The genre of ‘album’ that Victor Pivovarov – along with his fellow Moscow conceptualist artists – has been developing for almost half a century has in fact baroque roots. ‘Album’ was not its first and only name. In the 1970s, when Victor Pivovarov and Ilya Kabakov started to produce their first albums, there were two competing definitions of what they were doing. Kabakov preferred to use the now definitive term while Pivovarov used to call his works ‘conclusiones’ referring to a specific art phenomenon that had flourished at Ukrainian centers of theological learning before the territories lost their independence to Russia. After the battle of Poltava, conclusiones – ornamental didactic drawings accompanied by texts – became a part of the ‘Petrine baroque’, a short but very joyful period in Russian art.
Baroque is by definition funny due to its incongruities, arrested attempts at pompousness, and seriousness that turns into foolish platitudes due to prolixity and excess of details. The album – or, rather, a conclusio – that Viktor Pivovarov shows in this video is extremely amusing. You see animals appearing from nowhere to look at Lenin, you read about Lenin howling at nights, you see Stalin lacking a penis and learn that this horrible killer of millions died with a children’s book in his hands.
Something funny is no longer frightening. This conclusio must have had a therapeutic meaning in 1988 when Pivovarov started to work on it. Late perestroika, with its endless publications of documents on the early revolutionary terror, the Civil War atrocities and the Gulag horrors invited someone very clever to look at the dreary matters indirectly. There was a need to reconcile the late Soviet hagiography of Lenin with the historical truths the Russians suddenly found out. It felt right to create a baroque world centered on the two tyrants whose epoch had just gone and seemed never to return. It felt very humane to save the voices of ‘simple people’ who witnessed the epoch and perceived it as a spooky one rather than criminal. Reports of the Contemporaries was to mark the end of an epoch.
This conclusio instructed how to impregnate the symbols of Soviet life, which was experienced by the Moscow conceptualists as devoid of culture and meaning, with innumerable references to art history, world literature, folklore, religious studies, psychoanalysis, etc. In this album, the poor Soviet Leniniana stripped of real meaning and the mysterious figure of Stalin that was entirely absent from the late Soviet official discourse regained themselves amid real voices of real people living in the bright world full of allusions, parallels, symbols and signs. Commentaries attached to each page of the album helped to read this world meaningfully.
However, Reports of Contemporaries was not finished then. It found its final form in 2001 when a new epoch of Russian history started to form itself furtively. In this epoch, the bright new reality of abundant life was to distract its participants from clear thought and solid knowledge of the past by forming a cozy world of nostalgic reminiscences. Now everything related to the still lingering epoch suddenly became nice and dear and the horrors of the early Soviet life and Stalinist camps were shadowed by the tales of technological advances, the encomia of the Russian avant-garde art and the recapitulations of adventurous 20th century’s lives. In this context, Reports of Contemporaries became a parody to the Russian average perception of history. History, as the album suggests, is never our own, it lacks reality, it is inhabited with monsters, androgynous creatures and demigods, it’s governed by mysterious forces and requires two mirrors reflecting each other on the Red Square to understand its meaning. This confused consciousness is speaking in the voices of strange little people each of whom knows for certain its little absolute truth.
Magic and metaphors aside, two mirrors reflecting each other usually produce vacuum. In this sense, Victor Pivovarov’s Reports of Contemporaries proved truly didactic, as befits a conclusio. ‘Russia is like a vacuum cleaner’, Vladimir Putin has recently admitted. ‘It sucks in new and new territories’. It sucks them in by engulfing them with magic stories and fake reports similar to those presented in this album.