1941. I was born on December 3rd not far from the town of Arzamas in Gorky District on the road from the besieged city of Leningrad. In Leningrad on this very day the great Russian painter Pavel Filonov died of hunger. My mother, my two older brothers and I lived in Ulianovsk on the Volga until the 2 war ended. My father, a war correspondent, spent the whole war covering naval battles and engagements.
The two most important impressions from childhood were the sea, where my mother took us in the Summer, and the village of Novgorod, the birthplace of my father.
1947. Moved to Moscow (having lived nearby since 1945).>
1951. Became increasingly aware of the disquieting atmosphere of Soviet life, intensified by the show trials of doctors, and a wave of officially sanctioned anti-semitism. A feeling of danger in the background of conventional ‘right-thinking’ parents.
1953. Stalin’s death. General mourning and a feeling of great changes imminent. I heard the news of Beria’s arrest on a train from Gelendzhik, packed with amnestied criminals.
1956. The year of great breakthrough for all the subjects of the immense Russian Empire: the 20-th Congress , rumours and facts, testifying to the downfall of the Idol.
The invasion of Hungary – a dual perception of events; intent listening to ruthless jammed Western radio stations.
The 20th Congress and the Hungarian uprising were both signs of the failure of the Empire and symbols of the uncertainties of the ’Thaw’, as well as of post-Stalin period as a whole. Khrushchev himself was perceived as the symbol of the period; in his drunken peasant enthusiasm he cut out the bottom of the long boat and immediately plugged the hole with his arse.
In retrospect it seems these events were conductive to the awakening in me of poetic and artistic instincts, instincts which were very much encouraged by my parents, who could have no suspicion as to where these instincts would lead. I started to learn English with an old teacher who had lived in England before the Revolution. I developed a keen interest in English language and English poetry after reading Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’. I gathered material ‘bit by bit’ on world and Russian culture, and began to develop the special ability, which is probably only typical of Soviet intellectuals, to extract information from scanty and mostly ‘slander’ sources. Obtained information on Russian Symbolism and Futurism, on contemporary art in West, and read the New Testament, which I borrowed from the grandmother of school friend.
1957. Missed both the Picasso exhibition and the Moscow Youth Festival: my parents wisely deporting me to Truskavets, a charming little town in the West Ukraine. The exhibition Art from Socialist Countries in the ‘Manege’, the large exhibition in central Moscow – and a former Tszarist horse-riding school – caused great excitement and was the subject of heated debate. I developed a special interest in Polish Constructivist art, and read Polish and Czech art journals. The first poetic and artistic experiences occurred in this year, and the first paintings in oil.
1959. Became a full-time student at Moscow State University Philological Faculty, and made the final choice as far as my position was concerned on the issues of ‘State and Culture’ and ‘State and the Individual’. Became aware of the absolute incompatibility of ‘official’ culture with ‘true’ culture, which embodied the freedom of the individual and the freedom of creativity. I saw a permanent ‘underground’ existence as the only ‘norm’ for the artist.
The Lenin Library and Library of Foreign Literature (on Rasin st.) were the sources of information and of socializing with other intellectuals in the atmosphere of Khrushchev ‘Thaw’.
Studied world and early 20th century art and Russian poetry . Became involved in religious problems, studying world religions and Z.Freud.
1960. The American National Exhibition. Became acquainted with foreigners (and, as an inevitable consequence, with KGB). Transferred to the Pedagogical Institute named after N.Krupskaya. Wrote poems, made drawings and painted.
The first art actions in association with A.Babulevitch in which were created abstract patterns on hardboard, using enamel paints and mixed media. The surfaces were then set on fire. The earth, fire and air (and water) were active components of the work. The actions were held on streets (and the park) with people watching.
1961. The French National Exhibition. A beautiful visual art section (Hartung and the Tachistes), music (Hindemith, Poulenc, Messian and others) and books on art. Stole boundless of undistributed advertising prospectuses, blank one side. Made good paper for drawing. Read the Bible, Joyce’s Ulyses, John Donne, Th. St.Eliot, St.Spender, Auden and others, as well as French poetry in B.Livshitz’s translations. Met Natalia Abalakova (for the first time).
1962. Acquaintance with the Moscow unofficial painters and poets and with bohemian circles of Moscow and Leningrad, at that time the emotional centre for us all. The ‘Plzen’ period (one of a few beer bars in Moscow where painters and poets gathered regularly).
