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Mikhail Sidlin, January 2013
Mikhail Sidlin

"Le régime esthétique des arts est d'abord un régime nouveau du rapport à l'ancien."
                                                       Jacques Rancière.  Le partage du sensible.

                        “The aesthetic regime is primarily a new regime of relating to the past”
                                                   Jacques Rancière. The Distribution of the Sensual. 1/

We live in the Universe of Malevich 2/. But very rarely notice it. Vadim Gushchin photographs everyday objects in such a way that it immediately becomes clear that they have originated from the “Black Square”.

The main idea of design is the sparing use of form. This idea of the “suprematist object” was first formulated by El Lissitzky 3/. He was a pupil of Malevich. Kazimir Malevich used the expressive means of painting sparingly. Lissitzky transformed his world for the needs of production. Since then Malevich has been concealed in the depths of the industrial object.

The modern object has the same roots as functionalist architecture. CDs and their boxes are similar to the club buildings of Konstantin Melnikov 4/ and Ilya Golosov 5/, taken in perspective (this can be seen in Vadim Gushchin’s series “Prokofiev”, 2011). And plastic meal trays are akin to the architecture of Mies van der Rohe 6/ or Frank Lloyd Wright 7/ (and this can be seen in Gushchin’s “Foam Plastic”, 2011). But in order to detect this, they should be photographed. Things demonstrate their architectonics through photographs.

Gushchin’s space could be called Matisse-like. This is because the image plane falls towards the viewer, just as it does in the great Frenchman’s canvases – such as “Red Fish” (1912). Apart from one, very important, difference: in Matisse’s 8/ works the objects are laid out on a definite physical surface – albeit a table, rug, or the ground. Gushchin’s objects are placed on a surface, which has lost its physical nature.

Is this a table before us? Yes, possibly, there was a table in the studio. But the defining parts of the table for the viewer are the tabletop and the legs, their relationship and their shapes. When we do not see any of this, the table itself loses its objectiveness, and nothing visually linking the plane remaining in front of us with a table exists any longer. Before us is something that has a surface and an edge. That is, a plane in pure form. The plane, reduced to the idea of a plane. The two-dimensional surface of pure geometry.

At this point we depart from the usual illusionism of photography. From the fact that it is linked to the imitation of reality, and from the imitation of painting that imitates reality. In his rejection of illusionism Gushchin follows in the path of Kazimir Malevich. Along the path of pure forms.

Abstract painting has regained the plane. It has given up illusory three-dimensionality in order to manipulate liberated colours.

“Colour should evolve out of the pictorial mix into an independent element – into a structure as an individual of the collective system and of individual independence”, 9/ – wrote Kasimir Malevich. Vadim Gushchin applies his theory of colour structure to photography: each colour exists as a separate link, but they are all connected by one chain, a united system of relationships. If Malevich equated the “painter” to the “colour expert”, then Gushchin may well equate “the colour expert” to “the photographer”. His photographs are closed colour systems.

Sergei Eisenstein 10/ thought about “colour” cinematography. “That which is of colour” – is that which consciously deals with the psychological meaning of colour. In the series “Coloured Envelopes” different colours indicate different states: red – joyous, and violet – depressive. “The envelope for me is a sign of fate, an existential message”, – thinks the photographer. And the psychological significance of these signs differs.

Victory over a thing is one of the key ideas of Suprematism. From being a catalogue of objects, painting transforms into a structure of its own elements. This is the aesthetic aspect of abstraction, but it has another aspect – a political one. Victory over a thing also means the collapse of the old world, which was based on the relationships of commodity – money – commodity, and the establishment of a new Universe of humanity freed from the power of commodities and money. Malevich’s revolutionary enthusiasm is an integral part of his art.

When photography wins over painting, then the catalogue returns. The dominant object triumphs. Objects made according to Malevich’s designs destroy his avant-garde spirit. The new world of suprematist objects returns eternal power to objectiveness.

There is a paradoxical effect in the photographing of objects. It would seem that it documents reality. That is, presents things as they are. In fact, for this it takes things beyond their usual context. That is, places every single object in a meta-position. And the better the shooting is done, the more accurately the thing is reproduced, the wider the format, the better the lens, then the more likely it is that the thing will be estranged from its usual existence. Having been photographed, things rise above the reality of their context. And Gushchin’s works intensify this feeling, due to the peculiarities of his perspective.

