Theatremaker and visiting lecturer in theatre critisism and dramaturgy Sam Williams talks us through the cultural inspirations behind our the aspects of our new season inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution…
On its 100th anniversary, in a moment defined by technological revolution and environmental crisis, the Russian Revolution holds open a utopian cultural space for imagining new futures. When revolution broke out in 1917, it was in a convulsion of optimism, born of rage and desperation. If the Bourgeois February Revolution disassembled the old world, the Bolshevik October Revolution moved to create another, ex nihilo, out of the void.
From the interlocking geometries of El-Lissitzky’s collages and biomechanic gestures of Meyerhold’s actors to Eisenstein’s vision of reality as a collaboration of elements, Russian artists sought to liberate the imagination through new formal grammars. It was Malevich’s Suprematism that went furthest, striving to ascent into a stratosphere of pure feeling, from which to wrest the elemental components to engineer new worlds.
Perhaps Chekhov saw it all coming. Uncle Vanya premiered in Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre at the turn of the 20th Century. “You have the sense with Chekhov that he is standing on this unexploded volcano,” says HOME’s Director of Theatre, Walter Meierjohann, whose production of Uncle Vanya opens on Friday 3 November “His characters sense that something is changing, and are clinging, desperately, to the past. And this is the position in which we find ourselves in now.”
When an urban professor and his young wife visit their rural estate, havoc is wrought not just on the lives of their tenants, but on the landscape itself: “The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry… the climate is spoiled, and the Earth becomes poorer and uglier every day.” Chekhov, ventriloquizing rural doctor Astrov, seems to prophesy industrial greed run riot.
“Chekhov is our Talmud,” says Boris Yukhananov, artistic director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, which opened on Tverskaya in 2013. In Russia, theatre is both mystical practice – like reading runes or entrails – and a fierce discipline. Or, as the actor Mikhail Shchepkin summarized in the 19th Century: “Theatre is a cathedral. Perform with religious fervour or get out.”
“Even the most mundane piece of theatre [in Russia] is, by American standards, extremely intense and well-wrought,” says John Freedman, an American theatre scholar and translator, based in Moscow since 1988. “It is rooted in the idea of search. There is not the attitude we have in the States of ‘whatever happens, happens.’ It’s a very, very deep process.”
A new sacrality is, in Yukhananov’s Talmudic phraseology, “impossibly necessary” as well as “necessarily impossible” if theatre is to respond to the challenges of our time. Although rooted in Russian traditions, the approach is global. The project to create what Artistic Director of the Theatre of Nations, Yevgeny Mirolov describes as a “new generation of theatre” takes place in dialogue with visual art, and with experimental directors and intellectuals the world over.
While Yukhananov’s Electrotheatre works with contemporary and electronic composers toward new kinds of opera – extraordinary multimedia events that last for days – Kirill Serebrennikov at Moscow’s Gogol Centre, works with writers to stage searing critiques of Russian and international politics. The underground documentary theatre Teatr.doc favours a more collaborative model, working with verbatim material. Founded by playwrights Yelena Gremina and Yevgeny Ugarov in 2002, it has since been kicked by Russian authorities from basement to basement for unflinching political and social work.
“The relationship between art and the state in Russia is traditionally aggressive,” says Katya Inozemtseva, senior curator of Moscow’s Garage Centre for Contemporary Art. “But if you look at art history, it’s the dissidents we remember. The official artists have been forgotten.” Over the last hundred years, she believes, Russian artists have developed survival tactics, finding productive forms of coexistence and protection within regimes and their changes: from imperialism to revolution to Stalinism, and from the wild, turbo-capitalism of the Yeltsin-era to a new nationalism under Putin.
Curated by Olya Sova, Anya Harrison and Sarah Perks, exhibition The Return Of Memory, opening at HOME on Saturday 21 October, tackles this messy and multilayered inheritance – in Yevgen Nikiforov’s photographic history of de-communisation, in the Bureau of Melodramatic Research’s installations of suppressed histories, and in the paintings of Aza Shadenova. “This is not a show about reflective nostalgia,” says Harrison: “It illuminates specific stories of how new visions were created and swept aside.”
Opening the show, Ruslan Vashkevich restages Malevich’s futurist opera Victory Over The Sun, framing revolution from the perspective of history, while Sarah Perks’ and Declan Clarke’s installation asks which characters – historical and fictive – revolution has betrayed. In a new commission examining food security Callum Cooper transplants seeds from the world’s first seed bank in St Petersburg’s Vavilov Research Institute to Manchester, where they will be be grown in local allotments, and with a farmbot at HOME.
