Vadim Voinov’s Flotsam and Jetsam of the Past: Reading as Resuscitation
For more than twenty-five years Vadim Voinov has been building his own kingdom of discarded, mislaid, and misbegotten objects, salvaging them from the recent Soviet, and sometimes the more distant, pre-revolutionary, Russian past. He then assembles them into allusive, enigmatic, witty, bitter, and elegiac collage-texts, a genre he has named the functiocollage. The artwork that emerges out of these carefully selected and deployed objects bespeaks a complex knot of references and promptings; memories of the past and premonitions of the future contained within a frame—often an invisible or “zero degree” frame—and placed on a background (most often wooden board).
Voinov’s collages ask to be read differently from the way other kinds of visual art implicate the viewer-as-reader, for the objects and ephemera that form a point of departure for the artwork already function as texts. All of them are recovered mass-produced wares redolent of the purposes and roles they played in the historical past. By juxtaposing them and allowing them to resonate and comment on one another, Voinov subjects them to radical redefinition and reassignment of meaning, in which they come to play a dual role. In the words of Irina Karasik, editor of the first of several albums devoted to his oeuvre: “Voinov’s object, preserving all its qualities and characteristics, immediately proves to be outside the ordinary milieu of existence: it is aggrandized, monumentalized. It acquires the necessary degree of conventionality so that it may become an image, without ceasing to be an object.” (Irina Karasik, A Convoluted Monograph, p. 22)
The larger textual frame within which these collages move is nothing less than history writ large, the “grand narratives” of the 20th century in Russia and beyond: World War I and the Russian revolutions, World War II, the Gulag, Lenin, Stalin, the Siege of Leningrad, the Collectivization of the peasants, show trials and repressions, and the tribulations and tensions of communal living. These are narratives about the forces that intersect with, overshadow, and diminish the experience of individual lives, overriding ordinary mortality (to each his own) and disposing of it en masse. These historical narratives are distilled into the residue of quotidian objects and ephemera that appear in Voinov’s artwork.
Thus, Voinov’s project is not just to interpret the cataclysms of the past, the cataclysms of history, but to do this from the perspective of everyday domestic experiences and people, amounting to a kind of rehabilitation of ordinary life. Voinov loosens it from the grip of time, places it temporarily, belatedly, out of range of the bludgeon of history and its imperatives (the first time around it was not spared), and lets it assume a second, ghostly existence. The objects and ephemera of Voinov’s collages not only speak in the voices of ordinary lives; they seem to become them, metonymically. One feels the hands, the very breath, that touched the objects in their first, utilitarian existence. Indeed, their presence in the collages, their survival in the face of the disasters that are the backdrop for any consideration of Russia in the 20th century, seems to be an affront to the powers and indifference that produced those disasters, and a form of defiance—if not a resurrection of the lives that interacted with those objects and made use of them in the first place.
