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The Field of Comedy and the Line of Pictures

Commentary on the Diagram

The diagram “The Field of Comedy and the Line of Pictures” represents an optional and purely hypothetical interpretation of one of the metasubjects of the CA Group’s actions, taken as a single whole, as one large “dumbbell diagram” consisting of the organizers of and audiences at actions between 1976 and 2002.
The CA Group has always had two kinds of audience members. The first are acquaintances who were specifically invited to the actions. The second are accidental, anonymous audience members, for example those who happened to be in the forest near the “tents” we had left there, and so on. The three recent “external” actions—“625-520” in Berlin, “Adventures of the Blind” in Frankfurt, and “51” at the Pompidou Center in Paris—were attended by people who had bought a ticket for the action, or who had been invited to it (but not by us).
The diagram shows a group of audience participants of our acquaintance whom we invited to the action, and the process of their gradual, phased “transcendence” and “reproduction” from being free viewers of the action “The Comedy” to their substitution by the figures portrayed in the picture of audience members at the action “In the Clearing.”
The tools of this “transcendence and reproduction” were the pits and pictures shown on the diagram, which we used during the actions as a technical means to demonstrate certain relations.
In general, this is the long and gradual process by which the audience members “disappear” as elements of the demonstrative model. The space in which this process unfolded can be called the “field of comedy.”
In the action “The Comedy” in 1977, I “vanished,” quickly and suddenly, as if “in a flash,” but the group of audience members passed through a multitude of “transcendence” and “reproduction” phases before “disappearing” in the reproduction of watching “audience members” (figures) in the “flash” of the burning umbrella in the action “In the Clearing” (it burned up in little more than an instant).
Indeed, it may be conjectured that the aesthetic-existential intensity of this “field of comedy” endured for many years due to the fact that I “vanished” into a pit in the action “The Comedy,” and in all the years that followed the metasubject unfolded in the field around this “disappearance” like an unfinished “empty action.” I myself (as one of the organizers of the action, but playing the role of “absentee” in the metasubject) was always positively removed from what happened subsequently in that field. But from a discourse and deep-psychology point of view, the field itself was not removed from me as the figure who “vanished” in it many years ago in a certain subject with an unknown outcome. This hermetic line (the “line of comedy”) endured for ten years, until the action “An Artwork—Painting” (more precisely: “The First Picture”), when an audience member uninitiated into the subject of the action (Sorokin) was located next to me in a pit, and, consequently, the hermetic “empty action” begun in the action “The Comedy” was ended on one audience level. A partial de-hermeticization of the “Line of Comedy” had taken place.
Until that moment, however, the “line of comedy” worked as a kind of mechanism of “hermetic sublimation” for the audience—both in a contemplative sense, as an observation of the “strange” in various actions, e.g., “The Third Variant,” “M,” “The Russian World,” and so on, and in the event-related, active sense of the various spatiotemporal displacements of the audience (distances, appearances, disappearances) in the demonstrational “field of comedy”—for example, in the actions “Ten Appearances” and “The Scene of the Action,” where each audience member realized the demonstrational figures and relations in the field, including “lying in a pit” (“The Scene of the Action”).
In their contemplative journey through CA’s actions during those ten years and longer, our audience members somehow could not but end up in that speculative space of “absence” (which can undeniably also be called “reproductional”), the knowledge of which was expressed by that part of me, as one of the organizers of the action, that was “absent” on the level of the metasubject, which vanished in “The Comedy,” to reappear from time to time in a strange form, for example in the guise of the human figure with a balloon for a head (“The Third Variant”) or the figure in the action “The Pictures,” retreating and disappearing into the snow, which also represented certain literary characters (for example, a scene from the novel The Dream of the Red Chamber: Baoyu’s disappearance, accompanied by Buddhist and Taoist monks, etc.).
This figure of lasting absence developed the metasubject of the actions in such a way that even the audience members gradually “crossed over” to somewhere “on the other side” into that same “positive absence,” disappearing from the “field of comedy” both by gradual aesthetic “transcendence” and simply by dint of historical necessity (everything and every story must come to an end sooner or later). It is important to stress that this metasubject was not constructed by us on purpose, but rather developed of its own accord, following its own rules—whatever they may be—which, incidentally, both we and our audiences have tried to unearth and understand in all these years in numerous interpretations, descriptions, and narratives. Let me mention in passing (this thread is not dealt with here) that in the series of actions “Perspectives of the Vocal Space,” the same “disappearance” of the audience took place both on the textual, and most importantly, spoken level, in various figures of repetition and silence.
But what, in essence, is the meaning of this “disappearance” and “absence”; what kind of an experience does it refer to? The tenor of this “absence” is very important. In the context of our action “The Comedy,” “disappearance” and “absence” are not symbolic in character, but exclusively instrumental. This is not disappearance into any kind of great metaphysical vacuum, it is not the “dissolving into white” or into “the otherworldly” of the modernists. On the contrary, the tenor of this absence and “disappearance” was conceived to be more like that heard in a children’s game of hide-and-seek. Only this game of hide-and-seek took place in texts of various kinds—descriptions, narratives, discourses, documentations, factual accounts, etc. The audience was forced to “lead,” i.e., to search for hidden meanings (which, in fact, never existed, of course) from action to action, from text to text; and most importantly, they were forced to search for themselves, for the “hidden” layers in their own consciousness, since it was always the consciousness of our audience members that was represented by our actions. And if our premise of “hiddenness,” “disappearance,” and “absence” was a children’s game of hide-and-seek, then in the process of searching their own consciousness, our audience members could and did come upon any interpretation of this “absence,” up to and including a “dissolving into white,” “crossing over into another world,” “going into the beyond,” etc.
In each subsequent action, our task, the task of the organizers, consisted only in casting doubt on a subsequent interpretation “by the authors,” and thus also on the “raised” direction of these searches, each time returning the audience to an “incomprehensible sphere of events.” The aim was to ensure that these searches would continue on the physical level of experiences in time and space—from pit to pit, from picture to picture, rather than suddenly ending with some kind of “definitive,” all-clarifying, concluding text. That means that “between the actions,” the text always functioned like that heard in a game of hide-and-seek: “one, two, three, four, five . . . here I come, ready or not!” This mechanism constructed the metasubject of CA’s actions and continued to function for a long time.