The world of ideas and the space of everyday life exist in various regimes. Between the abstract idea of the “suprematist object” and a concrete new object there is a genetic relationship, but there is no sameness. That there is no sameness between the idea and the object Gushchin shows by contrasting two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality. He simultaneously enlivens the two-dimensional world of Malevich and creates the photographic illusion of three-dimensionality. Namely this illusion of three-dimensionality is the primary condition embedded in the subconscious of the camera as a technical object. But Gushchin overcomes the primary conditionality by abstracting from three-dimensional space. Paradoxically, his objects are three-dimensional things that exist in two-dimensional space. Therefore they acquire yet more power.

“Lids” (2012) reach the expressiveness of trompe-l’oeil. Some of the works in this series are as if fixed on a wall. And some of the “Cards” (2012) seem to fall off this imaginary wall. Vadim Gushchin is one of those artists who play with our perception, such as Francisco Infante 11/, Georges Rousse 12/ or Bernard Voigt 13/. But Gushchin’s illusory space has been designed with seeming simplicity, because the space must not distract us from contemplating namely these ordinary things.

There is a tradition of still-life painting stemming from 17th century Dutch painting. Classical still-life painting is the visual expression of man’s estrangement from nature, which occurred at the same time when the natural sciences blossomed. And there is a tradition of the representation of art objects, which originated in the academic sketch: at first it is like a preparatory or academic drawing, but already in the paintings of Chardin 14/ it finds its independent character. These two traditions were very important for the formation of photographic imagery in the very early history of photography, in the days of Louis Daguerre 15/ and William Talbot 16/. Vadim Gushchin combines these traditions on a new base. He photographs still-lifes of objects. But each of these still-lifes is part of an endless archive.

Since the year 2000 Vadim Gushchin has photographed more than 50 series, each of which represents one of the types of objects. He returns repeatedly to some of the types. His series “Library-1” (2000), “Books” (2003), “Artist’s Books” (2003), “Library-2” (2007), “Circle of Reading” (2010), “Rarities” (2010) “Art Catalogues” (2011) are devoted to books. Each series is based on its own compositional principles and its own laws of the compatibility of objects. His series of recent years are related to Malevich’s compositional principles.

Things are important to Gushchin not only because of their form. “Books” and “plastic trays”, and “little lids” exist as categories in a complex system. And in this he follows such a photographer as August Sander 17/. But there is one significant difference. The idea of classifying types is one of those ideas which 20th century photography borrowed from science of the preceding centuries. Any scientific classification claims to be absolute. Like Mendeleev’s (18/) Periodic Table which embraces all existing chemicals, including those that have not been discovered yet. Like August Sander’s 19/ “Stammappe” (portfolio of archetypes) which claims to be a comprehensive description of a society. At the base of scientific classification lies the concept that objects are potentially limited and that it is possible to find common ground to describe them. But when we deal with the world of modern things, then it turns out that it’s not only difficult to talk about the possibility of their limitedness, but even finding common ground for their classification is rather problematic. These are objects the number of which is growing unpredictably, and the number of their categories is constantly increasing. And therefore none of their catalogues can be absolute.

“The old estates, historical or notable houses, beautiful facades, beautiful doors, lovely wooden wall panelling, door bells, old fountains, staircases...” 20/ – thus Eugène Atget 21/ classified objects to which he was personally attracted, building his own “collection”. Gushchin’s principle of describing objects is much closer to Atget’s principle than to Sander’s, because Gushchin offers us separate series of objects that cannot be reduced to a single system of classification, but exist through their contiguity. I can call this the principle of the poetic catalogue (in the sense in which the poetic catalogue can be opposed to the mimetic). The classification of types (or mimetic catalogue) claims that the way it is organised corresponds to the actual organisation of the world that it describes, and the principles of description are consistent within themselves and homogeneous. The poetic catalogue connects heterogeneous rows; moreover, subjective selection is the main connecting principle. The cataloguing principle was important for Surrealism as well as for Conceptual Art.