Voinov’s palette is quiet and muted, like the fading of memory itself. He refurbishes nothing, and attaches his chosen objects to their backgrounds often by the most unassuming, functional means, allowing staples and paper clips to become part of the composition, for example. He leaves traces of his own presence, his own workmanship, making no effort to create a seamless visual text by erasing the evidence of authorial intervention. This is not a workmanship that seeks to beautify or embellish. If anything, Voinov’s artwork seems, rather, to be a form of mourning. As Alexander Borovsky writes in his contribution to A Convoluted Monograph, “With stubborn, straightforward, ponderous single-mindedness, [Voinov] moves toward his goal; the thing (veshch in Russian) bears a message, or news (vest’)—it is no wonder that these words are etymologically related in Russian. This news is for Voinov vitally important, imperative, although frightening and searingly dramatic. Voinov probes the open wounds of history, of the primarily Soviet history of the fatherland.” (p. 20)
As a relative newcomer to St. Petersburg (I have lived here for just over ten years—roughly one-fifth of my life), I inevitably read Voinov differently from someone who has been rooted from birth in the particular ambience and geo-social realities of Russia/the former Soviet Union. I am aware that I contemplate Voinov’s oeuvre, and write about it, precisely from this position of “outsidedness.” The objects that furnish his collages are not emotionally charged with the immediate connection of personal memory for me. However, although the objects he deploys are mass-produced Russian wares, most of them from the Soviet era, Voinov is not a “national” artist in the narrow sense of the word. There is an uncanny familiarity about his collages and the objects they contain. Without falling prey to a facile and disingenuous appropriation of experience and insight that remains out-of-bounds, and therefore impenetrable, to me, I would suggest that they are recognizable, in part, because old objects lose some of their strict “chronotopicality.” The edges of old things grow misty and tattered, obscured. Things fade: colors, sharp lines, intensities. Smooth textures become rough and pock-marked, rough textures become smooth, in the way that extreme old age erodes the distinctions of facial features, in some sense emphasizing the underlying commonality of human physiognomy. Objects from the past look like something we might have known how to use or value had we lived then. In the same way, old things seem strange: quaint, and bordering on the absurd; or sinister, as though they had been forcibly retired after years of unspeakable and compromising activity. There is something uncanny and intimate about these old objects, as though they speak to us directly, and know more about us than we know ourselves.
If, as Alexei Kurbanovsky claims, “history is the cite of an unceasing struggle, of intensive competing narratives: official, dominant, prevailing narratives; and suppressed, waning narratives, a myriad of fragile, human voices . . .” (A Convoluted Monograph, p. 29), then Voinov’s project is one of recuperating these “suppressed, waning narratives,” of creating alternative readings of history, and enlisting the aid of the viewer-as-reader in this project. Indeed, his one-man gallery in the Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center is called “The Bridge Over the River Styx,” clearly implying that his task is one of resuscitating voices relegated to oblivion.
One is immediately struck by the protean range and versatility of Voinov’s talents: beginning, first, as a sailor; then an art historian and a research fellow at a museum; later embarking on his own career in art, as a member of the unofficial art circles of the late Soviet era Leningrad; large-scale publishing projects—albums with reproductions of his collages, critical articles, and his own layout and design; and several solo shows at the Hermitage. These are only the broad lines of his professional career; but even this cursory overview reveals the importance of the word or text (in the conventional, “logocentric” sense) in his work.
Voinov’s titles and texts are never ancillary to the artwork. As Karasik points out, referring to what she calls Voinov’s “nominal semantics,” they are integral to the piece, often functioning as a key to how to read it. (A Convoluted Monograph, p. 22) (And because his collages—perhaps this is true of collages as a genre of visual art, and therefore a commonplace—are constructed of discrete objects, because they are multimedia works, incorporating disparate materials and using different methods, the viewer is all the more eager for visual and textual cues as to how they should be read.)
Voinov’s albums themselves bear other strong traces of logocentrist leanings. They are collage-like in nature, in that they incorporate reproductions of Voinov’s artwork, as well as his “artwords”: maxims or aphorisms, so-called lyrical projections that accompany specific collages or installations, and entries from his Dictionary of New Mythology.
Many of Voinov’s works also make explicit use of texts as part of the composition within the frame (as distinct from the titles, which hover beyond it). The messages on the textual and numerical ephemera that he includes in the collages—labels, packaging, leaflets, announcements, photograph captions—are never random or negligible. The readymade text always contributes to the semantic thrust of the artwork. The significance of numbers and dates in Voinov’s work is hardly less significant than words and texts. A piece he made for an exhibit at the Pushkin Museum is titled “Pushkin 37.” Of course, Pushkin died in his 37th year, in 1837. The page from a children’s schoolbook that figures in the collage dates from the year 1937, the anniversary of his death. It is also, however, the year that marks the height of Stalin’s Great Purges. In Russian, the word purge is directly related to the word cleansing (chistka)—hence, the washboard upon which the objects are mounted.
