By DONALD KUSPIT, May 2018
It is in this dialectic…in the grasping of opposites in their unity, or of the positive in the negative, that speculative thought consists.
- G. W. F. Hegel, Logic
The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence of dialectic.
- Vladimir Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectic,” Collected Works, volume 38
…the premise of dialectical materialism is: It is not men’s consciousness that determines their existence but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness. Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity.
- Louis Althusser, Marx and Freud
We stand for the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which represents the mightiest and most powerful authority of all forms of State that have existed.
- Joseph Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, 1938
Looking at Family Album (Transgression of a Double Reflection). Young Man in Mazepa Fur-Cap, 2015-2016, a diptych by the “art-tandem” Mykola Babak and Evgene Matveev, we see a major example of their ironic, not to say sardonic—subversive--intention: to bring orthodox Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist dialectic materialism into question, more pointedly to undermine it by suggesting that the consciousness of the young man, evident in his face, determines his existence, not the materialistic society that produced his Mazepa Fur-Cap (a product of the Ukraine, the native country of both Babak and Malveev). His face, conveying his inner life—it is as though he wears sunglasses to protect and hide his soul from society, the eyes being the windows of the soul, materialistic society being soulless and intrusive—is at odds with his cap, perhaps signaling his social prominence, however oddly barbaric it may be, considering the fact that its fur once covered an animal.
The work, a digital masterpiece, is also dialectically absurd—a self-contradiction in aesthetic terms, for it is a flat, computer-generated photograph with a painterly, expressionistic texture: machine-made yet with a hand-made look, materially refined and raw simultaneously, a slick photograph and a process painting at once. Their simultaneity suggests their synthesis, but they remain peculiarly discreet, giving the work—and the young man—an uncanny presence. Their difference underlines the difference between the young man’s consciousness—and individuality, one might add, for he is a very particular person with an identity of his own, all the more intriguing and distinctive because of his sunglasses, not another anonymous face in the passing crowd—and the materialistic society in which he lives. He may use its products, but he is not himself a mindless product of it. He clearly has a mind of his own, as his thought-filled glance suggests. The doubling of his image—the one colorless, the other colorful—indicates that the dialectic remains unresolved, for while the opposites are grounded in the same figure, the figure is divided against itself, colorlessness and colorfulness being irreconcilable. They bespeak his split identity—his social identity and public appearance, with its self-protective sunglasses mask, and his personal identity and private reality, signaled by his serious face, as well as the expressionistic handling that conveys his intense, turbulent emotions, his seriousness suggesting that they under control and contained. Young Man in Marzepa Fur-Cap is a psychological masterpiece, for it conveys the tension—precarious dialectic--between “colorful” inner life and “colorless” outer life. Everyone in a materialistic society endures it as best they can.
All of the faces in Babak and Matveev’s Family Album belong to distinctive individuals. If these are the faces of the proletariat, then the State has lost its power to dictate and control people’s lives and consciousness. These wonderfully human faces have an authority of their own. All of them express feeling, often by way of color, always emotionally evocative. Heterogeneous rather than a homogeneous group, their colorfulness and smiles confirm they have a consciousness and life of their own, a self-consciousness and inner life not determined by the authoritarian State, with its rigid belief that consciousness and selfhood are superficial by-products of the materialistic social process, rather than inseparable from feeling. Babak and Matveev’s critique of dialectical materialism has something in common with Kandinsky’s attack on “the whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude,” epitomized for Kandinsky by Rudolf Virchow, “the great scientist of international fame,” who “once said, ‘I have opened up thousands of corpses, but I never manage to see a soul.” The proletariat in their Family Album—the proletariat that form their large, implicitly universal family—clearly have souls, indicating that they are not simply products of a social process, that they have not been indoctrinated by ideological materialism. Their emotions undermine it, suggesting they know it is a Big Lie.
