MOSCOW — Is there an intrinsic relationship between individual addictions and mechanisms of collective control? The Moscow-based art critic and theorist Boris Kliushnikov seems to think so, and accordingly, he has been questioning the nature of addictions in a series of small curated exhibitions. The latest, at Moscow’s Galerie Iragui, is called Pharmakon, a Greek word that means both remedy and poison, sometimes curing an illness and sometimes causing one. The word “remedy” itself also contains contradictory meanings: a remedy is a drug but it can also be a potion, an elixir, or a temporary solution. For Kliushnikov, as we move away from societies of external control (torture, discipline, public punishment) toward networks of internal control (medicine, mental health, the cloud, surveillance, etc.), the “pharmacological” extends beyond the physiological, positing the dichotomy of healthy/unhealthy as a subset of our cultural condition. Since the pharmacological is not only a social construction but also a site in the marketplace, the relation of our bodies to this pharmakon is one governed by the elastic dynamics of capitalism, and therefore an ideological instrument: health is no longer a private condition but a public status.
Kliushnikov offers a somehow disjunctive proposal about his seminal question by bringing together two artists with very different practices: Russian conceptual artist Irina Petrakova and French artist-cum-researcher Jeanne Susplugas, who is well known in Europe for her work on the contemporary use of medicines. Petrakova’s extended project Aconsumin (2016) is deployed as full-fledged advertising campaign for a fictional drug that is meant to perform a singular function: to teach the “patient” the whole apparatus of critical theory. The exhibition’s centerpiece video is an advertisement like one you would see in a standard pharmacy, with experts and doctors endorsing a product, but in this case the experts are the major European philosophers behind the school of critical theory. This tradition of European thought is not only influential in contemporary art theory but also strongly related to Western Marxism, so Petrakova is directly addressing the last grand Western intellectual movement for which capitalism seemed to be a historical period that could be overcome, as opposed to one that is intrinsic to the human condition, as later thinkers formulated.
Susplugas, on the other hand, with her decades-long engagement with drugs and notions of all things pharmacy, pharmacological, and pharmaceutical, brings to the exhibition works from different periods, all of which address the social function of drugs. In her deceptively simple but compelling installation “Bottles” (2015), different containers of different substances are painted, cast in ceramic, and presented in visual isonomy. What are these substances? Alcohol or medicine? Poisons or perfumes? We can’t tell. In this work, Susplugas summarizes our modern relationship to the pharmakon: the dependency of our culture on many of these substances isn’t content-driven but fetish-driven, which brings to the fore Kliushnikov’s preoccupation with the role of the pharmacological as a part of the utilitarian structure of capitalism. In other works, such as the photo series “Drive Thru Pharmacy” (2008) or the drawing “Containers” (2016), the viewer experiences the invasiveness of the pharmacological in our culture throughout history. “The flask doesn’t matter once you are drunk” reads an inscription by Alfred de Musset on the ceramic bottles.
Pharmakon is less of a closed environment open for interpretation and more of an experimental site in which it is not really possible to see the whole without having some familiarity with the curator’s and the artists’ earlier work. However the show does deliver a powerful statement, proposing poignant questions not only about the use of substances in our contemporary culture but also the idea of substances as commodities, and how that relates to the general structure of capitalism and political ideologies. The post-conceptual framework allows the viewer to navigate the pieces in the show as monads, operating independently of the exhibition as a whole and meeting each other only obliquely, reproducing the horizon of confusion and instability that pervades the very phenomena treated in the curatorial proposal.
The viewer might conclude from these pieces that the pharmacy is the entire world, that pharmacological aesthetics have penetrated every aspect of life, including video games, pop culture, and fashion. The replacement of society by the “network” makes perfect sense at the end of the alienation chain, but how can we really sober up and look back?
Pharmakon continues at Galerie Iragui (Malaya Polianka 7, Moscow) through March 18.