Postmodernism as an Artistic Space. the Photographic World of Chezhin the Artist
by Mariya Sheynina (Terenya),
Black and white photography (and, latterly, colour photography) always emphasises the dividing line marking the intersection between time(s) and space(s), the intersection and interpenetration of today and yesterday, today and tomorrow – of my life and someone else’s. It points to the event experienced by a person (someone we know or don’t know, myself, just someone, nature, or society as a whole) at the moment when my attention is directed at the rectangular frame recording that which has already been and gone and which is yet present in my life just so long as I am looking at (remembering) it.
Those who turn our life, the reality of our experience, into photographic images measure it as a news reporter does, give it aesthetic order as does a film director, and ‘set up’ frames to ‘please the eye’ – just as the archivist who acts as custodian of the past. And yet sometimes subordination to the past (not to history, i.e. not to past time in the form of events) turns out to be too confining a role for the photographer and he becomes an Artist. An Artist who subordinates to himself and his will time, space, and the reality of time and space, directing the facial expressions of the main actors in his art – i.e. time (considered as a flow of passing moments) and events. In his hands the camera, negatives/positives, exhibits, and other tools of trade become instruments in the attainment of higher goals. This is how it was that at some point in his photographic career Andrey Chezhin became not a master of artistic photography or some particular genre of photography, but an artist uplifted by the coloured wings of the style of our age – that style which the critics love to slate, postmodernism.
Andrey Chezhin’s reincarnation occurred in the not so distant past, against the background of historic events that had broken the consciousness of generations condemned to witness the change of course undergone by the giant ghost ship USSR-Russia as it turned from socialism to capitalism and from total paralysis of its executive structures to idiocy.
It was only natural that the consciousness of the photographer/artist-to-be should energetically throw off torpidity and slip out of its old skin. Simple recording of social reality accompanied by clicks of the camera shutter gave way to interest in staged photography and experiments with exhibits (sometimes as many as three or more). Furthermore, Chezhin needed a suitable object of investigation – complete with hands, legs, and heads etc.; and this, for lack of other candidates prepared to surrender themselves to the required extent, turned out to be the artist himself, ever obedient to and trustful of his own direction. It was at this time, at the end of the 1980s, that Chezhin’s first composite works – Black Square (1988) and Red Square (1990) – made their appearance. These, of course, referred to Kazimir Malevich, a recent exhibition of whose works at the RussianMuseum had triumphantly signalled a new era in the history of art and, more specifically, the lifting of taboos on interest in various stages in the development of 20th-century art.
Black Square and Red Square are, as already noted, composite works, each being made up of four parts. They were conceived by Chezhin not as a photographic series or a frame by frame sequence, as in film, but as structural works where each part is no more than a brick supporting the overall equilibrium of the entire structure. The main character here is man. In the first case, man is depicted with a black square on his forehead/brain; in the second, he is shown taking off the fetters that bind him.
The first part of Red Square shows an individual standing upright with arms held out horizontally and legs placed wide apart. His figure is hemmed in (drawn round) at its extremities – which form the end points of a geometrical shape – by a line/rope which calls to mind Leonardo’s quest for the ‘golden section’ in the proportions of the human body. The red square contains all the space whose contours are marked and defined by the rope-line; and the man is himself enclosed in this space. Then, in the next two parts of this work, he manages to free himself from the rope as his head, arms, and legs are liberated in turn, while, at the same time, the area of control exercised by the red square on the surface of the photograph grows progressively narrower. Finally, in the last part of this work, the rope/measure is seen lying inside he artist’s workshop on a sheet of paper, within the red square. The viewer becomes a witness of how a cultural symbol – the ‘red square’, Malevich, Suprematism, etc. – is transformed into a sociocultural one: the man casts off the rope – which initially marks the contours of a star (head, arms, legs) – and liberates himself from the red, i.e. throws off ideology (the rope/fetters/red – a sign of danger, as we remember). The red is overcome; man is free.
It was at this time, i.e. at the end of the 1980s – to be more exact, in 1988 – that Chezhin embarked on a series of self-portraits which is unfinished to this day. The artist photographs himself – with hair, without hair, with his wife, with a ruler; photographs his hands (in Erotica); photographs himself, himself, and himself. At the same time he started working on ‘types’ for his series Portraits (1990) and was continuing to record social reality (material that would be used in Pairs, a series executed in 1987-1990-1997).
Chezhin’s absurd, significant, and meaningless staged photographs of nameless types/characters give off a powerful, unpleasant semiphysiological sense/memory of a past age of male and female functionaries and workers stamped with the distinctive marks of the limited, if not curtailed consciousness of social invalidism. Here Chezhin’s photography emphatically avoids any attempt to convey the psychological state or mood of the subject; this is photography that stands outside pyschoanalysis or psychologism, outside any expression of the ‘psychical’. These are still-lifes where things (objects) are credited with neither spirit nor personal time, nor personal experience or living space or ‘physiognomy’. Individuality has been ironed out, leaving only the overall characteristic grimace of types in socialist society. This is what they managed to achieve in the 70 years of Soviet rule. And Chezhin the artist here merely reflects the success enjoyed by the now deposed ideology in shaping the Soviet personality.