In the 1979 action “The Pictures,” which was the beginning of the “line of pictures” (the “proto-action” of this line was “The Tent,” which will not be discussed here since it is connected to the anonymous viewer), each audience member received a picture of his or her own. We intended these pictures to be “sham objects” that served as a diversionary maneuver to draw the audience’s attention away from what was happening in the field. What was in fact happening in the field was that the figures of the three action organizers were retreating away from the audience and disappearing “into the snow.” Because of these pictures, and because of the fact that the audience for the “retreat” was busy with the pictures and not paying attention to the “retreat”—the central event of the action—it, that is, the retreat, could become central only in the text. The text (and not the real field of action) was declared to be the “space” where all the figures in the action—“appearance,” “retreat,” “disappearance,” etc.—took place. But at the same time, they could be reflected upon in the “lateral” zones of the audience’s perception. Strictly speaking, it was through these figures that the spatiotemporal development of the chain of events took place while the audience was occupied with the symbolic layers of the event (the “pictures” with various inscriptions, including an inscription on the envelope of one of the “pictures” indicating a “retreat” was going on). Unfolding somewhere “to the side” and unnoticed by the audience, the events of the action were in a way “close to zero” and imbued with a connotation of “nothing is happening,” apart from the passing of time itself and the expansion of space by means of the simplest elemental changes: the shrinking of the figures in the field as they moved away from the audience, their disappearance below the horizon, the empty field. It is important to underline that there is no purposive chain of events at all in these elementary actions; they are like a pause, an interval between possible chains of events and those almost unnoticed changes in space and time that speak of nothing other than themselves.
Before the action “The Pictures,” the audience was able to contemplate freely what the organizers had shown them, for example in “The Comedy” or “The Third Variant.” However, “The Pictures” was the first time they had to do something, in the sense of the “field of comedy” metasubject—that they were drawn into some kind of physical action: arranging the pictures in the snow, pasting them together, reading the inscriptions, etc. And, at the same time, with this action the organizers laid a “path” for them toward the time and space “between actions,” where “nothing is happening”; also, the route to the next action, “The Scene of the Action,” was set out and led across the field. In “The Scene of the Action,” the audience did what the organizers had done in “The Pictures”: they crossed a field. Furthermore, they disappeared one after the other into this action’s pit, just as the organizers had done in the actions “The Comedy” and “The Third Variant.”
Having gone through the initial hypostasis of the “retreated,” the “disappeared,” and the “reproduced” in the slide film of the action “The Scene of the Action,” the audience “appeared” once again in “Ten Appearances,” now on a new level of “reproducedness,” when during the action they were handed photographs showing what seemed to be themselves emerging from the forest. Since the demonstrational “thread of indistinguishability” had already been spun in “The Scene of the Action” when figures were substituted for others using the mechanism of the pit behind a purple curtain, the authenticity of the figures in the photographs for “Ten Appearances” was wholly unimportant from the point of view of the aesthetic discourse: the real and the emblematic were separated, and it was clear that “transcendence” and “reproduction” referred only to the emblematic part of our audience. The existential subject always remained within the framework of a concrete action, while the metasubject that concerns us here developed only with the “absent” part of our audience.
Having gone through the eidos of consistent transcendence to the “representativeness” of the three groups of actions “The Halt,” “The Exit,” and “Group – 3,” the audience, as the demonstrational part of the model, eventually formed a “fourth group” standing in front of a picture in the action “An Artwork—Painting.” Without going into details, I will simply say that this action and the entire aesthetic prehistory of its metasubject was set up in such a way that this fourth group of audience members appeared in front of the picture on the same aesthetic level as the picture itself and in the same demonstrational zone. In other words, they, that is the group, were just as much a constituent of a single aesthetic act as the picture itself; it and they constituted a single whole in the wider expositional space of the action, while in the usual situation of “the observer in front of a picture” nothing of the sort occurs—the observer and the picture each occupy their own aesthetic space. They are united (on the expositional level) only by the space (conventions) of the museum, gallery, etc. In our case, to overstate it somewhat, the audience can be said to have carried the expositional space (for example, the museum) within themselves: the “museum,” as an expositional space, was “within” this “fourth group” of audience members, and not outside it, as it is in normal life. Let us not forget that all these contemplations refer only to the “absent” part of our audience (and, of course, we notice the pun here), who have undergone years of “sublimation” through the aesthetic heavens of the “reproduction” of the “field of comedy.”
This action (“The First Picture”) was to be a critical moment in CA’s metasubject, from the point of view of the “audience.” Kabakov, for example, who had been a constant and active audience member-participant in the “field of comedy,” saw it as a conclusion: via a natural process, the “internal” space of the “museum” became “external” (viz. his departure for the West and his reworking of Western museum spaces as “total installations”). Without going into details here about the significance and role of each of our audience members (which in fact would be appropriate, since from the point of view of CA’s metasubject, the audience members are also our involuntary co-authors), I will restrict myself to saying that after “The First Picture,” those who continued to offer us discursive support throughout were Leiderman (approximately up to the 1996 action “The Negatives”) and Ryklin (up to the 1999 action “Shwedagon”), who had played a special and key role in the action “The First Picture.”
The final de-hermeticization of the “line of comedy” came in 1989 with the action “Strolling People in the Distance Are the Odd Element of the Action.” In this action, the pit ceased to be used (literally, to be heard) as one of the mechanisms of the “sublimation” of demonstrational relations. The picture, as the other mechanism, had been “dismantled” a year before in the action “The Second Picture.”
It is difficult now to say what happened subsequently (from 1990 to the present day). It is not quite clear whether we ourselves and our audience (mostly different people now) worked on the remnants or scraps of the “field of comedy” and its line (of The Comedy, of Liblich, of the Pictures), or whether the demonstrational relations constructed in subsequent actions have become more complicated. In any case, in the 2002 action “In the Clearing,” the audience “found themselves” portrayed in a picture and in the contemplative work of “woodcutters” (cutting back undergrowth). But what then was the demonstrational (or expositional?) “task” of the small fisherman figure in the 2000 action “Fisherman,” which was placed in a snowy field at a distance from the audience, while between the fisherman and the audience “sledges” ran, carrying “conversations” about the fisherman and the woodcutter?

