Chto Delat: To Negate Negation

On June 4, I was reminded of a critical moment in history when the eyes of the world were turned towards Poland and the Eastern Bloc. This date marks the anniversary of the first democratic election in Poland; and with its celebration, a cautious optimism pervades the formerly communist country as various events—such as the premiere of the documentary film Eastern Europe Strives for Freedom—take a critical look back at the predicaments of the past. In an effort to remember the lessons of history, some events point towards the unacknowledged vestiges of the former communist state that remain within the Polish government and beyond.

Chto Delat. Chto Delat of the Spirits, 2013; mural; originally installed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 2010. Photo: BWA Wrocław

The radical questioning of both the past and present is felt especially within the Chto Delat: To Negate Negation exhibition at BWA Wrocław’s Awangarda Gallery, on view until June 16. As a survey of the Chto Delat collective’s activities over the last decade, it presents a critical reflection of historicized content within an economic and political context that was—and still is—fraught with contradictions.

Chto Delat. Negating Negation, 2013; installation view, BWA Wrocław, Wrocław, Poland. Photo: BWA Wrocław

Taking its name from Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s (1828-1889) novel Chto Delat, meaning “what is to be done,” the collective re-deploys Leftist ideology through its associated artists, philosophers, writers, and activists. Via a collection of posters displayed throughout the Awangarda Gallery, Chto Delat uses the interchangeable languages of advertisement and propaganda to subvert historical narratives and offer a timeline as radical alterity. These didactic presentations (with a constructivist flair) are only partially accessible to non-Russian-speaking viewers, yet they still manage to convey a spirit of resistance particularly in the context of the exhibition’s entirety.

Chto Delat. The Russian Woods, 2011 (video still); color; 42:00. Photo: Michal Wisniowski

In an adjoining space the vaulted ceilings shelter a multi-media installation of theatrical conventions titled The Russian Woods. Accompanied by a film of the same name, the installation is a fantasy realm of symbols and metaphors, reimagining the political structures within Russia into a kind of tragicomedy of mythic proportions where capitalist enterprise is a religion and a bestiary of characters vie for power. Entering into this realm, I was confronted with a menagerie of grotesque creatures deformed by a long history of corruption entwined with capitalist greed. All of which is ultimately a facade—with images printed in low-resolution grayscale and made into crudely cut flats—yet held intact by a thick, red artery that runs through the entire space.

Chto Delat. The Russian Woods, 2011; photocopies, wood; dimensions variable. Photo: BWA Wrocław

Together, all of the elements create perhaps the most engaging installation in the exhibition in light of the investment required to decipher the narrative in a rather fairy-tale-reminiscent fashion—immediately accessible yet laden with many conceptual traps—while the provisional construction affords the critical distance needed to evaluate that narrative on exit.

Chto Delat. Dialectic Football, 2013; installation; dimensions variable; originally installed at the Centro per l'arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prado, 2007. Photo: Michal Wisniowski

Meanwhile, within the expansive galleries whose towering windows face a busy street, Chto Delat artists installed stands facing the windows while enacting a game of Dialectic Football—literally playing a game in the space with multiple, colored balls—during one of the exhibition’s days. Murals depict characters engaged in political dialog under the guise of football, while the collective’s inspirations—Chernyshevsky, Brecht, Debord, Lenin, Godard, and others—hover as disembodied specters in the window spaces. This reversal of the spectator and spectacle relationship lies at the core of Chto Delat’s intentions in an effort to undermine the very institutions of its exhibitions. Yet in this case, the absence of actual persons in the stands creates a phenomenon where the institution becomes a vacuous vitrine and another sterile vestige at risk of being passed over by the masses.

This is a significant exhibition, particularly for the Awangarda Gallery, marking the first time that Russian contemporary art has been shown there since the revolutionary events of 1989. The wealth of information, and in part intentional misinformation, begs for a much needed re-evaluation of accepted histories and present narratives. Chto Delat: To Negate Negation continually reminds me that the underlying mechanisms of past circumstances are still alive and well today under the auspices of contemporary capitalist enterprise.

Chto Delat: To Negate Negation is curated by Alicja Klimczak-Dobrzaniecka and Patrycja Sikora, and is on view at BWA Wrocław’s Awangarda Gallery through June 16, 2013.