It is personality shaping that in my opinion is the subject of the series of works entitled Kharmsiada executed in 1995 for an exhibition called ‘The absurd object. An exhibition of presents by St Petersburg artists to D. Kharms in honour of the 100th anniversary of his birthday’.
A brick face, facial features shorn off or sewn up with thread, a face transformed by a door handle or a drawing-pin: these and other pleasures associated with methods of forming ‘new people’ are used by Chezhin in this series to present a kind of handbook for incipient power-lovers or a diary of obedience – a warning to the ‘masses’, i.e. to precisely that material from which, it should be noted, all this is moulded. Man turns to plastic, Chezhin warns us, if he stops thinking and resisting the will outside him – if he forgets his own authenticity, essence, and individuality.
Especially interesting from this point of view is Chezhin’s work on the creation of his epoch-making The Life of Drawing-Pins, which comprises the series Album for Drawing-Pins and The Drawing-Pin and Modernism. The drawing pin and its fellows are, as it turns out, highly convenient main characters in instances taken from daily experience/recording, absurd situations supplied by the artist and the reality that surrounds him. The unitary nature of the hero of the piece gives Chezhin unprecedented freedom to destroy individuality while setting up his own mythologised drawing-pin world, absurd to the point of recognizability, and while allowing the viewer to reach the conclusion – only partly forced upon us by Chezhin himself – that ‘we are all drawing-pins, my dear sirs … ‘.
Chezhin’s interest in personal expressions of humanity no doubt explains the constant use he makes of the genre of self-portraiture. Here we should observe a number of different stages in the artist’s study of himself as a representative of the human and natural worlds and of reality itself: generalization; reduction to a common denominator; and individualization of the image (himself). Here there is no opposition set up between ‘me’ and ‘they’. Chezhin is not concerned with asking himself ‘me or someone else?’; instead, he is out to find an answer to the problem ‘me’ as ‘they’. He studies man viewed statically – not in action and movement, but in the movement/change of time. What is important for him is the nature of man and the human body – not anatomy or anthropology as such, but man in his different dimensions, self-knowledge, and self-realizations (whether with a ruler or with or without hair).
The self-portraits of various different years, series, and cycles contain an element of play which comes out at transitional moments involving switches between, say, action/reality, artist/man, reality/photographic reality/artistic reality/deception/the reality of the artist’s desire and of his creative effort and destiny.
In all the photographs in the series Self-Portraits (1988-1997), Andrey Chezhin’s face is identical: the scarcely perceptible changes escape attention – even though Chezhin slips in, among the pile of material to be examined by the viewer, versions of himself both with and without hair. This deliberate recording of something intentionally, emphatically identical puts us on edge, causes our eyes to slow and steady in their tracks …
As Modernism and Postmodernism have developed art has frequently in one way or another confronted and dealt with issues relating to time, space, and movement as process. Man, the human body and its parts, and the face as that which expresses and contains man’s essence have been recurring subjects for all kinds of artists and an object of general art discourse. But the only example that comes to mind of an artist engaging in thorough self-examination and meticulous recording of himself, his ‘I’, and his face as the image of that ‘I’ dates to the 18th century and Mr. Rembrandt’s self-portraits depicting mood, grimaces, etc.
For Chezhin the human being (the ‘I’) is an object in changing time and changed temporal space (which is practically non-existent), where the emphasis is on paradox, e.g. on the non-obligatory, casual nature of a situation, on the one hand, and the significance of the moment recorded and its recording, on the other.
Another feature of Andrey Chezhin’s interest in man (himself; the ‘I’ of his self-portraits) is the self-sufficient way in which, quite independently of everything external, the ‘I’ dissolves in a second person’s world and that other person’s world dissolves in the ‘I’ (here I could mention the three 1991 series called Your-mine, where female and male elements merge into a unified ‘I’). Here the ‘I’ is the artist’s ‘I’ and that of his wife. The viewer is presented with a conflict-free interpenetration of the male and that which has its beginning in woman, in nature. In Chezhin’s work the self-portrait and depiction of man is an inexhaustible topic with many typical features. one other such feature is Chezhin’s use of sociocultural signs and their symbolic resonances – e.g. the red square, the black square, the rope, man, a recognizable urban landscape.
Chezhin’s series of self-portraits present life as a series of changes in the artist. His multi-part work of self-observation Calendar (1990-1991) depicts a series of situations/days/incidences – in other words, routine daily life, – examining the idea of temporal changes experienced by a static subject in a situation where measurement of the passing of time is veiled. These works grow in time, with time, and with the artist.
