Alexander Brodsky. Installations
April 2 - May 10 2010
One's Own Things
Alexander Brodsky is loved by people. This is unusual for artists; more often, their works and they themselves are approached with caution, met first with incomprehension, then with indifference and envy. But I cannot remember a single one of Brodsky's works, from his "paper architecture" etchings of the 1980s (created together with Ilya Utkin) all the way to his installations at the Russian Povera exhibition in Perm in 2008, that had not met with anything other than delight from critics, colleagues, and the public.
He won international competitions in Japan in the 80s; decorated St. Petersburg and the New York subway in the 90s; in 2001 at the Milan Trienniale he was named "the best artist of Europe"; in 2006, he represented Russia at the Venice Biennale. He will, undoubtedly, represent our time in the future, in the histories of art. And yet others do not envy him, or if they do, they hide it. He awakens in people their sleeping best feelings, and it is easy and enjoyable to talk about him.
Love is a banal feeling in that it is incapable of explaining its subject. In 2004, Brodsky exhibited his Pavilion for Vodka Ceremonies at the Arkh-Moskva exhibition. It was a barn nailed together from the old windows of the Butikov factory on Ostozhenka street in Moscow. The factory was torn down, and Brodsky assembled his pavilion in Pirogovo for the Art-Klyazma festival. I was a member of the festival's jury, and I remember how we all decided without prior agreement to award this work the Grand Prize. The choice itself did not arouse any doubts; those only came when it needed to be justified. The Arkh-Moskva exhibition at that time gathered all that was best, most fashionable, and most expensive in our architecture and design, and Brodsky had beaten all of it out. His pavilion told the story of how twenty years earlier, it was possible, after sneaking in with friends through a hole in the industrial site, to drink half a liter of vodka. The constancy with which people resorted to this procedure for achieving pacified harmony suggested an analogy with the Buddhist spirit of Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies. Which suggests the question: What, these ceremonies, these blind white windows, the quick sweetish contraction of the throat with the instantaneous sensation of "feels good again!" - is that really the best we had? Is everything else around - fashionable buildings, interiors, and furniture -really just nonsense in comparison with that feeling of the homeless harmony of eternity that was created by the vodka ceremony?
In my review of Brodsky's exhibition in the Russian pavilion in Venice in 2006, I repeated the words that Dmitry Bykov had used to define Pasternak's poetry: Brodsky's objects are an "instantaneous shot of happiness." The most recent of Brodsky's installations that I have seen was The Night Before the Attack at the Winzavod Art Center (which he also reconstructed). In the vaulted halls, in total darkness, hundreds of plaster figures sat around little lights that depicted camp fires. It was so beautiful and sad! Here they are, sitting in this infinite space and looking at the fire, and in the morning, the battle will come, and they will die. Like a Christmas tree on which all the candles are the souls of those who are going to their death. But where do we find here the "instantaneous shot of happiness"?
Brodsky tends to talk about death more. One time, he created a large cinerarium made of used-up tea bags; another, an installation where all the mice had died in the children's pets' corner, having left behind empty food dishes and small pellets of excrement. Or a house had been torn down, so that the only things left were the windows with even waves of gray dirt, drawings, and signs, which had been scratched on them by teenagers who have long since grown up or may be even left. All of it is some kind of sad, grayish handiwork. Where, we might ask, can happiness come from here? Where is the joy to be found? What is there to love?
In 2000, at the Marat Guelman gallery, there was an exhibition titled Coma. Boris Orlov called this installation by Brodsky "the best work of the 1990s." It consisted of an operating table on which Brodsky had placed a model of a city, hand-sculpted from white clay, with fingerprints still intact. Above the city, there hung eight large drop-bottles with machine oil. This oily black muck slowly dripped from the bottles and covered the city. By the end of the exhibition, it had covered it completely. Brodsky is a kind of Mozart in our art - happy, beloved, a genius. Mozart wrote Requiem; is it possible to imagine a Mozart who is writing Apocalypse?
In the 1990s, we saw the appearance of a new architecture. After Soviet everyday life, it was a hedonistic thaw. It was fashionable, rich, and very foreign. Private houses turned into high-tech fireworks in the middle of pine woods; everything was smooth and shiny; everything rejoiced, as if shouting "Be happy!" In 2000s, this architecture made its way into cities. The developments on Ostozhenka appeared like a blissful exhibition of architectural achievements. Add to that the curvy skyscrapers of the Moscow City, and the Gazprom Tower, appearing on the horizon in St. Petersburg, and the Olympic Games that are coming to Sochi, and everything screams, "Citius! Altius! Cosine!" And the more of it there is, the less one understands it.
Architecture, after all, if it is in art, is about understanding its place and time. Count Alexander Benckendorff once said, "Russia's past is amazing, her present is more than splendid, and as for her future, it is greater than anything that even the most vivid imagination can conjure up." But it later turned out that the past is nightmarish, the present leaves something to be desired, and the future is doubtful. Everything fell apart. From the Third Rome, we marched into the Third World, and where, one might ask, is such hopeless optimism conceivably coming from? Is it not possible to express in some way architecturally the fact that in reality, our space is filled with anxious melancholy, chilly stupor, and the loneliness of forgotten and discarded things?
