The artist, philosopher, and writer Vyacheslav Akhunov stands out in the Central Asian art landscape. He created his own art movement – Sotsmodernism – based on the rejection of Soviet art as part of the whole totalitarian system, countercultural values, and his personal moral choice. Vyacheslav Akhunov employs the typical iconography of the Socialist propaganda of the Soviet period, subverting then dominant ideology through the exploitation of widespread propagandistic images.
Born in 1948 in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Lives and works in Tashkent.
Vyacheslav Akhunov is an artist, writer and philosopher. He works in the techniques of collage, painting, installation, performance, video, and is also the author of numerous essays and novels. Since the early 2000s, Akhunov began to explore the possibilities of new media, especially video. His work highlights the paradoxes of cultural marginality. He also explores the changes and problems of social inequality in his own region, indirectly commenting on the development of collective religiosity in a once secular society. His works are always aimed at integrity and personal responsibility, no matter what power structure this person belongs to.
Among the latest exhibitions of the artist, BALAGAN!!!, Berlin (2015), 5th Moscow Biennale (2013), Pavilion of Central Asia at the Venice Biennale (2013, 2007, 2005), 1st Kiev Biennale (2012), Documenta (2013), Kassel (2011), Ostalgia, New Museum, New York (2011), Time of the Storytellers, KIASMA, Helsinki (2007), Montreal Biennale (2007) and 1st Singapore Biennale (2006).
“I suddenly felt that the Soviet times were coming back again, I could feel the cadaverous smell of stagnation. What does this have to do with? With the fall of the Empire we had a renaissance of communist ideas; it has been very noticeable in Russia in recent years. That is why I brought my ‘mantras’ (‘Red Mantras of the USSR: We Will Live Under Communism’) to the exhibition. Today’s situation prompted me to struggle with the means available to the artist. This is not nostalgia; this is a feeling: something has to be done.” These words from your 2016 interview are very relevant today. Going back in time, tell us about how you destroyed the language and image of Soviet ideology through “Social Modernism.”
Andrey Fomenko, an art historian from St. Petersburg, clearly described my artwork in his article “Lone Ranger of Contemporary Art”—in particular, as “a representative of the Uzbek independent art scene, linking two eras of nonconformist art, Soviet and post-Soviet.” What I drew, collaged, and wrote in self-made books was part of my struggle against the Soviet regime and against tradition as it was understood by the official, top-down Marxist-Leninist aesthetic. I was liberating my consciousness from this tradition, from the method of socialist realism, with its inevitable secondary character and propaganda cultural production. This is what happened on one of my first projects, “Leniniana by Vyacheslav Akhunov,” when the idea came to focus on the works of the most famous Soviet socialist realist artists.
“A representative of the Uzbek independent art scene, linking two eras of nonconformist art, Soviet and post-Soviet.”
Using mass-produced printed materials, I combined the formalities of modernism and the discourse of socialist realism. Now many are trying to forget that Soviet artists had a clear ideological goal: to help the party colonize the consciousness of the masses with an emphasis on local features—that is, against the background of the active “erasing” of age-old traditions, to create a new identity of the Soviet man, the builder of communism. Thus, over the course of several decades, a socialist tradition developed in Soviet art. Using the metaphor of artistic expression to capture the sense of time and elude censorship, I archived drawings and notes that stood in clear contrast to the Soviet tradition, already stagnating, totalitarian, oppressive, out of date. In general, these were non-conformist artistic positions that fought against the Soviet in art, which was opposed to the Western art of modernism and which, unlike the global mainstream, turned into something divorced from the real course of time and the needs of people, into the sketchy dry party agitation and propaganda language of the Soviet ideological machine, into a narrowly local, provincial, distorted understanding of art and national cultures.
Collage series: ArtChaeology of the USSR. Mummification. Artist’s book, pen, walnut ink, 1980
This combination of the art form of Western modernism and the narrative of socialist realism I have called Socialist Modernism. In the late 1970s, I decided that this would be a good name. Later, in the 1980s, I heard that there was a Sotsart. For me, Sotsart is witty, but still an oxymoron, because it comes from pop art, which did not exist in the USSR. Sotsart—what is it? Social art or socialist art? It’s not clear… As for socialist modernism, this movement can be safely called post-socialist realism or Soviet postmodernism, thus revealing similarities with Western post-modernism: appropriation, installation, attraction of all known art forms of the past and present. In other words, socialist modernism is the final phase of the development of socialist realism—its opposite.