“Anonymous Sculptures – a Typology of Industrial Buildings”, – was the title of one of the most famous 20th century photographic exhibitions. Bernd and Hilla Becher 22/ exhibited in it at the Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, in 1969. For Gushchin, as for the Bechers, the principle of the catalogue is important. But his approach to the space of the work is completely different. Bernd and Hilla Becher were occupied primarily with the typology of objects and the comparison of their forms, they created a “historical archive” 23/. For Gushchin the structure of the frame itself is decisive. In his latest series not so much are the objects themselves compared to one another, but rather the individual images. At the same time, the things are built into the Suprematist model of space.

Vadim Gushchin creates post-conceptual still-lifes. He continues the archival line of the Dusseldorf school, but goes far beyond it, above all because he rejects the “objectivity” of language. What we have here is the poetic syntax of everyday life.

Documenting is one of the main ideas that the 19th century bequeathed to photography. Any documenting claims “objectivity”, that is, that the photographer presents the viewer with objects “as they are”. It is as if he switches off his individual vision, arranging series of objects for the sake of the illusion of comprehensive description. In the way Bernd and Hilla Becher do it, finding the central point of the shot, scaling the architecture to the size of the frame, excluding contrasting light. But, at the same time, any “objective” photographing is reduced to a sequence of techniques, and the selection of techniques itself constitutes the artist’s gesture. Any documenting is a form of the artist’s relationship to reality. Disguising his authorship, the photographer manipulates the viewer.

Vadim Gushchin returns to subjectivity its own rights. He demystifies the photographing of objects, showing us how the very techniques of description alter the image of the object. Moreover, in the subjectivity of description he goes much further than Atget. Objects in Gushchin’s works can act as signs of the times, signs of culture and signs of the artist’s presence.

Every thing possesses a special character. “Napkins” (2011) contain direct traces of human activity – the imprint of lips, a drop of blood, the impression of a glass. “Shirts” (2011) can be called a self-portrait using an object: for this series Vadim photographed fragments of his own well-worn clothing, at the moment of transition when from being wearable clothes the time had come for them to turn into rags. In the series “Prokofiev” (2011) the artist’s passion for Prokofiev’s 24/ music was portrayed in the most unequivocal manner. The plastic objects from “Without Title” (2012) present us with a portrait of the owner when we begin to put them into a row: these are things that belong to a person who has a memory stick and CDs. “Boxes” (2011) – a spectacles’ case and containers for wide-format film. In Gushchin’s collections all the objects, in one way or another, represent the presence of their respective owners. And they most often clearly refer to the artist himself.

Things do not just talk about the person who owns them. They are a testimony to their own time, to which all of us belong. “Anton Chekhov’s 25/ uncle Vanya says, “I’m forty-seven years old, and if, let’s say, I live to be sixty, then only thirteen years remain”. But these days 60 is not a limit. And this is connected with pills”, – this is what Vadim Gushchin said about his series “Pills” (2011). The form of “Coloured Envelopes” (2010) also expresses its time, as the form of “Photo Album” (2012) once expressed its era: on one of the album pages we see the portrait of the artist’s father in his youth. Everyday objects are the frozen signs of time.

The industrial thing is in principle opposed to the sacred object. “Industrial” means mass-produced, impersonal and estranged. “Sacred” means unique and sublime: that which is respected and worshiped. Vadim Gushchin highlights this contradiction as an issue. The industrial object becomes intimate because of the literal physical contact with man, as happens with napkins. It acquires its own identity at the moment of breaking or on opening the package (as it is in the case with plastic trays). It becomes unique when it goes out-of-date, like lids. It is worshipped when it becomes a part of someone’s fate, like pills. An industrial thing is estranged only when we consider it as part of a depersonalised production process. When used, it absorbs the traits of the person using it. Vadim Gushchin shows how estrangement disappears. How objects of everyday life acquire individual value.

The purity of form refers us to the ideal world of suprematist objects. But the details and textures show us the individuality of each of the objects presented. From a distance Gushchin’s works are perceived as flawless models. But the closer the viewer looks at them, the more he notices that every thing possesses its own set of imperfections or peculiarities. The fine balance between pure form and real objectiveness leads to the special appeal of a work.

Form and function – this is what a designer sees in an object. El Lissitzky’s theory of things does not assume the personal appropriation of them, of all these breakdowns, of the wear and tear, touches and saliva stains. Moreover, the function of the object may be offered to the consumer, but it cannot be imposed upon him. Le Corbusier’s 26/ exemplary building, the “machine for living”, presupposes an ideal citizen, but for the real inhabitants of the “Unité d’Habitation” in Marseilles this high-rise building was not very comfortable. In any case, as a thing fulfils its functions, changes in its form are caused. And these changes may alter the status of the thing.