Babak and Matveev suggest that to call them proletariat is to sell their lives short, deny their individuality, dismiss their consciousness—betray them. One might say the different people they portray—for all of the pictures in the album are portraits—attack the indifference to individuality implicit in proletariat society. Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism was compulsory reading in the Soviet educational system. One might say that Babak and Matveev’s unorthodox emphasis on individuality at the expense of the proletariat State rebukes and critiques Stalin’s orthodox text, more broadly any ideology that elevates community over individuality, more pointedly, treats individuality as a threat to compulsory community. It is why the dictatorship of the proletariat must stamp out the individuality of the proletariat, rationalize it away as beside the materialistic social process. Babak and Matveev defiantly recover it—rescue the individual from the totalitarian State. It seems worth noting that Babak and Matveev grew up in the USSR, and served in its military, suggesting that their identifying themselves as Ukrainean signals their rejection of it and the absolutist Communism it stood for.
They now stand for a different sort of community—the intimate family rather than impersonal proletariat society. It seems to me that the key to understanding their work is Babek’s installation “Your Children, Ukraine!” in the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. In one room traditional children’s dolls were arranged around photographic portraits of individuals from his home village in the Chornobayivski region of the Ukraine. There were also photographs of the dolls in the fields and ponds of the area. Scenes from videos made at the time of the Orange Revolution were projected on three screens in an adjoining room. As a critic wrote, “here you were in the Kiev of November and December 2004, as [democratic] people power changed [authoritarian] politics.” The installation shows the variety of means and styles that Babek and Matveev continue to use. The tender feeling conveyed by the children’s dolls and the hope implicit in the Orange Revolution are the antidote to the bitterness left in the wake of the disintegration of the USSR, which restored the integrity of the Ukraine. Babek and Matveev are socio-politically motivated, but they are also humanists.
The “Sacrifice” Photo Project and the Messages from “Paradise” Project are, in their different ways, conceptual and expressive masterpieces--tours de force of ironic, even absurdist dialectic as well as masterful demonstrations of Babek and Matveev’s ability to integrate different styles and mediums into a singular aesthetic statement. It is impossible to single out one aspect of the “Sacrifice” Photo Project as more significant than any other: it is a tour de force of sociopolitical realism, figurative expressionism, and geometrical abstraction, to use only some of the stylistic labels that might be used to analyze its complexity. It is at once spectacular high art—a sort of “Great World Theater,” to refer to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s concept—and everyday popular art, each of the works unfolding like a scene in an action film, allegorical in import as the use of Christian iconography makes clear. The drama opens with the “Cruxifixion”—Day 1 of the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity (November 2013-February 2014), “precipitated by nation-wide civil protests against corrupted government,” as Babek and Matveev write—and ends with the “Birth of the New Ukraine” on Day 6. Their New Ukraine is a calf born in blood from the womb of the Old Ukraine, an animal with its body hauntingly gray and luminous, as though it was the ghost of the past, and with a face permanently smeared with blood, as though from a wound that can never heal. Are we witnessing the birth of another sacrificial lamb, as the fact that the calf is bathed in blood? Are Babek and Matveev wondering how long the New Ukraine will survive? However glorious the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity was—Babek and Matveev were in the thick of it, activists supporting it rather than journalists reporting it (committed insiders rather than detached outsiders)—and however glorious the works that memorialize it, the question of the future of Ukraine hovers over it and them.