Thus, the viewer must, of necessity, read these collages as texts, both because texts/words/numbers are so central to the artworks themselves, and because they must be deciphered, i.e. read, in order even truly to “see” them: “Voinov’s old objects . . . which preserve their indissoluble emotional ‘sediment’ . . . are transparent and readable, like rebuses. They are replete with the ‘Other,’ which is overdetermined in art: with the blood and flesh of existence, creating a Benjaminesque ‘aura of authenticity,’ and for this reason they pester and importune, demanding the viewer’s attention, demanding decipherment.” (Kurbanovsky, A Convoluted Monograph, p. 30)
Also striking is the collaborative nature of Voinov’s projects. The albums are both inclusive and participatory, featuring people who were involved in the their making—the practical, as well as the critical, minds and hands behind the effort of publishing the book. The albums go far beyond merely crediting them, or even offering gratitude to them. Contributors and colleagues appear in photographs, and a number of them receive their own personal logos designed by Voinov (which are reproduced in the books). In The State Hermitage Under a Full Moon (which was also the catalogue for the Hermitage exhibit), in a unique form of Bakhtinian dialogism, Voinov responds to the critical articles in the manner of addenda, thus entering into conversation with the authors within the very framework of the articles themselves.
Viewers are not only drawn into the event of the artwork as readers, however. “The State Hermitage Under a Full Moon” exhibit in the General Staff building was distinguished by its participatory nature. More than an installation, it was an “environment” that one entered in order to view the exhibit. Within this space, which had the appearance and ambience of a communal apartment, the viewer was asked to “read” pieces that looked as though they belonged to the environment. The effect was a sort of camouflaging of the artwork, which only gradually revealed itself as a critique of many of the assumptions that characterized and undergirded the “age” of the communal apartment.
One way to consider Voinov’s creation of an environment in which to view the work is as an invitation to viewers to step inside the frame. Perhaps the term “porous frame” would be an apt description of Voinov’s framing practices. (Indeed, in many of Voinov’s collages the objects appear to be spilling out or hurtling beyond the frames.) The “Full Moon” exhibit was held in the unrefurbished margins of the officially sanctioned exhibition spaces of the Hermitage, so that the entire context of the exhibit became both frame and content of the exhibit itself; the exhibit at times even seemed to cede its place to the framing context, inside becoming thus outside, and vice versa.
Even in his newest album, which is devoted to the “backstairs” architecture of the Hermitage (attics and basement spaces, back staircases, auxiliary passageways, etc.), Voinov adopts idiosyncratic framing practices for the purpose of displaying the photographs of this backstairs architecture. While the album does not feature collages per se, the photographs are displayed behind heavy, old-fashioned window sashes. At first glance, this might seem to represent a departure from the use of the “porous frame.” However, a closer examination of the photographs reveals that Voinov is, again, up to his old visual tricks. The heavy window frames and the “scenes” beyond them together constitute another version of collage. Furthermore, the frames have a strange somatic effect, by which the viewer seems to be drawn inside and projected (Alice-in-Wonderland-like) beyond, into the very backstairs spaces of the photographs. Thus, rather than the objects of the collages hurtling beyond the space of the frame, it is now the viewer herself that undergoes these fascinating, seductive perils.
Critics have called attention to Voinov’s preoccupation with cosmic imagery and themes. In A Convoluted Monograph Voinov refers to his artistic style as “Astroconstructivism.” This “cosmic consciousness”—one without reference to a particular deity, without a particular religious orientation—seems to function as a counterweight or an antidote to the strictures of the totalitarian past, in which the state presumes to filter into every aspect of human experience, appropriating for its own uses (cf. “Golden Toilets”). It diminishes, undercuts, the self-aggrandizing, pompous, totalizing machinations of the “leaders” his work features, machinations which had such disastrous consequences. These cosmic leanings are perhaps at the very heart of Voinov’s urge to transcend the frame, and clearly relates to one of the fundamental principles of collage, in which objects and images are by definition removed from their “proper” places or contexts and anachronistically jostled around.
