Charles Esche

                                     Animal Magic.

                   Oleg Kulik or how one person dealt

                      with the collapse of everything.

It is obviously impossible to extract the work of any artist from his or her context. Abstract Expressionism could only be conceived at a time when ‘freedom’ became ideologically loaded during the Cold War; Pop Art could not be thought out in an era of consumerism and excessive product promotion; Relational Aesthetics is an unexpected product of the imposition of neo-liberal policies etc. This is not to say that artists have no agency as individuals; rather they are shaped by their environment and act within its confines. They are limited not only by what they want to make but also by what their viewers or patrons find meaningful. This shared framework, or ecology of survival, is necessary if the work is to appear significant in the world; and be distributed, discussed, written about and turned into art history.

It is important to repeat this quite obvious fact because it might seem that the work of Oleg Kulik is more dependent on his geographic and political context than most other art from the 1990s. If it is true that he is a product of late Soviet and early Russian Federation conditions, this is neither exceptional nor surprising. Perhaps it is the uniqueness of late twentieth century history in his homeland that might make his work appear extreme or aggressive at first sight. Bodies under stress and pushing their limits probably always do. Yet examining his own ecology of survival more closely might give pause for the thought that he made some quite rational and moderate choices in his forms of expression. To understand this, we need to look quickly back at the manner of the shift away from Soviet communism to global capitalism as it occurred in Russia after 1991.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was sudden and quite unexpected. The last party secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, was deposed in a coup attempt that failed. The drawn out mess that followed eventually elected Boris Yeltsin as head of a new state – the Russian Federation. To cut a long story short, his government sold or gave over to private ownership, huge swathes of previously publicly owned assets and resources in an uncontrolled and chaotic process that ultimately concentrated wealth in the hands of a very few super-rich individuals. Similar to the production of art and its relation to the social context, the production of oligarchs is subject to social context; it also shapes relations within society. The harshness, the excess, the greed, the grandeur, the subterfuge and the violence of the 1990s privatisations all spilled out into the streets and the way post-Soviet citizens went about their daily life. What had been a stagnant society with power in the hands of a gerontocracy had become by 1992 a winner-takes-all bear pit. Adjusting to the new reality changed the parameters of socially acceptable behaviour in sometimes shockingly unexpected ways.

As an artist of his capacity, Oleg Kulik could not but respond to what he saw and sensed around him. One of the traditional tasks that art takes upon itself is to try to serve as a seismograph, measuring what might not yet be visible on the surface of the world. At the least art wants to be a mirror which reflects society back to itself in unexpected ways. The brutal changes of the 1990s were the most pressing concern for many Russians at the time. How to survive them? How to function within them? How to understand what was happening? In such a rapid, energising, cruel environment, the old techniques of analysis, critique, irony, distance must have seemed a little ridiculous to Kulik and his contemporaries. One of the first significant artistic actions he undertook was in 1992. In the Regina Gallery, among the first commercial art spaces in Moscow, he butchered a pig in public and distributed cuts of meat to the visitors in lieu of a catalogue or text about the work. For Kulik, the work made an immediate reference to the politics of the time, where public calls for transparency were simultaneously issued together with barely secret deals to carve up the Soviet state’s assets behind people’s backs. Kulik saw a parallel between the desire for meat and the refusal to acknowledge or even look at its means of production. In the emerging post-communist society’s he saw a similar silent complicity in how ‘those petty bourgeois in Russia closed their eyes, didn’t want to know what was going on, what the authority is doing. This kind of attitude lets the authorities be uncontrolled’.

Of course, this action was also intended to provoke the new bourgeoisie as much as to criticise them. It produced the required reaction, with the gallery attacked and its windows smashed. Here was the kind of image of the new Russian society that he wanted, and it was one that was not so much created by him as an artist reflecting on his world in his studio, but it was shaped spontaneously in the actual moments of the performance as an explosion of raw action: blood, anger, life, death, disgust and animalistic power. The pleasure that Kulik found in this reaction was certainly formative in how his art practice would develop, as was the sense of risk that it provided; the feeling of performing at the edge of what might be acceptable, legal or even possible. In fact, he drew the most profound conclusions for his subsequent work less in terms of how to elicit the appropriate reactions and more in relation to the material subject of this work – the importance of human-animal relations.

There follow throughout the 1990s a long and variegated series of works in which the animal in the human (or vice versa) become the subject of a consistent and often physically challenging investigation. The artist put himself through thresholds of endurance and pain in order to reveal what he must have understood to be a more profound reality underlying this new Muscovite society in transition. It is probably difficult now for readers to imaginatively reconstruct the 1990s in Russia. Perhaps some statistics will help a little, though it is difficult to be certain of their accuracy. Russian GDP fell by about 50% between 1991 and the economic crisis of 1998; agricultural production reduced by 55%; and life expectancy declined by almost 5 years. At the same time, the income inequality index more than doubled to one of the highest levels in the world. One could say that in the mid-1990s there was very little veneer left to hide the animal passions of raw, unmitigated capital appropriation. This is precisely why Kulik’s animal works of the time felt like a justified response to his world and also why they found a receptive public. Kulik started out performing as a dog, and that remains perhaps his most well-known role, but he also turned himself into a bird and a cross between a goat and a horned devil, and even posed as the leader of the Party of the Animals, for which he stood as a candidate in the 1996 Russian Presidential elections.