Photography transforms things into images of things. What is the purpose of this transformation? In advertising photography the ennobling image of an object promotes sales. This is the image that we see in leaflets and booklets, in magazines and on billboards. The image in which the form of the object is perfectly tailored to its function. Design today has become the ideology of the commercial catalogue.

Anna and Bernhard Blume 27/ conducted their constructivist experiments on the average kitchen of German city dwellers. Their combining of the Russian Avant-garde with bourgeois household items served as one of the sources of inspiration for Vadim Gushchin, but, without a doubt, the world of his images is utterly different. He does not ridicule meaningless accumulation. In his photographs objects acquire meaning as a result of those fine individual bonds which are formed between the consumer and the thing. We live amongst unnecessary products, which we still cherish. The internalisation of the commodity takes place. This is the main trauma of consumer society. The constant separation from things to which one has become accustomed, because they must be replaced by new ones. The artist pulls them out of the flow of everyday life halfway on their journey from the factory to the rubbish heap. Or from the factory to the museum.

Vadim Gushchin offers us an image of the object that moves away from the banal mythology of the commodity. His photographs show us that fine line beyond which the ideal object mutates into a household item. He reveals the complex relationship between form and function, photographing everyday objects as cultural treasures. The difference between an “everyday object” and a “cultural treasure” lies only in the duration of storage. In the fact that the museum is the sacred rubbish heap of culture.

The first of the illustrations in this book refers to the Russian Church. The photo from the series “Circle of Reading” (2010) is permeated with religious associations. The binding of the lower book resembles the colour and format of cheap icons of the 19th century. The embossed cover of the top volume is similar to a typical 19th century Psalter (the inscription says: “for the Russian people. 25 kopecks.”). The rubber bands form a Christian cross.

The book is presented in Gushchin’s photographs as a sacred object. Moreover, the sacredness is emphasised in two ways. One of them – is the association with traditional religious ceremonial objects by colour, texture and form. The other – is the symbol of inaccessibility. In the series “Circle of Reading” the rubber bands signify that reading is forbidden; in the series “Rarities” (2010) – plastic files; in the series “Art Catalogues” (2011) – the fragmented nature of what is shown. Directly following Walter Benjamin 28/, the artist demonstrates the classical way of making a work sacral. The way by which the book attains its aura.

The book is an object of Russian culture of the 19th and 20th centuries that possesses a particular aura. The intelligentsia of this era worshiped literature, the writer was assigned the role of a demigod or a messenger of the gods. Vadim Gushchin photographs books by Tolstoy 29/ and Gorky 30/. But rubber bands close these volumes, preventing us from reading them. This impossibility of reading can be interpreted in two ways: as the closed nature of the sacred object, and as our disconnection from that which is sacred. These closed books show the inaccessibility of “cultural treasures”, estrangement from the past. “The Sacred” ends up in archive files, like in the series “Rarities”.

The last of the illustrations reminds one of Malevich’s abstract art. The entire series “Business Cards” (2012) is devoted to business card folders, and their content. In the concluding photograph the main element is a blurred card. We cannot read its contents. But it is the business card of the artist’s father. If we read the entire book from beginning to end from the neo-Freudian viewpoint, then we will discover that we have been told anew the story of the separation from the Big Other. The story in which everyday things have taken the place of sacred objects.

1 / Jacques Rancière. The Distribution of the Sensual. Aesthetics and Politics/ Jacques Rancière. Distributing the Sensual. St. Petersburg: Publishing House of the European University in St. Petersburg, 2007, p. 27.

2 / Kazimir Malevich (1879, Kiev – 1935, Leningrad) – artist and philosopher, founder of Suprematism

3 / See Thing. Gegenstand. Objet. №3. Berlin, May 1922, p. 1.
El Lissitzky, (Lazar Markovich Lissitzky) (1890, Pochinok, Smolensk Province – 1941, Moscow) – architect, photographer, graphic artist, poster designer, and theorist of design

4 / Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov (1890, Moscow – 1974, Moscow) – architect-innovator of the 1920s and 1930s, the creator of the Rusakov Club (1929, Moscow)

