Valera and Natasha Cherkashin

Valera and Natasha Cherkashin: A Global Underground

Patricia Stewart

     The work of Valera and Natasha Cherkashin seems post-modern enough. It seems comparable to other contemporary work. Photography-based, it employs video, computer programs and web resources—all reasonably common strategies among contemporary artists. Its size and format adapt to time, to place – and to the budget of each particular project. Two such artists are wandering minstrels of globalism; all they really need is their camera, computer access and a cardboard tube big enough for the prints (and video projectors). In terms of style, the Cherkashins' work is ironic. It is also heroic, expressive, commercial and elegiac by turns. The now

customary pinch of social sciences went into in its formative thinking. It seems easy to make use of one of the Soviet philosopher Bakhtin's theoretical terms, and to say that the work constitutes a kind of visual polyglossia. Bakhtin's writing has contributed so much to recent criticism that using his language has become an easy thing to do. Here it seems appropriate – even mot juste, After all, these artists are Russian and, when Bakhtin's ideas were daring and new, the Cherkashins were in Russia, and young. 


     However, the similarities between the Cherkashins' and other contemporary work have mostly to do with strategies of presentation -- not with the work's content. So much post-modernism preoccupies itself with cultural critique that its concerns seem sadly limited. Its ironies are not just dry, but dried-up. In contrast, the Cherkashins' work breathes of the optimism of early 20th century modernism, a stormy optimism, which was based on the hopeful, now superseded, but, in our hearts never fully discredited belief that, in all cultures, we find a human being and that a work of art can be made that will speak to, and better, his condition.

     The Cherkashins' unregenerate utopianism can best be seen in their Global Underground project, which began in 2005, and in the Monuments pieces that have recently grown out of it. 1

     Both series consist of dark, gleaming digital panoramas. In each image, we see an establishing shot of a subway station, or of a street. Within it human figures, along with fragments of architecture and machines, are multiplied and intercut so many times that, as the artists point out, "you are lost" in their reflections. The shimmering pulse of the compositions is partly due to the insertion of long exposure shots of passing trains, but it also results from the Cherkashins' ability to push computer processes to the saturation point. There are from 15 to 20 (much more) layers of imprinted figures in each photograph. The mysterious space is also due to the contrasting colors being used, colors that are both dark and intense. Saturated tones like red, gold and blue shine out from what is overall a  painterly, nearly Baroque, depth. Although we, as viewers, may feel lost in the complexity of the space, the human subjects themselves have not lost their autonomy. The Cherkashins' pictures do constitute a kind of digital frieze. However, the collective behavior of their subjects seems less like the disciplined Movement Choirs of Weimar Germany, and more like the legendary conductor less orchestras of 1920s Russia, whose musical anarchism is said to have produced surprisingly harmonious results. 2 In the Cherkashins' pictures, there is a rhythmic ebb and flow of shadows and reflections, and separate figures do lose their singularity. Each is repeated many times, at different scales, depths, heights and degrees of registration. However, despite such replication, despite all the layers and overlaps, each figure is still identifiable, is still a visually distinct, even luminous, self. Each subject may lose its singularity, but does not lose its personhood. To some extent, this is due to the contrasting colors: the figures are translucent, but still strongly modeled in chiaroscuro—still embodied. Moreover, the Cherkashins use Photoshop to erase around the edges of individual figures, so that each is marked out by a shift in hue or value, a color shift that creates a haloing edge. The final result is that, in these water-smooth digital prints, the human individual may seem dematerialized but is still intensely present. The effect is strangely like that produced by the glazed surfaces and color optics of a Vermeer painting.

