THE GREATEST IDIOT IN NEW ZEALAND /CURATOR MARCUS WILLIAMS

Diffused in a variably sized and constituted collective, averting authorship and working across discipline and media, yet celebrating the aura of the artistic object and operating from a position of moral certainty; the work of Natalya Pershina and Olga Egorova is testimony to the idea that post modernity is a nascent form of modernism. The movement of modern art toward pure line, colour, form and space of the ‘internationalist ideal’ is reversed in the work of Gluklya and Tsaplya (Natalya and Olga’s artists pseudonyms) and their Factory of Found Clothing (FNO) who engage directly with the world around them in their various interventions. Yet paradoxically a seminal philosophical text, central to the emergence of a modern art, is perhaps as relevant to their project as to that of the internationalist movement. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason argued that the world we live in is shaped by our own minds and that ‘the thing in itself’ is unknowable. In this Kantian milieu the modern artist is engaged in a struggle to escape from the prison of the mind to contact a more concrete reality. Kant’s mind dependency refers to the material of the world around us and how we perceive it, while Gluklya and Tsaplya are engaged in a struggle with a mind dependency defined by a complex set of socio-political rationalisations. As such; their practice must be contemplated within the socio political context of Russian history and the associated critical discourses.

In their manifesto, Gluklya and Tsaplya state;

“The place of the artist is on the side of the weak.
Weakness makes a person human, and it is by overcoming weakness that heroes are born.
We do not extol weakness, but rather appeal to kindheartedness and humanity.
The time has come to return compassion to art!
Compassion is an understanding of the weakness of others and a joint victory over that weakness”.

This particular ‘artistic struggle’ might be argued to relate more closely to Kant’s primary moral philosophy introduced in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, which asserted a categorical imperative as a standard rationality from which all morality is derived. Yet Gluklya and Tsaplya’s projects have less to do with the metaphysics of morality; why and how morality exists, and more to do with the potential role of art in society with respect to morality and indeed, social improvement. Further, rather than hinging on a fixed, transcendental maxim, FNO are engaged in a collaborative process which is context dependent and derived from a participating public/audience. A kind of ‘action research’ where knowledge is obtained from systemic, empirical observation and the resulting information can form the basis for direct social or political intervention on the part of the researcher; rather than anything unconditional or essentialist.

Even in today’s highly globalised world, art is generally a reflection of the social context from whence it comes, (as paradoxically the aspirations of modern arts internationalism ultimately proved to be). Jeff Koons, the quintessentially American neo liberal stock broker and ‘futures market player turned artist’ is in many respects the most succinct artistic signifier of his time and place. Taking Andy Warhol’s factory into mass fabrication, Koon’s eighties junk bond version of art production churns out the kitsch objects of an unapologetic materialist idolatry; typifying Hal Foster’s notion of an art of ‘cynical reason’. There is not a more perfect antithesis to the art of FNO. Right now, on the other side of what was so recently called the ‘iron curtain’ a western visitor might be forgiven a historic (Bolshevik) amnesia while strolling through the streets of today’s Moscow where the advertising billboards are like vast portals into other worlds; promised lands yearned for in the austere 1970’s Soviet landscape of a Bond film. Yet the revolution did happen and contrary to a common western perception, it is not forgotten.

The longest running FNO project ‘Utopian Shop of Clothing’ aims to provide both symbolically and in practice, an alternative paradigm to the prevailing consumerism of the ‘new Russia‘. It produces and retails re constituted clothes/art objects made and sold by young working class female volunteers from regional Russia responding to advertisements in various media. It typifies the way in which Gluklya and Tsaplya reclaim the socio-political legacy of their countries own brand of modernity. Here are some excerpts from the Mission Statement of the shop.

This shop was created in order to remind people (be they men, women, girls or boys) that they are free, that there is true love on earth, and that they are not obligated to follow what others say, neither their parents nor the boss at work, but rather, they can find ways to solve all problems, ways to exist in this world.
Their internal world (including all weaknesses, fears, and illusions) is a treasure, despite the brutal reality of everyday life, which often argues against this tenderness.

Clothes from ‘The Utopian Shop of Found Clothing’ St Petersburg

In addition to object production; the young female collaborators who lack any art training are facilitated in realising their own socio political aspirations through workshops leading to quasi ‘art projects’. For example a series of performances and installations on St Petersburg’s decommissioned trams (which incidentally resulted in a reconsideration of this municipal decision).

