28.10.2022 – 13.01.2023
Curator: Vladimir Kustov
Vladimir Kustov, an artist and in this case a curator, too, came up with the idea of the Excommunicating exhibition about 2 years ago. Initially, he intended to explicate his project in the context of today’s call-out culture and its rather long prehistory. However, Vladimir disregarded reputational scandals – at least, in the first place. As one of the participants of the Necrorealist artistic movement, which was established in the 1980s, he believes that less obvious aspects of contemporary culture should be focused on - such as marginalization of certain knowledge types and dogmatization of others, as well as erasure of the real ‘true’ death from everyday experiences of ‘a successful person from the West’.
To a certain extent, this original concept remained in the project, but inasmuch as the last stage of the work took place against the emergent and appalling geopolitical conflict, the exhibition and its possible readings changed. Mr. Kustov usually arranges his works as intentionally complicated codes, introducing lots of quotes that come from different epochs and connecting some mass culture images that not every expert is aware of, and adding prompts and hints at every turn. Yet, you should know that it is impossible to reach the point where things can get entirely clear.
Excommunicating – is it an anomaly everyone would like to avoid, or is it all about an exception to the rule that makes one privileged? Is it about people who are declared excommunicated against their will? All of these guesses are true, and yet none of them clarifies the curator’s idea. The author of this text does not have all the keys, and neither do the exhibition goers. This guide is just a collection of possible routes, an explanation of some cues, and a recommendation to be skeptical.
First, stop and take a look around. Whichever room you find yourself in, you cannot fail to see that the exhibition features all kinds of texts. The exhibition has been designed by artist Vladimir Kustov, although it features works and voices of many people, still living and long gone. White squares on the floor, which comprise inscriptions and engraving reproductions, refer to Malleus Maleficārum (the Hammer of Witches), a treatise from the 15th century, which covered ‘theoretical’ issues of demonology and witchcraft, as well as some practical advice on identifying and eliminating those who the inquisitors, the authors of the treatise, believed to be engaged into such proceedings. This text was one of the tools used to set the notion of ‘plotting’ and plotters, who consequently were to be banished or killed. The witch hunting practice lasted for several centuries and was officially discontinued only as late as in the 18th century. Later, these events became an important representation of how power works, and the image of a witch was brought back to be used in feminist public speeches. Still, Mr. Kustov seems to be more concerned about the rhetoric arrangement of the texts associated with this phenomenon, as he observes the same testament guidelines in today’s propagandist methods, where statements of unknown origin are juxtaposed. The other layer of the exhibition is based on contemporary art pieces. Every room showcases works by both the main actor and other artists, some of them collaborating with MYTH Gallery on a continuing basis and some of them being special guests. The spirit of each room is highlighted by means of texts of another type – confident yet fragmentary statements from different sources, which are not always easy to identify, cast alongside pieces of art. Let’s take a walk around to have a closer look at how these statements are juxtaposed.
Here, the floor is densely covered with quotes. All the inscriptions address the ‘nature’ of witches, heretics, and propositions / dictates on their elimination. Here is one of them: ‘Witches are animated instruments acting on their own behalf, even though they have made a pact with the Devil and renounced their power over themselves’.
On the walls, Vladimir Kustov’s series ‘Foreign Matter’ is presented along with Egor Fedorychev’s ‘Unity’. The former was created in the 2000s – like many other Necrorealistic works, based on pathoanatomical charts, scientific documentation of death, its cause in this case being skull and brain damage. The series by Egor Fedorychev, specially made for the exhibition, is also about a person’s coming into non-existence, although the artist focuses not on one’s physical death, but on a person’s excarnation in a totalizing crowd. Blurred and smudged pictures of massive gatherings look as if they are decayed - with all the black folds, blots, and aberrations. A quote about hard times and the defender’s duty beside these works looks rather provocative. Whose voice is speaking, and whom does it address? Here, Mr. Kustov lifts the veil – this phrase is from the treatise about witches, too. Propagandist rhetoric is not a new thing, but it still can do the trick. In order to get to Room 2, you need to come back to ‘The Foreign Matter’ once again, probably recognizing it in yourself - and then pass on.
In this room, the words are on the walls. ‘This year, next year, some time, or never’ – for many kids, this play with a daisy is their first fortune telling experience. Trying to learn or alter something that can happen the next day is what people would love to be able to do when they encounter today’s turbulent reality. One of the works in this room is ‘The Tower of Silence’, a media installation by Timofey Shults and Natalia Petrikova. Here, the visitors can see a Tarot spread, based on the AI study of their movement styles. The name of the work refers to the Zoroastrian tradition of burial towers, in which bodies of the dead were eaten by vultures and other scavengers, or to the research facilities at the Ivan Pavlov Academy, designed to study learned reflexes, first tested in dogs. This is also where one of Kustov's pieces is exhibited - the one dedicated to Paolo Zacchia, a Renaissance researcher, doctor, and artist, one of his works being an attempt to differentiate between madness and demonic possession. The boundary between the academic and esoteric descriptions of experience looks quite obvious, but it has already changed and keeps changing right now. So, for example, witches and witchers on the room floor were persecuted for fortune telling, which today remains beyond any acknowledged academic discipline, but they were also hunted for dream interpretation, which thanks to conceptual changes has become part of psychoanalytic therapy. This continuous shift of matters accepted / rejected by the scientific world leaves room for interpretation of all the art pieces exhibited herein. ‘The Golden Branch’ by Sergey Tikhonov is a reference to the origins of anthropology, to physiological studies of the pineal gland, and revitalization of the dry yet fruit bearing branch as a symbol. In this room, Liza Bobkova’s pieces from her Beat series – dissected steel plates – turn into representations of a record of knowledge, but what kind of knowledge is it? Marked with regular patterns, they resemble data about the jobs performed by internal organs, or some statistical diagrams, but roughness and unevenness of the scratches makes one think about the notches on the walls, too – as if made by someone incommunicado, someone who is afraid of losing track of time.
