Autor: Herwig Höller
Published: REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, June 2006

Report Archive: “The garment king of the moscow underground”

Aleksandr Ilich Lyashenko known as Petlyura

A controversial protagonist of russian Contemporary Art

In Moscow at least, Aleksandr Ilich Lyashenko, otherwise known as Petlyura, was for many years an underrated and controversial member of the movement known as “current Moscow art”.

In Moscow at least, Aleksandr Ilich Lyashenko, otherwise known as Petlyura, was for many years an underrated and controversial member of the movement known as “current Moscow art” (1). Underrated, because Moscow art criticism, fixated as it is on particular discourses, abounds in blind spots, and because important critics only began to deal with contemporary art in the form of “Moscow conceptualism” and / or “Moscow radicalism” around 1990, with the result that many precursors, including Petlyura’s actionism of the late eighties, continued to be ignored. Controversial because the works themselves, at the frontier of the fine and dramatic arts, were considered by the most progressive elements of the contemporary art scene, virtually throughout the nineties, to be a social phenomenon rather than serious, i.e. discursive art. The daily newspaper Kommersant daily, the leading journalistic organ of the nineties, went so far as to dub Petlyura in 1993 “one of the most mysterious and pointless figures in the artistic life of the city”. Lyashenko was born in 1955 in the Russian-speaking part of Eastern Ukraine, a region in which, as he likes to stress, “freedomloving” peoples lived and which produced freedom fighters of the stature of Nestor Makhno and Simon Petlyura, who in the 1920s fiercely resisted the Bolsheviks. But the artist himself also put up some resistance from an early age, for example against the school curriculum which demanded the study of the literary outpourings of Leonid Brezhnev, as a result of which he was thrown out of the Kharkov Art School after his first year. After this he moved to Moscow, where he took up his artistic studies again in 1981 at the Moscow Stroganov Institute, specializing in interior design. “At that time the Stroganov Institute was the only institution in Moscow”, relates Lyashenko, “at which contemporary artistic disciplines such as design were taught at all and I was determined to learn the language of contemporary art.” “Non-standard approaches” force him to interrupt his studies three times, which he finally completes in 1988.

The birth of the collection out of the spirit of the still-life
“Every artist demonstrates a heightened interest in objects, he furnishes his world with objects which appeal to him” Lyashenko remarks about his artistic beginnings, which tellingly coincide with the start of his extensive activities as a collector: “Previously I had enjoyed painting still-lives and wanted to use the objects to tell stories. For example bottles, glasses, an overturned portrait of a girl on a table-top: yes, he was jilted and turned to the bottle. Like many artists I collected objects to this end. And as people began to experience social change in the seventies and eighties, and the sense of social security in socialism grew, many people began to throw old things away.” After initially collecting icons, which in the early seventies were taken to market by the alcoholic sons of religious mothers, Lyashenko later concentrated on what he found to be aesthetically fascinating pieces of clothing, shoes and everyday objects which he collected at flea markets and elsewhere. 25 years later his collection, certainly one of the largest of its kind in Russia, included around 2000 pairs of shoes, 1500 suits and dresses, 1000 pieces of male and female underwear, around 3000 accessories of various kinds and about 2000 everyday objects. It is incidentally old clothing which provided Lyashenko with his nickname and pseudonym. Punks and Rockers, who he regularly met in the mid-eighties in a park on Novokuznetskaya Street, called him “Petlyura” (2) on account of his eclectic style of clothing. Lyashenko-Petlyura reminded them of an anarchist who stole clothes from the bourgeoisie and then wore them demonstratively. Lyashenko’s Ukrainian background may well also have had some part to play in it. Petlyura also won his artistic spurs amongst the alternative youth: he is credited as being jointly responsible for the stage design for the legendary Moscow “Rok-Laboratoriya” at a big rock festival in DK Gorbunova in 1986.

