Ekaterina Degot

                Like a Fish in Water: Oleg Kulik in the 1990s

In his 1990s performances, Oleg Kulik usually presented himself as a character after the end of history, who left behind rationality and embraced the world of affect. One of his spontaneous actions was even later named The End of History. In the summer of 1995, during a visit with friends to the imperial residency of Peterhof, he suddenly started offering a sex service to one of the wax figures of emperors in the museum and then began masturbating in front of the last Russian imperial family before he was led out. Kulik’s text and interviews claim that we need to give up reflection and follow our biological and animal self, which has to be discovered in the process of a ‘zoophrenic’ split the personality. (It should be noted that despite all of Kulik’s insistence in overcoming discourse, it is on the latter that his work of the 1990s is based, - on the discourse elaborated for him by this-then wife and co-author Ludmila Bredikhina, whose participation in his projects has not been properly acknowledged; Zoophrenia, in particular, is her project.) Nevertheless Kulik, and primarily Kulik as actionist, turned out to be a historic and political artist.

In The End of History, many recognized the figure of the Coming Boor, described in 1906 by the writer Dmitri Merezhkovsky as ‘ a philistine coming to power’ and fully immersed in animal instincts. We can as easily see the ‘end of history’ here as understood by Alexander Kojeve, in which man loses the desire for fame, glory, and prestige and turns into an animal, at which point the negative (reflective) period of human existence comes to an end. In the spirit of Kozeve’s philosophy, Kulik truly did ‘turn into an animal’—that same autumn of 1994 saw his first performance as a ‘dog’ (The Last Taboo, Guarded by the Lonely Cerberus, or The Mad Dog), and six months later he made his first appearance in that role in front of the Kunsthalle in Zurich as a guard dog, and he continued ‘being a dog’ for a few more years.

Even though Kulik used to work with horses and goats, preached to fish, flew like a bird, and photographed dead monkeys, he is remembered as a dog, and particularly in the historic and political facets of this animal’s symbolism, deeply imbued the dialectically entangled images of mastery and submission. Before starting his performance practice, Kulik was working as a curator of exhibitions at the Regina Gallery in Moscow (1991-1993), in which he treated the audience sadistically, presenting it with a difficult moral choice and sense of guilt. He once placed an artist’s painting  on the threshold so that it would be stepped on; on another occasion, he turned an opening into a banquet serving lots of roasted meat in big chunks but not offering the starving and poor guests knives or forks. For the Apology for Shyness exhibit he hired a regiment of impoverished (at that moment in history) soldiers who had stand for several hours holding paintings with outstretched arms to please the visitors. For the action Piglet Hands Out Gifts, he invited a butcher to kill and butcher a piglet right in the gallery and then offered meat for guests to bring home. In the context of Russia—a country of several bloody and forced modernizations (from Peter the Great to Stalin), a country of unspent and unconscious slavery (serfdom was not abolished until 1861 and while formally erased by the October 1917 Revolution it was instead strengthened by the collective farm policy), a country of terror that divided every family into victims and executioners, prisoners and guards—in the context of the criminal 1990s all these themes of power and taming these were not innocent remarks; they referenced the most essential elements of the past. 

Kulik became an artist not of the end of history in general, but of a historically concrete ‘end of history’ of the 1990s, when according to Fukuyama (popular then in Russia) the West allegedly won its final victory since there was no Communist ‘Other’ left. This ‘end of history,’ as we know, did not last long: the early 2000s brought a completely different paradigm—national ethnic, and religious particularities involved in a ‘clash of civilizations,’ which led to the appearance of new autocratic regimes both in the West and in the East. Kulik’s performances, like all Moscow actionism, marked a brief but vibrant period when the figures of terrorist and dictator were still perceived as pure metaphor.

Paradoxically, the end-of-history discourse in early 1990s Russia coexisted with another, at first seeming contradictory, discourse that maintained the USSR had rejoined history after missing out on decades.  If you accept that, then the USSR returned to history only to discover, with astonishment, that history was no more and the world could no longer be seen in confrontation of two systems. Until the end of the USSR, these systems officially were at odds with each other, but their respective intellectuals and dissidents criticized their own system in the first place, pointing out the superiority of the foe, particularly in the sphere of rights and freedoms, no matter how differently they were understood on either side of the Iron Curtain. Instead of that clear picture, based on both sides on a welfare state, a clear ideological scheme, and a critical approach, the post-Soviet world in the early 1990s was like an open totality without any frame of reference, in which people had to stop criticizing and instead devote themselves to their physical and social survival, or rather, asocial survival, since the society had fallen apart and turned against any form of solidarity and social support. The post-Soviet media constantly trumpeted the neoliberal idea of survival of the fittest, and its social-Darwinist character left no option for the post-Soviet subject than becoming an animal.