Brodsky is about that, about the stuff that is off to the side. The rest of us sporadically get through to a feeling with something non-existent - palpating this touch-pad or that iPhone; and we spend the rest of our time touching a gray periphery, which remains somewhere to the side from our rights to reality, so that we do not register the touch. For Brodsky, this periphery is the center. He, like any great artist, has discovered a world, but it is very close by, right under our very feet. And having discovered it, he started methodically to explore it. Two of his large- scale installations, one at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, the other at the Marat Guelman Gallery in Moscow, presented, in essence, "catalogs of forgotten things." Endless tables were covered with things sculpted out of clay. Toy cars, books, a small bust of Lenin, a shoe, glasses, a small pistol, Kharkov brand electric razor, an old TV set, a telephone, cigarette butts, a condom, glasses, pencils, pens, coasters, toy soldiers - in short, everything that once surrounded us in life and even surrounds us now, if it managed to hide away beyond the boundaries of our field of vision, so that it would not be noticed and thrown away. In part, this reminds one of ABC books, where an object was drawn for each letter, except Brodsky sculpted them. This was an element-by-element analysis of the world, an examination of its elementary particles.
In some sense, this is reminiscent of the logic of architectural analysis - these ABCs turned easily into a catalog of building materials. Those same windows, which he had used to construct The Pavilion for Vodka Ceremonies or the interior of the Apshu club in Moscow, which was also made using old windows, were, in essence, as much installations as the ones he showed with Feldman or Guelman. The same could be said of his Tower at the Arkh-stoyanie festival in the village of Nikolo-Lenivets. The tower was a mausoleum built of old discarded doors. Architects are often concerned with how to build a new world; Brodsky invented a way to build an old one from scratch. For this world, one needed a new vocabulary - new not in its contents, but in the nature of the words that make it up.
On the periphery of sight, things, as it turns out, have changed the status of their materiality. Everyone observed this, but no one aside from Brodsky noticed it. Here is what happened: Empire style furniture had burned in the wood-stoves of Leningrad during the Blockade; it had stayed in the apartments for a hundred years. Today's tables and chairs live for ten. Pre-revolutionary era typewriters were used to re-type samizdat as late as the 1970s. The lifespan of a computer is five years. Abaci could make their clinking noises for decades; calculators live for a year.
When a thing is alive for a century, it is not perceived as temporary; it seems to exist forever, like a stone on the road or water in the lake. If a thing breaks, it seems to be an unfortunate deviation from the norm, and it is fixed. But if it lives for a year, it acquires a fate. It becomes mortal. One can erect a monument to it. All of these objects sculpted out of clay on the tables were those endless memorials to ice-skates, rulers, and pots. And a memorial - well, that's quite a topic! There is a lot that falls into that category, from the gravestone at the cemetery to the monument on the Capitol, from the Copper Horseman to the Stone Guest; there's such a mythology here! And all of it now applies to our understanding of shoe-laces, vacuum cleaners, and rubber erases.
Brodsky was originally an architect, not an artist. Among artists, there is no one with whom he could be compared; in his poetics and style, he is unlike anyone else. Although, of course, a world full of the melancholy of the everyday was only unreachable and closed to architecture; artists have discovered it long ago. But not in this way.
Architecture is a naively positive art. It is impossible to imagine a building which could express through its forms, textures, and composition just how repulsive the place where it had been erected is, how vile the people who live in it, and how reprehensible their activities. Whereas contemporary art is completely different. To express a feeling of deep disagreement or even disgust towards the lived phenomenon it is depicting - be it a person, a landscape, or a still-life, - is completely natural for art, and from time to time, one gets the feeling that this is primarily what it does.
Brodsky, of course, does not create architecture. Or, more accurately, the architecture he creates has not (yet?) learned to absorb the fullness of the images he has found in art. There are probably only four sites - Winzavod, OGI gallery, Apshu club, and the 95 Degrees restaurant - that open up to the possibility of absorbing this intonation. And even then, they only open up to it, but they have not absorbed it yet. In my opinion, this is a problem of the clients. They love Brodsky, are happy to commission him for apartments, private residences, and bath houses, but they still cannot get rid of a wish to live just a little bit more glamorously. The world of peripheral everyday chaos that he creates in his installations, on the other hand, is ready to transition into architecture because it is positive in an architectural way. Not everything may be quite in order there, but nobody is being exposed. The eraser is not a sexual pervert who will rub himself on anything; the shoe-laces are not amorally prostrating themselves before tyrants. No. Brodsky looks for the good qualities in these things, the qualities for which one might love them. The answer, it turns out, is obvious to such a degree that it is invisible since we do not notice that which is always in front of our very eyes. If things die, that also means that they live. They have a fate, a youth, old age, and death.