A number of factors influenced the formation of my views and lifestyle. For example, in the early 1970s, I worked as a designer in Osh art workshops, worked part-time painting a monument to Lenin, drew endless strings of propaganda posters calling for communist work, and created panels for Soviet holidays. I ended up giving up this lucrative job. My father asked: “Where are you from, why do you hate the Soviet regime so much?” Maybe it was a generational conflict, or maybe it was the influence of the environment. Dad had strange friends, without teeth or without fingers, and when they spoke quietly, I heard about the camps where they were imprisoned… One artist lived not far from our barracks; he had nothing but albums, brushes and paints, a wooden trestle bed, a blanket and a metal mug in which he boiled tea (he boiled soup in a tin can). This man kept waiting to be taken back to the camp. Then why start things, to whom to leave all this? Once, when my father began to build a house on the outskirts of the city, we dug clay on a cliff near the river and the bank collapsed and skulls that had been shot fell down. Father turned white as chalk; we quickly dug it all back and left. Then I found out that in this place NKVD officers had carried out mass executions. This is how my attitude toward the Soviet developed, then jazz, rock and roll, and other Western influences were superimposed on it. And my work was formed from the standpoint of “certain views” … I deliberately created an alienated, borderline space in which only personal, private, independent should operate, because it was in such a free space that a mobile system of independent aesthetic ideas could function in Soviet times, and as a result, something new could emerge. For example, social modernism as blurring the boundaries between the hostile ideologies of two opposing political and economic systems, with their artistic territories and languages.
I had no desire to fit into the Moscow environment of non-conformists. Asia beckoned with its provincial tranquility, mountain landscapes, and free life in cozy, sleepy valleys. Returning home after studying in Moscow, I carried a diploma from an academic art institute, an unwillingness to become a socialist realist artist, the sad experience of a second unsuccessful marriage, knowledge in the field of contemporary art, an aftertaste from the brilliant lectures of the outstanding Soviet semiotician Yuri Lotman and the philosopher Merab Mamardashvili, memories of sprees in the institute dormitory, friends’ faces, and a suitcase with drawings and collages—my experiments in conceptual art, a clearly formed concept of socialist modernism. I felt like a “messiah,” carrying to Central Asia the “teaching” about the new contemporary art, the existence of which was unknown to local artists and art critics. This thought warmed me, but I did not feel any joy or special trepidation, realizing that I was dooming myself to complete misunderstanding and, as a result, to loneliness, although the time of the “nauseous formalists” remained in the 1960s. The train carried me into the Void, where time was absent, and spirituality and sacredness were a cocktail of scientific communism, dialectical materialism, and Marxism-Leninism, sprinkled from above with militant atheism.
The creative intelligentsia of Central Asia, including artists, sacredly kept and maintained the fire on the altar of Marxism-Leninism, as if they had received from the hands of the party the right to control the future. On the other hand, I was well aware that life in the provinces promised me attractive ignorance on the part of the local art community, even if—and I was aware of this—my artistic left-wing conceptual “frills” could accidentally get caught by one of the crooked party activists: ignorance would reliably protect from the socialist realist disease that had gripped artists with an open hostility to Western art, many of whom (it’s no secret) were KGB informants. God forbid that they would begin to “straighten” my mind. And if they could not “straighten it out,” then they could contribute to me being outlawed, with all the attendant consequences.
In the mid-1970s, my projects looked more optimistic: “Leniniana by Vyacheslav Akhunov,” “Flappers,” “Mantras of the USSR,” “Red Party Line,” “Empty Pedestals,” “Doubt,” “Cutouts,” “Bust of the Leader.” But already at that time, a foreshadowing of the “Age of Oblivion” was breaking through in drawings, collages, and paintings in the image of a desert with ribbed dunes and quicksand, sucking in. In the collages of those years, fragments of paintings by socialist realist artists and especially ideological artists with their personal “Leninianas” were invariably moved to the Desert of Forgetfulness, as if to say “everything is not eternal, everything is not permanent.” And the word drowned in the Quicksand of Oblivion. A word-symbol, a word-image, a word-sign, a word closed in on itself. Or maybe they were washed by the winds of change to the surface of the desert, or rescued from the sands by zealous “art-haeologists” while I was laboring to identify the points of intersection between the production of ideological clichés in Soviet art and the analysis of the ideological statements proclaimed by the Communist Party, trying to clarify the formation rules of ideological concepts, the forms of their sequences, couplings, and the coexistence of sometimes contradictory statements. In general, I tried to create my own discourse/movement in contemporary art.
Once, I said that the authorship of my work belonged to another artist. They believed me. The story went in a circle, reaching Almaty, then Tashkent. At first, the artists whispered behind my back. Then they began to discuss in earnest: am I a thief or not, do I have a conscience or not. Some of them are still convinced that I am a thief, that I have appropriated other people’s ideas, that I am exhibiting other people’s works, and that I sign copies of works created by a dead artist. I did not change their minds. For me, this is an extremely curious situation. I am interested in any of the versions voiced. The experience of creating a personal mythology helps to study the origin and spread of gossip, myths—especially in an artistic environment. I firmly believe that if the artist does not create his own individual mythical story from all sorts of side material, he simply disappears without a trace.
