(A Quiet) Civil War

(A Quiet) Civil WarDictionary of War, Novi Sad edition, January 25–26, 2008

My concept is “civil war”— or rather, “a quiet (civil war).” Another variant might be: cold civil war. I will talk about how the (global) economy of war—hot war, cold war, civil war—is experienced by victims and bystanders in a place seemingly far from actual frontlines. In reality, the frontlines are everywhere—running down the middle of every street, crisscrossing hearts and minds. This permanent war is connected to the project that posits the presence of civil society in one part of the world, while also asserting the necessity of building civil society in other parts of the world where allegedly uncivil social, political, and economic arrangements have been or have to be abolished. The real effect of this high-minded engineering is the destruction of people, classes, and lifestyles whose continued survival in the new order is understood (but hardly ever stated) to be either problematic or unnecessary. The agents of this destruction are varied—from random street crime, assassinations, inflation, alcoholism, factory and institute closures, to pension and healthcare reform, the entertainment and news industry, and urban renovation. The place I will talk about is Russia and Saint Petersburg, where I have lived for much of the past fourteen years. My concept is intended as a memorial to a few victims and local eyewitnesses of this war—people I either know personally or came to know about through the stories of friends or other encounters. I will also sketch the tentative connections between that civil war and the troubles in this part of the world; and, very briefly, show how the victors in this war claim their spoils.

This term—(a quiet) civil war—was suggested to me by the Petersburg poet Alexander Skidan during a conversation we had last spring. I had been telling Alexander about the recent murder of my friend Alexei Viktorov. Alexei is fated to remain a mere footnote in Russian art history. I mean this literally: in a new book, Alexei is correctly identified as the schoolmate of the Diaghilev of Petersburg perestroika art, Timur Novikov, and the painter Oleg Kotelnikov. I met Alexei in 1996, when Oleg let me live in his overly hospitable studio in the famous artists squat at Pushkinskaya-10. Alexei showed up a few weeks later. He had spent the summer in the woods, living off mushrooms and whatever edibles he could find. In his youth, he had acquired the nickname Труп (Corpse). With his gaunt features and skinny frame, he certainly looked the part. As I would soon discover, he was one of the gentlest men on earth. He was also a terrific blues guitarist. And he was the first Hare Krishna in Leningrad and, perhaps, the entire Soviet Union—which was quite a feat, considering that his conversion took place in the dark ages of the seventies.

Last winter, friends chipped in on a plane ticket, and Alexei was able to fulfill a lifelong dream and travel to India. When he and his companions arrived at the Krishna temple, Alexei was greeted by the community as a conquering hero. Since Alexei’s life had been quite miserable of late back home, his friends insisted that he stay behind in India. Instead, he decided to return to Petersburg. A few days after his arrival home he was walking from the subway in the northern Lakes district of the city to the house of a friend. Along the way he was attacked—the police say by a gang of teenagers. The teenagers beat Alexei within an inch of his life and pushed him into a ravine. The police investigator guessed that Alexei had lain unconscious for some time. When he came to, he had apparently struggled to raise his battered body up and clamber out of the ravine; in his struggle, he had for some reason started tearing off his clothes, perhaps because his rib cage and chest were so badly crushed that he was suffocating. His body was discovered a couple days later. The police held it for another few days while they completed their investigation, which led to no arrests. Alexei’s funeral was held a few days afterwards at the Smolensk Cemetery on Vasilievsky Island. He was buried a few hundred meters from the grave of his schoolmate Timur Novikov, who died in 2002.

It was this story that prompted Alexander Skidan’s remark to me: “A quiet civil war has been going on here.” What did Alexander have in mind? What could the random albeit violent murder of a single human being have in common with the explicitly political and massively violent struggles that have taken place here in the former Yugoslavia and such parts of the former Soviet Union as Abkhazia, Southern Ossetia, Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechnya? How could Alexei—who, as the Russian saying has it, lived “quieter than the water, lower than the grass”—be viewed as an enemy combatant in such a war? Can we really compare his unknown assailants to representatives of the opposite warring party? Given what they did to him, it is clear that they viewed Alexei as their enemy—an enemy subject to sudden, violent execution when encountered in the proper (hidden, invisible) setting.

I anticipate serious objections to my line of argumentation. One such objection I have already heard in the person of my friend Igor. Igor, whose father is Ossetian, and whose mother is Ukrainian, grew up in Dushanbe, which was then the capital of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. I have never been to Dushanbe, but I have heard Igor describe it so many times in such glowing terms that I have come to think of it as heaven on earth. While I am sure that much of the paradisiacal tone in Igor’s recollections has to do with temporal and physical distance, it really does seem that the Dushanbe of the sixties and seventies was a kind of cosmopolitan oasis—a place where all sorts of forced or voluntary exiles from all imaginable Soviet ethnic communities and other cities ended up living in something like harmony.