In every structure/work created by Andrey Chezhin social reality undergoes change and there is a movement from state to state, a sliding before and after, an imperceptible movement from edge to edge. The series Pairs (1987-1997), for instance, comprises sheets composed in 1997 from pairs of snap photographs taken over the period 1987-1990. Together, they form a collection of works that are sign-like and legible. Their meaning is accessible on the basis of associations and sensations as Chezhin exploits mechanisms of perception, alogism, absurdity, logic, and direct and reverse sense-formation. Take, for example, the sheet Why am I not Fond of Moscow? At the top of this piece Chezhin has placed a photographic trick – a superimposition of one of Chechulin’s skyscrapers and a spreading birch tree. At the bottom, under the beautiful pattern formed by the branches of a shrub, a dead dog is seen lying on the ground. What could give a clearer or more expressive impression of the artist’s lack of fondness for this city? The double denials, the absurd semantic situations, the fidelity of the image to reality, and the plastic coincidences /references: all this explodes correct, logical reasoning and judgement and finds an echo in the tonally correct way in which these pairs are perceived by the viewer. This is true of other sheets in the series too.
In his composite, multi-structure, cyclical work Transformations (1991-1997; cyclical in as much as a repetitive rhythm of beginning-end, beginning-end runs throughout) Chezhin sets up horizontal rows/films/moments. The heroes of these films are unchanging; what changes is the space around them, their surroundings, and the conditions governing the game or existence in which they are taking part. For example, Chezhin photographs the granite sphere on the spit of Vasil’evsky Island from all sides. And, seen from every side, the sphere is a sphere, but the space in which it is set changes dramatically round about – from ripples on water to architectural landscape.There could be no better illustration of Matyushin’s theory of ‘expanded looking’. Or take the sequence of clocks(street mechanisms/objects) photographed at particular moments in time. Here the main character is time and its attributes – dials, hands, and the structures that encase clock mechanisms. Or the subject could be seen as a film sequence: road-legs-road. And so on. In this composite work each line is a question whose resolution is possible only for the given artist; a question/problem, moreover, which is to be dealt with not so much by resolving it as by living it through. Here you will find all the eternal questions posed by art in the 20th century: identification of oneself and the world in oneself; cognition of oneself and the outside world; examination of the basic categories for constructing (and creating) the reality of one’s embodiment; the main questions of life and eternity; play in accordance with the laws of existence and contexts for such play; incidentalness and regularity. Finally, this work succeeds in personifying a sense of change in time and space and in space in time.
The photographic world created by the photographer and artist Andrey Chezhin likewise has room for the art of the comic strip, for a physiognomic constructor, for St Petersburg-as-city-and-text, and for geometric studies a la Esher. This world is vast, paradoxical, sometimes alogical (from the point of view of the ordinary person) – but fascinating. It is a space that acts like a vortex: you only have to take the first step in its direction, become a little interested, and you find yourself unable to stop looking, you lose your way out as you blunder about the labyrinth of the artist’s consciousness, jumping from level to level, from one series of works to another, colliding with enigmas, laws, traps set by the carefully watching artist – and you gradually come to realize that the main hero of Chezhin’s works is time. Time for him is an important category by which we get to know – and record – the world. It divides into seconds, moments, instants, units of experience. Time sets like a sticky, viscous mass or flows freely like a homogeneous substance – liquid, elastic, fluid. In the Self-Portraits of 1988-1997 time is an existential substance, an attribute of history and of the historical development of society and of man as representative of this society and as a part of its culture. The artist is able to move about in time; and this becomes one of the ludic features of his work (the presence of the physical in real and non-real space; the artist’s almost comic right to choose his own contemporaries – and their deeds – for himself). Likewise, he is able to impose simultaneity on events which are separated in time, as in the works Group Self-Portrait (1994) and Visiting Bulla (1994).
Time for Andrey Chezhin is expressed in specific objects. In his hands it is something with clearly marked, definite boundaries. These boundaries, though, are in the dimension not of man, but of history, in the specific time/happening of a given event in the history of this country and in abstract time in general, in the archaic, timeless, stagnant changelessness of man’s presence in the world as he sets about discovering his own dimension. For Chezhin even today time is divided up into the smallest elements/units that flash past seen through a train window or on the screen of a television, computer, or other chronometric miracle of the kind that devours human time, genius, and intuition.
It is the movement of time that defines the characteristic space of Chezhin’s works. In them space is real at every unit of time, but unreal, phantasmagoric, spectral at each post-unit of time-after-this-moment.
Space perceived, experienced, and recorded by equipment and man during the passing of time is in the power of the artist. This space changes at every moment of the advance of time, at every moment that this time is experienced by man, through the experiencing of this time in this space. The artist confronts the viewer not with the deformation of space, but with space that is changed over an extensive stretch of time.
There is nothing accidental in Chezhin’s choice of compositional structure for his works. As a rule, they are composite structures that show man through multiplicity (e.g. Group Portrait or Transformations). The framework of these pieces is a living structure whose active influence is felt only when its various elements form a semantic, plastic link with one another. This link then becomes sensible; the elements of the structure feed and fuel one another.
Time, space, man, object, play are the perpetual engines that drive the Petersburg photographer Andrey Chezhin’s interest in attaining an equilibrium in the relation between ‘the external world’ and‘the world in oneself’. The artist uses his craft and photography as instruments. The photographer Andrey Chezhin is an artist of the end of the 20th century, the heyday of Postmodernism.
About the Author:
Mariya Sheynina (Terenya), member of the International Association of Art Critics (Russia);
Translated by John Nicolson;
Published by www.amassart.com