The postmodernist methods of deconstruction of ideological discourse that you introduced and used echo the Sotsart of Moscow artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, but you created your own art movement—Sotsmodernizm—independently of them while in Tashkent.
What are the differences between these two movements?
A characteristic difference between these movements is revealed by comparing two art works. One belongs to Vitaly Komar/ Alexander Melomid and another is mine from the project “Doubt.” Both artworks are related to the slogan “OUR OBJECTIVE IS COMMUNISM!” In the first creation, Komar and Melomid place their names under the slogan, as if appropriating the authorship of the statement, offering sarcasm and irony as a counterpoint to political party rhetoric in an emphatically demonstrative parody context. The parodic context is at the core of their masterpiece.
In my case, the exclamation point is changed to a question mark, producing the inquiry “Is our goal communism?” Behind the question lies doubt. A totalitarian communist regime cannot tolerate doubters. To question the sacred slogans of the Communist Party is tantamount to doubting the Party’s activities. Therefore, my question represents a revision of the world’s first state of workers, peasants and Soviets, a revision of all communist values and “grandiose” achievements in building socialism—in other words, a call for democracy. Doubt is the first step toward truth. Does the Soviet man have the right to doubt, the right to know the truth?
The monopoly of opinion, of truth, was appropriated by Lenin’s party. Any attempt to discover the real state of affairs in the country, to get at the truth—the real truth—at that time was equated with acts of counter-revolution and, consequently, was subject to persecution and merciless extermination. The doubting Little Man in the KGB lists is a wavering, unreliable, unfaithful, unsteady individual prone to betraying Soviet ideals. This makes him an enemy of the working people, of the state, of workers and peasants on the road to building communism. The replacement of the “!” with a “?” is a provocation that dismantles that which was previously accepted as immutable truth. It is an artistic act of cleansing perception of established ideological norms and taboos. The replacement of “!” with “?” deconstructs the meaning of the propagandistic “formula.” The latter undergoes changes that allow us to speak of its incorrectness as well as of a rigid method of instilling false tautological “proofs” and “mantras” in the consciousness of the masses. To instill doubt and criticism—first in oneself, then in others—is a form of struggle against totalitarian and authoritarian systems. The correlation between lies and truth begins with doubt.
Socialist Modernism is the final phase of the development of Socialist Realism in the form of its opposite and represents the possibility of continuing the history of Soviet art.
Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melomid’s Sotsart and my Socialist Modernism (Sotsmodernism), formulated in the late 1970s, bring together skepticism, sarcasm, and irony that push the limits of normative Soviet art and its clichés in the production of Soviet illusions. Sotsmodernism aims to overcome the fetters of Soviet ideology in art. This is a Soviet art movement that has adopted Western artistic languages and techniques, as well as the languages of the Russian avant-garde of the beginning of the century, in conjunction with socialist realism. It does not negate the tradition of socialist realism, but by rearranging the accents, it changes the context of its ideological component and removes its basis, the communist ideology.
Socialist Modernism is the final phase of the development of Socialist Realism in the form of its opposite and represents the possibility of continuing the history of Soviet art.
Collage series: ArtChaeology of the USSR. Sociolite. Artist’s book, pen, walnut ink, 1976-1982
Central Asian art today continues the classical traditions of socialist realism, but with a significant share of modernism and nationalism. What do you think of the relevance/demand for Central Asian art? Has it become more demand-driven/responsive to current issues and what follows from that?
The traditions of Soviet art prevail in Central Asian republics. For example, the aesthetic of artistic life in Uzbekistan is a deliberate rejection of any innovations and, consequently, a lack of knowledge other than that generated by the ideological nature of the Soviet system. At first glance, Soviet totalitarianism is consigned to oblivion, but in fact, for the three decades since independence—through the efforts of Uzbekistan’s leaders, who are former Soviet functionaries—the “new autocratic” has taken root.
The lack of will to know is manifested in the caution shown by artists, art historians, and viewers/audiences, which can also be explained by the fear inherent in countries with unrestricted supreme power. There is a reluctance to be involved in the historical events taking place, a detachment from all problems. This personal cautious stance, which envisages detachment from political events—hence from the processes in contemporary art and the introduction into the artistic life of Uzbekistan of new, progressive tendencies, which are not always pleasant for the authorities, as long as they apply to critical discourses—results in a depressing neutrality on the part of artists, art critics, teachers of art colleges/institutions in the country, and viewers/audiences. These groups for many years considered themselves advanced in their understanding of art and capable of influencing the country’s cultural and artistic development—but this is a myth. In general, Uzbekistan’s artists have not proven themselves in any way and are (at best) obsessed with the Faustian thirst for immortality—that is, they desire to secure their place in the history of the art of the republic through official recognition by the authorities.