     The painterly quality of contemporary photography tends to elicit such historicizing comparisons. In a major recent book, critic Michael Fried compares one of Jeff Wall's light-box transparencies to 17th century Dutch painting3, agrees with a description of the "ethereal quietude"4 of Candida Höfer's architectural photographs, and furthermore points out that street scenes taken by Phillip-Lorca diCorcia tend to "trigger religious rhetoric". 5 Fried, who is best known for his commitment to abstract painting, is here arguing for the ontological importance of contemporary photography – while of course trying to avoid religious rhetoric! It is certainly true that digital cameras have altered discussion of photography in a way that suggests that electronic processes may have, through some technological paradox effect, restored the "aura" that Walter Benjamin so famously saw photomechanical reproduction take away. Even Benjamin found the ritual power of the image still lingering in the "melancholy, incomparable beauty" of early photographic portraits.6 The power seems to haunt seems to be found in both photography and film. A famous newspaper article by Maxim Gorky, an example of Russian film criticism written in 1896, before Russia even had a filmmaker, begins dramatically with the words, "Yesterday I was in the kingdom of the shadows". 7 The Cherkashins are certainly fully aware of the mythological and chthonic implications of making subway art, especially in photograph or film form. In 2008 they dedicated three video installations to Dante.  The first section appeared tagged with the famous quote "abandon every hope, who enter here" from Inferno, but the last appeared with less famous, and more merciful, lines from Paradiso, "and in the Mind that, in itself, is perfect/ not only are the natures of His creatures/but their well-being, too, provided for". The subjects of the Cherkashins' photographs are dematerialized; they are on an apparently endless journey. However, it is hard to see them as wraiths or as eternally condemned. They are such active ghosts, such color-filled shadows.

     Global Underground began in New York in 2005. It has since expanded, taking the form of photographic prints, videotapes, and photographic murals, gathered together into multimedia installations. The whole visionary transportation system now includes 12 cities (8 more have been photographed for future use) in 13 countries and the artists hope to expand the number of countries to 33. But the first stop is still in Moscow.

      The Moscow subway system has played an important role in the Cherkashins' work for almost twenty years. It seems worth noting that, although political prisoners built the Moscow metro, and although it was built and adorned to proclaim the triumphs of a totalitarian system, it was, during Soviet times, one of the few places where Russians could meet in freedom and move with ease. The free-spirited young hero of a 1963 film (I Walk Around Moscow, a film that became a kind of Soviet youth anthem) makes a new friend on the metro. After whimsical adventures in the city, they say goodbye on the metro and the hero goes singing dreamily to himself along the subway platform. 8  Valera and Natasha, our artists, first met each other on the Moscow metro in 1982. During the 1990s, they staged several theatrical action pieces there, including the 1993 celebration of the marriage of a living woman to one of the heroic bronzes at Revolution Square Station.  He was only a Socialist Realist monument, but she set him free—by privatizing him—before the ceremony began. The ironic point, a sharp one two years after the fall of communism, was that that there are limits to what the magic of free market freedom can do. The Swiss critic Mario Lüscher has also pointed out that the location—deep under Red Square—was highly symbolic. 9 These performances constituted a carnival appropriation of authority's symbolic places and images.  It is interesting here to think of Bakhtin's ideas about laughter, far more interesting than merely applying some of his theoretical terms, terms that can be, and have been, applied so often. Like the Cherkashins, Bakhtin was an optimist. His revolutionary optimism can be seen his study of Rabelais, a book begun in 1934, just as the Party was tightening its control over artists -- and published only in 1965.  In this work on the roots of modern culture, Bakhtin asserted his faith in the eternal power of laughter and of carnival, as expressed in Rabelais' grotesque parodies of authority. True power is found in downward movement, whether in culture or earth or body or mind. It lies in the hidden strata where "the soul's beatitude is deeply immersed". 10

     In the Global Underground photographs, point of view acts to involve the viewer with the architectural space of the station platform, and with the gestural space of its inhabitants. We too are part of this busy modern underworld. The artists take as many of their photographs as possible from inside the trains. This may seem nearly self-evident. From how many points, after all, is it possible to take photographs in a subway tunnel?  Some art historical comparisons suggest that there are more than we might think. Paintings by the American fantastic realist George Tooker seem always to be set in the passageways. Those by Mark Rothko seem to be drawn from the platform. The works that seem closest in spirit to the Cherkashins' are Walker Evans' 1938–41 Subway Portraits, photographs taken inside New York subway cars with a hidden camera. The subjects are unaware that they are being photographed or even watched. In point of fact, they were not being watched, because Evans did not look at them while he pressed the shutter.  Their softened, gently unfocussed faces seem open to us, although not conscious of our presence. By contrast, in the Cherkashins' work, we see a more pregnant subject/viewer relationship. It is established through the gesture of the whole body, through poses that seem not so much unaware as not yet aware. It is a hopeful orientation; it seems to promise some sort of mutual awakening.

