MOSCOW — “Patriots of the Earth” (2016) is a painting by Pavel Pepperstein, one of Russia’s leading contemporary artists. It’s now hanging in a strangely shaped corridor leading to a tower at Moscow’s State Darwin Museum, a natural history museum currently hosting the rather informal exhibition Alternative Theories of Evolution. Some months ago, this painting was lying in Pepperstein’s studio alongside many other works in preparation for three different exhibitions, and although it belongs to none of them, it succinctly presents the relationship of Pepperstein to Russian history and to the concept of historical time in general. “Patriots of the Earth” is a narration about a number of prominent historical figures who, after death, were revived and chose to remain behind as statues on earth — similar to the way Soviet-era statues were dismantled and abandoned in a public park in Moscow — after all the human beings who had ever lived were resurrected and sent away to inhabit other planets. The text that accompanies this work is one of Pepperstein’s own short stories, which consists of a dialogue between these resurrected souls. The implied question is: What kind of utter boredom would it be to live forever? Forever is a long, long time.
This story belongs to a grand Russian fiction tradition: At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian culture was taken over by Cosmism, a philosophical system advanced by Christian philosopher and mystic Nikolai Federov, who preached a futurist ideology involving immortality, resurrection, cloning, and the colonization of space. Federov believed that humans would eventually develop the technology necessary to revive everyone who had ever lived, and that then it would be necessary to migrate from Earth into other planets, as there wouldn’t be nearly enough space. All this might sound entertaining now, but it was the work of the Cosmists that set the agenda for Soviet science and the space race. What started out as a mystical movement became, after the formation of the Soviet Union, hard science. With this piece and its accompanying story, Pepperstein is elaborating on a long tradition of intersections between technology, science, literature, and, ultimately, politics. As the history of the 20th century is but a long series of disasters, particularly in Russia, the artist turns to Cosmism as both escape from and antidote to the sufferings of the world, as his exhibitions attest.
In addition to this Russian fictional tradition, it’s necessary to look at Pepperstein’s work in the context of art in the Soviet Union. The officially sanctioned artistic style when he began painting, Socialist Realism, emphasized a purity of representation in neo-classical style, inflected with the new consciousness of the Communist revolution, so that “beauty,” in the traditional sense, became a tool of not just propaganda, but outright oppression. Nonconformist art, practiced underground through the 1960s and 1970s, responded to Socialist Realism by developing a new aesthetic emphasizing thought process instead of material. As Ekaterina Bobrinskaya noted, this type of art “does not work with plastic form, but with different types of consciousness and ways of thinking.” It has more profound roots in Russian literature and a network of communication between different artists than it does in the history of Western art from that period, which it seems wasn’t well-known in Russia. This isolationism created a very specific but ultimately rich context for Russian conceptualism. Pepperstein, born in 1966, is part of the younger generation of this movement.
In the exhibition Miracles in a Swamp, on view at Moscow’s Regina Gallery, Pepperstein insists on the possibilities of a deconstruction of history and his long-held opposition between the fictions of human history and the inescapable, even terrifying, reality of the cosmos. The main characters in this singular dialogue are two black hole–like entities: the swamp of the writer Franz Kafka and the black square of Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. In Pepperstein’s painting “Mr. Kafka the Lord of the Swamp” (2016), the writer appears faceless and, around him, the whole world is submerged in a body of water, exemplifying the primal void of the Biblical story as a metaphor for inescapable cosmic emptiness. Yet in “Supremas Above the Swamp” (2016), the “supremas,” or basic geometric forms (this is a reference to Suprematism, the artistic movement Malevich founded), are either attempting to escape the swamp or being swallowed by it. The supremas belong to a post-historical and post-human world in which there is no reason or subjects, only forms. Suprematism here is a dialogue between forms after humans and human ideas have disappeared from Earth.
This history — the 18th-century German concept that merged the labor of historiography with the then-decaying theological powers of creation, divination, and damnation — is, for both Kafka and Pepperstein, something awful and terrible; it is nothing but endless Christian suffering. They both prefer the imagination, the fairytale and the narrated life, to the pseudo-scientific pretension of historians: History is by definition the master narrative of empires and their violence and colonization. Pepperstein’s attitude here is not a negation of history but a critique of the postmodern utopia at the end of history, along with its desire for a museification principle that will renounce all human pasts. He writes, in the text of the exhibition: “In recent years we observe the omnipresent death-blow of that principle — barbarian destruction of ancient heritage that miraculously survived to our unthankful days. This destruction is carried out in different spheres: one has only to compare ISIS or Taliban performance with the actions of art vandals that, with delight, rot in maggots and other attributes of decay to canvases of Brueghel, shatter vintage Chinese vases, etc.”
