Speculations, Fakes, and Predictions in the Age of the Coronacene
On ViewGarage Museum Of Contemporary Art
March 26 – August 1, 2021
I left the house on the fifth day of Moscow’s short-lived lockdown last March and found myself inside a video game. Along the uncannily carless and deserted streets, the only remaining human animation presented itself in the squared-off, primary-colored silhouettes of the city’s delivery workers. Masked into facelessness, with their bodies reshaped by the hulking cubes of thermo-backpacks, they were quadratic pixelated arcade avatars, moving in straight perpendicular lines aimed at minimal intersection, distinguished only by the signature shades of their uniforms—yellow for Yandex, green for Delivery Club, pink for Samokat—a human Pac-Man battlefield for the gig economy’s corporate players.
Novoe Architecture Bureau must have alighted upon a similar realization while designing the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art’s Assuming Distance: Speculations, Fakes, and Predictions in the Age of the Coronacene, for the exhibition’s surface area is laid out to resemble a video game, connecting the museum’s upstairs galleries into an integrated “super-surface,” drawn on a modular grid in a succession of frosted glass squares embellished at six-foot intervals with direction arrows—“proceed to the next exhibit to unlock a new conspiracy.”
This was, indeed, the environment the show itself was conceived in: separated from each other, as well as their building and artists, the curators Ekaterina Lazareva, Ekaterina Savchenko, and Iaroslav Volovod were left with little to do but game it out and speculate—and speculate they did, putting out an open call to artists living and working in Russia to engage in abstract reasoning and consider the speculative in any way one could conceive of it.
The sheer kaleidoscopic variety that came out of this gamble is instructively wide-ranging, with sculptures, videos, collages, paintings, and assemblages taking over the better part of the museum’s upper floor in a crowded density of disparate ideas and ideations. From a total of over 1,000 applicants, 33 participants, including 11 group projects, were selected, most of them early- and mid-career professional artists, hailing overwhelmingly from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod.
Dominating the main gallery, MishMash Group’s Construction Set for David Hume comprises two parts. The first consists of a circle of bell jars, spotlit and mounted on pedestals. Half-concealed within a thicket of dry shrub, they surround a golden podium, over a center of which hangs a “karmushka,” MishMash’s portmanteau for a combination of “karma” and kormushka, the word for a traditional Russian bird feeder. Each glass dome contains a unique sculptural tower assembled from an aleatory melee of detritus: pills and cotton balls, plastic tags and googly eyes, glass jars, flowers, and steel boxes, deliberately combining perishable and non-perishable elements. The allusion to Hume here is reflective of the ultimate contingency of meaning, the overdetermined arbitrariness of cause and effect inherent to any attempt to infuse significance into the fragile construction of one’s world picture, doomed to disintegrate into the elements. The work’s second part emphasizes the point in a series of exquisitely hand-drawn and water-colored quasi-anatomical plates that break the sculptures down into their constituent elements, as well as indicate each tower’s unique name—that were selected by a randomizer bot program. Some elements are well-identified: “medical cotton,” “antique fish grater,” while others are explicitly not: “some kind of drug,” “where did this come from?”
That doomed aspect of speculative thinking is also at play in Andrey Guryanov and Anton Kuryshev’s “No Message” Message (2021), an instantly recognizable public service announcement chime that sounds throughout the gallery at irregular intervals. The tone is not followed by anything else—a clever exacerbation of the polluted Pavlovian soundscape of a modern civic space.
Maxim Spivakov’s G Minor (2021) puts one in mind of the way Michel Serres opens his Statues by juxtaposing the endless media loop of the burning Challenger Shuttle’s pyre to a sacrificial Carthaginian rite. By ignoring what the Enlightenment has purged as barbarism and recasting it instead as “technical failure,” Serre suggests, we are behaving just as the ancients did, simply without acknowledging the sacred and speculative behind our fascinations. Spivakov’s work consists of three video screens assembled in a collage-like pattern. Combining camripped videos of burning 5G towers with the hands of Leon Theremin playing his namesake instrument (itself a product of the Soviet research into proximity sensors), the piece reimagines the ludic conspiracy theories linking 5G technology to the spread of coronavirus as executed by the hand of the theremin’s inventor.
Reverberating through most of the exhibition’s area like the white noise of coffee shop music—first ambient, then unavoidable in its particularity, then ambient again by acculturation—is Maria Morina, Marina Karpova, and Eaterina Sokolovskaya’s opera Simple Songs (2021), described by its authors as “documentary poetry.” Performed by an ensemble of a soprano, a baritone, and a countertenor, its libretto is composed of headlines and quotes about COVID culled from both popular and social media, official speeches of Vladimir Putin, and poetry by the head of Russia’s State Corporation for Space Activities, Dmitry Rogozin.
Art, after all, as Thomas Bernhard once pointed out, “altogether is nothing but a survival skill … it is, time and again, just an attempt … to cope with this world and its revolting aspects, which, as we know, is invariably possible only by resorting to lies and falsehoods.”1
Ewald Osers, Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 151.