The grounds of the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow are like an extension of Gorky Park, which is just across the road. The combined grassy tract is a vast age-unresticted playground of amorphous shapes and ironic conviviality (tree houses, giant bean bags, pétanque…), a new international (or global) style brought in over the past couple of years by Abramovic, his girlfriend Dasha Zhukova (who runs the Garage Art Gallery) and the Strelka design institute, to some criticism that it’s all going to be too trendy and pricey for average Muscovites. On trend it is – you may sense continuities with the South Bank’s recent Cedric Price-ish resurgence of well-meaning communitarianism (allotments, troglodytes, knitting, favelas…) or indeed any number of Manhattan, or Parisian, or Barcelonan witty, organic pop-up interventions into public space of the past decade.
In Gorky Park on a sunny day in Easter 2013, the promenaders have taken to this feast of fun with a joyful abandon you don’t so readily observe in those other more sated cities. You can’t help but admire their gusto and join in. People strut their stuff, dressed to the nines, energetically involve themselves in a cornucopia of leisure pursuits – skateboarding, circus skills, processions, table tennis, exercising their bottom muscles while browsing an iPad on an innovative sun-lounger. The mass appetite for all this seems, to a city-break weekender from London, like the behaviour of a people who are amazed to find themselves able to indulge in consumeristic fun after the years of longing for it under the Soviets. They are revelling, you imagine, in seeing themselves as good capitalists, brought closer to the celebrity afterglow of the jet set good life by playing with all the goodies in the manner in which they were intended.
But this perception is probably based on too easily viewing the park in terms of communist austerity versus capitalist fun. The park, which was designed in 1928 by the constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov, and was originally known as the Culture Factory, has had a history throughout the Soviet period of thronging crowds engaging in collective activities, funpark rides, sports, dance activities, games. Its main decline was during the post Soviet era when the park was run down and best known for larger scale rides (including a model Mount Rushmore) which suffered from a lack of maintenance. The extra thrill the danger imparted is missed now by some critics of the new humanely scaled, eco-friendly activities. Though the aesthetic may be of the global creative class, and the gadgetry of the networked age, the sense of collective joy is perhaps a legacy of the collectivist era, and within that, it is difficult not to imagine it contains an expression of national as much as pure political-economic ideological character – Gorky park is defended as a local attraction, it is for Muscovites, their spirit is Russian.
As everywhere in Moscow, other aspects of Soviet spirit remain. The occasional squad of police who pass through give off a martial, but also disaffected air. The great pond in the middle of the park plays grand classical music in time to the fountains as the people hurl themselves into the water from the newly constructed timber decks. Nearby, a brass band strikes up. Made up of vigorous young blokes in t-shirts, they give the feeling of having learnt their instruments in the army, but they have turned their instruments to something else entirely – an acrobatic version of the Pink Panther and finally climax in an ecstasy of a kind of brass trance. The crowd beam patriotic soft-eyed joy at them, couples hug, an old grandfather leads his grandson in a deranged dance before them all, and the crowd applaud, recognising in him (so you imagine) one of the archetypes of Russian folk life. It’s like a scene from any time in the past 200 years, a mixture of popular sentimentality, patriotic admiration, and yet all to the undulating strains of the new ecstatic culture of flow.
Escaping the glory of it all into the New Tretyakov, the atmosphere changes. The bustle of crowds is left outside. You come into one of those state spaces you find outside the rich world, where a sense of development economics’ overthrow by structural adjustment seems to be reflected in the way marble modernist grandeur is betrayed by its lack of funding. They are inhabited by an administrative culture that combines a proud high seriousness with a necessity of making do, storing things in odd places, infusing a sense of homeliness into the faded progressive idealism. Half way up the wide marble staircase to the galleries, there is a vast mezzanine where a red grand piano, a large model of Tatlin’s tower and an assortment of pot plants are all gathered under the stairs. Entering the green-walled galleries themselves brings you into a survey of Russian post-impressionism, cubism, post-cubism. While the Pushkin is full of the originals, these are all by Russian artists. The styles of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse are rendered in such derivative faith, you can’t help but wonder if they don’t reveal a specifically Russian anxiety to demonstrate how European you are. You wonder when you will get to the good stuff, that singularly Russian contribution to modern art.
