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The project Conformists was realized in July 1994 by Alexander Brener and Bogdan Mamonov. Eight huge realistic self-portraits painted by Mamonov interpreted in the exhibition space, and eight performances made by Brener during the whole period of the exhibition were presented. Conformists is a project of artistic organization of contrasting and even fighting pronouncements of two artists. Mamonov’s and Brener’s joint venture is least of all reminiscent of co-authorship, partnership, or cooperation. It is more likely a duel or interlacing of two themes. Their conflict and coexistence in one exhibition space is both a paradox and a the main peculiarity of the current cultural process. Mamonov and Brener are political artists of the epoch of political rudiments, social artists of the epoch of degradation of the social and religious artists of the epoch of spiritual decay.
Excerpts from a catalogue
WE WANT TO DARE
By Alexander Brener and Bogdan Mamonov
We want to dare an atrocious, monstrous and absurd thing.
We want to dare speak with the viewer... It hasn't happened for a long time.
Nowadays, the law of correct writing is in force in our art. Artists learn correct orthography.
They learn it as they did forty of fifty years ago under different instructors at that time, though. They master the rudiments of correct writing, tracing out scrawls painstakingly, for each other and for a narrow circle of devotees. The devotees know a priori, that one must read correctly. There are rules of correct reading. An so they do. To read and to write correctly is a collective guarantee, security and relative pleasure. It's a basis for everything.
To dare speak with the viewers is another thing. To begin with, it's always dangerous. When you have a concrete viewer, flesh and blood, in front of you (neither a "connoisseur" nor metaphysical passive observer) there is a risk to stumble upon a complete misunderstanding, indifference and hostility. One may just get a slap in the face. It's annoying. But sometimes it's necessary to make you sober.
Besides, to speak with a viewer means to speak to all viewers.
If we deal with genuine art we shall realize sooner or later that it is intelligible for everyone. So it was with Van Gogh, Sutin, Eizenshtein and Bester Kitton, and so it is with David Hammons, Sidney Scherman and David Lynch.
To speak with the viewer means to speak that clear, open and understandable language which can be only worked out as a result of great and disinterested efforts. This language must come from the midst of contemporary artistic writing, but it must surpass this writing and, may be, even destroy it. We are not strong enough now to cope with this task but we swear to the names of the Mars brothers, Antonen Artot and Bertolt Breht that we shall be true to this task during our whole life. It is necessary nowadays to bring art to its original boundaries and at the same time to the final ones: to laughter, anguish, famine, hatred, love, beauty and chaos. All these categories are interdependent in the world and in human fate, and they all are artifacts. We have no right to choose between these phenomena, neither can we decide in favor of any, because only in their total terrible and abundant integrity can they give an example of genuine art.
By Viktor Miziano
It's typical that Alexander Brener's, Bogdan Mamonov's and their untitled group associates' activity doesn't assume a form of pure political or social art. Their was no political art in the prehistory of the recent decades either. During the Soviet period, total ideology that permeated the society stood in the way of crystallization of the political discourse in art. No matter how formal was the gesture that could have been regarded alien to the preset aesthetic standards it was ranked as a political one, as well as any consistent attempt of political idiom finished with comprehension of its deep complicity with the current order . Political gesture, as a result, was regarded as an existential one.
The current pluralistic society, free of ideology, rooted artists in a completely new socio-political context. Nowadays, every responsible, consistent and non-engaged political motivation turns out to be free of moral justification--the recent experience is demonstrative of the reduction in the political sphere of ethical and teleological realms. Similarly, every socio-critical intention turns out to be devoid of practical justification--the latest experience shows that the society lacks institutes and instruments capable to voice reformation. That is why, Brener and Mamonov are political artists of the age of political rudiments, and social artists of the age of social degradation. They work in the situation when a declared stance of political engagement or a declared stance of a lumpen is the most consistent form of consolidation with society which has become lumpen itself. These artists work in the situation when the most efficient presentational method of degrading society is transformation of this degradation into an inner category of their creativity.