The ‘surviving animal’ was supposed to find its place in a single, holistically undivided world after the fall of the Wall, an environment now understood as natural.  ‘Natural’ capitalism replaced ‘unnatural’ communism. People were expected to learn to navigate like a bird in the sky or a fish in water in this naturalized capitalism. The press kept writing that the post-Soviet subject had to learn how to live in a capitalist society, stop expecting support from the state and help from friends, be competitive and aggressive in a good way. The ability to swim, fly, move, and live through the situation in time, represented in Kulik’s performances,  evinces enormous will for adaptation, and not for resistance as in, for example, the actions of the other major Russian actionist of the period, Alexander Brener.

This is a good place to look into the following episode: in November 1994, Kulik came to see an art action that at the end did not take place (because of weather) in which the artists wanted to cross a pond on inflatable boats, referencing the Cuban dissidents who were leaving the Island of Freedom for American freedom. This was a subtle reading of the contradiction between the Soviet understanding of freedom (creative self-development of the individual with the state controlling the basic needs, including place of residence) and the western one (freedom of consumer choice, including place of residence). Kulik responded to this unresolved dilemma by choosing his own freedom, the freedom of the irrational act, devoid of state support and the aim of direct profit. He unexpectedly stripped, jumped into the water, and swam across the pond (when it was almost below freezing outside). He later stressed that this had not been a conscious decision and that at that moment he had lost his human nature.

This is perhaps the only action of Kulik’s that has not been documented. Usually they were all accompanied by the clicking shutters and whirring video cameras of invited journalists. Acting like a fish in water meant also navigating the public media sphere, being a successful ‘medianaut,’ ‘traveling in circles and shining’ (a metaphor that Kulik realized literally in his An Armadillo for Your Show, in which he was covered in tiny mirrors and hung suspended from the ceiling, like a disco ball, the evening of the opening of a group exhibition).

In the early 1990s Kulik was hesitating whether that new totality should not be interpreted, along the lines of Russian Slavophile philosophy, as a kind of pre- and ir-rationality that is specifically Russian, where Western logic is powerless and to which one must simply ‘belong’, as in belonging to a Russian peasant commune (‘obschchina’). Another action in which Kulik unexpectedly and dizzyingly ‘dove’ into a totality, giving himself to it fully and stopping critical judgment, was in the summer of 1993, when he took another walk with friends, this time in a countryside outside Moscow.  Taking  a stroll, he soon came across a metaphor for a ‘chthonic’ formless cave, the source of incomprehensible pre-rational truth in which one must just ‘be’: a cow’s vagina. With his usual fearlessness, he stuck his head into it (at least, that is how he tells the story). This and other exploits are captured in photographs in the book Into the Depths of Russia (1993), which he co-authored with the writer Vladimir Sorokin.

In all his actions, many of which were truly dangerous for him (the glue used to attach the mirrors almost poisoned him), Kulik thematized the physical price a person pays to ‘live in the present,’ to navigate in the ephemeral media-moment. In the 1990s with emerging relational aesthetics, contemporary art began to see contemporaneity as the moment of the ‘here and now’, of sensual pleasure, rather than as a system of specific modern values within a historical paradigm. This was a ‘gentrification of contemporaneity’, of sorts, in which the artist played the role of agent of change. Many artists of the 1990s used scenarios of providing various services to the viewers (massage, meals together….). Kulik, biting its audience , can be seen as a a mischievous but realistic parody to it.

Kulik’s dog is a historical animal, not in the least soothed by its consumerism, as Kojeve had thought; it is a ‘negative animal’ (in the formulation of philosopher Oksana Timofeyeva), an animal that desires, an animal not yet in tune with itself, and hungering.  Hungering for what? Perhaps food, perhaps the flames of glory (‘prestige’ in Kojeve’s meaning). Or perhaps the hunger is intransitive and not directed at a concrete object.

What we see in Kulik’s performances is obviously not a dog but a man who tries, with mixed results, to turn into a dog, or perhaps a wolf, in order to become truly contemporary, truly competitive, accepting whole-heartedly and bodily the maxim ‘Man is a wolf to his fellow man.’ This was not easy for a post-Soviet subject brought up on the concepts of friendship and solidarity. Kulik writes about the difficulties of going on all fours, lapping water from a bowl, and defecating in public (almost as difficult as it was for Gregor Samsa to open a door with the mouth of an insect, which he had become). This frustrated transformation dialectically represents the opposite vector as well: the thwarted desire of a dog to become human.