This harmony bore the name “Soviet Union,” and Igor himself has often seemed to me the ideal homo soveticus (in the positive, internationalist sense of that term), a person to whom the refrain of the popular song—“My address isn’t a street or a building, my address is the Soviet Union”—fits perfectly. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Igor was the country’s leading expert on the seismic stability of electrical substations. From the onset of the Tajik civil war, in the early nineties, Igor was unable to return to Dushanbe. This had to do with the fact that in his internal Soviet passport, his place of birth was identified as Khorog, the capital of the Pamir region, which is where some of the “anti-government” forces had their power base. If Igor had returned to Dushanbe, he could easily have been stopped by soldiers during a documents check and executed on the spot. This is what happened to a number of his friends and schoolmates.

After the war was over, Igor’s father was able to reclaim the family home near Vladikavkaz, in Northern Ossetia, which had been confiscated by the authorities when Igor’s grandfather had been executed as an enemy of the people in the thirties. Northern Ossetia was a relative oasis during the nineties, despite the fact that Chechnya and Ingushetia were just over the mountains and neighboring Southern Ossetia had broken away from Georgia. This relative calm came to an abrupt end in September 2004, when terrorists besieged the school in neighboring Beslan. During the siege, members of Igor’s extended family were killed.

This is how Igor puts it: “Civil war is when the bus you’re on is stopped by soldiers and some of the passengers are taken off to be shot. And you sit there in the bus listening to the sound of gunfire and waiting for it to be over so that you can continue on your way. That’s civil war. What you’re talking about is not civil war.” Igor is certainly right.

He is also wrong in another sense. The quiet civil war I am describing here—among whose victims, I claim, was our friend Alexei—draws its energy and some of its methods from the real civil wars that have been fought in the hinterlands that are literally unthinkable to folks in such seemingly safe, prosperous places as Petersburg and Moscow. An immediate consequence of the siege in Beslan was that President Putin abolished gubernatorial elections in the Russian Federation’s eighty-four regions and federal cities. This, it was argued, would strengthen Moscow’s control—its so-called power vertical—over local officials whose incompetence and corruption had led, supposedly, to guerrillas infiltrating Beslan and capturing the school with such ease. Meanwhile, the civil wars and socioeconomic collapse in places like Tajikistan have led to a flood of refugees and migrant workers into Central Russia and its two capitals. The booming building trade in Moscow and Petersburg to a great degree now depends on the abundant, cheap supply of workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, and other former Soviet republics.

These workers are literally visible everywhere nowadays: with the oil economy fueling a tidal wave of consumerism whose major players have now turned to real estate as an outlet for investing their wealth, the capitals have become gigantic construction sites. And yet the conditions of their work and their lives are just as literally invisible. For example, Tajik workers and other darker-skinned Central Asians and Caucasians are subjected to frequent, unnecessary documents checks in public places such as subway stations. This is something that every Petersburger and Muscovite has seen ten thousand times, but it is also something they pretend not to see, judging by the lack of public reaction to the practice. Even less reaction is generated by neo-Nazi attacks on such workers, other foreigners, members of Russia’s ethnic minorities, and anti-fascist activists, which have become more and more common in the past several years.

I want to paint one more, brief verbal portrait of another victim in this quiet civil war. This portrait is connected with the violence inflicted on this city and other parts of Serbia during the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. The official and popular reaction in Russia to this violence was quite harsh. There were massive demonstrations outside the US embassy in Moscow; unknown assailants even fired a grenade into an empty office at the embassy. What surprised me were the more spontaneous reactions to the bombings. One day, a young American artist and I were standing in the courtyard of the squat at Pushkinskaya-10 chatting with a local artist. Two acquaintances of ours—members of a well-regarded alternative theater troupe—entered the courtyard. When they saw us, they shouted, “Don’t talk to those Americans! They’re bombing our Serbian brothers!” Since they said all this with a smile, it was hard to know to what extent we were supposed to take their warning as a “joke.”

It occurred to me then that a fundamental shift was occurring in the consciousness of Russians who had been, both in practical and philosophical terms, “westernizers” and “liberals” not long before. That this shift was also extending into the “masses” was confirmed for me a few days later. Late one night, I suddenly heard a drunken-sounding young man yelling up to an apartment across the street: “Masha! Goddammit, come downstairs and let me in!” Since repeated requests had no apparent effect on the silent, invisible Masha, the young man became more explicit in declaring his unhappiness with Masha’s thwarting of his affections. “Masha, you fucking bitch, come down and let me in! You’re breaking my fucking heart!” The turn the man’s soliloquy took next, however, signaled to me that we all were living in a new world. “Masha, go fuck yourself! NATO, go fuck yourselves!” (Маша, пошла ты в жопу! Блок НАТО, пошли вы в жопу!) This effusive condemnation of Masha and NATO continued for some time, after which the thwarted lover fell silent or fell over drunk.