Yet it is too limiting to explain Kulik’s work entirely within the frame of the collapse of real existing communism and the violence of the transition to what has been called the klepto-capitalism of today. As he quickly discovered from 1996 onwards his work touched on taboos within western culture and art society as well, and the reactions could be just as aggressive. First in Zürich and later in Stockholm, Kulik’s canine behaviour transgressed both the law and the borders of the art world’s liberalism. As the artist wrote soon afterwards and to facilitate his participation in the first Manifesta exhibition in Rotterdam:

‘I thought that in Russia one could feel these processes (the crisis of culture and alienation) as nowhere else. I thought that we were different, and the cause was inside us, in eternal ambitions of a cultural super-power in the situation of insolvent actual cultural events. In Moscow, I became a dog. I growled there and demonstrated a dog’s devotion to an artist’s ambitions. I was not going to export an artist’s experience without a language outside the Muscovite context. But while getting to know the Western context, I found out that my programme is applicable there as well.

What we read in this perhaps rather forced explanation of his work are the beginnings of a very interesting and long-lasting paradox in post-1989 contemporary art. By recognising the impossibility of exporting his context in full, he acknowledges the end of any claim to artistic universalism that had been the false currency of the modernist New York school from the 1950s onwards. Yet the fact that the work was still ‘applicable’ meant that it was not only an exotic ‘other’ to the West but work that touched on something inherent in that more established capitalist system as well – or more accurately in how that system was changing. If Kulik is right here, what he sees in the process of transposing his work out of Russia might be the cultural effects of economic globalisation impacting on art in the mid-1990s already. This is an early and significant observation. Given that art then was still largely determined by national or regional styles – we need only think of the market’s ‘discovery’ of art scenes in Scandinavia, Scotland or Poland in the 1990s – Kulik’s understanding is in advance of most others. He points the way to a much more transformative change in which the specificities of culture, although always located in a particular place, become ‘applicable’ elsewhere and can therefore enter the discourse on equal terms. In recognising the appropriateness of his work, and his own body, to conditions in a Sweden and Germany he perhaps unconsciously provokes the insight that European society in general is in the process of changing. Looking back, we can all see that the end of communism profoundly destabilised western European social democracy and prepared the way for the various versions of klepto-capitalism we all suffer today. Kulik’s ‘mad dog’ in 1996 is thus the perfect harbinger of where we are 21 years later.

One might see capacity for prediction also in his adoption of animals as his means to perform and communicate. Long before the idea of the Anthropocene and the destructive power of human intervention was widely accepted, Kulik claimed that ‘anthropocentrism was at an end’ and that animals needed to be taken into account as part of human ecological and ethical survival.

If Kulik’s work of the 1990s could be understood as visionary in this sense, it is perhaps not so surprising. Again, the Russian tradition of the artistic seer who can predict the world is one way to understand his work, but there is also a wider avant-garde tradition that could account for it. It is a tradition that arguably stretches all the way back to 18th century Europe and figures like the Marquis de Sade. However, the easiest link to make is to late 19th century ideas stemming from the French Decadent movement associated with Baudelaire and Huysmans. Here the idea of shocking the prim and proper middle classes, (or épater la bourgeoisie) was first articulated. The shock was needed because the conformist social order had nothing to offer beyond the reproduction of its own power. Interestingly, the movement was also influential for a time in pre-revolutionary Russia, when artists such as Vasily Masyutin were drawing half-human/half-animal creations that mocked social laws and customs. These decadent forebears of Kulik however rarely seem to have shared the degree of idealism and anger at social conditions that gives Kulik’s work so much energy. Indeed where they were torpid and apathetic, Kulik’s work is full of an often very literally physical energy in the way that exhausts his body and voice and tests his limits in order to become an animal. His bodily effort is clear to see in his work and seems to emerge from a volcano of contained emotion that is directed into the performance.

Thus it is perhaps less theories of decadence that define his approach to work, however much a superficial nihilism seems to be present. Rather, a more sociological theory might be useful to ground the works, especially Durkheim’s idea of deviance. Taking Durkheim at his word helps us at least in part to see what the motivation and effect of Kulik’s work might be not only in Russia but, as we have seen, for the wider global culture that is emerging in parallel to economic globalisation. Durkheim identifies deviance as a violation of social expectations and gives it four positive functions: affirming cultural values and norms, clarifying moral boundaries, promoting social unity and encouraging social change. While it feels far too definitive and limiting to ascribe these values to Kulik’s complex provocations, I still believe they are useful concepts in assisting us to understand why an artist would decide to do something as apparently absurd as act like a dog or goat in public and call it his art. What to bourgeois society might appear to be a refusal to use the imagined benefit of his artistry, his education and cultural capacity; what might appear as a rejection of beauty or human achievement, is precisely not what it appears. Rather it is an attempt to stay faithful to idea of art as a tool to search out the truth and to demonstrate the hypocrisy of those very concepts in a world of unmitigated global capitalist appropriation. This is where the idealism and honesty in Kulik’s work turns away from cynicism or nihilism and reinforces the potential of acting within an ethical value system. It turns the shock of decadence and the fear of deviance into a force pushing for a different and better world where humans are treated as animals because animals are treated as humans.