Actionism as history was made
His first major involvement in a group exhibition was in 1988: with the “New Symbolists” at the “house of the Artist”-gallery in Kuznetskiy most-Street he showed two compositions with the appealing titles “The Pioneer Shows Death the Path to the Future” and “The Victory of Socialism over Capitalism”. They were only shown for an hour before the exhibition was closed and Petlyura accused of being a fascist and a hooligan: “My second composition consisted of two sculptures, a Soviet Soldier fucking a German Soldier up the arse with a liver sausage. Then two girls appeared who we had specially dressed as punks, took the sausage, pretended it was a penis and shouted ›Uncle, can we give you a blowjob?
Thanks for saving us from fascism!‹ And then the action began. Finally we took the sculptures out onto the street, set light to them and then the fire brigade and police turned up.” Furthermore, some morbid works in which Petlyura addressed the theme of death very much in the spirit of the times earned him the reputation of being a necrophiliac. “Dedicated to the victims of natural catastrophes” was the title of a 1989 action in which, amongst other things, bits of animal carcasses were spread out for a few hours in the Moscow Hippodrome before once again being burned. In “gos.shchet” – “state account” – Petlyura himself played a corpse lying out on a stretcher surrounded by pictures of corpses painted in the mortuary. The artist intended to allude to the fact that even parts of corpses receive an official number and thus become the property of the state. In “Duel with Capitalism”, on the other hand, Petlyura found himself in November 1989 at the centre of world events. Whilst cellist Mstislav Rostropovich played Bach at the wall on 9 November 1989, Petlyura – in an act known to only a few – proposed in the days running up to the fall of the Wall in Kreuzberg that a cardboard wall be erected, and greeted Trabi drivers, off to collect their 100 DM, in a rather different way: “All night I collected the stars from Mercedes cars and in the early hours went with a full sack to the border, stuck them on the Trabis and greeted them with ´Welcome to capitalism!´”. The action ended finally at the local police station, happily as it turned out, because the Moscow artist was freed after a day without charge. (3)

Collective new beginnings
In the general spirit of new social and cultural beginnings during the late perestroika period Petlyura either initiated or became involved in a number of collective projects for which he was to become extremely famous during the nineties. In 1988, along with some others, he founded the so-called “Free Academy”, which formally lasted until 1993, but which in fact fell apart relatively quickly as a result of inner conflicts and the absence of a supportive external framework. “The idea was to found a free academy, to invite the most progressive contemporary artists, even if in comparison with the West there was neither real practice nor experience in such matters. There were plans for an institute of experimental rock led by Petr Mamonov, a performance institute with Ekaterina Ryzhikova, an institute for avant-garde theatre with Boris Yukhananov and for avant-garde music with German Vinogradov.” However, despite some activities in 1989/1990, the “Free Academy” did not progress beyond the planning stage before it was officially terminated. In 1989 Petlyura founded the first artists’ commune, “Kvartira 57”, in the Hasek-Street, followed in 1990 by the successful occunen Illupation of a number of derelict buildings on the Petrovskiy Boulevard in which at the time only on elderly couple was living. Abramovich and, most notably, the 66-year-old Pani Bronya gained fame in the following years as sought-after models and stars of the Moscow scene, with Pani Bronya winning Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World title in London in 1998. “The basic idea was a vision that it ought to be possible to stay afloat in this country, create a community which others would imitate and demonstrate that there are possibilities and the potential for free expression, and also that one can demand from the state non-commercial cultural organisations based on the lines of, for example, the factory in Potsdam.” On 28 September 1990 the “territory” was officially opened: at times a few dozen artists lived and / or worked here in the centre of Moscow across 2000 square metres of living space with 6 hectares of land – visual artists such as Aristarkh Chernyshev, Rostislav Yegorov, Arkadij Nasonov (Cloud Commission), Kirill Rubtsov, German Vinogradov, performing artists such as the group Sever, fashion designers like Olga Soldatova and Natalya Vasilevna, DJs such as Aleksandr Osacij and Kompas-Vrubel’. There was no consistent artistic style, “President” Petlyura required all of the artists to get artistically involved in two central activities of the commune: the birthday celebrations for the “territory” itself and for Pani Bronya. By the mid-nineties it became clear that the occupation of the “territory” could not last forever. And despite numerous (semi-)official papers – stating, for example, that this was a charitable organisation for the benefit of the public and which was looking after the building, letters from Mosfilm to the effect that a film was to be made there – Pani Bronya, Petlyura and his collection were finally forced to leave the area in 1995. The destruction of his collective and awakening from the illusory dreams of perestroika were particularly traumatic for Petlyura: “Everyone understood that in this country you had nothing to believe in, nothing to hope for. The most difficult thing for me was to begin again. After we had all lived practically for free, we all had to start earning money.” Alongside these economic problems Petlyura also had initially to tackle the serious problem of where to store his collection. Nevertheless he was engaged in further artistic activities during the following difficult years; aside from trashy, commercial appearances and shows in what at the time was a new and flourishing club scene, he became involved with other cultural activities, including film. As well as designing a number of films he also acted in 1997 in a short film by the British director Kate de Pury alongside superstar Renata Litvinova and in 2002 took on one of the leading roles in Ivan Dykhovichny’s feature film “Kopeyka” (based on a screenplay by Vladimir Sorokin).