If I had known that I would be invited to speak at this conference nine years later, I would have recorded the whole performance. Instead of speaking to you now, I would have played back the recording in full. Not in order to make fun of the young man whose heart had been broken in two by the combined forces of Masha and NATO, but so that you could hear what the quiet civil war I am trying to talk about sounds like. This is what I meant when I said, at the beginning of my remarks, that the frontlines in this new kind of war cross through hearts and minds and run down the middle of streets. This is not what happens when civil society breaks down; it is what happens when “civil society” is a code word (pronounced and enacted in tandem with other code words such as “democracy” and “liberal economy”) used to camouflage the incursion into the city of invading forces. The new regime they have come to establish can in reality do quite happily without “civil society,” democracy, and liberalism. But these words and the real actions taken and deals made behind their smokescreen are quite effective in destroying the historic and imaginary forms of solidarity that might have given folks like our unhappy young lover the means to defend themselves somehow. Instead, we end up with the muddle in our heads that lets us imagine that Masha and NATO are allied against us. Or that NATO is bringing democracy and security to Afghanistan. Or that, instead, to thwart NATO’s expansion to the east we have to round up Georgian restaurant workers and deport them back to Georgia—which, paradoxically, used to be nearly every Russian’s favorite place on earth.

As Alexander Skidan himself told me, the NATO bombing campaign of 1999 really had destroyed the illusions that he and most everyone else he knew had both about the west and about the meaning of the radical transformation of Russian society that was carried out under the banner of a rapprochement with the west and a leap forward into liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism. What Alexander and his friends saw as the west’s treachery in the Kosovo crisis had thrown a new retrospective light on a period they had until then been experiencing as a golden age for artists and ambitious young people like themselves—an age of unprecedented opportunity for self-expression at home and dizzying trips abroad. Why hadn’t the massive immiseration and unemployment of the post-Soviet population during the early nineties produced this same enlightenment? Or the violent disbanding of the Russian parliament, in 1993? Or the first war in Chechnya? Or the fact that, in Alexander’s case, his own father, a professor at the city’s shipbuilding institute, had gone in a matter of a year or two from being a respected member of his society to being an outmoded nobody who had to struggle to survive? Somehow, Alexander and his kind had noticed all this, of course, and not seen it. Or seen it and decided that these were the sort of temporary measures and necessary obstacles on the road to a better future. As he sees it now, the whole point of the Russian nineties was to decommission and eliminate whole sections of the population—teachers, doctors, factory workers, the poor, the aging, the less ambitious, and the more gullible. And this civil war, which continues to this day, paved the way to the quite logically illiberal current regime.

Which of course is wholly staffed by the victors in the quiet civil war of the nineties—not by the victims, whose victimhood is converted into ever-greater quantities of political, symbolic, and real capital by those same victors. Thus, the current favorite to win the Russian presidential elections in March announced the other day that his goal was to create a strong civil society where the freedoms and rights of all citizens would be cherished and protected.

This is one way to cash in your chips at the end of a successful quiet civil war. But our globalizing economy is such that you can even profit from someone else’s civil wars. My favorite new example of such capitalization is the American alternative band Beirut, the brainchild of 22-year-old Zach Condon, a native of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Overly sensitive types might wonder how you grow up in peaceful Santa Fe and end up calling your band Beirut—but as we Americans love to say, It’s a free country.[1] (In its article on the band’s “Balkan-inspired” debut album, Gulag Orkestar, Wikipedia helpfully explains that the “Gulag was a system of Russian [corrective labor camps] in Siberia.”)

It is too much to expect that alternative radio stations would play, instead of Beirut’s fake Balkan wedding music, the 1999 lament of Masha’s spurned lover. Besides, I didn’t have the good sense to record it and release it as an album.


[1] “One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it’s seen a lot of conflict. It’s not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name. I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I’ll change it. But not now. It’s still a good analogy for my music. I haven’t been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide.” Rachel Syme, “Beirut: The Band,” New York, 6 August 2006.

Boris Koshelokhov, 1942-2021

Boris Koshelokhov in his studio at Pushkinskaya 10 in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

A Titan Among Artists: Boris Koshelokhov Has Died
Kira Dolinina
Kommersant
July 12, 2021

The artist Boris (Bob) Koshelokhov has died at Petersburg’s Mariinsky Hospital aged eighty. Despite the thousands of canvases he has produced since 1975, Koshelokhov will be mourned first of all as a charismatic leader of the Leningrad underground. His mere presence in the artistic landscape enabled others to feel that they were situated within a great tradition whose principal value was the freedom to live as you wished.

The news that Bob Koshelokhov had passed away was expected (relatives and friends had discussed and written about his serious illness on social networks), but it was no less stunning, simply because Bob could not pass away: his personal relationship with time and space had long ago settled into an unlimited flow of being. Neither the numbers of birthdays, nor figures of work produced, nor the status of a Petersburg art old-timer stuck to him. Bob could not be called a “veteran” or a “mighty old man”: nothing about him ever changed.

The man in the photos from the 1970s looked like the same man whom you would encounter until quite recently at exhibition openings and in the courtyards of the Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center: long hair, beard, leather vest, black clothes, booming voice, darting gaze. Koshelokhov had become a guru less than a year after he started doing art himself, yet no one ever tried to push him off this pedestal.

His biography seems to have been specially written to fit the canon. He was orphan who ran away from orphanages with enviable regularity until the seventh grade. He was half-educated man who worked as a heating plant stoker, then as a carpenter, then as a trucker. He married an Italian woman and briefly emigrated, but then returned from this “golden cage” to an “iron cage” (his own iron cage). He lived in communal apartments and squats, and achieved cult status. In the early 1970s, he came to Leningrad from his Southern Urals hometown of Zlatoust to study medicine. He lasted two years: his programmatic study of the history of philosophy (Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus) resulted in his being expelled for his fascination with “bourgeois” ideas. Devoutly believing in existentialism, spending all day long in second-hand bookstores and the legendary “Saigon” cafe, where he received the nickname the Philosopher, he arranged his life exactly in keeping with the precepts in the books he read: “Your freedom was born before you.”

His freedom was born on November 2, 1975, the day when his friend the artist Valery (Clover) Kleverov told Bob that he too was an artist. Koshelokhov himself later kidded that it was just a joke, a way to somehow repay Bob for the fact that he had turned his 27-meter-square room in a communal flat into a gallery selling paintings for a whole year. Joke or no joke, Bob took the idea to heart: an artist is someone who sees. Given a strong desire, anyone can become an artist. (Similar ideas espoused by Joseph Beuys were unknown in Russia at the time.)

Even paint was not needed: Koshelokhov’s first works were concocted from objects found in garbage dumps.

But when Koshelokhov got his hands on paint, it was clear that he really was an artist — an artist who was powerful, considerable and critically important to entire Petersburg culture.

Boris Koshelokhov, Happy New Year!, 2007. Oil on canvas, 120×190 cm. Image courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

Koshelokhov’s first exhibited work was “made of shit and sticks” in the true sense of the phrase. For an exhibition in memory of the deceased Leningrad abstract artist Yevgeny Rukhin, a show that had not been sanctioned by the authorities, Bob produced a “collage” consisting of a tabletop to which he had attached a hospital bedpan, a child’s potty, a coin and a brass exclamation mark. While all the other participants of the show were nabbed by the valiant police as they approached the venue, the Peter and Paul Fortress, Koshelokhov calmly made his way to the site, thus signifying that the exhibition had taken place.

Koshelokhov’s painting was made of the same stuff — he composed everything on the go. His expressionism was homegrown and self-made, unlike international expressionism and even dissimilar to what the baroquely passionate artists of the Arefiev Circle had done a little earlier on the other side of town. A spontaneous artist, Koshelokhov mixed everything with everything else, painting on carpets, plywood, upholstery from old sofas, and abandoned propaganda banners. He employed impossible combinations of colors (since they were all his personal discoveries, because even the fact that you get green when you mix blue and yellow was something he discovered for himself). And he painted, painted, and painted.

Although, in fact, he himself preferred to say that “the work should be like a boil: it pops up, comes to a head, then suddenly opens up, as if it bumped against a corner, so that the blood flows with might and main.”

Actually, only Koshelokhov himself could live up to this prescription. But he tried to teach others: the group Chronicle (Letopis), which he founded in 1977, is now famous primarily for the fact that Timur Novikov made his start there. And yet in terms of their painterly method, their devilishly rich rhythm of work (critiques were held every week; if you didn’t bring a new picture to them, you were told to take a walk), and rabid omnivorousness, Koshelokhov’s team fostered its own version of neo-expressionism at exactly the same time as the Europeans were developing theirs.

Koshelokhov’s painted oeuvre is all about philosophical categories, to the point of cosmism. And what matters is not its “complexity”  (on the contrary, the images are simple and executed backhandedly), but its quantity. Koshelokhov did not do dozens of anything: his series number hundreds, and sometimes thousands of works. His latest project, Two Highways, was produced over thirty years and consisted of three or four thousand canvases [sic] and tens of thousands of sketches, pastels and drawings. That was how he thought — in terms of numbers with many zeros after them.

One of his last solo shows was entitled 70,000 Years of Boris Koshelokhov. It was occasioned by [his seventieth birthday], but no one was interested in the numbers in his passport.

Boris Koshelokhov at an exhibition of his works. Photo courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

Vadim Ovchinnikov, one of the so-called New Artists who listened to him attentively, explained Koshelokhov’s place in art best of all: “We advise critics who doubt Koshelokhov’s significance to pay attention to the neon ‘Titan’ sign on the corner of the house on Nevsky and Liteiny where the artist lives.” Only a pandemic was capable of overpowering such a titan. There will be a hole in the stratosphere without him. But everyone who knew Koshelokhov is certain that he has just flown through that hole to the place where his thoughts have always dwelled.

Translated by Thomas Campbell

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Two Highways (Nick Teplov & Alexander Markov, 2008). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

2097 (Vadim Ovchinnikov, Boris Kazakov, Georgy Baranov, Tatiana Ledneva, 1996). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

The Creative Path of Boris Koshelokhov (Yevgeny Kondratiev, 1984). Courtesy of boriskoshelokhov.com

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Boris Koshelokhov’s Two Highways

It seems to me that every person is an artist. It’s just that some people know this, and others don’t.