The shop unashamedly embraces the principles of modernities grand emancipation project. It declares itself as ‘Utopian’, it runs collectively and its products are authored as such.

‘The Utopian Shop of Found Clothing’ Pushkinskaya St Petersburg

The things in the store try to converse with the observer about his or her desires, longings, unquenchable hopes and dreams. These things differ from ordinary objects in that they have already conversed with people (other people wore them, and the artist pondered over them.) They are wiser than ordinary things and, it follows, much closer to the human heart.

Like the constructivism of the Soviet era; the shop bridges the gap between artist and worker, glorifies objects, which represent the common person, and focuses on art, which might be useful to society (clothing as opposed to painting for example).

The FNO Shop can bravely be called a project, because it also functions as a teaching program…

The ‘project’ is deliberately motivated to reach out and spread its ideological position; comparable perhaps to the Soviets impulse for revolutionary Diaspora, spreading world wide (New Zealand?) to ensure the survival of the new, hard won state. The shops pedagogical process involves the use of media turned against itself; reaching out to ordinary people, dispersing the resistance to mass media’s oppressive subliminal messages to consume and conform.

These associations are quite clear, yet stated here they might appear as simplistic revisionist strategies; nostalgic for a time of revolutionary conviction. There is an entirely different emphasis expressed in the shops statement and in the FNO manifesto, one that focuses on tenderness and the human heart rather than solidarity and class struggle. Clothing operates as a central signifier in these early FNO works; suggesting the fragility of the inner being in its relationship with the external world of the state, the ‘collective mindset’ or the ‘social contract’ as Julia Kristeva would describe it.

It could be said, that the FNO Shop sells things “inside out,” because unlike ordinary clothing that hides the sensitivities of its wearer as an apparatus of the collective mindset, this clothing actually reveals it. By showing a glimpse of the wearer’s soul, it manifests a relationship to the world as to an ideal lover who understands and accepts you as you are, or even as more than you are.

‘Triumph of Fragility’ St Petersburg 2003

After the nineties; although the Utopian Shop carried on and indeed continues today, Gluklya and Tsaplya increased that aspect of their work, which was temporal as their thinking shifted to a greater interest in the significance of clothing as a ‘skin or interface’. Or in the artists own words from the interview The Labor and Breath of Romanticism with Anjelika Artyukh. (Tsaplya)…
‘…Gluklya and I began to think that we also found clothing interesting because it’s the boundary between the individual and the world. Clothing is a person’s frame. This means working with the essence of individuality, with the way it’s constructed. The question arose: how can we carry out this work? We did an action, “The Dress’s Voyage.” We took a silly polka-dot dress, made it our literary heroine, and sent it to the Crimea, where it did things we couldn’t do.

What emerged is a kind of hybrid between sculpture and performance; performing with ‘objects from the shop’ in a manner of speaking.
This mode of practice is epitomised in the ‘Triumph of Fragility’ 2003 in which the familiar sight of St Petersburg’s navel cadets marching through the streets is made strange as they hold white fabric shapes emblematic of little girls dresses.; only coming to a halt at the ‘eternal flame’ of the Soviet, which still burns in what was once Leningrad. The conceptual thread of the relationship between internal fragility and organised society or ‘state’ is carried forward in this piece, which was performed in the streets. The iconographic power of the images from this work lie in the confluence of the openness of the baby faced military cadets, the glory of the Tsarist fortified city of St Petersburg, elemental Soviet symbolism and the flimsy hand held objects. Objects which possess in equal quantity their own signifying content, not only as ‘white dresses’ (femininity, simplicity, vulnerability, grace) but also as constructivist objects from the Factory (of Found Clothing) where objects are made or found and resurrected by young women. As ‘sculptural art objects’ they can be read in the context of their production; devolving the relationship between artists and worker, making objects of societal use, venerating the object as symbol of the worker (mother, nurturer, nurse) and spreading resistance to the consuming (consumptive) symptoms of materialism.

The appropriation and alteration of clothing within the Utopian Shop is part of a broader sociological action, which aimed to educate and empower through art; the signifying potential of ‘the object’ (the dress’s) is exploited as a veneration of the role of women in the spirit of contructivism (Varvara Stepanova, Lyubov Popova) and integrated into a non-object idiom which is born of both necessity (lack of contemporary art infrastructure in St Petersburg at the time) and political motivation.