With no parallel in the past, communicative idiom is a cornerstone of Brener's and Mamonov's activity, immanent to the social metamorphoses of the recent years. But for a few exceptions, the Moscow arts of the foregoing period were characteristic of two most common tendencies in understanding of communicability. Communicability was either ignored at all (i.e. an art work was perceived as self-sufficient, appealing to transcendental context and addressee) or it was ranked as a problem, deprived of authenticity, and, as a consequence, was either practiced in an indirect, deformed and disguised form, or addressed to a rigidly determined social stratum. Brener's and Mamonov's quest for direct communication by means of an authentic idiom as a chief goal turns the mob both into a context and an addressee of their creativity--the mob in the sense of that final form to which the society is reduced now as a result of its entropy. Their appeal to the mob endowed Brewer's and Mamonov's idiom with specific features. In order to guarantee success to communication with such an addressee they turn to a direct idiom with maximum literal understanding of its meaning. Therefore, performances and street happenings initiated and theoretically grounded by Brener are the most organic form of their creativity. Places of concentration of the mob serve good sites for a dialogue: streets, squares and park alleys. (Exhibition galleries of the Central House of Artists are no exception: having degraded as an art institution they now gather the mob, not viewers, thus assuming a completely different level of socio-cultured milieu). An immediate idiom suggests an artist's physical presence. He can't trust mass media that may manipulate with his message or deform it. (Photography is treated just as a means to document or fix a genuine artistic event). The only form that can provide a true impact on the mob and engage their attention is a strong gesture, radical eccentricity and hard shock whose effect would tear the mob from its everyday routine. Naturally, an artist himself must become the subject of the message, only his physical ability to experience the shock can guarantee authenticity to the message. And finally, communication with the mob suggests that contextually rich evidence can be the object of the message since it's only this evidence (imbecility, defectives, etc.) that is an essence of the mob's mentality, its ontological status. Making the strategy of social art adjustable for the Moscow arts, Brener devotes his activity to linking two opposite phenomena of the 20th century European art--Brecht and Artot-- the theater of epos and the theater of brutality.
A number of peculiarities predetermine individualization of Brener's and Mamonov's activity. Material carriers of communication--embalmed icon- symbols (Mao's portrayals, the artist's own stereotyped portraits, museum attributes, etc.) are reference points of the latter. His strategy is suggestive of reductionism, both rational and brutal. He diminishes the message, makes it void of sense, replenishing it at the same time with potential meanings. Such strategy is fraught with an unusual destructive efficiency--his creative acts are similar to terrorist ones. And if a key thread for Mamonov (as well for other Untitled Group members) is his self-identification with the objects he describes, his dissolution in the entropy and degradation he presents, we my state that Mamonov transubstantiates this threat by his lapidary gestures, by the initial structure of his pronouncement expressed through reductionism.
Alexander Brener stays away from such radical reductionism trying to avoid pretensions for an ontological objectivity. His sphere of interest is the body or bodily experience-- its concealed, intimate, universal aspect, in particular. In some works by Brener this aspect is expanded to the absolute, in some it is questionable. In other words, avoiding objectivity he doesn't lapse into subjectivity: his creativity is realized in the sphere of intersubjectivity. The basis for his idiom is different than that of reductionism: it's not a structural quintessence, but a thoroughly calculated accuracy of the gesture-- its calligraphy.
LOVE NEEDS NO WORDS: AN ESSAY IN BEHAVIORAL TERATOLOGY
The idea of the present project arose from the few premises I am making bold to bring forth.
To understand anyone means to penetrate the secrets of his physiology, sensual perceptions and responses; his deeply concealed bodily habits in their unique nature and all-embracing power, and much else. The enigmas of many actions are explained by the policy of retaining physiological habits. These demands are really astounding. Though they may be acquired, they are, more often than not, much stronger than innate demands. Genuine parasites of neuro-visceral existence, they produce staggering subterfuges and put-up acts. We can hardly find anything else to characterize the human essence of an artist with more precision than these demands do.