— Boris Koshelokhov

Alain Badiou argues that social progress is propelled by “events”—great insights, discoveries, and revolutions in art, science, politics, and love. Although he often uses language that is evangelical to evoke the lived relationship to these events (it is no accident that one of his prototypical heroes is Saint Paul), Badiou is rather more prosaic, even purposely “mathematical,” when he describes how events come about. In a situation whose elements remain as many and self-identical as they were before the event, the poet, scientist, revolutionary or lover sees something other (more) than what the canon, scientific dogma, public opinion, and common sense tell him that he should see. After this event, the world remains the same and is changed forever. The exact proportion of sameness and difference is determined by how those who live in the wake of the event construe its afterlife. For Badiou, what matters are whether we remain faithful to the event or not, and what forms our faith (or faithlessness) takes. In fact, this is what the event is: the sense or nonsense we make of it; the way it changes how we act even when its whole significance escapes us; the social reaction and personal deadening that set in when we deny or forget the truth the event revealed to us. The event has no other meaning.

For Petersburg artist Boris “Bob” Koshelokhov (born 1942), the event was this: in 1975, his friend the painter Valery “Clover” Kleverov told Bob that he, too, was an artist. Nowadays, Koshelokhov suspects that a sense of guilt made Clover pronounce these fateful words. Koshelokhov had been helping Clover and his family improve their cramped living conditions and (later) emigrate by selling Clover’s works—on zero commission—from a makeshift gallery that doubled as Koshelokhov’s room in a communal flat. Besides not making any money off these transactions, Koshelokhov also drew the ire of his neighbors, who sent denunciations to the authorities. Wanting, apparently, to compensate his friend’s risky, selfless efforts on his behalf, Clover pronounced Koshelokhov an artist. Koshelokhov believed him.

What followed is art history—in more ways than one. Within a year of declaring himself for the truth accidentally revealed by Clover and after the latter man’s departure for America, Koshelokhov had gathered around him his own haphazard group of disciples, Chronicle. The group’s name is linked to Koshelokhov’s understanding of the artist’s task: “The artist is a chronicler; he has to record everything.” The dozen-some young artists in Chronicle—which included latter-day Petersburg art superstars Timur Novikov and Elena Figurina—gathered weekly in each other’s homes to discuss their new paintings. If they showed up for the weekly session without a freshly painted work, “Master” Koshelokhov showed them the door (even when it was the door of their own apartment).

The group provided a way for Koshelokhov to spread the gospel of art he’d been vouchsafed by Clover. It also created a refuge for Koshelokhov and his pupils from a late-Soviet art world where neither the right wing (the state-sponsored Union of Artists) nor the left wing (the so-called unofficial artists and their alternative quasi-unions) had much time for the purely artistic and personal truths Koshelokhov & Co. wanted to pursue with paint on canvas.

More important, Chronicle gave Koshelokhov the means to realize his notion of art as philosophical/existentialist practice. State Russian Museum curator Ekaterina Andreeva argues that Koshelokhov finds in painting an external outlet for the endless work of inquiry going on in his head and heart. Koshelokhov sees the artwork as the (potential) site of a dialogue between maker and looker, an intermediary in their otherwise lonely search for the meaning of self, world, and being. The result, according to Andreeva, is an “altered space” that forever changes how Koshelokhov’s interlocutors think and behave after they have entered it.

Koshelokhov’s dialogical view of art echoes within his biography. By his own account, he has spent his whole life in dialogue with others—whether the medical school classmates with whom he studied existentialist philosophy in the sixties (they were all expelled for this seditious act), the artists of Chronicle, the habitus of the famous “Saigon” cafe (where Koshelokhov earned the moniker “Philosopher”), or the inmates in the smoking room of the nearby Russian National Library (the equally famous “Publichka”). Through the books of philosophy that Koshelokhov found in this last haunt and elsewhere he has extended his dialogue with others into remoter times and kingdoms. This dialogue is re-enacted in his artistic practice, which can be imagined as an active interrogation of the artists and schools with whom Koshelokhov shares aesthetic ground: the Fauves, The Blue Rider, Dadaism and surrealism, Paul Klee, CoBrA, the Transavantguardia, the Neue Wilde, Figuration Libre.

Koshelokhov’s work likewise evokes international and Slavic traditions of outsider and naive art. In keeping with these traditions and Mikhail Larionov’s notion of everythingism (vsechestvo), and joyously bowing to straitened material circumstances, Koshelokhov has often turned the least promising debris of daily life into the stuff of art: discarded sofa frames, Styrofoam packing, bedpans, and other treasures rescued from garbage dumps. In this connection, his disciple Timur Novikov once remarked that if you come across a Koshelokhov painting from the seventies on a good canvas and high-quality frame, it’s almost surely a forgery.

Koshelokhov’s work also makes an especially clear appeal to the immediacy of children’s art. By his own admission, his five-year-old son Ilya has become his severest critic and “teacher.”