Moreover, the object-images in his collages do not seem to become stable and sedentary in their new surroundings, but to maintain an air of provisionality. In this sense, Voinov’s artwork problematizes the notion both of reading and of viewing the work by drawing the objects that comprise it into this field of instability, in which they no longer mean what they purported to mean in their original temporal incarnations. The objects become unmoored in space and time. Even the oblique lines and the “tilt” of the composition in many of his collages seem to project the objects of the past headlong into the future. The artist loosens them, pries them out of the “bedrock” of their origins, and sails them like kites that move freely through time and space, fluttering and pulsing with new life. (Indeed, many of the rhomboid shapes in his compositions are reminiscent of kites.) In other instances they seem to be quietly, acquiescently waiting for someone to nudge them back into life, to shake them out of their morose, sullen lethargy.
In Voinov’s works, once-privileged voices are silenced, and forgotten or neglected voices, the mute voices that never spoke at all, become audible. This does not mean that the imagery in his collages admits of delimited readings, of closure, however; the objects do not always or necessarily speak in clear, lucid voices (which is perhaps connected to Voinov’s wariness of the non-porous frame). In the words of Kurbanovsky, “Voinov’s message, too, drowning among old shreds of wallpaper, posters and newspapers, labor union membership cards and photographs, shovels, watches, and telephone receivers, seems to be vitally significant, and at the same time unarticulated: like some sort of mournful wail of quotidian existence. In other words, we are dealing with a psychoanalytical issue, an issue of the unconscious.” (A Convoluted Monograph, p. 30) What Kurbanovsky identifies in psychoanalytic terms as the unconscious is, in another interpretive key, the very cosmic awareness that pervades much of Voinov’s oeuvre. This awareness is a gesture that insists on something beyond the delimited sphere of politics and history; because, for all its presumptuous totalitarian striving to include, to account for, to appropriate and subsume every aspect of human experience, there is always something beyond the box, the envelope, the cage—indeed, the frame. God was banished, exiled to the past, exiled “elsewhere,” since this was the phenomenon least amenable to rational explanation and control. But the cosmic consciousness, which is a mainstay of Voinov’s artistic vision, remained, and remains. Although his art is about the human being in the specific circumstances of a historical place and time and makes use of the debris of the past, the origins of his art are elsewhere—“out there,” beyond, at the place that is nowhere and everywhere at once.
Voinov’s cosmic awareness provides him with a prerogative and a mandate for scrambling the signs of the past, allowing them to make trenchant, biting, not seldom profound commentary on one another. It sanctions Voinov to explore the tension between grand historical narratives and myths, and the vagaries of personal experience. In another work on the Pushkin theme, “Between Anniversaries,” Voinov places a photograph of Pushkin’s death mask on a blue background in proximity to two reproductions of the logotype (designed by Voinov himself) of the Free Culture Foundation. Despite the prominence of the FCF logos (and the freedom from constraints of all kinds that they seems to proclaim), as well as the celebratory theme of the title, the notions of claustrophobia, of enclosure and containment, proliferate on many levels. There are also a number of repetitions of various kinds (suggesting both claustrophobia and fecundity). There is the death mask itself—a lifeless repetition of the living face. As is so often the case in Voinov’s collages, this one contains both a text and a number. “Between Anniversaries,” the title of the piece, suggests suspension, the unfulfilled longing for or promise of freedom that Pushkin embodied (a promise guaranteed by Pushkin’s death). Then there are the black hats of mourning on the “faces” of the logotype, which appropriately feature the address of the Free Culture Foundation: 10 Pushkin Street. One of the FCF logotypes is covered with a piece of acrylic glass, and trapped inside a metal grille, which is the bottom of a metal office wastebasket. The grille bears a curious resemblance both to a cage and to a metal burner on top of a stove. The rhombus-shaped pieces of acrylic that cover both logotypes echo the lines of the hat (and similar in form to a kite, as are many of the shapes in Voinov’s work). The acrylic that covers all three “faces” on the collage seems to be another, “modern” version of the death mask.
