MILAN — To be familiar with the work of Pavel Pepperstein means to inhabit a twofold concept of history: Events are seen as occurring simultaneously in the past and the future, as both tenses gaze into each other from across the cosmic table, wondering about the significance of temporal distance and the numbers that bear it like a metal conductor carrying heat in opposite directions. What is more difficult to capture, more difficult than the cosmic and remote, is the moment of the here and now. One of Russia’s leading contemporary artists — the word “painter” seems inappropriate for a conceptualist and a decades-long cultural icon — Pepperstein lives out of an obsession with history, or with the possibility that history (especially one like the history of the former Soviet Union once and the Russian Federation now) and destiny are not identical, so that people are agents capable of imagining a different future, time, world — yet this imagination is their only agency.
A History of Futuristic Hallucinations, which was on show at Milan’s Spazio 22 (in a collaboration with Moscow’s Iragui Gallery) earlier this year, presented some of the artist’s most recent work, articulating Pepperstein’s relationship to Cosmism, a potent cultural force among Russian artists in the 20th century. The Russian art critic Boris Groys devoted a whole series of texts to the subject, and Nikolai Fyodorov was among one of the earliest Russian Cosmists, a futurist Christian philosopher who theorized about the perfectibility of the human race through rather unusual means. In his view, humans (Russians in particular) would develop the technology to revive all people who had ever been alive, and therefore it would be necessary to colonize other planets in order to have somewhere to settle all these populations. In Pepperstein’s exhibition, comprising a single series of acrylic paintings and watercolors, the revived historical figures glance for a moment into their distant future.
Although Fyodorov’s project might seem to us today like fringe science or pseudo–science fiction, it was very influential in early-20th-century Russia. His writing influenced mathematician and mystic Peter Ouspensky, early rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolokovsky, and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky. At a time of heightened nationalist bravado and Messianic fever (coinciding with the collapse of empires and national-states), Cosmist ideas had a profound influence on the Russian psyche, and would later on become — together with the arms race —the unironic ideological basis of the Soviet space program. This could be an unimportant footnote for a European audience, if it weren’t for the fact that the imaginary of space played a pivotal role in the popular culture of the Soviet Union, and as artists began to distance themselves from the official art embodied in the socialist realism of the academia, the language of space began to inform cultural and artistic practice more and more.
This is not to say that it was the dominant topic across the whole spectrum of art, though it might have been in literature, where science fiction replaced reality — the magic spell of totalitarianism, swallowing the present whole but magically presenting a remote past and a distant future, both unreachable from here and now. But if you read between the lines of the early Cosmist ideas to the suprematism of the Russian avant-garde (supremas, the basic unit of Malevich’s work, are one of the basic characters in Pepperstein’s painting as well as his fiction, as I wrote in a review of an earlier show) and the Glasnost-era culture dissected by 1980s artist collective Inspection Medical Hermeneutics, of which Pepperstein was a founding member, it is possible to see in A History of Futuristic Hallucinations a century of Russian thought and art, mediated through the irony of a tragic history disowning itself. The sardonic laughter of Pepperstein’s characters is not reassuring — it’s a pointer toward the void.
Pepperstein writes on one of the canvases, “Various personages from the past (Roman senators, frauleins, Indian and Buddhist ascetics, exalted ladies of the 19th century, British colonial generals, Russian Cosmists, prostitutes, monks, kings and the like) are captured in those thrilling moments in their lives when a vision of the distant future opens up before them.” You can read in the texts on the works — quintessential to Pepperstein’s work and to Russian conceptualism in general, so vastly grounded in literature — about Eloise von Emmersdorf in 1803, observing the landing of Cx-14 at the spaceport T in the year 7501, or a lonely hermit from 1501 meditating on lotus flowers from the years 7131, 8911 and 9600, or the Mongolian Khan (unspecified date) hallucinating about the civilization of eyes (located in Pepperstein’s writings, several thousand years after our own). It all begs the question: Is Pepperstein’s obsession with futures utopian or apocalyptic?
The artist gives a partial answer in the exhibition text: “In this way, the series is devoted to contacts between different periods of time, between dates of the past and of the future — those contacts which harness the hallucinatory potential of the human consciousness.” “Hallucination” is a keyword in Pepperstein’s work, presenting us with a notion of history that is largely symbolic and metaphysical; history is a dream from which we ought to awaken, as Walter Benjamin wrote in The Arcades Project. It is important to notice how notions of trans- and post-humanism ooze out of this work, in which the vision of distant futures is emptied of humans, peopled only by machines, shapes, and forms (also exploring the relationship between futurism, utopia, technology, and fascism). This gives us insights into the world of Cosmism: Immortality is not just the continuation of life but the transformation of past physical (and imperfect) forms into self-creating organisms capable of infinite renewal.
In these works, the present moment remains altogether elusive, as the artist concludes in his exhibition’s text: “A suprema or a shell, floating up from the depths of an ocean, both can be a mode of transport allowing the past and the future to consort with one another behind the back of the present moment, which is all too bewitched with itself.” It is nowhere else but in the present that the hallucination of history is most visible, a rigid structure filled with inescapable “now-time” from which there is no flight. The utopian drive of these futuristic hallucinations is punctuated with a radical pessimism about our current condition, both social and political, so that the imagination of a distant future becomes a loud Messianic cry for salvation, in full awareness that none will come — the personages are only glancing into a speculative moment of possibility. Yet Pepperstein’s acute disenchantment with history is not flight — it is the writing of history itself.
A History of Futuristic Hallucinations was on view at Spazio22 (Viale Sabotino 22, Milan) through January 13.
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