Kafka’s swamp takes on different forms: a flower, an eye of wisdom, a fire, mushrooms, the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers (each represented in different paintings). These are all elements from classic fairytales, warm smooth objects with defined anatomies, opposed to Malevich’s rigid architectural supremas and what Pepperstein calls “agents of abstraction.” In his 2005 story “The Abstract Wars,” forms and ideas were defeated by the waters after a long war: “The Abstract Ages ended in a flood. Liquid times began.” As a skilled illustrator and graphic artist — a tradition celebrated in the Soviet Union, where artists doubled as illustrators of children’s book and instruction manuals — Pepperstein speaks irony as a second language underneath his serious analytical eye. His rejection of history is a joke on the radical postmodern belief in the end of history: “Thus, history continues in rude and coarse forms that seemed to have been gone forever. Ironically, it is historiophobia that guarantees the continuation of history. If the past still stimulates aggressive actions of this kind — then it is alive.”
But the duel between Malevich and Kafka is only a gesture, a fiction inside a fiction, a swamp that leads to a larger swamp. In Pepperstein’s words: “A swamp is a territory (including territory of thought) where the surface and the depth change places.” The painting “The Birth of Venus” (2016) might contain a reference to “The Black Star,” a story Pepperstein wrote in 2010 about Californian cosmonaut Venus Kent, who died frozen upon reaching the cold center of the sun. This story sums up the curious relationship of Russian culture and Cosmism to black squares, swamps, black holes, the firmament (empty space without stars — Russians were cosmonauts, it was the Americans with their culture of celebrities who were astronauts because they loved the stars): “But in those times the Russians adored (as they still do now) darkness and mystery, and so they were attracted, not to the stars, but to the dark gaps between them. They were not drawn to the exceptional points, the sparkling and the shimmering; what lured them was the background itself, the boundless space of ‘prostransvo’, dark and amorphous, like an echo in a gigantic unlit hall.”
This was not the first time Pepperstein confronted Malevich’s Black Square — the iconic square is the spiritual foundation of a century of modern art in Russia. In his 2010 exhibition From Mordor with Love (a reference to the fictional land of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, symbolically also representing Russia, a land of obscurity and evil), Pepperstein presented his own “Convertible Black Square” (2010), in classic suprematist style with variations. Kafka, however, belongs to a different stream of thought: Pepperstein has become preoccupied with the Jewish heritage of Eastern Europe that was the precursor to the degenerate abstract art condemned by Socialist Realism, and that coincided with the first wave of emancipation of European Jewry that ended in the catastrophes of gulags and concentration camps. Following the trail of thinking of the Jewish tradition without adhering to a specific aesthetic canon — there never was one — Pepperstein embraces the expanse of infinity, but without salvation or redemption; the world remains in abeyance. A certain vitalism shared with Kafka and Walter Benjamin possesses Pepperstein: Life itself is the swamp, and its uncontrollable forces will devour everything, even history.
Works from a parallel series, A History of Futuristic Hallucinations (2016), done in a more classic conceptualist style and rich in graphics and dialogues, gives connectors between ”The Patriots of the Earth” (2016) and the exhibition Miracles in a Swamp: A number of characters from the past (saints, politicians, conmen, prostitutes, generals, kings) are entering the hallucination of their distant resurrection in the Cosmist future, and inhabiting temporalities that are impossible for us to imagine in our current historical condition. It is as if history made us incomplete and prevented us from entering the deep time inhabited by Venus Kent: “But eternal darkness lies concealed at the very heart of the stars. This astral darkness is the condition of light.” In a small untitled work from that series, there is a vision of the absolute void that will appear in our world in the year 8888. Pepperstein’s oeuvre — both his paintings and his writings — is science-fiction in the traditional sense: it’s not about progress and the celebration of the technological imagination (as in our current science-fiction literature and film) but about disaster, the disaster of human history.
Pepperstein’s Cosmism is not simply a para-fiction or a mystical escape from the world. it does not diametrically oppose history but lives inside of it, as paradox and melancholy. During the period of Glasnost, the thaw of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, artists in Russia experienced freedom as it had never existed for them before. Then came the anarchy of the 1990s and the embrace of capitalism (America remains an important metaphor in Pepperstein’s work — or, not exactly America, but the irony of Soviet-era dreams of capitalism), where anything and everything could be thought and said, unreservedly. Was that the cracking sound of the future interrupting centuries of empire and totalitarianism? Russian artists, often victims of the Russian state, were skeptical, and their fears were proven correct: The new Russia is catching up with them, and that the terrible history that left through the back door is making itself at home once more. But there’s no hopelessness in Pepperstein’s work, no abandonment; there’s only laughter: the final laughter of those who have very little to protect them from the world. This weakness, as Walter Benjamin wrote in a letter to Gerschom Scholem about Kafka, is the source of their radiant serenity.
Miracles in a Swamp continues at Regina Gallery (1, 4th Syromyatnichesky pereulok 105120, Moscow) through June 25.