Exploring the Urban Leitmotif Throughout the Long History of the Art in Russia

Russian Urban Art: History and Conflicts by Igor Ponosov, the first book about Russian Urban Art in English, actually is the first one you need to start with. In case you want to know more about the “path from elitism to the people” and go further than Tarkovsky/Tchaikovsky debate.

“Review the book you read, not the one you wish the author had written”- this is how we were taught to write a good book review. Yet today I want to ignore that rule. And it’s not like I wish this book had been written in other way. No, not at all. What I want to say is that for you (supposedly the one who most likely knows Russia only from TV and Web) and for me (person who was actually born in USSR) the book Russian Urban Art: History and Conflicts will appear as two different books. Don’t worry, both are equally good, although the latter one is enhanced with sentimental post-soviet symbolism which I want you to understand before you will have this book in your hands.

Let’s start from the very beginning. This is the rare case when you can actually judge a book by its cover. In elegant and witty manner this cover says more than you expect it to say. This particular geometric ornament is a depiction of a concrete plate fence “PO-2”, the most replicated architectural project in Soviet Union. It was designed by architect Boris Lachman in 70’s as a fence aimed to guard the military bases or industrial production from the random trespass. Although, in ten years for no particular reason this specific fence appeared in every single town of every single republic within the monstrously big USSR. And this time it wasn’t only about industrial or military zones, this architectural element became an integral part of the Soviet (and later Post-Soviet) urban landscape. For you to understand — on more than 22 million square kilometers which is now the territory of fifteen modern countries — you can hardly find a graffiti writer or street artist who didn’t try the spray can on this fence. Probably it would be more than enough for a good book cover, but if you are familiar with contemporary Russian street art you will definitely notice another author’s reference in it. In 2013 the Moscow artist known as 0331c presented the 133 porcelain figurines as clear replica to the famous concrete fence; each figurine was painted with reproduction of real life graffiti piece, therefore exhibition titled “I Am Just the Letters on the Fence” became a quite eloquent representation of the new generation of Russian Urban Art. These stories are here just to prove that through choosing this particular imagery for his book cover Igor Ponosov is meticulously combining the legacy of the past with its modern ironic revise in order to visualize the long history of the conflict, the struggle between the artists and the state, the line between the private and public, a certain moment when your right to enter ends where the fence begins. Which is basically the plot of the book.

As you may know there are three states which are now called “Russia”: Russian Empire, Soviet Union and obviously — nowadays Russian Federation. Igor Ponosov writes about each one. To be more precise, he writes about the art on the streets from that very first moment when avant-gardists proclaimed “the necessity of art to engage with the city” during the last years of Russian Empire until the moment when institutional street art lavishly bloomed on the streets of current Russian Federation. Igor Ponosov writes about art on the streets in a very elaborate and concise manner. On less than one hundred pages he tells a story which is a century-long. Deliberately, chronologically, with the notion of historical context and the base of conclusive references. Beyond the Preface and Introduction this book consists of four chapters aimed to represent different art movements, ideas and historical events which author places as a background of contemporary street art in Russia. Whether it was Kazimir Malevich or Alexander Rodchenko, Moscow Conceptualists or Moscow Actionists, Petr Pavlensky, Voina, or Timofey Radya — all of them acted in relation to the government; all of them talked directly to the people; all of them made their way into the public space what gives enough reasons for Igor Ponosov to distill the urban leitmotif throughout the long history of the art in Russia.

Russian Urban Art: History and Conflicts is presented as an opinion-based essay, and although the first part of the book rather gives an impression of observation — you can clearly hear the voice of author and his argument in the second half of it. At the end of a chapter titled The Expansion of Western Culture, somewhere around year 2004 Igor Ponosov is appearing on the pages of his book personally: he’s no longer acting only as a spectator, but also as a participant of the processes he is writing about. Igor is a Russian artist by himself, also he has the curatorial experience in the field of urban art and obviously — he’s a writer. A few awkward moments of writing about own work are his price for bilateral “artist- researcher” experience. That actually gives him a chance to address the reader from the very belly of the beast. And what you need to hear from that place is his concern about “the new street art environment, beginning with street art festivals, awards, and biennales, and ending with patriotic agitprop campaigns” with its often opportunist and mercantile goals which raised on the terrain where street art once was considered as “the voice of the lower classes”; where artists on the streets wanted to became “the voice of the revolution”. However, true Igor’s intention doesn’t reveal in criticism alone, through the pages of this book he tries to demonstrate how street art could be “interconnected with the issues of freedom” instead of being just a “stream of beautiful, bright pictures on the city walls”.