In the social context of late1980s USSR, the main text on this theme was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog (1925), banned at the time of its being written and published only in 1989. The protagonist, an ancien regime bourgeois intellectual, Professor Preobrazhensky, experimentally transplants the pituitary gland of an alcoholic worker into a dog named Sharik, which turns into the humanoid monster Poligraf Sharikov who immediately starts to claim ‘hegemony’ in accordance with new proletarian class politics. In the 1990s and up to our times, Bulgakov’s novella was read and used by well-educated and well-off liberal intelligentsia as an argument in favor of social racism, Sharikov becoming a metaphor of  traditionally animalized and dehumanized ‘ordinary people,’ workers (or more precisely, peasants, since Bulgakov’s Sharikov is a parody on the peasant masses that poured into the city after the revolution).  Kulik is a provincial who spent several years in the countryside before coming to Moscow, and it is only natural he identifies with Sharik and Sharikov. In his universe, the character who represents these ‘Sharikov’ qualities is called Skotinin (after the character by Russian 18th century playwright Fonvizin; the word skot means brute).  It is a kind of preventive self-animalization by a subaltern.

Kulik’s intentional self-humiliation is tied to his polemics with Moscow Conceptualism, the young generation of which dominated the Moscow scene in the early 1990s (almost the entire older generation of conceptualists had left the country by then). One of the key positions of the conceptualists in Russia was the idea of their monopoly on discursive commentary, while  Soviet man was seen as profoundly ‘wordless’, incapable of self-reflection and reflection of his own condition. Conceptualists insisted on having a monopoly on the ‘understanding’ of those, who in Andrei Platonov’s words, lived ‘without realizing their sorrow.’ There was a tinge of a colonialist, slightly disdainful attitude toward the ‘aborigines,’ since the conceptualists saw themselves, as they said, as members of an ‘international geographical club,’ that is, representatives of a fictional colonial administration located somewhere in Europe (and before which they in turn felt culturally marginalized, colonialized subjects of an inferior sort).

Kulik’s attitude toward local culture and the local ‘humanity,’ as Platonov would have put it, is completely different: he, as said before, is a provincial, a parvenu, and not a privileged intellectual from the capital. On top of that, and relevantly so, he is Ukrainian, still, brought up, as were many in those years, in the culturally and politically dominant Russian language and tradition—more a colonized than a colonizing subject. Therefore his oeuvre is not about a reflexive, aloof analysis but rather about a continual vacillation: either the subject proudly assumes the assigned role of a creature that does not think but only feels (‘becomes an animal’) or he immerses himself in the doomed assimilation fantasies (‘becomes human’). The latter were described paradigmatically by Franz Kafka in his famous short story ‘A Report to an Academy’ in the figure of a captured ape that with great difficulty tries to adjust to human cultural codes (for example, getting drunk).  Like Kulik, it senses that the only choice it faces is between the zoo and the music hall. Kafka’s protagonist rejects the zoo with horror. Kulik’s protagonist–the man-dog in the lens of television cameras—turns the zoo into a music hall.

In the landscape of contemporary discourse the attempts to liberate the animalistic, the pre-modern, the local from the pressure of European modernization in Kulik’s performances are now retrospectively read within a decolonizing paradigm. Usually this type of discourse identifies a person first of all in the categories of his ‘culture.’ For a post-Soviet, post-internationalist subject, for whom culture just recently had been a single and transnational concept, this was totally new and even excitingly dangerous, because the search for national roots had been monopolized by reactionaries from the very beginning of Russian intellectual history. To begin sincerely seeking these ‘roots’ in a cow’s vagina, freed not even so much from European rationalism as from one’s sweet dependence on it, was in the 1990s—for an artist in the Russian discourse context—a politically and intellectually transgressive act, a risky and head-spinning adventure.

Many people lived through this adventure, but only a few managed to stop in time. The 1990s were brief and broke off when the discourse of criticizing the dominant Western model and seeking one’s own identity—the decolonizing discourse—was perverted in Russia and appropriated by the authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church as an officially patriotic one. The potential for subversion was lost. Traveling to the other side of reason stopped being an exciting adventure and became a career move. Kulik, fortunately, did not find the strength to become a ‘state artist,’ as he had provocatively wished for. But not long before Putin’s slogan of ‘getting up off our knees’ (a demonstration of the end of self-flagellation and of cultural independence from Europe), Kulik paradoxically showed that this ‘getting up’ necessarily looks like getting down on all fours.