The makeshift nature of the staples (a typical element in Voinov’s work) holding the blue background in place is significant. They seem to suggest that the artist had no time to lose in assembling this poignant piece—but also as though it is under duress of some kind, as though the objects and the composition they form are trying to burst their constraints, to strain beyond their limits. This would seem to be that very phenomenon of the porous frame and the cosmic awareness that informs it. A more explicit kind of evidence of Voinov’s cosmic awareness in this piece, however, is the misty, mottled blue of the background—a sky-blue, or sea-blue color of the elemental Great Beyond. This blue “beyond” is what opens out behind the stale, cloying air of history, where Pushkin’s death mask and the FCF logos reside.
Another prevailing opposition in Voinov’s esthetic is that of culture and imperial military ambition. The extensive militarization of Soviet society is everywhere evident in Voinov’s collages, and it is impossible not to see this as a dimension—saturated, heightened, intensified—of the coercions of the totalitarian state. In fact, it seems to be so ubiquitous as to be tantamount to the totalizing ambitions of the state—or even to generate them. Voinov’s celebration of the acquisition by the Hermitage of the former military headquarters on Palace Square, the General Staff Building (where the “Full Moon” exhibit was held), suggests an anti-militarist, if not overtly anti-war, stance. Voinov dedicates the exhibit catalog, in fact, to: “the most strategic undertaking in the contemporary culture of St. Petersburg—the transfer of Carlo Rossi’s architectural masterpiece, the General Staff Building, to the State Hermitage Museum.” (The State Hermitage Under a Full Moon, dedication.)
However, in keeping with the quiet, muted color palette of his collages, which appear to be drenched in the patina of age, Voinov’s rhetorical mode here is one of gentle but trenchant irony rather than vociferous, angst-ridden protest. Among the numerous logos he created for the exhibition catalog are several that commemorate this event (they appear in the “Circles Section” of the album). These are simple line drawings, minimalist depictions of Palace Square and the Hermitage Buildings. They create the impression of a smiling face, and in order for this mild irreverence to register as intentional for the viewer/reader, one of these smiling logos is labeled: “Smile of the Hermitage in the Wheel of History.” This is a gentle, but insistent, triumphalism, indeed.
There is also a caveat couched within these symbols of triumph. The same section contains an elliptical inscription that reads, “On the transfer of one half of the building of the General Staff to the Hermitage: The Hermitage entered into the circle of the full moon. Petersburg gave it a horseshoe. Half of the horseshoe remains stuck in the door.” A note explains that the “door” is “the archway of the General Staff Building.” Here, again, is a trace of the “porous frame,” this time functioning as a reminder both of the history of constraints on artistic freedom, and, perhaps, of the dangers of imperial hubris even lurking within the halls of culture.
That Voinov is aware of these dangers, and that his artistic project involves a consistent mistrust of closure, an antipathy toward idolatry of any kind, even of a cultural nature, is also conveyed in his numerous works that reinstate childhood, the child, as the focal point of history. In a certain sense, much of his artwork might even be called the drama of the child. In The State Hermitage Under a Full Moon, pride of place is given to an image of an ice cream dish, a symbol of childhood (one might consider this to be a nearly transcultural symbol of the childhood experience). This is the image printed on the covers (front and back) and the flyleaves of the album. Moreover, the ice cream dish on the cover is “crowned” with the official Hermitage logo. The justification of this choice appears immediately after the aforementioned dedication, on the second page, in what is titled the “self-referential sketch”: “My first sensation of the Hermitage was a scoop of chocolate ice cream after a long (about forty minutes) stupefying walk through the halls and corridors, holding my grandfather’s hand. The expanse of the museum opened out to me, and the icy coldness of an ice cream dish became the sign of my Hermitage.” Here, again, we witness Voinov’s urge to pry open the past, to return to what seemed over and done with. And what do we find? The child, of course—every human being’s common heritage.