The context most germane for an understanding of Koshelokhov’s work, however, is the post-war Leningrad/Petersburg neo-fauvist/neo-expressionist school, in which Koshelokhov can be seen as the lynch pin between the immediate post-WWII generation (the circle of Alexander Arefiev) and the young bucks who created a grassroots artistic perestroika during the eighties and early nineties (Novikov, Oleg Kotelnikov, Ivan Sotnikov, Vadim Ovchinnikov, Vladislav Gutsevich and their fellow New Artists). For these younger Petersburg neo-expressionists and other local contemporaries, Koshelokhov has served as a peculiar model of steadfastness in the midst of faction and fashion. It is a testament to his significance in Petersburg’s “second” culture that his life has become the stuff of legends.

Finally and most vitally, Koshelokhov’s artistic practice is a dialogue with biological evolution and universal history. He rehearses the evolving variety and perennial sameness of animal and human life, and re-maps the migration of these life forms through geography and history. In his own words, his work and life is a cognitive and pictorial ontogenesis that repeats the phylogenesis of art history and human culture.

Paradoxically and appropriately for an artist so interested in dialogue, Koshelokhov’s path has been a remarkably lonely one. In a Russian artistic culture that favors collective identities, he has taken pains to emphasize his independence and distaste for “crowds” and “scenes” (the tusovki that prominent Russian curator Viktor Misiano identifies as the dominant form of post-Soviet artistic and cultural life). This sense of independence was his birthright: an orphan, he spent his childhood passing through and running away from a series of orphanages in the Urals. The wanderings of his youth and middle life took him to places as far-flung as Odessa and Leningrad, and jobs as unromantic as ship’s electrician and armed security guard. Most remarkably, just as his influence within Leningrad’s underground art scene was solidifying, he gave it all up and left for Italy with a young Italian aristocrat-communist. Just as surprisingly, he returned to the Soviet Union several months later, having found life in his new “golden cage” no more conducive to his pursuit of the truth revealed by the event of 1975 than life behind the bad-old Iron Curtain.

Whatever the peripeteias of Koshelokhov’s life, then, they all answer to another of the dictums he often repeats (following Sartre): “First my freedom was born, then I was born.” Koshelokhov teaches us that human life is a work of art that takes shape as its makers—we ourselves—haltingly grope backwards and forwards toward this originary insight.

Since the dawn of another great and little-understood political event, perestroika, Koshelokhov has become bolder and more single-minded in his faithfulness to the event that changed his life in the mid-seventies. This boldness has manifested itself in an increasing turn to scale and number. Ekaterina Andreeva points out that many of the great artists of the modern and postmodern periods (she cites Picasso, Warhol, and Ilya Kabakov) have also employed rapid, serialized mass production as a means of unburdening themselves of their genius. Koshelokhov had always been productive and profligate, even in the midst of harrowingly inhospitable working conditions. (His “studios” have included the machine room of an elevator and waterlogged cellars lit by a single bulb.) Many of the hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and assemblages (the so-called concepts) of his early period disappeared into the mists of oblivion and the landfills of suburban Leningrad almost as quickly as they appeared.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Koshelokhov carried out two projects that even more clearly signaled his desire to “world the world” by turning it into art: Puppets of Peace March Around the World (1989, oil on canvas, 23 meters x 6 meters) and Heilige Sunder (1992, oil on canvas, 120 meters x 3 meters). Fortunately, these gigantic pieces weren’t consigned to the rubbish bin of history. They are now in private collections in France and Moscow.

In 1992, Koshelokhov began work on his magnum opus, Two Highways, which Andreeva cites as one of the most significant art works of contemporary art. The first two stages of the project—1,200 black-and-white sketches and 6,000 (40 cm x 30 cm) pastels (five variations on each of the original sketches)—were completed in 2002. The third and final stage—a 5,000 square meter mural incorporating the findings of the previous two stages—so far exists only in the imaginations of Koshelokhov and the friends he has infected with his sober, tender, and naive re-visioning of life. He says that he is ready to produce the work anywhere in the world, given a wall that is big enough, a team of helpers, and a minimal amount of funding.

As Koshelokhov explains it, the two highways in his project’s title (in English in the original) are the earthly path and the heavenly path. “I travel in a vehicle over the earth’s surface. My peripheral vision picks out quintessential human images and artifacts from the Stone Age to modern times. My journey takes me from Europe to Africa, across the Atlantic and America to Alaska. From there I go to Japan, Asia, the islands of Oceania, and around Australia. Finally, I cross Antarctica and complete my journey in South America.” Andreeva suggests that the prototype of this imaginary trek is a solo road trip from Trieste to Palermo that Koshelokhov made in his Italian wife’s Citroen in 1978. It also has to be mentioned that for some time in the late eighties and early nineties he worked as a gypsy cab driver in Petersburg. He ferried people and things around the city at all hours of the day and night in a used Mercedes-Benz until the mafia forced him into an early retirement.