A good essay always has an arguable claim. Which means it provokes the questions. My questions raised by Igor Ponosov latest book have a rather rhetorical nature. It is more like a personal opinion in regard to author’s one. In the last chapter of the book author explores the institutionalization of the street art in Russia. At some point he compares the street art environments in Moscow (with Street Art Biennale, Forum, Auction and Award) and St. Petersburg (with Street Art Museum) as one which is already altered by the commerce and the one which is not yet. In my opinion, both are pretty the same, because isn’t it a commercial interest when Street Art Museum has the actual SAM Fair, where street artist could register the artwork for particular amount of money in order to sell it; or when the territory of Street Art Museum is actually the case of another business, since you can rent any of three zones within museum’s territory “decorated” by the public art, murals and graffiti? I think, Street Art Museum in St. Petersburg is not a relevant example of the “street art environment” which only “could be appropriated by the commerce” in future, simply because it is already ruled by it. Even though in general I more than agree with Igor: whether they are on different poles or not, the representatives of this new street art environment “intersect only in the competitive field of street art market which they have formed, and which is actively supported by the state and commerce”.

A good book always provokes the further thinking. And now I’m thinking about Futurists. When Russian Futurists tried to reject elitism of art by encouraging artists to “draw closer to the people” and proclaimed that “life invaded art”, eventually they didn’t want to realize that “life” prefers to invade something more understandable and recognizable than Futurism, Cubism or Suprematism. It wasn’t the green horse on façade by Marc Chagall, nor the Malevich-Lissizky Suprematist mural on the walls of the same city that fascinated the people on the streets after the revolution. Social Realism was the art which was appreciated by people and then relatively appropriated by the government. And the reason is because people had the feeling that they understand the language of it. Same as they perceive the “bright pictures on the city walls” now. Therefore, by rejecting “elitism” from art, Futurists simply gave the reason to reject themselves afterwards, but did they really become closer to the people by simply taking step into street?

I love a story about the 13-year-old Basket, who discovered graffiti in Amsterdam back in 1984 and then became a graffiti writer in Soviet Union. It charmingly introduces the context of graffiti invasion in USSR. It is important to understand that everything from beneath the Iron Curtain was considered by the Soviet youth as something extremely precious. You cannot imagine how far could they go for the pair of fine adidas shoes after Summer Olympics 1980. But the most curious thing is that graffiti was brought into Soviet Union through the Europe. Beyond the early Amsterdam experience of Basket, Igor Ponosov fairly mentions the Polish TV and western magazines as the sources of influence for “graffiti evolution”. It means that graffiti which appeared in USSR already had the inherent vice in relation to the classic notion of graffiti from Philadelphia or New York. Thus, strong potential of Post-Soviet graffiti and street art was affected by this particular “vice”, because it gave the freedom to the artists to think outside the box.

What is valuable about this particular research is its interdisciplinarity. This book refers to the history, poetry, politics, architecture and activism while actually targeting the urban art. Fragments of Futurists’ Manifesto, or the lines from the poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky are playing equally important role as the images of the mural by Alexander Rodchenko, or various historical backdrops. All the photos, quotes and historical remarks here are meant to give the comprehensive idea about what was going on in Russia from 1912 till 2017. Therefore, this book seems to be a quite useful handbook not only for those who are interested in urban art, which is basically its target audience, but I will also dare to recommend it to the reader who wants to explore the history of Russia in slightly unconventional way.

After the last page of the book you’re coming back to cover. And here is where the part “history and conflicts” makes a perfect sense. There is one theme which goes throughout the entire book — the theme of relationship between the artists and the changing governments. It gives us a chance to observe the certain dynamic: when a government chooses the “formal” art, it simultaneously provokes the rise of informal one. And this is how the most genuine and radical art practices appear. In this case, accordingly to Igor’s analysis the Russian government eloquently shows the preferences in a certain kind of artistic style, which could mean only one thing — sooner or later we will witness the new wave of the genuine art at the gate.

Russian Urban Art: History and Conflicts by Igor Ponosov, Published in Moscow (2018)