Following The Black Square: The Cosmic, The Nostalgic & The Transformative In Russian Avant-Garde Museology
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Contemporary Russian art and museology is experiencing a revival of interest in the pioneering museology of the Russian artistic and political avant-garde of the early 20th century. This revival is exemplified in the work of contemporary Russian conceptual artist and self-styled ‘avant-garde museologist’ Arseniy Zhilyaev (b. 1984). Influential early 20th century Russian avant-garde artist and museologist Kazimir Malevich acts as the ‘tether’ binding the museologies of the past and present together, his famous “Black Square” a recurring visual and metaphoric indicator of the inspiration that contemporary Russian avant-garde museology and art is taking from its predecessors. This thesis analyzes Zhilyaev’s artistic and museological philosophy and work and determines how and where they are informed by Bolshevik-era avant-garde museology. This thesis also asks why such inspirations and influences are being felt and harnessed at this particular juncture in post-Soviet culture. The ‘avant-garde’ museological tenets shared by Zhilyaev and his earlier Russian predecessors (most significantly Nikolai Fyodorov, b. 1829, Kazimir Malevich, b. 1878, and Aleksey Fedorov-Davydov, b. 1900) incorporate the three facets that form the subtitle of this thesis - the cosmic (future focus), the nostalgic (for a lost past or an imagined, potential future), and the transformative (social and political through education). Differences include post-Soviet Russian museology’s less cohesive ideological underpinnings. The current generation of post-Soviet artists and museologists, typified by Zhilyaev, on the one hand, desires to move away from the more traumatic elements of the Soviet period. On the other hand, he misses the ‘superstructure’ of the Soviet era, in terms of its provision of a single, cohesive ideology to both take inspiration from and rebel against. Zhilyaev is a particularly insightful focal point from which to trace earlier Russian and Soviet avant-garde museological influences not only because his work directly references those museologies but also because all of Zhilyaev’s work is centered on one theme: the museum. Most of Zhilyaev’s exhibits presuppose the existence of an imaginary superstructure (which he often adapts directly from Fyodorov’s Cosmism, Malevich’s destructive impulse and contemporary focus, and Fedorov- Davydov’s class-based didactic agenda). Zhilyaev’s larger purpose is to unveil and heighten awareness of the superstructures (ideologies, agendas, and assumptions) that lay behind most of the ‘objects’ and actions in the world. Soviet nostalgia, escapism, political activism, the art of dissent, and institutionalism play key parts in both the timing and content of Zhilyaev’s work.