Mikhail Trofimenkov has written of Two Highways that it gives us a glimpse of how God sees the earth as He flies above it. For his part, Koshelokhov claims that, like the opposite side of a Moebius strip, the earthly path repeats (in extension) the forms and ideas that lie hidden in the empyrean. His mission is to re-awaken the viewer to the possibility of participating in the world’s co-creation by uniting thought and feeling, theory and practice, sensus et ratio (to borrow the artist’s beloved coinage). Everywhere—even in the less prepossessing quarters of Leningrad/Petersburg (Koshelokhov’s real muse)—we are reminded (by colors, shapes, faces, bodies, buildings) of the miracle of being’s unfolding. Ekaterina Andreeva argues that it was this impulse—to see the whole world and to see it all at once—that launched the postmodernist/transavantgarde project. In this sense, she speculates, it was no accident that Koshelokhov found himself in Italy just as the movement was jelling. (There, he exhibited in a special program at the Venice Biennale, “New Soviet Art: An Unofficial View.”)

Preached by Mikhail Larionov and Joseph Beuys, and then taken up by Koshelokhov and Novikov’s New Artists, the now-unfashionable avant-garde notion that everyone is an artist and everything can be turned into art (which we must distinguish from the directive to turn everything and everyone into commodity and consumer) is nothing other than the ethical imperative to remain faithful to the insight that visited Koshelokhov in the mid-seventies: that the mission of art is to reunite vision and thought, self and world. In Koshelokhov’s case, “insight” has to be understood literally. Two Highways is a journey that the artist has been making without leaving his current studio at Pushkinskaya-10. Like all genuine avant-garde projects, though, this journey won’t be complete until the human world (or, at least, one 5000 square meter corner of it) is physically and spiritually transformed. // Thomas Campbell 

Sources
· Ekaterina Andreeva. “Khudozhnik,” Novyi mir iskusstva 6 (1999): 3–5.
· Ekaterina Andreeva. Postmodernizm. Iskusstvo vtoroi poloviny XX—nachala XXI veka [Postmodernism. Art of the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries]. Saint Petersburg: Azbuka-Klassika, 2007.
· Ekaterina Andreeva. Videotaped interview, January 2007, Saint Petersburg.
· Alain Badiou. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. London and New York: Verso, 2001.
· Thomas Campbell and Nick Teplov. Unpublished tape-recorded interview with Boris Koshelokhov, October 2006, Saint Petersburg.
· Boris Koshelokhov. Zhivopis. Exhibition catalogue. Text by Ekaterina Andreeva. Saint Petersburg: Na Obvodnom Gallery, 2002.
· Nick Teplov, editor. Bob Koshelokhov. Two Highways. Saint Petersburg, 2003.
· Mikhail Trofimenkov. “Bob pravdu vidit,” Kommersant 14 August 2002.

Source: boriskoshelokhov.com

Guided Tour of a Torture Chamber

torture-1Darya Apahonchich, just one big torture chamber, 2019. Photo courtesy of Ms. Apahonchich

Darya Apahonchich
Facebook
July 8, 2019

Here’s a little about torture chamber.

My Statement Has Been Recorded Accurately, an art exhibition in solidarity with imprisoned anarchists and antifascists, took place July 5–7, 2019, at Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center in Petersburg.

The show was sad and daring. During the three days it was up, it was visited by both regular cops and the “anti-extremism” police from Center “E” [known in Russia as eshniki or “eeniks”].

Our group {rodina} [“motherland“] did a performance, and there were concerts and discussions as well. I also had a piece in the show, entitled just one big torture chamber.

I really liked how Jenya [Kulakova] talked about it simply and calmly during her guided tours of the show.

“According to the latest surveys by Levada Center, ten percent of Russians have been tortured.”

True, it’s a really simple figure, but when I hear it I want to hear more figures. What percentage of Russians have tortured someone? What percentage of Russians have ordered someone tortured? What percentage of Russians said nothing although they knew someone was being tortured? What percentage of Russians share a home with people who torture other people at work? Do torturers beat their wives, children, and elderly parents?

At first, I wanted to fashion Russia from a single piece of cardboard, but then I realized I had no sense of how I could unify the country except with borders, frontier guards, and barbed wire. I know tons of different Russias. I know academic Russia and literary Russia. I know the Russia of forests and mushrooms. I know the Russia of poor people and factories. I know the elegant Russia of rich people. All of these Russias have one thing in common: the violence of torture and the fear of torture. So, I assembled the map from scraps of cardboard.

torture-2Ms. Apahoncich writing the names of Ukrainian and Crimean political prisoners imprisoned in Russian jails and prisons on the wall below a hand-drawn map of occupied Crimea. Photo courtesy of Ms. Apahonchich

I didn’t know what to do with Crimea. I couldn’t include it since I don’t consider its presence on a map of Russia legal, but I also had no choice but to include it because people are tortured there as well, and the people doing the torturing have Russian passports. So, I drew Crimea on the wall in pencil and wrote a list of Ukrainian political prisoners under it. The list was terrifyingly long.

I spelled the word “torture chamber” as it is pronounced in received Moscow standard [pytoshnaya instead of pytochnaya], although maybe no one speaks that way anymore. I would imagine I don’t need to explain why.

It’s a sad piece. If it were carnival now, I would burn it instead of a straw puppet.