Its appearance feels a bit like the revelation of the monolith in 2001. Framed by an opening at the end of a room of Delaunays that aren’t by Delaunay, hangs Malevich’s black square. Here at last is the promise of modernism in Russia. Beyond it, the gallery walls, now white, are hung with Suprematist paintings, reconstructions of Tatlin assemblages, and at the end a recreation of a Constructivist exhibition of 1921; creative possibilities that are only available once you have passed through that zero point of revolution. Not really the one we all think about, but the aesthetic one that occurred along side it, in partial and uneasy alliance with it, forging the greatest experimental culture of it, and after not so long, purged by it. Malevich’s art was an art geared towards a futuristic becoming of humanity, it aimed at the creation of an art of pure feeling. It, along with the other avant-garde forms, was suppressed by Stalin because he deemed them incomprehensible by the proletariat.
The outlawing of Suprematism was a cultural expression of the political outlawing of Trotsky, whose permanent world revolution and experimental freedom of artistic expression was also geared towards a future that was unknown, looking beyond the identities of the present. This is not to say that Trotsky was an advocate of Suprematism, which, as with Futurism-derived art in general, he saw largely focused on bohemian battles of form rather than communist battles of politics. Rather, for Trotsky, it was counter-revolutionary to determine that culture must be for a proletariat constrained within their class origins: the proletariat was in a revolutionary movement of self-abolition. Who knew what new revolutionary culture lay beyond that abolition? If Suprematism was an ally in this development, let it do its thing. Under Stalin, however, a newly bureaucratised revolution from above was imposed, defining the proletariat as what they were known to be rather than what they might become; and so, predictably or not, began the ossification of the Soviet Union. Socialist Realism was its aesthetic form. And then in due course, it gradually became clear to everyone that the only form of novelty in the East was going to come from the West.
I’m not sure if the group of Russian children I snapped in front of it were a school party; it was Easter and they may have been on holiday. It seems less likely that they were school children as the adults accompanying them seemed less concerned about their attention to mobile phones than I assume a teacher would have been. Either way, the striking thing was how singly unimpressed the children were with their presence before what I take to be one of the pinnacle artefacts of their cultural history. Of course this isn’t surprising. No child wants to look at a black square, (although for his brief moment of Soviet acceptance, Malevich pioneered aesthetic education, teaching Suprematist principles to Russian children) but more than this the presence of the dayglo children, and of the park beyond, are like a perfect demonstration of how alien the colours, forms, requirements of contemporary consumer culture are to those of the Russian avant-garde. Whether the children and their parents associate Malevich with bad old Soviet days, or indeed whether, Soviet or not, abstraction is commonly viewed (as it presumably was by Stalin) as an eccentric aberration from figuration, I can only guess, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Set against the great expanse of fun in the sunshine outside, the black square forms a tiny, lurking detail, ominous in its concentrated emptiness. Left to one side and forgotten, its paint cracked, it might be just a relic of a time best forgotten. And yet eternal in its radical reduction, it seems to be waiting there for its moment to return. Can Russian culture ever again approach that radical point of creative experiment? Or more than that, could a Suprematist Proletkult utopia ever be realised? Who would want it? The painted gesture is fine, but the problem with the Constructivist avant garde was when it presumed to turn the Suprematist gesture into a generalised built reality. We know this one way or another in the West through the dissemination of utopian form into modernist architecture. Though beautiful in the isolated masterpiece, the popular horror of the modernist planners gave a phenomenological backing to the revolution against Keynesianism, let alone the Soviets. Isn’t there something more human, more forgiving, about an architecture of organicism, be it of country lanes, or of ironic yurts?