     The Cherkashins photograph subway travelers – and later edit the photographs – so that the subjects are moving, usually toward the opening doors of the subway cars, toward the camera --and toward us, although they do not know that we are here, waiting for them. Our point of view in the situation is that of passengers. We are in the midst of the unifying stream, waiting to join or be joined by the figures on the platforms. Because those figures tend to be in frontal or three-quarter poses, they open to us, promising encounters, perhaps even commitment. Even in a photographic context, we may speak of an artist's drawing style, and here that style gives energy to the figures' gestures. The artists choose figures with strong, irregular contours. For example, they like the sharp visor of a cap, an elbow angled to lift a heavy shopping bag, the pale wing of a coat. They then enhance the line with their distinctive computer editing. The frequent frontal poses suggest encounters between subject and viewer. The gestural, if electronic, line suggests that the meetings will be dynamic ones. The whole montage is so rich and so transformative that we sometimes see one person casting another person's shadow. Along with figure placement, such image displacement suggests that, in the Cherkashins' metro, beings from different realities will meet to exchange realities. Through reflections, we may yet know each other, both darkly, and face to face.

     The idea of a universal transportation system which connects all the world's cities – or at least all of the ones the artists have visited or have immediate plans to visit, seems like an extension of dynamic images of the city that appeared in much art of the early 20th century. It is interesting to compare the Cherkashin's polyphonic images, hymning as they do, the subterranean tide of subways and their riders, to the Futurist poet Marinetti's 1909 description of the "multicolored, polyphonic tide of revolution in the capitals". 11 These contemporary photographs seem to sign on to a now hundred-year-old manifesto, but with another kind of revolution in mind. The Cherkashins' will be less visible. American critic Steve Yates has compared the Cherkashin's work with German film and collage of the 1920s, mentioning, in particular, the 1927 film by Walter Ruttmann, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 12 The comparison is instructive; the cinematic quality of this work is very strong. However, since the Cherkashins propose to unite municipal systems into a universal one, it seems even more appropriate to compare their work to some of the images of a revolutionary world city from 1920s Russia. Director Lev Kuleshov's demonstrations to students of how film editing compresses space influenced a generation of Soviet filmmakers. What Kuleshov called the "creative geography" of cinematic space can even be found outside of film proper. 13 One of Alexander Rodchenko's 1923 illustrations for Mayakovsky's poem Pro Eto includes a photograph of the Woolworth Building, New York's first skyscraper, pasting it right next door to the Kremlin's tallest bell tower, the 17th century Ivan the Great Tower, thus creating a city that transcends culture as well as space. 14 Such cities live on in the polyglot architecture and signage of Japanese anime –whose makers have built their own version of the world city. Tokyo, of course, is a stop on the Global Underground. There is a stronger relationship, a real similarity, to Dziga Vertov's 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera. 15Vertov, by the way, worked with his wife, Elizaveta Svilova, who was the film's editor. There are a lot of models for husband/wife teams in the history of art in Russian history. Man with a Movie Camera was filmed in Moscow, Kiev and in Odessa, thus creating a Moscow-by-the-Sea. The idea has fascinating geo-political implications, but in Vertov's film, the editing has the more poetic effect of opening city spaces to elemental rhythms and of freeing the city's people to the pleasures of sun, water and flowing re-formed time. 