In theory, one could call Brodsky's world a "fairytale world." A characteristic of the fairy-tale (as opposed to the legend, the folk-tale, and other heroic genres) is that it occurs in the world of the everyday - in the kitchen, in rooms, in barns, in the poultry yard; in short, here, in quotidian reality. But everything that exists in it is not a "what," but a "who"; all the things are subjects. The chair, plate, fork spoon, pretzel, bun, and potato are able at any moment to speak, give assistance, or get angry and walk away; they are constantly behaving in some way, and if they are not, it means they do not want to take part in this fairy tale and they are waiting for the next one. That is exactly how everything happens with Brodsky, and the architecture he would build would ideally have to be such that the windows, doors, walls, floors, and ceilings could talk in it. And, moreover, they would say something serious, something about life, not just nonsense. In fact, the "paper architecture" that he drew with Utkin in the 1980s was just like that. Sometimes, his things are emphatic about their fairy-tale quality, as, for instance, was his installation at the 2006 Biennale. There, one saw a city with glowing lights, and when one turned a crank, thick snow would come down, so that only the lights would remain. But for all that, I would not call Brodsky a fairy-tale writer. There is a lot of compassion in his relationship to the frail fate of the things for which he erects monuments, but it is a haughty compassion from above.
The wonderful essay-writer Alexander Mozhaev published in 2005 in the magaizine Big City a story about his walk with Brodsky in the Zamoskvarechye neighborhood of Moscow. Brodsky suddenly remembered, "Once, after school, I was crossing the tram tracks on Novokuznetskaya street, and nearby, a real crayfish was crossing the street. He had run away from the nearby market and had crossed the entire square!" In 1998, in the basement of the Metropole hotel, he had designed the interior of the Teatro restaurant, which had an aquarium in the shape of a model dilapidated Renaissance palazzo with a lobster who sat inside, waiting until one of the restaurant's visitors ordered and ate it. In some sense, it was one of life's great success stories: the crayfish ran away, swam across the river, wised up, became a real lobster, and settled down in the Metropole in his own palazzo. This plotline, in part, reminded one of the interviews to be found in journals like Career and Success, which were given in the 90s by Russia's first big businessmen. But all of it was somehow made gloomy by the prospect of inevitable death. Since that time, by the way, not only has the crayfish been eaten, but the interior itself has been destroyed. Brodsky even has an installation called The Penultimate Day of Pompeii in which that same Renaissance palazzo sinks into a dark mire and disappears while inside, one can still hear voices out of some movie.
I was once present during a conversation between an old, quite religious person and his granddaughter, a precious girl with a puppy. "It is not right that we deny that animals have a soul," she said with a child's contemplativeness. "It is not we that do it; it is him," answered the grandfather, expressively lifting his eyes upward. A crayfish, from a Christian point of view, is a soulless being, although this seems somehow strange. I get the feeling that Brodsky treats the things, space, and time in his world not as a fairy-tale writer treats his characters, but as someone treats his pets. They have a fate, they live and they will die, he knows them by their names and characters, but God still has not given them something; they are limited in some way. And that makes them need our presence all the more.
The 95 Degrees restaurant is built in the Bay of Joy on the shore of the Moscow-Volga canal. Pilings stick out of the water, and on them, open suspended floors are hung in three levels. On the top one, there is a glassed-in metal cabin. All the pilings are stuck into the ground at a 95 degree angle, whence the name of the restaurant. More than anything, it looks like Brodsky's etchings, where all the verticals are at a slight angle while the trace of the etching game that slightly tears the edge creates a sense of organic texture - un-sanded wooden planks, may be, or willow branches, or a rusty metal armature. That is how this restaurant is built.
The building evokes something in a distant way, but only "something" and "in a distant way." It seems that the structure has started to lean slightly, which happens to wooden houses and sheds standing near water in Russia. In a distant way, it evokes a modernist building made of bars and beams, with open terraces, galleries, and staircases. In a distant way, it evokes a Greek temple surrounded by columns. And so on. All of these are memories whose prototypes are only dimly legible. The beams and pilings of which all of it is made look consumed by time, look as if they had already been utilized elsewhere and discarded before they had swam here over the water. A man sits by the side of the river and different things get beached on the shore. All of them were something at one time: a temple, a house, and now it is nothing, just a piece of substance, but the substance remembers what it once was.
Brodsky's art might be called post-catastrophic or even the art of the landed Ark. There was a world once - a world of parents, Soviet, pre-Soviet, the world of Italian Renaissance art, - all kinds, and it does not exist anymore. The world of our childhood, of the disappeared Zamoskvorechye, Moscow, country. And we have survived for some reason, and now the surf throws up the debris onto the shore. The peculiar situation of the beached things is that everything around them changes its meaning - they remember the past. That there was a catastrophe is not Brodsky's discovery. That is the experience of every person who has lived in Russia for the last twenty years. But Brodsky has discovered the special intonation of this state. In collecting the remains of a past catastrophe, it is possible to find harmony and light. And that is what we love him for.
(Translation: Ksenya Gurshtein)