For me “Cruxifixion” is one of the greatest modern renderings of that disaster, and for me the monumental mirror-metal-transparent hermetic Cube in which the works were installed is a marvelous example of functional public sculpture. Placed in the main square of a city, its dignity makes it a rallying point for future revolutions of dignity as well as a memorial to those who participated in the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity. The people--be they Ukrainian or from another country--who enter the Cube, a museum and mausoleum in one, to view Babek and Matveev’s works are implicitly participating in the Revolution of Dignity. They are not simply learning about it, in passive contemplation of it, but forced to intensely engage it, emotionally participate in it. The violence depicted by the works violates the boundary between the viewer and the work, all the more so because the works overwhelm the viewer with their expressive power and tragic grandeur. The Cube, a seamlessly integrated geometrical form, all of its six sides the same size, indicating that it is conflict-free, affords a measure of self-containment and security. But the Cross, a religious symbol, ambiguously of the crucifixion and salvation, is a dialectical geometrical structure in which opposites (horizontal and vertical) meet and then continue on their separate ways, their at-oddness indicating that the Cross is a symbol of unresolved conflict. The participant observer of Babak and Matveev’s Sacrifice Project is torn between the extremes: he is in a church (of art)—a sacred space (presumably where The Heaven’s Hundred activists who were attacked and killed in Euromaiden Square [another event allegorized in the project] rest in spiritual peace)—as the Cross suggests, but there is no redemption, only a sign of eternal suffering and conflict, namely the Cross. The unresolved conflict that the cross symbolizes is elaborated in the unresolved conflict between luminous color and somber gray that informs the works, confirming their tragic character. They is indeed great tragic art—a modern tragic art that bespeaks the tragic conflict between immoral authority and moral individuals that seems a constant in modern society.
The Project Messages from “Paradise” is luridly comic rather than terrifyingly tragic—a sardonic critique of “the good socialist life” rather than an abrasive attack on authoritarian society, implicitly Stalinist if also eagerly Capitalist. The grossly voluptuous Bather Girls, one with her breasts exposed—in what seems to me a futile attempt to be sexy--standing in the movie set nature, symbolize the abundance that Communism promises. The female figure, nude or draped, holding a cornucopia of fruit—and the Bather Girls are rather juicy, ripe (over-ripe?) fruit, a sort of socialist version of eye candy—ready to be consumed by the masses. The rather big Bather Girls—they’re certainly not the slim pin-ups featured in Playboy magazine—may be real people, but the nature they stand in is artificial, suggesting the promise of plenitude they symbolize is a lie.
We are told that the images in the Messages from “Paradise” Project—the fact that paradise is in quotation marks puts it in question and suggests the irony of the project, that is, implies that the socialist paradise is an illusion, not to say a delusion of Communist grandeur—are “based upon so-called ‘rural photography’ from Mr. Babak’s personal collection,” and that the people pictured have “amazing internal beauty, warmth, purity.” But however much that seems to be the case--the Bather Girls seem to be happy with their lot in life, and so does the Calf-Tender-Girl, to mention another smiling (and somewhat slimmer) young lady—the fact that the nature in which they are placed is fake suggests they are fakes, posing for a propaganda picture rather than authentically happy. The intensified—dramatized—color of the pictures confirms that the scene and the figures are make-believe, concoctions of what is called the “fantasy industry,” an essential instrument of the brainwashing necessary to preserve power. The Project Messages from “Paradise” suggests that the so-called people’s paradise is a dream world: in reality the proletariat don’t look like the people pictured in the Project.
Flood is the sardonic give-away: the proverbial golden calf has become a fat pig. Goldfish swim in the water below it, suggesting that it is golden underneath its thick skin. Indeed, what seems like gold dust appears before its front legs. The wonderfully detailed slab of stone—a marvelous piece of classical sculpture—the pig stands on is gray, suggesting the sterile truth of the land hidden beneath the colorful artificial nature in the background. To return to nature is supposedly a return to a golden age, but it is fool’s gold. The promise of plenty and the happiness that supposedly comes with it are mass cultural deceptions. The people pictured in the “Paradise” Projects are actors in a Communist charade. They are obedient stereotypes rather than autonomous individuals—mindless conformists rather than the critical non-conformists that Babak and Matveev are. In some strange way, the women in Babek and Matveev’s rural paradise remind me of the shepherds who have just discovered that there is death in paradise—I am referring to Poussin’s two paintings of Et in Arcadia Ego, ca. 1630 and ca. 1655. In Babek and Matveev’s “Paradise” death comes in the hypocritical form of the delirious artificiality of it all—the fakeness of the flourishing nature, sugar-coated by hyped-up color--in contrast to the bitter revolutionary form it takes in the urban Sacrifice Project. WM
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author