Anyone who speaks Russian and is well-versed in the history of Russia will be surprised that an exhibition of the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden would be captioned with Lenin’s quote: “Chto Delat?“, This question, which translates to “What is to be done?” and is originally from Chernyshevsky, the Russian author, is the name of a collective of artists, critics, philosophers and writers that was founded in St. Petersburg in 2003. They take part in exhibitions and conferences across the globe or organize 48-hour seminars during which participants eat, sleep and engage in discussions with one another.
The name is no accident. At the center of the group’s activities is the attempt to critically review the political climate of Russia over the past twenty years. The longing for a debate on the original ideals of Communism within the context of the early 21st century is unmistakable. For the exhibition in Baden-Baden, Chto Delat? integrated four songspiels, or musical comedies, which were elaborately produced using singers, actors and musicians within a specially developed exhibition architecture.
There they are shown together with mural paintings on perestroika, political banners and installations dealing with the Russian soul. Since its founding, the group has succeeded in creating its very own aesthetic language, in which classical elements of political propaganda are reflected as are Bertolt Brecht’s didactic plays of the 1920s.
On the occasion of the exhibition opening, a fifth singspiel by the group will be premiered as a concert. “The Lesson on Dis-Content“, which also serves as the title of the exhibition project, follows a principle similar to the previous songspiels, in which the common voice of a choir is confronted with several individual characters. Usually these are so exaggerated as to appear more like caricatures to which the audience responds with a smile. Especially in Baden-Baden, whose historical relations with Russia are currently strong, an exhibition that seeks to complexly reflect the intricate political and social conditions of present-day Russia by simple means seems like a promising undertaking.
With this exhibition by Chto Delat?, the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden takes up the issue of the kick-off exhibition: “ON TASTE – The Good, the Bad and the really Expensive”. Chto Delat? provides a possible answer to questions on the social relevance of contemporary art. Thus, it likewise addresses the issue of public institution exhibitions beyond the bounds of what might be considered to be in good taste. Further answers and perspectives will follow in subsequent exhibitions.
The exhibition was realized by Olga Egorova (Tsaplya), Nikolei Oleinikov, Natalya Pershina (Glyuklya) and Dmitry Vilensky.
Selected Works at the Exhibition
During a timeframe from 2008 to 2010, the collective filmed a triptych consisting of three so-called “songspiels” in the tradition of tragedies from antiquity and Brechtian alienation. The films, in which a choir – as the representative of the people – comes face to face with several almost exaggerated individual characters all deal with the balance of power. Societal and political conditions are invariably portrayed as temporary, changeable constructions.
“Perestroika Songspiel“ revolves around events in Russia on 21 August 1991 following the failed coup attempt by reactionary Soviet functionaries. The failure of the coup led to a never before seen wave of public agitation that inspired the hope that democracy had finally emerged victorious in Russia. A new and just society seemed within reach.
“Partisan Songspiel” broaches the issue of ostracized minorities. Based on the violent expulsion of Roma from Belgrade during the summer of 2009, the plot concentrates on the contrasting opinions of suppressors versus the suppressed. On one side are the local authorities together with the large companies and victors of the war; on the other are disadvantaged societal segments such as factory workers, handicapped war veterans or Roma women.
“The Tower” tells the story of the planned establishment of the Okhta Center in St. Petersburg, which was intended as the headquarters of the domestic subsidiaries of Gazprom. The plans to erect the 403 meters tall skyscraper sparked one of the fiercest confrontations between the Russian authorities and the public.
A new songspiel “The Lesson on Dis-Content“, was developed by Chto Delat? expressly for the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden as a concert for the exhibition opening on Friday, the 28th of October 2011 at 7 PM. The choir – or voice of the people, is brought face to face with a Baden-Baden based Russian who enters the stage like a troublemaker. He mocks the statements made by the choir about the relationship between sickness and normality as completely senseless. An apparently wealthy art collector also objects to the overt political approach of the concert and the performance ends in éclat. The play deals with the limits of activist art at the beginning of the 21st century – a topic that has been taken up by this group in several of its pieces.
“Perestroika Timeline“, 2009, unfolds a panorama of selected events during the era of perestroika. A black timeline shows important figures between 1987 and 1991, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Sakharov, but also ordinary Soviet citizens. It ends with a list of “what happened”. Opposite, it is shown “what could have happened”.
“The Russian Woods“, 2011: In this installation, which unfolds like a stage setting over several exhibition rooms, Chto Delat? explores the collective unconscious of modern Russia. The “Russian Woods” are populated by such beings as the predatory “two-headed rooster”, the greedy, fire-spitting “Oil Rig Dragon” and the “Oil pipeline Mermaid of Unfulfilled Desires”. The “White House” (the government building on chicken legs), which can turn in any direction at the command of its occupant, demonstrates the correct national orientation. This entire scenery is controlled by a drunken, corrupt “Police for Special Purposes”, which also happens to be involved in private business dealings.
On the occasion of the exhibition, a bilingual (German / English) catalogue “Chto Delat? Was tun? What is to be done? Werkschau des russischen Künstlerkollektivs” featuring texts by Johan Holten, Simon Sheikh, Hendrik Bündge and Chto Delat? has been published by the Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 96 pp., ISBN 978-3-86335-105-2.