The shadow of a child is present in certain pieces in which violent pairings of incongruous objects only slowly reveal a horrific meaning/message, such as the globe installation that greets visitors to his gallery, “The Bridge Over the River Styx.” In this piece, entitled simply “Ball/Globe/In a Basket,” a globe is suspended from the ceiling, halfway in and halfway out of a metal wastebasket, airborne, like a child’s balloon, or a ball that has been tossed up, as though through a basketball hoop. The installation implicates the notions of waste and destruction (if not annihilation) of the world and the experience of childhood in one composite image of precarious, vulnerable life.
Voinov has (at least) two alter-egos that migrate from one collage to another, from one album to the next. One is certainly the elephant, an image that inaugurates Voinov’s first album, A Convoluted Monograph: “After Hannibal had crossed the Alps and turned toward Rome, there were only three battle elephants left in his army. One of these was called Vadim Voinov. Tacitus.” The other alter-ego is a child, the child who associated the Hermitage with ice cream in a frosty ice cream dish, and who instructed the grown artist that this would be a guiding image in the catalog accompanying his own exhibition at the Hermitage. (One of his self-portraits, an early collage from 1981, contains a wooden palette covered with splotches of paint and a wooden head that appears like that of a cherub or child.) Thus, two alter-egos: one very big; one small.
The same kind of duality is manifested elsewhere in Voinov’s artwork, which is informed both by what is distant and impalpable—the principle of Astroconstructivism—and what is close at hand, tactile, and concrete: the objects of his functiocollages. At a certain point, one is struck by the presence and durability of the objects, in contradistinction to the ephemerality of human existence. The particular human lives that have touched his objects have often vanished utterly. Even the “self” or “selves” we were at one time are gone, and it is difficult to conceive of the continuity of an individual life, much less the continuity of collective experience. Collage is an appropriate medium for registering this seeming incoherence of human experience—and of rectifying it.
Voinov’s “cosmic consciousness” is not so much escapism, as it is a gesture of “lighting out for the Territory”; an awareness of an amorphous, unknowable, oceanic (he is, of course, a sailor) “beyond” that supports and buoys up this flotsam and jetsam of the past. It’s the Big Frame of the Beyond, the frame that never ends, which we can only conjecture about, but never touch, see, or feel.
The act of reading itself constitutes a kind of framing, and, as such, we viewers are complicit in that act. But our complicity goes farther, and deeper, than that. Voinov plays with frames in all kinds of ways, pulling the work away (pulling the rug out from under the collage, one might say) from the frame, setting the collages afloat in the larger context of the “beyond.” Thus, he undermines the impulse to pin fixed, stable definitions on these objects, as though that would mean another kind of death or oblivion for them (and for the lives that touched them, that still inhabit them in some uncanny way).
Rather, Voinov invites us to participate in a kind of reading as resuscitation. And after letting air into the past, allowing it to breathe, one ought not to close it up again, make it seamless and airless with unconditional, definitive interpretations (hence, Voinov’s fondness for crude, visible “stitches” or staples that hold his image-propositions in place—but in such a hasty, provisional, tentative manner that the collage seems as though it might all unravel again by releasing a single staple).
Voinov’s art allows no one to sink into stygian oblivion. He is the sailor who extends his wise, artful hand for rescue; and the reader, by extension, helps in this act of resuscitation. In our viewing/reading of Voinov’s collages, installations, and albums, we become both the helping maritime hand, and the lives themselves that are saved from drowning.Polly Gannon