5/ Ilya Aleksandrovich Golosov (1883, Moscow – 1945, Moscow) – Soviet architect, the creator of the Zuev Club, built in the constructivist style (1927-29, Moscow)

6 / Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886, Aachen – 1969, Chicago) – one of the directors of the Bauhaus, architect who worked in the “international style”, creator of the “Glass House” (1946 – 1951, Plano, Illinois)

7/ Frank Lloyd Wright (1867, Richland Center, Wisconsin – 1959, Phoenix, Arizona) – architect and designer, creator of the “House above a waterfall” (1935-39, Pennsylvania)

8/ Henri Matisse (1869, Le Cateau-Cambrai, Nord-Pas-de-Calais – 1954, Nice) – painter, graphic artist, sculptor, one of the leaders of Modernist painting

9/ Kazimir Malevich. Suprematism. From the “Catalogue of the Tenth State exhibition. Non-objective Art and Suprematism” / Kazimir Malevich. Selected works, v.1. M Gilea, 1995, p.150.

10 / Sergei M. Eisenstein (1898, Riga – 1948, Moscow) – filmmaker, film theorist

11/ Francisco Infante-Arana (1943, Vasilyevka, Saratov Region) – photographer, kinetic artist, land-artist, author of “artefacts” – man-made objects placed in nature

12/ Georges Rousse (born 1947, Paris) – an artist who works in photography, makes installations in abandoned and derelict buildings and photographs them

13/ Bernard Voigt (b. 1960 Cully, Switzerland) – photographer and sculptor, who works with the perception of space

14 / Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699, Paris – 1779, Paris) – genre painter and author of the still-lifes, master of scenes with objects, such as the “Attributes of the Arts” (1766)

15 / Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787, Cormeilles-en-Parisis, Ile-de-France – 1851, Bry-sur-Marne, Ile-de-France) – creator of the first commercially popular photographic process, the daguerreotype

16 / William Henry Fox Talbot (1800, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire – 1877, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire) – inventor of photography (1835), including the negative-positive process (1839)

17 / August Sander (1876, Herdorf, Rhineland – 1964, Cologne) – photographer and author of the mega-project “People of the 20th Century”

18 / Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834, Tobolsk – 1907, St. Petersburg) – scientist, discovered the Periodic Law of chemical elements (1869)

19 / Zeitgenossen. August Sander und die Kunstszene der 20er Jahre im Rheinland. Göttingen, Steidl, 2000, p. 29.

20 / In: Ben Lifson. Eugène Atget / Eugène Atget. Cologne, Könemann, 1997, p. 10.

21 / Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (1857, Libourne, Gironde department – 1927, Paris) –Paris Photographer

22 / Bernhard (“Bernd”) Becher (1931, Siegen, Westphalia – 2007, Düsseldorf) and Hilla Becher (née Hilla Wobeser, 1934, Potsdam, Brandenburg) – the duo of photographers, the founders of “Düsseldorf School of Photography”

23 / See Maria Müller. Bernd et Hilla Becher: “Notre œuvre ... est infinite”/ Objectivites. La Photographie à Düsseldorf. Munich, Schirmer / Mosel Verlag, 2008, p.191.

24 / Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891, Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav Province – 1953, Moscow) – composer, pianist and conductor

25 / Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860, Taganrog, Ekaterinoslav Province – 1904, Badenweiler, Baden-Württemberg) – Russian dramatist, author of the play “Uncle Vanya”

26 / Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris) (1887, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland – 1965, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France) – Architect who worked in the “international style”, painter, designer, journalist, creator of the “Unité d’Habitation of Marseilles” (1947-1952)

27 / Anna Blume (née Anna Helming, 1937, Bork, North Rhine – Westphalia) and Bernhard Johannes Blume (1937, Dortmund – 2011, Cologne) – husband and wife team of art photographers, authors of the project “Transcendental Constructivism”

28 / Walter Benjamin (1892, Berlin – 1940, Port-Bou, Spain) – philosopher, art historian, literary critic, author of the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)

29/ Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828, Yasnaya Polyana, Tula Province – 1910, Astapovo Ryazan Province) – Russian prose writer, essayist, religious philosopher

30 / Aleksei Maximovich Peshkov, primarily known as Maxim (Maksim) Gorky, (1868, Nizhny Novgorod – 1936, Gorki, Moscow Region) – Russian novelist, playwright, essayist

Translation by P. Glebov and  R. O’Dowd 2013