In a side gallery is a reconstruction of Lissitzky’s Worker’s Club, designed for the Paris Exhibition of 1925, where workers might play chess or read revolutionary literature in a chamber of red, white and grey geometric rigour and where the only non-linear forms are those in the great photo of Lenin on the wall. You can’t imagine yourself, or many other Workers, feeling that keen on hanging out there after a hard day in the factory. The intellectual yearning it would foment would be too great. In Gorky Park, the contemporary workers’ hangouts are a mixture of international pastiche – a New York bar, a place called Ferma&Williamsburgh (surely a reference to that cutting edge case study in gentrification?), and a Chinese called Wokker (get it?). The one I went to was furnished with plump stripy sofas in an open-sided structure made from picturesquely weathered timbers. Birdcages and lamps hang from the ceilings. Breezy soft furnished magical realism is more its mood. And it’s a bit pricey.
Nonetheless, the black square, like the hints of the Soviet state, are not easily lost. Once you’ve been infected with it, it lingers in the mind. You start to see its potential everywhere amongst the biomorphic, folksy and dayglo, concealed, as Malevich had concealed geometry in his figurative paintings under Stalin. The wooden framework of one of the new playful benches under construction in the park’s workshop, the great yellow rectangle of the beach volleyball net, the red of the ‘reserved’ sign on the cafe table. Sleeper operatives waiting for the signal to awake and unleash the negative of platonic form on the world. Out the back of the New Tretyakov, there is a reliquary of Socialist Realist sculpture. The politburo gaze over the gauzy fence at the beanbags on the lawn. They too wait for their moment when their version of Utopia will be needed again, their expression uniformly grave.
Of course they know that they are stuck ignominiously behind the tatty fence because their ideas are the most dangerous to the bourgeois order. The black square has in fact found a greater ally in a contemporary capitalism, freed of the old class identities and imbued throughout with bohemianism, the ritualised rebellion of contemporary cool. An aesthetic embrace of a radical zero-point is already at work in our own time – the unknown point of value-creation, the eye of the storm of the imminent swell of the global markets. Isn’t the transrationalism that Malevich pursued in fact given a different expression as irrational exuberance? Our longing to let go, to surrender to unconscious process is perfectly articulated by our surrender to the unknown, distributed becomings of the market, each of us swept up in a credit-backed hypertechnologised personal adaptation, deliciously, willingly prepared to subjugate ourselves to the delirium of global fantasy. Contemporary art gives aesthetic expression to the collective intuition. The art market is itself so successful because its own alchemy of value-creation is isomorphic with the production of value in markets in general, and the sensibilities of contemporary art are fundamental to Abramovic’s gifts to the ecstatic Muscovites in the park. The avant garde attitude persists, but now in ecstatic or ethical entwinement with the market, instead of in posing any form of alternative. Malevich is as welcome in its inclusive embrace as anything. And anyway, if the Constructivists had had plastics and bezier curves, would’t they have wanted to abandon the rectilinear? Wouldn’t they be today’s Gehry, Coop Himmelblau?
No doubt, but Constructivism is only partially a descendent of Suprematism; the term “Constructed Art” was supposedly first coined by Malevich as an insult. While abstraction in general was squashed by Socialist Realism, Suprematism had already been morphed by Constructivism, which was geared towards a geometric engineering of the modern world. We need to recognise the difference in fundamental sensibility. The aesthetic that Malevich sought to define seems more a becoming orientated towards a lack – a permanent and eternal deferring of desire’s fulfilment, that opened a space of unknown creative possibility within that very void. As he said triumphantly, it was a “desert” he was drawn into where “nothing is real except feeling”. A desert, not an ocean. Our age may be a vortex, but it is a vortex of stuff, vitalist, burgeoning. It isn’t known for providing the ache of restraint. Suprematist art aimed, paradoxically or perhaps dialectically, at being objectless.