This interplay between performance and sculptural object is played out again in ‘Garden for Businessman’ where immaculately suited professionals extemporise and perform with children’s clothing in a quintessentially modern corporate environment. In both cases the protagonists play a central role in determining the nature of the work, which again explores the complex interplay between a sensitive, internal humanity and its public face. Like the naval cadets, the businessmen, contemporary symbols of power and authority, express potential layers of tenderness and even powerlessness in a personal theatre of ‘dress play’. They are helplessly drawn into a paradigm perhaps to some degree beyond their grasp; becoming signifiers of an agenda sadly alien to the world of business.
With this immensely poignant strategy, the artists undermine the essentialism if Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ and avoid a simplistic binary opposition of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’.

‘Garden for Businessman’ Stockholm 2004

Leaving behind the extemporised, relational aesthetics of the previous works; these same ideas are explored in a new, more textual idiom in the award winning film ‘Three Mothers and a Chorus’ shown here at MIC Toi Rerehiko. The two-screened video work operates as a radical hybrid of opera and documentary; ‘Brechtian’ in its complex dialogue, minimalist theatrical aesthetic and choral score. Based on extensive research in Russia and Europe, the three mothers represent different lifestyle choices open to women and the opposing pressures, which accompany each pathway. A range of characters represents these various pressures; could be a judge, a church going widow, maybe a student radical and some other mothers. Finally, a little boy whose sole refrain is a repeated affirmation of love, binding the whole thing together into a powerful and remarkably universal exploration of this most fundamental yet least valued social role.

‘Three Mothers and a Chorus’ 2007

Video will again be employed in ‘The greatest idiot in New Zealand’, a collaborative project with 7 young New Zealanders many of whom are graduates of the School of Design where Gluklya and Tsaplya are 2009 artists in residence.

Dina Arakelian, Rachel Bell, Emily Clark, Leanne Clayton, Yael Gezentsvey, Hazel Smith and Hannah Thompson.

The project involves searching for New Zealand’s greatest idiot; an idiot not in the sense we might think, but instead based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s eponomous character; Prince Myshkin, from his novel ‘The Idiot’. In the call for nominations Gluklya and Tsaplya said;’

…to find and identify New Zealanders who embody the qualities of Myshkin and apply those traits in order to solve contemporary social problems’.

In Dostoyevsky’s damning critique of Russia’s 19th century ruling class; Prince Myshkin is a dreamy, guileless character that arrives into a self-serving aristocratic social scene; penniless and without object. His belief in truth and beauty and his unfashionably frank manner soon land him the title of ‘idiot’. Yet as he is ridiculed, he is privately respected and some even seek solace and advise in his company. Although a complex and ambiguous character he stands for compassion, tolerance, love and friendship amidst a bitter contest for wealth and status. Based on Myshkin, nominations were sought for New Zealand’s greatest idiot.

Since Myshkin’s New Zealand heirs are constitutionally incapable of identifying themselves, we call upon you to nominate your own candidates for your country’s Greatest Idiot.

Using Unitec’s Snowhite Gallery as an open workshop, FNO and the young New Zealand collaborators will collectively decide from the nominations on New Zealand’s greatest idiot and will develop a work for MIC Toi Rerehiko in honour of that person. Beginning just as this essay is completed, this collective process is complex, as the group explore the cultural and generational differences in defining ‘the idiot’; differences also between Dostoyevsky’s 19th century morality and that of today. There is material here for another essay.

Transforming the production of fine objects (dresses) into a pedagogical process of self transformation, engaging public institutions and individuals in performances and happenings and producing highly researched; scripted films in collaboration with musicians, composers and dance companies; Gluklya and Tsaplya subsume Russian socialist and utopian history into their own socio political agenda. The rhetoric of the Bolshevik revolution is ‘feminised’ and exploited as a tool to discuss and act on the root of the socialist impulse; human fragility and its counterpoint compassion. The investigative and collaborative strategies employed in many of these projects cleverly solicit the responses of the public avoiding didactic moral imposition; reactivating Kant’s categorical imperative and the collectivist aspect of human empathy. In this way aesthetics of the Factory of Found Clothing is relational and as such borne of a socio political variety of modernity; not borne of a discourse around visual form and fundamentally different to any ‘Western’ trope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *