languages have developed to become more demanding of our time, and more seductive in persuading us to unravel a few layers towards an understanding.