– Spring 2014

Mundane Virtuosity: Olga Chernysheva’s Work on Video

Robert Bird

Olga Chernysheva, Surok (Marmot), 1999, video, colour, sound, 2min 30sec, stills. All images courtesy the artist; DIEHL, Berlin; and Foxy Production, New York

The protesters file by, their obscure cause betrayed by their disheartened posture.
 The loneliness of the march is disrupted only by small groups deep in conversation, indifferent to the occasion that has gathered them. There is nothing of visual interest here: a wintry street; drearily clothed pensioners; a Russian-made police car; Marlboro logos on street kiosks. In search of a subject, the camera zooms out, then zeroes in on a woman clad in fur at the left margin of the scene. The demonstration and its minor subplots become a vague backdrop for the profoundly private, even lonely self-absorption of our heroine, proud in her anachronistic elegance, transfixed by the contents of her handbag. She fixes a brooch on her neck and gathers a pile of coins, perhaps the proceeds from selling the newspaper she carries multiple copies of, named after a battle cry of the Soviet Army in World War II: Za rodinu! Za Stalina! (For the Motherland! For Stalin! ) We make out a laminated portrait of the great man himself that she has temporarily put down as she sorts out her other belongings. It’s a veritable juggling act. A character comes into focus: she has been driven to idealise the past by her poverty, though her impoverishment might equally be seen as a refuge from the present. Her character in turn clarifies the event from which she has defected momentarily: these are the outcasts of the new Russia, rallying around the ideology they associate

  1. Olga Chernysheva, ‘Marmot’, in Antonio Geusa (ed.), History of Russian Video Art, vol.1, Moscow: Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p.172. Translation adjusted for emphasis.

  2. Ibid.

  3. On the packaging of post-communism, see ‘The Temporalities of Soviet and Postcommunist Visual Culture: Boris Groys and Petre Petrov in Conversation’ (with Robert Bailey and Cristina Albu), Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture, no.1, 2011, p.58, available at http://contemporaneity.pitt.edu/ojs/ index.php/contemporaneity/article/view/34 (last accessed on 19 October 2013).

  4. See A. Geusa (ed.), History of Russian Video Art, op. cit., pp.98—104.

  5. Kulik later included footage of Mad Dog among other animal-related performances in the compendium Kulik: Aktsii i performansy (Kulik: Actions and Performances, 1994—97). See ibid., p.103.

  6. Adrian Piotrovsky, ‘E. Chervyakov’, Zhizn’ iskusstva, no.33, 1928, pp.8—9. Translation the author’s.

  7. László Krasznahorkai’s Az ellenállás melankóliája (1989) is the novel on which Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000) is based; published in English as The Melancholy of Resistance (trans. George Szirtes), London: Quartet Books, 1998. On pensive spectatorship, see, for example, Laura Mulvey, ‘The Pensive Spectator’, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, London: Reaktion Books, 2006, pp.181—96; Raymond Bellour, ‘The Pensive Spectator’, Wide Angle, vol.9, no.1, 1987, pp.6—10; and Jacques Rancière, ‘The Pensive Image’, The Emancipated Spectator (trans. Gregory Elliott), London: Verso, 2009, pp.107—32.

  8. Aleksandr Sokurov, ‘Ob izobrazitel’nom reshenii fil’ma’, in Liubov’ Arkus (ed.), Sokurov: Chast’ rechi, Saint Petersburg: Seans, 2006, p.509. Translation the author’s.

  9. On the contradictions in Sokurov’s use of a digital camera, see Natascha Drubek-Meyer, ‘An Ark
for a Pair of Media: Sokurov’s Russian Ark’, Artmargins [online magazine], 5 May 2003, available at http://artmargins.com/index.php/6-film-a-video/273-an-ark-for-a-pair-of-media-sokurovs-russian-ark (last accessed on 19 October 2013).

  10. Birgit Beumers, ‘And the Ark Sails On...’, in B. Beumers and Nancy Condee (ed.), The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov, London: I.B. Tauris, 2011, p.184.