P.S. The action “In the Clearing,” which stirred me to write this text and draw the diagram, may turn out to have been a dead-end action, on the one hand because of the emotionally unpleasant “elimination” of the audience, and on the other hand because it is simply an illustrative literary constituent of the hermetic Chinese “fisherman-woodcutter” pairing, and nothing more. However, as I see it, there is a certain oddness that “opens up” this action to further discourse, since the audience figures in our picture are in fact mannequin dolls. Their professional (and reproductional) nature is such that they do not do the looking, but are looked upon themselves. They demonstrate what the audience should look at and not the other way around, as was presented in our action. We simply placed them in the position of the audience within the space of the action, and having been positioned in that way and with “watching” expressions on their faces in the picture, they do appear at first glance to be playing the role of audience figures for the “burning of the umbrella.” However, their real nature is very different and belongs to a different demonstrational model. Furthermore, within the topography of the field at Kyevy Gorky, they were placed on more or less the exact same spot where the audience for “The Comedy” stood in 1977. These strange circumstances could certainly form the subject of further considerations from the point of view of the transformation of symbolic demonstrational and expositional fields. I was very interested to discover the three organizers in a few frames of the video recordings of this action, standing and watching the burning umbrella in exactly the same poses and in exactly the same composition as the mannequin figures placed to one side of them a short distance away. The likeness is so uncanny that between the two figures on the left and the one on the right there is even the same gap, a “clearing,” as there is between the three figures in the picture.

December 2002

Translated from the Russian by David Shaw




Margarita Tupitsyn, "Andrei Monastyrsky," Artforum, February 2011, pp. 247-248.


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