Thanks to Alina for the photographs.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Ms. Apahonchich for her permission to translate and publish her post here. Thanks to Nastia Nek for the link to the article on the Levada Center study.

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[…]

Policemen visited the exhibition at the end of its first day. Witnesses said it was the coolest performance in the show. The soloist was Senior Lieutenant Ruslan Sentemov aka Mister Policeman. According to people who took part in the protest action Immortal Gulag, Sentemov insisted this was how the president obliged them to address him when he was detaining them.

The phrase turned into a meme, and Sentemov became the target of parodies and epigrams. It is rare when people are detained at protest rallies in Petersburg and he is not involved. In 2017, 561 people were detained during a protest against corruption. All of them were charged with disobeying the lawful demands of a police officer, and in all 561 cases, that officer was Lieutenant Sentemov. Petersburg civil rights activist Dinar Idrisov claimed each of the ensuing 561 court case files contained a copy of Sentemov’s police ID and his handwritten, signed testimony.

words-1Ruslan Sentemov (right) and another police officer at My Statement Has Been Recorded Accurately, July 7, 2019, Pushinskaya 10 Art Center, Petersburg. Photo by Elena Murganova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

In interviews with the press and when he is on camera, Sentemov likes to maintain the image of a “good cop.” He was true to this image at Pushkinskaya 10 as well, upsetting activists, who surrounded him and peppered him with questions about why he had come to the exhibition.

“This is Russia’s cultural capital. But you, young lady, have a very nasty habit of interrupting people and horning in on the conversation,” he said to one of them.

Reassuring activists he was in no hurry, Sentemov set about perusing the show. The police officer who was with him photographed each exhibit in turn.

Jenya Kulakova volunteered to give Sentemov a guided tour.

“These are drawings made by Dmitry Pchelintsev in the Penza Remand Prison. He was tortured with electricity. Here is a banner with the slogan ‘The ice under the major’s feet.’ Perhaps you are familiar with the music of Yegor Letov and Civil Defense?”

“Perhaps.”

Yegor Letov and Civil Defense (Grazhdanskaya oborona) performing the song “We Are the Ice under the Major’s Feet” at a concert at the Gorbunov Culture Center in Moscow in November 2004. Courtesy of YouTube

“Here is Viktor Filinkov’s account of being tortured, handwritten by a female artist. This is a postcard made by Yuli Boyarshinov. Did you know that, in prison, defendants are prohibited from using colored pencils and pens?”

“No, I didn’t know that, unfortunately. I will probably have to study up on the topic.”

spinach“We have no money and machine guns, but we do have a herbarium of spinach leaves.” Photo by Jenya Kulakov. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

“These are drawings from the trials in the Network case. We have an artist who attends the hearings and draws them. This next piece also draws on the case files.”

“I got it. Let’s speed things up.”

“No, you should read a bit of it. Here’s a passage about how someone was hit on the legs and the back of the head. And this is what the tortures said to Viktor Filinkov as they were torturing him. After that, they gave him a Snickers bar to eat. That was probably humane of them, don’t you think?”

“I’ve already read it.”

After strolling around the room containing works by the [Network defendants], Sentemov admitted what interested him most of all was whether the art had been forensically examined for possible “extremism.”

“Look,” said Ms. Kulakova, “all of this was sent to us from remand prisons. By law, all correspondence going in and going out is vetted by a censor. Do you see this stamp here? Have you ever sent a letter to a remand prison?”

“Unfortunately, I haven’t. Or maybe I should say, fortunately. If you say all of this was vetted by the censor, we will definitely have to verify your claim.”

“You seriously want to verify whether remand prison censors working for the FSB have been doing their jobs?”

“At very least, I’d like to send them an inquiry.”

“Here is an installation entitled just one big torture chamber. You may have heard that Levada Center recently did a survey on torture. One in ten people reported they had experienced torture in their lives.”

jenyaJenya Kulakova (center) gives Lieutenant Sentemov and his colleague a guided tour of My Words Have Been Recorded Correctly, July 7, 2019, Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center, Petersburg. Photo by Elena Murganova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta 

“Have you been tortured by chance?” Sentemov suddenly asked Ms. Kulakova, staring unpleasantly at her.

“My friends have been tortured,” she replied.

“I was asking about you.”

“Why would ask me about that?”

“You just talk about it so enthusiastically.”

Sentemov appreciated the interest among exhibition goers aroused by his appearance and laughed smugly.

“I think I’m getting more attention than all these pictures,” he said.

He brushed aside questions about what had brought the police officers to the exhibition and how they had heard about it.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” he said.

“We gave you a whole guided tour, but you’re just one big mystery,” said Ms. Kulakova disappointedly, fishing for an answer.

“Thank you for such a comprehensive tour. I am quite pleased with the attentiveness of you and your gadgets. Nevertheless, I must leave this wonderful event. I am very pleased you welcomed us so warmly,” Sentemov said in conclusion, turning towards the exit.

“See you soon,” he said as he left.

Source: Tatyana Likhanova, “A Guided Tour of a Torture Chamber,” Novaya Gazeta, July 8, 2019. Translated by the Russian Reader