1963-64. Graduated from the Institute. Start of teaching career in Romashkovo school (not far from Moscow). Life in Romashkovo and Nemchinovka under ‘protection’ of Kazimir Malevitch. Each day walked from Nemchinovka to Romashkovo through the field in which lay, I discovered several years later, the lost grave of the creator of The Black Square.
1963. Frequent journeys to the village of Piligino in the district of Novgorod, the birth-place of my father.
1967. Travelled to the North of Russia looking for what remnants of Russian culture still survived. The convent of Ferapontovo with frescoes by Dionisiy; the ancient monastery at the heart of the Gulag, the Solovetsky islands. Years of wandering in the European and Asian parts of the USSR, travelling mostly in good’s trains, on top of trains and (in cars) and on foot. Friendship with Moscow and Leningrad poets (L.Gubanov I.Bokstein, H.Volohonsky , A.Khvostenko and others).
1968. A poem written on the eve of the Soviet army’s occupation of Czechoslovakia was read next morning at Natan Apanovsky’s house (in Malahovka).
1969. Married Natalia Abalakova. Began to work independently of the State, translating for the Moscow Patriarchy for living, and working as a visual artist and poet.
1972. Bought the ‘House’ in the village of Pogorelovo in the district of Kostroma. The ‘House’, made entirely of wood, had been built by a rich peasant at the turn of century. Long spells spent in the village renovating the house. Met and became friends with painter Ed.Shteinberg again after many after many years, who entered his Suprematist period at this time, as well as friendship with the circle of leading painters and activists of unofficial culture, including I.Kabakov, V.Pivovarov, V.Yankilevsky, E.Shiffers.
1973. Frequent and lengthy visits to Pogorelovo, and involvement in village life. Poetry readings (when in Moscow) with M.Aisenberg, D.Prigov, E.Saburov, V.Shlionov and others.
1974. First participation in semi-official exhibition of graphic work in the Korolenko Library, Moscow. Greater artistic activity after the ‘Bulldozer’ exhibition. Became acquainted with A.Gleser, O.Rubin, M. Roginsky and many other painters from Moscow and Leningrad.
1975-78. Very lively and dramatic events, like the authorities tearing works from the walls at the Exhibition of Economic Achievement in the Palace of Culture. The departure en masse of unofficial artists (and poets) against KGB pressure to Europe (Israel) and the United States. Greater contacts with the West, greater flow of information and at the same time greater insecurity. During this period the unofficial painters, writers and ‘dissidents’ unite on a wide platform to oppose the existing situation.
1977. The Visual Arts section of the Trade Union of Artists(-Graphics) on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street was formed, which created the opportunity for some modest exhibition activity. The exception to this was the major exhibition ‘Colour, Form and Space’ by seventeen leading painters in 1979.
1977. Arrival in Moscow of the excellent Czech art historian Jindrich Chalupecky, and many useful discussions took place. This was the time of serious contacts with Ed.Shteinberg, whose Suprematist tendencies were particularly close to me and with I.Kabakov, V. Pivovarov, E. Bulatov and O.Vasiliev, Komar and Melamid, Valery and Rimma Gerlovins, M.Chernyshov, I. Chuikov and others. The availability of information allowed us to conduct seminars during which the painters were able to acquaint themselves with what was happening in the world, and analyse and develop their own outlooks and positions.
1978. The ‘great showing’ in the Moscow art community of Natalia’s and my work. A very negative reaction was expressed by all the leading painters to the ‘Black Square, or Anti-Square’ of 1976. The painting with a cut surface was the first part of the (would-be) triptych ‘The research of the Square’ (1976-81) which sums up my investigations in the sixties and seventies. This adverse reaction was caused by the work’s destructive and pessimistic relationship to the high ‘spirituality’ of Russian art and in particularly to Russian Constructivism. At this time such painters as Shteinberg, Yankilevsky, Kabakov, Pivovarov and influential philosopher E.Shiffers had adopted spiritual and metaphysical positions and such an objective ‘analysis’ language of the art of that period shocked them.
