The Russian art scene today often seems to be just another victim of homogenizing international trends. So when you entered the Moscow-based artist Yakov Kazhdan’s recent solo exhibition, you might have thought you’d already seen it in Berlin, Rome or Miami. In “Art Delivers People,” Kazhdan offered recent videos, drawings, photographs and installations (all 2009 or ’10) whose message, because of the prominent use of the English language throughout, many Muscovites would have found themselves at a loss to grasp.
The exhibition started with a parody of Richard Serra’s video Television Delivers People (1973), an analysis of the corporatization of American television that employs short, scrolling sentences and bright elevator music. In Kazhdan’s 10-minute projected video Art Delivers People. after Richard Serra, the artist generally follows the text of the original with some changes, most importantly substituting the word “art” for “television.” He eliminates the soundtrack and distortions of the comparatively crudely made original in favor of a cleaned-up digital version. As a result of his alterations to the language, the piece brings to mind Ad Reinhardt’s playful commentaries on art, and seems to critique contemporary Russian art’s tendency to rely on graphic design over conceptual rigor.
The installation Etiquette dominated the next room. Comprising English and Russian texts neatly printed on stickers adhered to the wall, the piece lifts phrases written in current business lingo from sources like thank-you notes and creditor’s demands; the wall of text highlights language that was unknown in mainstream Russian culture before the 1990s. In front of the wall sat the round, white wooden Discussion Table, its top not flat but stepped up in several geometric tiers in a way that recalls De Stijl or Bauhaus design. Kazhdan has regularly referenced historical avant-garde artists, ever since his early performances (Long Live Tatlin’s Art, 2000). From another perspective, the work recalls a 3D pie chart. Still, if there was a critique of current corporate culture in these two works, it was lost among the slickness.
On the second floor a row of five marble slabs hung on the wall, theatrically spotlighted, each about a foot high and ranging from 20 to 35 inches wide. Titled, in imperfect English, When Did You Study Latin Alphabet?, they featured engraved English letters and words: QWERTY, DISORDER, IWASHMYHANDS, WORK and DAPHNE. The presentation resembled a museum display of segments from a Roman frieze. Each plate is accompanied by a small photograph, printed on metal, that hangs underneath the slab and features a view of marble sculpture in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, such as that of a woman’s body covered in graffiti.
The projected 5-minute video Focus Groups concluded the exhibition. A form of consumer research, focus-group videos are a staple of modern marketing and political campaigns, but in his video Kazhdan shows his peers, artists with whom he has previously collaborated, sitting quietly and gazing into the distance as if weighing important decisions. Is he suggesting that business techniques have penetrated the making and marketing of art? If so, the members of his focus group may wonder whether Kazhdan himself has been seduced by the very culture he means to criticize.
Photo: View of Yakov Kazhdan’s exhibition, showing Etiquette (on wall) and Discussion Table (on floor), both 2010; at GMG.