You should take a break before moving on, standing motionless for some time in the ‘Nought Body’.
Here, the tension of all the clues provided reaches its apogee. Lyudmila Baronina uses little crystal coffins to seal the matrices of her printed graphic series ‘The Calendar’ with every month offering a new version of the End of the World. The hero of Sergey Tikhonov’s paintings escapes into a book, while monsters are crowding behind him. Katya Isaeva’s embroidery comprises images from the pre-Revolution guide for hunters, and the lyrics of Alexander Gradsky’s ‘Bird Song’, which became the name of the art piece. This odd and sentimental musical composition about death and Motherland was used in the Soviet movie from 1974 – ‘The Romance for Lovers’. The plot in short is that a young man went off to the war, was declared dead and then had a dramatic return. All these works could be seen differently if the political context was different, but today all of them seem to be an attempt to deal with the everyday reminder of a non-zero dying risk. However, Vladimir Kustov seems to let himself watch the roaring jaws of today from a more remote distance. In his interpretation, this room is more of a reference to his practice, which has always been about the unsafe place between life and death, always a peer into dying. That is why he can take the liberty of sealing the great Dante into paraffin, and yet even these works are accompanied by disturbing triple ‘Hell is eternal repetition’. That is why it is at the ceiling that he puts the ‘thoughtforms’ by Eugene Yufit, another (deceased) founder of Necrorealism, which Mr. Kustov has discovered thanks to one of the practices he found in the Hammer of Witches.
At the border between Rooms 3 and 4, Anna Afonina’s works are presented. These paintings were inspired by the images the artist found in online communities dedicated to instrumental transcommunication, which studies interaction of mundane and extramundane planes. Followers of such practices believe that such communication can be arranged with the help of various technical means, like a radio receiver, a TV, or water. At the same time, this rather appealing method is often used to summon deceased relatives with further presentation of their romanticized image or to confirm the summoner’s attitude (like his or her appreciation of the special military operation) by means of their signals.
To a certain extent, the final room shows that thanatological practices can not only be used in a conservative way, but also as a source of inspiration for creative arts. This is demonstrated by the musical compositions by Zoe DeWitt, which feature sounds from Vienna cemeteries (the musical instruments were made of bones and skulls collected there), created for the Zero Kama album, which saw the world in 1984. Another acknowledgment is in faulty lamps revitalized by Vladimir Kustov – he used them to memorize the gravestone lanterns from the early 20th century. By the way, the pictures of these lamps were taken at the same site where the music records had been made. The concluding chord of the exhibition is ‘The Gematria’. Apparently, Kustov recalled the story from the 19th century, when the row erupted because of the censorship being imposed after the presentation of Ilya Repin’s painting ‘Ivan the Terrible with his son Ivan’, and decided to literally double this art piece and showcase the monster in command and the act of the violent murder committed by him. The image is sealed with a magic square, of course. Hopefully, the spell works out.
When you take a tour of the exhibition, you cannot help but wonder what the curator’s position is. Does he see the inquisitors’ actions as a prototype for today’s propagandists’ activities, who put imaginary foes in place, or is the romantic parallel more important to him - between an artist excommunicated from major social deals and a persecuted witch? Is he serious when he casts thoughtforms and uses the magic square? Why does he keep insisting that symbols of death should be reconsidered when the genuine death has become the front-page news? I cannot tell but I have got this quote - “First, the witch's body is a body completely surrounded by or in some way the beneficiary of a number of magical powers. Some considered these to be real and others illusory, but this is not important. The witch's body can transport itself or be transported; it is capable of appearing and disappearing; it becomes invisible and in some cases it is also invincible. In short, it is affected by a sort of transmateriality. Second, the bewitched body is also characterized by the fact that it always carries signs, spots, or zones of insensitivity that are the demon's signatures. This is the means by which the demon can recognize his own and, conversely, it is also the means by which inquisitors, men of the Church, and judges can recognize someone as a witch. In short, the witch’s body benefits from the magical powers that enable it to take advantage of diabolical powers and so enable it to escape those who pursue it. However, at the same time the witch's body is marked, and this mark links the witch both to the demon and to the priest or judge who hunts down the demon. She is tied down by her marks at the same time as she is raised up by her spells”.
 Michel Foucault's lectures at the College de France 1974-1975
The project was implemented with the participation of the SPHERE Сontemporary Art Foundation