Ethno-style (there is no other way to describe such artistic production) is at its core Soviet-style work where the characters are dressed in national clothes.
The extremely low level of reflection among artists, art historians, and viewers/audience is occasioned by many factors. First is the lack of innovations in the national/regional art field, which have led to a reduction in the mental sphere that makes original, individual interpretations impossible. This makes it easy to identify and mark what is visible, familiar, and therefore devoid of reflection. The ability to draw a boundary line between reflexive and non-reflexive is blurred by artistic monotony, which in turn leads to the impossibility of separating new works from previous ones—everything looks familiar, repetitive, ordinary. The only difference from the Soviet period is the saturation of works with emphasized national ornamentation. Ethno-style (there is no other way to describe such artistic production) is at its core Soviet-style work where the characters are dressed in national clothes. There is also increased attention to historical themes, with the glorification of historical heroes in military battles, often in service of the nationalist impulse of “re-writing history,” as with colorful illustrations of the “academic works” of pro-government official historiographers. Low-quality products are created and shown with such intensity and pressure that the viewer ceases to reflect even on original things. As a result, at exhibitions we see only mirroring of already reflected reflections, the desire of sculptors and artists for embellishment, for sparkling trinkets.
It should be noted that, first of all, art educators deny the role of renewal in art, causing young artists to think about the inferiority and even uselessness of contemporary art movements with their conformist positions. Artist-educators and art historians, with their outdated viewpoints and their practice of denying the absence of stable meanings in contemporary art, become the carriers of the lack of common meanings, methods, and motivations. Their conceptual apparatus, in turn, struggles to master new knowledge—the realization that today, as yesterday, the system of narrow specialization, characteristic of the outdated educational system, is becoming burdensome under conditions in which the needs and changes of contemporary consciousness are focused on the accelerating speed of time and a different view, where the traditional understanding of space, together with time, no longer exists against the background of a new multimedia world with intersecting universal links; that our narrowly specialized art world is unable to respond to today’s challenges, including the opening-up of the possibilities of digital space, with its new social technologies, forms, and types of artistic labor and creativity. And this speaks to the impossibility of forming new subjectivities within our dysfunctional educational system and outdated views on the essence of culture/art.
Today, contemporary art in Central Asia is trying, with varying degrees of success, to integrate itself into global trends. So far it is a small group. But we have brilliant artists who have shaped contemporary art in our region, who have created original contexts and their own perspectives on contemporary art discourse. They are, first of all, Kazakhstani artists and art critics Rustam Khalfin and his spouse Lidia Blinova, founders and patriarchs of the Almaty scene; and artists of the next generation Sergei Maslov, Yerbolsyn Meldibekov, Viktor and Elena Vorobyev, Kanat Ibragimov, the Red Tractor group (in particular Vitaly Simakov, Moldakul Narymbekov, and Said Atabekov from Chimkent), Zitta Sultanbayeva and Ablikim Akmullayev, Alexander Ugai, Julia Sorokina, and Valeria Ibraeva. From Kyrgyzstan we have Shailoo Dzhekshenbaev, Alimzhan Jorobaev, Murat Dzhumaliev, Gulnara Kasmalieva, Valery Ruppel, Ulan Dzhparov, and art critic Gamal Bokombaev. Interesting figures have also recently appeared in Uzbekistan: the artist Saodat Ismailova and the photographers Umida Akhmedova and Oleg and Timur Karpov.
What about your art plans? What do you think you should do or what would you advise philanthropists to do to support the arts in Central Asia?
To be honest, I don’t think about my plans. I am 74 years old and I continue to work every day as before—at least four or five hours, so that there is no feeling of being guilty of wasting time. But I often get carried away if a new idea comes up and I need to fix it. Then my working day can last from early morning to evening. Sometimes routine work, if we mean putting in order a personal archive of more than 3,000 works. If I receive an invitation to participate in an exhibition, I do not refuse. But usually I’m a recluse. I don’t leave the studio for months. I ordered classic icon boards made of linden and oak, 79.5×79.5 cm—the size of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. Made and delivered. The studio smells of freshly cut wood. It remains to apply the canvas and primer. The icons will be apocryphal, with text. That is, instead of the canonical image, there will be a text in the old church font: “Do not make yourself an idol, and no image.” Black and red.
I have never met philanthropists in Uzbekistan in my lifetime. They say they are in Kazakhstan. If there was an opportunity, I would be happy to organize and build the first Museum of Contemporary Arts in Uzbekistan. Or at least try to collect artworks by Central Asian artists for the future museum. To support art in Central Asia, I advise philanthropists to financially support the projects of young promising artists and their promotion on the international stage, as well as invest in the opening of private, state-independent institutes of contemporary art with appropriate departments and training programs.