     In two recent articles, Malcolm Turvey points out that Vertov conceived of this composite city, his metaphor for a new society, "as an organic, rather than a mechanical one", 16 one where relations between humans and machines are characterized by what Vertov himself called "creative joy".  Human beings and cameras have a common "capacity for ludic freedom" 17 and the freedom they enjoy together makes magical play at very high levels of awareness. Turvey points out, for example, that Vertov's superimposed shots render the slow bulk of trams "ethereal, semi-transparent, weightless". 18 The dynamic transparency is very like that produced by the Cherkashins' long exposure shots which dissolve trains and tunnels into rivers of color, where layered multiple exposures of figures create eddies of light and shadow. In both cases, in the contemporary photographs and in a now eighty-year-old film, the artists employ, not just photographs, but photographic processes, using them to transform our awareness of the material and technological world. Is what we see here "analytical madeness at its highest tension"?

     The phrase "analytical madeness at its highest tension" would seem to refer to how a work both reflects and reflects on its own processes.  This cabalistic utterance is from a manifesto by one of the most enigmatic figures of the Russian avant-garde, Pavel Filonov. 19 Filonov was an artist/thinker who lived a life of nearly monastic purity and who also, they say, liked to go to the movies. Despite the crashes of the epochs -- war, famine, terror, collapse of system, rise and fall and rebirth of empire, incalculable deaths and losses, the whole tragic history of 20th century Russia -- the 1920s is really not so far away.  In terms of history as human beings experience it, one lifetime at a time, in which each one may meet and quietly teach one other, the early 20th century is still not past. The historian Orlando Figes has movingly described how Soviet families preserved traditional religious values, in many cases without words. 20 Many dissident artists speak of the influence of "brave and fearless teachers" who told their students stories about banned artists and prohibited works. 21 In some respects, Valera Cherkashin might be described as one of the avant-garde's grandchildren. Cherkashin jokes about his early career as a "hooligan". The Soviet term denoted a rebel or a misfit, someone who disturbed things as they should be. In the mid-1960s, innocent of contemporary conceptual art in the West, unacquainted with such kindred spirits as Piero Manzoni or Yves Klein, while still living in Kharkov, where they made turbines and tanks, Valera Cherkashin took photographs in which he play acted and dressed up. The pictures make fun of all sorts of cultural stereotypes. They are "filled with irony and joyful atmosphere" and, as Moscow critic Mikhail Sidlin points out, they most certainly did not reflect what was supposed to be the 'true Soviet reality'. 22 They are however very much like the historic photographs -- and one lone film still -- that show Russian Futurists play acting, face painting and dancing a Futurist tango. 23 The hooligans! Cherkashin was later nominated for membership in the Artists Union (a prerequisite for art employment in Soviet times) by Mai Miturich. Miturich was a popular children's book illustrator. He was also the son of Pyotr Miturich and nephew of Velimir Khlebnikov. Pyotr Miturich was very much like Tatlin, a visionary artist/scientist.  He designed transport machines called undulators, based on wave movement principles – universal wigglers. Khlebnikov, on the other hand, was like no one but Khlebnikov. He was a poet and a holy fool, who wandered from city to city, developing his system of transrational, universal language and thought. Cherkashin had an even stronger link to Pavel Filonov and names Filonov as one of his influences. In 1981 he showed in a studio exhibition in Leningrad with the Sterligov group. Vladimir Sterligov, who had recently died, had been a student of Malevich. Cherkashin's advocate in the group was Streligov's wife, Tatiana Glebova, who invited Cherkashin to participate and hung his work next to her own. Glebova had been a member of the Filonov School, one of the "Masters of Analytical Art".

     In Soviet Russia, the 1960s was a time of cultural thaw. There were exhibitions of work by several members of the revolutionary avant-garde. However, in 1966, officials in Leningrad closed a Filonov exhibition the day after it opened. On one level, it is hard to see why authority found Filonov's work so threatening. It is quite apolitical. The adepts of his school were enjoined to practice "analytical intuition" based on study, introspection and craft. Probably such a model was threatening precisely because it was apolitical. It did not propose other policies – or other systems. Instead it presupposed the existence of other realms. Such threats are ontological.