We cannot but acknowledge that this topic easily makes one slip into the quagmire of the dirty, nauseating and ridiculous.
Similar to superstitions, psychoses and magics, these incomprehensible habits - inimitable apish tricks, grimaces and ugly stunts - which are apt to get really annoying, make up the subject-matter of behavioral teratology. In the final analysis, my own life in art can be safely reduced to the acute and painful awareness of my piles or hangnails which I stubbornly bite off, and fear of sexual impotence.
A person named Alexander Brener, spectator of a breathtaking global performance, eyewitness to an Iraqi missile attack on Israel or political upheavals in Moscow, degrades again and again into inane contemplation of his own feet. To put it differently, I turn a blind eye to everything significant and spectacular as I narrow the circle of my personal perceptions to the here-and-now. I confine myself within the close boundaries of my actuality.
What it is you see now on the TV screen? Russia's first President, you say? No, merely a part of a scull grown with greying hair! Now, you are like in a torture chamber in this mob, which kicks and pushes you from all sides as you suffocate in its revolting evaporations.
As I see it, man draws everything that makes him human in the vices and defects of his human nature. Likewise, the artist gets there everything that makes him an artist.
He has sanctified the imperfections of his adaptability, its errors and disorders, the vague disturbances and effects which make him speak of God, Satan or Revolution. He found in them his inner depths and a bizarre fruit to which we refer now as "art", now as "melancholia" - a fruit preserving the afterglow of the Golden Age and the presentiment of a mysterious destiny. Any feeling and emotion stands for anadaptation gap. What we know as intelligence and consciousness takes root in these narrow gaps, and flourishes there. The human element in man reaches its acme in the sheer fact that man has grown accustomed to this state of things. Hence our dogged search for ever new emotions, our thirst to produce stunning effects, turn other people's brains, rob others of their peace of mind, and ourselves of sleep. Now here, now there we see a physiological need to get crazy, develop visual aberrations, create an ugly and suggestive imagery - all this to achieve love, for without love this world is an intolerablytedious place. I don't think anything can provide us a reality more genuine and tangible than love.
We often mistake mercy or pain for love, while I insist that love is sheer inadequacy. I cannot merge into one with my own penis. It has a life all its own, which sometimes baffles me. Similarly, I cannot equate myself to the thing I love but how I thirst for this equation! The desire for such identification is one of those monstrous acquired habits of my body, and it is stronger than my entire self. The search for adequacy and mutual identification makes me take abominable erotic positions, force myself and the woman I love to do unthinkable things as I fight for a fictitious liberation of my flesh possessed by the spirit of mendacity.
The magnificence of this effort has a hypnotic effect on me, as does a portrait of Harold Lloyd hanging on the hand of the huge clock above the abyss of Broadway in New York City. I pore upon a multitude of the imaginary forms of this monumental equation of love, and get high-strung. This is what I see.
The eye with which love contemplates its surroundings is inevitably full of the utmost equanimity and indifference. In my naivety, I again and again try to discern something human in its fair visage. I am drawn by the expression of self-contained superiority and aloof majesty which I intuit in the person of love, this sovereign ruler. There is nothing evil in this face, but something more terrible than evil - an ominous assurance of its fatality. What a high and mighty self-sufficiency, what irreproachable egotism, what powerful self-isolation! Truly, the inevitability of its power glows in this face - a face that awakens in my imagination a misty image of the sea at midnight. You cannot come closer to your true identity, you cannot get a stronger weapon or a treasure more precious than this sensation. It alone makes love what it really is. There is no attraction or motive force to which it would not immediately open the doors of satisfaction. I found a motto for love - BEYOND DEATH - or, better till, YOU DON'T NEED WORDS HERE.
Print media on the project
"Two Artists in an Off-Key Duet"
E. Degot," Commersant Daily", No. 140, July 15, 1994
"Mamonov's portraits are arranged across the hall, and Brener is making his self-portrait in a life show behind their backs as, from the opening of the exhibition to the closing hour, his performances follow one another in a non-stop sequence to express his ego in a number of ways, some of which are highly suggestive and downright provocative.
"Marat Gelman, famous for his inimitable social temperament, sees the dialogue of these two rival programmes, Mamonov's and Brener's, as a symptom of the current social relations.
"Brener is a tragedian playing the part of the underdog, quite different from the snug posture of the 'non-artist', recently taken by the Moscow avantgarde as it painstakingly avoided comparison with any other artistic trend.
"His aesthetics take root not so much in defeat as in the retribution for defeat - the aesthetics of the AIDS Age, with all illusions of safe sex and safe art shattered. In his performances, Brener is doing his trying duty to culture, doing it honestly and, still more important, giving it a bodily form."
V. Khan-Magomedova," Argumenty i Fakty ", No. 27/55, 1994
"As they appeal to the mob in utterances of the utmost clarity, the artists seek new contacts with their viewers."
"Coming to Grips with the Ultima Ratio"
E.V., "Moscow News"
"Conceived as a manifestation of 'peaceful coexistence', the show materializes Mamonov's fight with Brener, as the former says."
"A Dozen Paper Clips Plunged in the Posteriors of Artistic Counter-Revolutionaries"
A. Obukhova, "Segodnya", July 15, 1994
"Harmony is born of differences brought into an unified system. This postulate is the starting point for the theoretical concept of a show of two artists. Bogdan Mamonov with oil on canvas and Alexander Brener with soul in flesh, attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable differences of approaches, styles and genres clashing in contemporary art.
"Marat Gelman meant this show to present conformism as the most topical of the current themes. This gallery curator is stoically working to raise the entire locally-limited thematic range of performances to the level of national problems.
"Strange as it may be, this exhibition at the Central House of Artists appears really interesting if we view it in the context of debates on non-conformism.
"The subject matter is provided by Bogdan Mamonov's allegedly Romantic portraits, Gericault-style, as they seem to emerge from under the floor to act as a background for the non-stop performances by Alexander Brener, who finds the scripts for them in government decrees and mottos concealed behind a painted facade.
"The intentions of the organisers of this highly specific combination of body art with post-conceptual painting are clear to the utmost. They demonstrate to the public the possibility to bring together any manifestations of contemporary form-building in an unified material and/or mental environment in a way which shows the limitless conformity potential of the artistic mentality."
"Alexander Brener: La Revolution c'est moi"
E. Lavrentyeva," Delovye Lyudi", September 1994
"The Rebel's Quest" M. Bogatyreva, "New Time", No. 28, 1994
"The name of this art show, The Conformists, implies that works appearing to clash with each other - self-portraits of one artist, who substitutes his similarities for his own self, and the other's performances - exist peacefully side-by-side, however preposterous this coexistence may seem. Try and find a more topical theme!"
"We Conformists Are Tough Guys"
"Soviet people regarded conformism as a derogatory word, though in fact it means a mere ability of people of varying stances to live peacefully side-by-side. This time, the prudence of conformism is demonstrated by two artists with directly opposed manners. Bogdan Mamonov contributes fairly conventional portraits and self-portraits, while Alexander Brener comes out with crankish performances. This exhibition means to say that we have enough room to hold all artists. Unlike politicians, they have nothing to quarrel about, and so they can safely make friends."
D. Strakhov," Ogonyok", No. 35-39, 1994
"Despite all their anti-aesthetic quality, Brener's and Mamonov's provocations - individual to the utmost, even intimate - struck their target: their viewers become their associates to leave the exhibition hall in a cathartic state."
"Moscow Review", 1994
"It's a topic which has a particular relevance now, a phenomenon, for instance, which allows politicians - or artists - to espouse different principles which co-exist in time and space. The present show gives artists taking opposite attitudes both to life and art a chance to display their works together."