Artemy Troitsky’s book Subkultura, which accompanies the exhibition, peels away the veneer of approved art to reveal a subcultural history of underground movements from 1815 to 2017 – youth movements and subcultures, fashions, protest, and politics. It is in these subterranean cavities that new movements gestate, long before they are planed down, lacquered and packaged, and distributed through official channels.
Russia has yet to discover the Western genius for cannibalising counterculture into market structures. Its underground art history therefore remains hidden. Straddling literature, fine art, cinematography, and theatre, after the model of Moscow Conceptualist Ilya Kabokov’s ‘fictional albums’, Russian underground movements carved out spaces of individual expression in discussion groups and communal apartments. These private utopias offer spaces of retreat and psychic resistance within oppressive systems, but for an international art market remains difficult to appreciate.
Russia lacks the capillary networks of commercial galleries and art fairs that irrigate Western art ecologies. The Moscow gallery scene, buoyant in the early 2000s deflated in the 2010s as collectors moved West and galleries closed. For regional artists, the problems of visibility are greater still. Although the Russian Ministry of Culture’s National Centre for Contemporary Art organises exhibitions in the regions, and exhibits regional work in its Moscow office, its eight centres are clustered in the Western third of the country.
Re-missioned by a growing national confidence, private foundations run by wealthy philanthropists are shifting focus from importing Western Contemporary art to Russia, to investing in regional infrastructure and making Russian art visible on the world stage. The inaugural Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art opened this year with the intention of seeding a new Russian avant-garde. Together with the Moscow Bienniale and International Biennial for Young Art, all of which invite international curators and show international and native work, mycelial networks propagate intercultural dialogue and collaboration.
“There’s a new a generation of young Russian artists who are really plugged in, occupying a variety of sophisticated positions across media,” says Nadim Samman, British curator of the 2016 Moscow International Biennial for Young Art. “The internet has been incredibly influential. I think we’re now at a point where the comprehensive, coherent trajectories associated with art movements have exploded.”
Schools like the Rodchenko School of Photography – founded in the mid-00s to supplement the classical soviet art education – have lifted video art out of its underground origins and into the mainstream, which eddies back into the filmmakers’ collectives of the Moscow film underground. In 2016 the Moscow International Film Festival, first curated by Eisenstein in 1935, was supplemented by an experimental edition, MIEFF. Since 2009, Pioner a cultural centre on Kutuzovsky Prospekt has provided an institutional home for arthouse and original language films, and a programme of lectures, masterclasses, and festivals.
HOME’s film programme A Revolution Betrayed (starting from 12 October) questions the conventional narrative of a progressive revolutionary avant-garde and the regressive later style of socialist realism, tracking a vast range of filmic experiments unleashed in the turbulent decade from Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) to Medvedkin’s socialist realist comedy Happiness (1935).
“These films show the infinite potential of film to communicate in different ways,” says Andy Willis, the programme’s curator. “They come from a time, when you had practising filmmakers who were also asking themselves how films should be made, and grappling with political and social realities. Contemporary cinema doesn’t seem to be doing that.”
In September, Moscow opened its 7th Bienniale of Contemporary Art, probing the reciprocal challenges of technology and environment, and invoking tribal cultures that comprehend nature as a cosmology to be lived within, rather than a resource to be extracted.
The error of Russia’s revolutionary avant-garde lay not it its optimism, nor in its preparedness to imagine new futures: these are the only sensible strategies for confronting irresistible change. The betrayal was one of intent. 1917 was never intended to launch a Russian Revolution, but a global one. When, at the Fourteenth Party Congress in 1924, when Stalin reversed that promise by diktat, a seed was planted for top-down, nationalist isolationism.
If we are to liberate our own imaginations to confront the changes wrought by the 21st Century, it is not to create new worlds out of the void, nor construct them with 3d printers on the terra incognita of nearby planets. We need, instead to plant our feet firmly in the earth, and to patiently learn from and collaborate with neighbouring cultures and ecologies. And we need to pursue it with the fervour and creativity of 1917, and with the flexibility, commitment and persistence, of Russian artists since.
Sam Williams is a theatremaker and art writer working in Moscow, London, and Berlin and a visiting lecturer in theatre criticism and dramaturgy at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
The season A Revolution Betrayed? runs at HOME in Oct & Nov 2017. Find out more here.
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