     Filonov saw the universe as an organism, united by biodynamic processes down to its very atoms.  Interestingly enough, it is possible to see such a biodynamic organizing principle at work in Valera and Natasha Cherkashins' photographs. They use a grid, but the resulting compositions are quite organic, formed more by the figures, who create a gestural, nearly psychic pattern as their individual poses open and close, generating the common stream of movement. Like Filonov and all those earlier revolutionaries, the Cherkashins believe in the future. Remember, they are proposing to build a new world system. In this respect their work seems optimistic  -- a welcome contrast to contemporary work that aims only to correct, or revise, history.  A fascination with universal systems was extremely typical of the early 20th century avant-garde. The Cherkashin's system is universal, if ironic. They are post-modern after all.  The concept that cosmic journeys will be undertaken with shopping bags clearly owes something to the dys-universals of globalism. The early 20th century believed in spiritual evolution: art would take us higher. Think for example of the hierarchical and ascensional imagery in Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art or of Malevich's call to the artist to "Sail on!" into the white, free depths of eternity, which of course lies before us. 24 Or did. This time the revolution is somewhat darker. This time it will go deeper.

University of the Arts

  1. For the full range of the Cherkashin's work, see Valera & Natasha Cherkashin, Cherkashin Metropolitan Museum, < > (4 January 2010)

2. Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 136-9

3. Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 70-6

4. Fried, p. 286

5. Fried, p. 258

6. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Schocken: New York, 1969), p. 226

7. Maxim Gorky, ""The Lumière Cinematograph (Extracts)", The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896 – 1939, ed. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), p. 25

8.  Ia shagaiu po Moskve , dir. Georgii Daneli'ia (Moscow: Mosfilm, 1963), videocassette

9. Mario Lüscher, "Intervention in the Underground: The Cosmopolitan Studio of Valera & Natasha Cherkashin", Valera and Natasha Cherkashin (Zürich: Barbarian Art Gallery, 2009), p. 39

10. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolski (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 378

11. F.T. Marinetti, "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism", Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio, trans. R.W. Flint (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), p. 22

12. Steve Yates, "Metropolis to Global Underground: Matrix of Change", Valera and Natasha Cherkashin: Metro in Art and Art in Metro (Moscow: Moscow Museum of Modern Art: Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 2008). p. 4

13. V.I. Pudovkin, Film Technique, And Film Acting, ed. and trans. Ivor Montagu (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 44

14. Margit Rowall and Deborah Wye, The Russian Avant-Garde Book (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002), pp. 210 -11, cat. 505

15. Chelovek s Kinoapparatom, dir. Dziga Vertov (Odessa: VUFKU, 1929), DVD

16. Malcolm Turvey, "Vertov: Between the Organism and the Machine", October, Summer, 2007, p. 11

17. Turvey, "Can the Camera See? Mimesis in Man with a Movie Camera", October, Summer, 1999, p. 14

18. Turvey, "Can the Camera See?", p. 10

19. Pavel Filonov, "Short Explanation of our Exhibition of Works", Pavel Filonov: A Hero and His Fate, ed. And trans. Nicoletta Misler and John E. Bowlt (Austin, Texas: The Institute of Modern Russian Culture, 1983), p. 253

20. Orlando Figes, The Whisperers (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007) See in particular chapter 1

21.  See for example the interview with Dmitrii Lion in Renee Baigell and Matthew Baigell, Soviet Dissident Artist: Interviews after Perestroika (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995), p. 46

22. Mikhail Sidlin, "Photography Game. The Early Works of Valery Cherkashin", A Night with a Pioneer Leader (Moscow: Cherkashin Metropolitan Museum Publishing House, 2007), pp. 28 -33

23.  John E. Bowlt, "Natalia Goncharova and Futurist Theater",  Art Journal,  Spring, 1990, pp. 44 - 51

24.  Kazimir Malevich, "Suprematism", Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and Criticism, trans. and ed. John E. Bowlt (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988), p.145