Boris Groys on Tarkovsky’s Documentary Romanticism
Boris Groys in conversation with curator Nadim Samman and gallerist Anya Stonelake.
This is a transcript of a conversation that took place on June 8th 2007 in Venice. Dr. Boris Groys is Professor of Aesthetics, Art History, and Media Theory at the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe. First published in Andrey Tarkovsky. Bright Bright Day book. White Space Gallery, London 2007
What are your impressions of the Polaroid photographs that Andrey Tarkovsky began to make in the seventies? What is their relation to his films?
All of the images were made in Italy, so it’s kind of his visual diary surrounding his immigration. What struck me about these images, however, is how they look like Romantic painting of the nineteenth century, in their composition, and also in the play light.
It’s a sublime mood – something that I have always been impressed by when watching his films, because one associates the moving image with the twentieth-century. Film is almost automatically something technological, which belongs to modernity. Yet, shining through all the technical devices is a kind of visual heritage of the 19th century.
It’s like a combination of Chekhov and Caspar David Friedrich – a kind of cottage-life with a bit of the decadent Russian aristocracy. These images are nostalgic, but not for the Soviet culture of the Russia that he left. Rather, they’re nostalgia for Russia before the Revolution. They reflect the neo-romantic mood of the time in which they were made. Their romanticism is more German than French, like Caspar David Friedrich or Otto Unger. It’s classicist, but with a romantic aspect.
Would you characterize this nostalgic vision as restorationist in motivation?
It’s not restorationist because it’s obvious that one can’t restore things like that. It’s much more of an attempt to equate this kind of nineteenth century Romantic, and at the same time slightly decadent, aesthetic – some kind of provincial Russian Chekhov or Turgenev mood – with his own family. So, his family is a kind of utopian space.
Do you suspect that this is because he left his family for a time?
Not necessarily. Rather, it reflects the mood of the period of [Soviet] stagnation. Look at his film The Mirror, which is also very Chekhovian. I saw this movie in the Soviet Union. It’s sort of a gentlemen’s life in the country – a gentry life, not the proletarian Soviet reality. Everything takes place in Dachas, or private apartments of the wealthy or upper-class Moscow intelligentsia, people who made it somehow, or whose families did. It was almost a revival of the gentry sensibility of the nineteenth-century.
You left Russia in a similar time to Tarkovsky. Do you recall or relate to this nostalgic, perhaps even spiritual, mood?
Tarkovsky’s daughter went to the same children’s group as our son. We were neighbors in Moscow. I know this kind of mentality well enough. At the time, ‘spirituality’ was another name for privacy or intimacy. Not so much for private intellectual space but, simply, personal space. What happened in the Soviet Union was a kind of collectivization of consciousness, a collectivization of the mood of the population, some kind of totalization of unconsciousness. Accordingly, people just wanted to have their personal space back.
The religious mood at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s was the first wave of privatization. This was privatization of ideological space – a discourse of privatization that historically preceded economic privatization. Now we have arrived at the privatization of state property. It was a kind of ideal, utopian, space in the middle of the collective space. I was skeptical. I have no nostalgia for whatever the Soviet Union was, and none in relation to these kind of private spaces. I never believed in privatization and still don’t.
How might one characterize the relationship between the fiction of his films and the documentary nature of his Polaroids?
If there is something interesting about Tarkovsky it is precisely that he escapes kitsch because he is very documentaristic and doesn’t want to remember or relate to the past. Both in the polariods and the movies, if he relates to the past it is only in a negative way – as in Andrei Rublev. He wants to have this romantic, spiritual, intimacy here and now. Its very much about the feeling of recognition, a looking for what Roland Barthes describes as ‘punctum’. Film and Polaroid are quite close, both are rather instantaneous and very much fix the moment, so it’s not about nostalgia or memory, he’s not historicizing and he’s not reactionary. In the polaroids, he’s looking for an equation or identification of this momentous experience in his life with a certain kind of gentrified cultural history of art.
He doesn’t recognize something Russian. He recognizes something that he looked at in a museum or gallery of nineteenth century art.
In a previous conversation, you referred to this approach as ‘Documentary Romanticism’ – which engages spiritual element without recourse to the surreal…
Yes, precisely. He doesn’t want to change or shift reality. He doesn’t want to transform anything. He wants a kind of experience of recognition – to look at things and suddenly recognize them as a part of a spiritual-cultural history. He tries to avoid anything explicitly artificial, anything that is too arty, so to say.
And yet, the polaroids are incredibly sensual, aestheticized, stylized, composed…
Yes, of course, but that is his way of looking at things. It reminds me of some early images by Jeff Wall. He looks for an aesthetic and landscape that reminds him of Manet or Poussin and then photographs it. The finished photographs look like Poussin and Manet but they are not constructed. There is a documentary quality of being immediately present while at the same being culturally and historically codified.
Like a cinematographer returning to painting as a kind of primeval touchstone for film?
Absolutely. It’s about image, about canceling movement to a certain degree, and making the film something like a slide show. That art was misrecognised or misinterpreted as avant-garde. It’s not avant-garde at all.
In that sense, should we say that Tarkovsky’s polaroids aren’t just parallel to his practice as a filmmaker? Are they, rather, an extension of his craft?
I would say they very much reveal, from a kind of side perspective, the way he is making his films. He made the films as sequences of instantaneous images that were recognized by him, and are recognized potentially by a spectator, as being always already codified. From a different perspective, Baudrillard said that when you look at a naked woman the nakedness is no revelation because naked female bodies are something initially codified, already cultural artifacts. Tarkovsky looks at the world but the world is not a revelation. It is nothing that is originally there. It is already an image in a kind of historical succession that relates to something that he has seen before, whose construction he already knows about.
And yet, these polaroids were intended for private consumption.
But whatever you do as an artist you always keep in mind the possibility of publication. If you are writing a diary or a letter you always have this chance in mind. It’s always a part of your artistic production. The polaroids are a different side of his artistic imagination or the fabric of his artistic activity – how he constructs the film series of images around individual images.
As a filmmaker, how unique is Tarkovsky’s approach to still-photography? That is to say, is it radically at odds with the practice of other filmmaker-photographers like David Lynch or Wim Wenders?
No, I don’t think so. Some filmmakers are very good at expressing movement, or the concept of movement itself, with everything at high speed. For them, film is fundamentally about movement. However, you also have filmmakers that are very much about individual images. Their films are a succession or series of individual images that move very slowly. Tarkovsky is one of them. David Lynch is also slow and so is Wim Wenders. These filmmakers, who put together this thread of individual images, are very much about painting and unmoving images. There is this option to interpret film as a succession of individual images and Tarkovsky belongs to that part of the cinematographic tradition. Edited by Nadim Samman © White Space Gallery
Andrey Tarkovsky Bright Bright Day Russian edition available: http://www.whitespacegallery.co.uk/product/andrey-tarkovsky/