Oleg Kulik’s Living and Dead Nature
If we imagine a popular review of the most famous events and personalities of post-Soviet Russia, alongside the Putsch, Yeltsin and Chechnya there would definitely be a photograph of a dog-man biting excitedly on someone’s leg at an opening in Moscow, Stockholm or New York. This is Kulik, the only contemporary Russian artist whose work is known to the very widest international audience. In the memory of this audience he is situated alongside Cattelan (an insult to the Pope), Serrano (blasphemy against the crucifixion) and Hearst (butchery), but in contrast with these international hooligans he has a precise national attachment.
Some people think of Kulik as the most Russian of Russian artists. Gratez un russe et vous verrez un tatare, as the French say among themselves, although in public they cannot follow this advice, just as the Russians themselves cannot, for they feel obliged to make every possible effort to appear like normal people. But everyone knows that their character, behaviour, psychology and even physical appearance are very different from the European norm. Because they are people of the borderline, marginals of history and geography to both the West and the East. The overwhelming majority of Russian artists conceal this innate marginality as a defect. But Kulik, in contrast, has intensified it to an extreme, it is as if the doubles in whose characters he plays out his performances – the dog-man, the bird-man, the amphibian-man, the goat-man and other mutants – carry within themselves the formula of the “genuine nature” of the Russian, which evokes a mixture of delight and horror in western man.
Other people think that Kulik is the mirror of his age. At the start of the 1990s the eternally listless, drowsily submissive “homo sovieticus” suddenly awoke and in his dash for freedom he stripped himself of absolutely everything – including many humanistic values and taboos. He delighted in trying on the “jungle grin” of capitalism and had a go at reorganising life according to the laws of the jungle. Kulik is a despot and tormentor, who forced a platoon of soldiers to hold paintings up in their outstretched arms for hours on end instead of hanging them on the walls. Kulik is a masochist, suffering hunger and cold like the poorest of beggars for days and weeks at a time in his meta-performances. Kulik is a hedonist, indefatigable in inventing new partners and positions in his zoophilic games with animals. Kulik is the leader of the “Animals’ Party” which he himself founded. All these various faces of the artist reflected the eccentric nature of a revolutionary time, and when the tide of social folly began to recede and the state gradually brought everyone back within the framework of the law, then Kulik also turned back from a showman into an artist and, secure in the bosom of the fine arts, he began producing photographs and sculptures that had little in common with his heroic past.
Such interpretations of Kulik’s work are perfectly defensible, but having observed the artist’s development from close up, I am aware of somewhat different impulses underlying his actions. Kulik belongs to the cultural movement of the cusp of the 80s and 90s, an entirely international movement with manifestations not only in the USSR, but also in England and in France, that cast aside decisively the left-democratic ideas of “alternative” art as the independent practise of intellectual commentary and analysis. This movement had the utopian goal of integrating contemporary art into the broad context of mass culture. In the name of this goal it accepted ideological sacrifices, and in particular it actualised the regressive oppositions of former times, such as “culture/nature” and “text/reality” and came down on the side of life, declaring war on descriptive languages and the word as such.
In place of “devalued” words the body, instinct and passion were declared to be primary. “Keep your mouth shut! And if you can’t keep it shut, then bellow!” Kulik himself quite literally personified his own motto. He took a vow of silence, barked, lived in a dog-kennel, ate with dogs from a common bowl and regarded it as his greatest achievement when police in Zurich and Berlin fought him as if he were a genuine mad dog. Kulik illustrated the discourse of this time, the fashionable vision of man as a “naked ape”, in a way no one else did. Incarnated in him, this discourse gave rise to a neo-mythological monster.
In my view Kulik’s brilliant gestural invention of the zoomorphic artist biting a viewer at a performance and later writing a manifesto for his action is part of a general cultural interest in “animal nature”. The artist only arrived at his own plot and twist for the theme five years ago in his series “Dead Monkeys”. The twelve animals’ faces look like formal ancestral portraits. The animation of their expressions does not, however, exclude the possibility that they could all be straw-stuffed “ready-mades”. In the context of the art museum or gallery to which the artist transfers them, these stuffed trophies acquire an additional humanistic subtext in the tradition of the “memento mori” and are transformed into a mute reproach, a question, a threatening reminder. This is both life that has died and the mask of death. The “monkeys” were the first exhibit in Kulik’s distinctive museum, which has been augmented since then with many and various exhibits. All of them present living-dead nature and demonstrate the existence of life after death. Only not on the mystical level, but in absolutely concrete and material form – in the form of the integument invested with aesthetic significance, caught in spectacular, eternally frozen motion by the hands of the technologist. We can assume that Kulik arrived at the idea for such a museum through reviewing the photographic records of his own performances and correlating them with the experiences and emotions that he went through at the time and which now look like no more than effectively staged acting.