1979. An invitation to participate in the exhibition ‘Colour, Form and Space’, which was the most avant-garde exhibition for that time and arguable the most significant exhibition of works by contemporary Soviet artists for fifty years. The entire print run of the catalogue, with the exception of the ones that the exhibitors managed to acquire, was shredded by the authorities. The exhibition became in a personal sense a summary of twenty years of poetic and artistic creativity. The events of that period as well as a greater interest in the social side of life provided the impulse to re-examine many theoretical positions and made possible the transition from the ‘art’ of survival to the more active ‘art of resistance’ and eventually to TOTART.
Lyrical poetry changed to ‘concrete’ poetry projects, projects which were realized in space and time. Together with N.Abalakova, whose expressive paintings of rubbish dumps and urban wastelands were a striking antithesis to my ‘geometrical metaphysics’, an interest in performance art developed, and (in 1978-79 we began to realize our conceptual project ‘Explorations into the Essence of Art as Applied to Life and Art’ and planned and) from 1980 worked on a series of ‘actions’. This led to our breaking away from the group of older painters, for example Shteinberg and Kabakov. Ideological and creative friendship with younger generation painters brought a new spirit into our artistic life at the end of the eighties. (Those are ‘Collective Actions’ - A.Monastyrsky and others, ‘Mukhomory’ /Fly Agaric Mushrooms/, ‘Gnezdo’ /Nest/, ‘SZ’ and others.) From the eighties a unique atmosphere developed in which many performances took place regardless of place and conditions. A number of events, for example, occurred in Orechovo-Borisovo - on the street and in the green zone not very far from our block of flats (not to say of our flat). Those centered around my separate activities as both poet and artist, in particular a renewed questioning of the creative possibilities of both the written word and the visual image, the relationship between them, and my own use of them.
1980. Trip to Czechoslovakia, organized by J.Chalupecky. Meeting with leading painters in Prague, Bratislava and Brno. Participation in an underground Festival of Performance Art in Prague.
1982. APTART exhibition N.Alekseev’s flat, in spite of KGB resistance. The end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties were perhaps the most difficult years I had experienced since the early sixties, yet, at the same time, it was a period of great activity by the group of ‘new’ painters, activity that cleared the way for the new artistic situation after 1985.
1982-83. A series of APTART activities were held which became widely known at home and abroad.
1984-85. An end to APTART activities because of KGB harassment. Nobody desired to continue with performances. Participated with N.Abalakova in Mailart and TOTART projects, exchanging ‘mail’ with Aleynikov brothers over a period of four weeks. We also made TOTART films with them. One TOTART event The Golden Sunday Voluntary Work (in frames of my working of a supervisor in Housing and Maintenance office), ended with my arrest and forcible transfer to a psychiatric hospital where I was kept imprisoned for several weeks. Was it a last spasm of the ‘pre-perestroika’ repressive system? The incarceration, however, allowed me to reach some conclusions on the project ‘Explorations into the Essence of Art as Applied to Life and Art’ (TOTART), particularly as far as the avant-garde strategy of research into the boundaries between Art and Life is concerned. In reality the limits of art are determined by the State and it evaluates the artist by defining his activity as ‘madness’.
1985-89. The Project TOTART continues in spite of everything.
Performances of 1985-86. A new pictorial period in TOTART. New conditions and new exhibition activity under the banner of perestroika, as well as the rapid commercialization of art. New times and new problems. Confronting the new challenges we can draw some conclusions and point to three typical stages or positions among artists in the prevailed social conditions. Firstly, from the end of the fifties to the second half of sixties, individualism, outsiderness, non-acceptance of the entire official culture; a desire to preserve one’s own ‘inner world’ at all costs; anarchic attitude to the State; art is perceived as a means of survival and the only possible ecological niche that is inaccessible to the intrusion of the unwinking eye of State authority. Secondly, from the end of the sixties to the second half of the seventies, the anarchic position changes to group orientation, with the intention of opposing inhuman totalitarianism by highly spiritual feeling and thought. However, there is a danger of a new dogmatism and a new group dictat. Poetry and visual art take on metaphysical character. During the last ten years, the emphasis has been on an attempt to intervine actively in social reality. Art which subverts through satire the dominant ideologies and clichés of our culture achieves prominence and, by shifting the stereotypes of art, becomes shocking , provocative and aggressive. And finally TOTART – and its task of overcoming post-modernism.
(«Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov Zhigalov. Works 1961-1989». New Beginnings. Soviet Art in Glasgow 1989. Third Eye Gallery and E.V.Vuchetich Artistic Production Association )