Opus Magnum in twelve “situations”
One of the high points in Petlyura’s work – to date the largest demonstration of his private ethnology – was a large-scale project staged in the year 2000 at the Moscow “Dom” club and elsewhere. In twelve “Situations” of “25 Years Later. The Empire in Objects” Petlyura recapitulated his subjective view of Russian-Soviet-Russian history in the twentieth century: “With all the collected objects I wanted to relate why I had made this collection, how the socialist empire differed from the new Russia. And above all do it in time, before Russia was completely Europeanized. But the economic components of this project were also very important to me. It was possible, starting from a deep respect for this country and its people, to amass a collection of this kind with one’s own modest means and thereby tell a story. Now this would no longer be possible, the empire doesn’t exist any longer and no one would have 25 years to collect all these objects.” Each “Situation” was represented in three different ways: a monthly performance in the “Dom” club, for which Petlyura staged the cultural and historical theme he was addressing, a documentary video which was screened there and in which the objects and garments not used in the performance could be seen. In addition photographic tableaux were created for each theme which summarized and documented the issues in a highly concentrated form and in which, in particular, the social differentiation in the use of certain garments was to be made apparent. In terms of content, Petlyura embraced a broad spectrum in his twelve “Situations”: “A Salute to Victory” took as its theme the joy at the end of war, which has repeatedly manifested itself in strong, brash colours, “Thanks for Your Help” demonstrated the consumer world of the new, capitalist Russia, which was westernized in no time at all as a result of the collapse of Russian production and a massive increase in imports, “The Last Tango” dealt with a theme extremely relevant to Russian cultural history: emigration. The choice of garments and objects for the most recent period turned out to be particularly difficult: “For themes such as the Olympics or the Cosmos you buy 40 shirts with the appropriate symbols, but for the performance itself only the most accurate two or three can be used. I wanted to address the emotions of the audience, either make them laugh because the thing itself was so bad, or engender pride in the fact that this person was a Soviet citizen at that time.”

“Thanks for your help”
Even if Petlyura’s work – as the Moscow art critic Vladimir Salnikov claims – clearly exhibits the Marxist-Leninist aesthetic principle of “narodnost’” (popular appeal) and is obviously anchored in Russian traditions, it is still surprising that the intense and lasting interest in Petlyura’s work in the West has played such a central role in the reception of his work in Russia itself. “It was foreigners who were largely responsible for my movement in Russia, the Russians were very negligent and didn’t believe in anything.” As early as 1991 Petlyura showed a garment installation in Graz as part of the exhibition “Körper und Körper” (“Bodies and Bodies”, steirischer herbst) (4) and appeared himself as a “Russian Mozart”. At the margins of the exhibition he established productive contacts with the art scene in Graz (5) which led to collaborative work in Moscow and Graz, and out of which further appearances in Austria followed. Petlyura has also appeared repeatedly in other European countries, for example in 1992 in the Potsdam Factory with “Snow White – Snow Girls Don’t Die” featuring Pani Bronya, or 2002 as part of the “Theatre of the World” festival in Dusseldorf, where ten performances of the “Empire of Things” were staged. During recent years there has been increased interest in his work in France: in 2000 he appeared at the Paris “Bal des Excentriques” and in 2002 this was followed by a performance at the Fondation Cartier and participation in an exhibition in Quimper. His contribution to the first biennale in Valencia in 2001 as part of the exhibition “Russian Madness” was publicly acknowledged by artists such as Peter Greenaway and Bob Wilson, and Wilson invited him in the same year to participate in his Summer School at the Water Mill Center outside New York. In the wake of the impetus afforded by this international recognition, particularly in the case of Wilson, the reception of Petlyura in Moscow has slowly begun to change. Slowly, because significantly his most recent contribution to an exhibition was also at the behest of a foreign curator, Dominique Abensour, who showed his installation “History for Two” as part of the French-Russian group exhibition “Incidence” at this year’s Art Moskva.

(Translation: Martin Brady)