The history of contemporary art in Russia is a story of state censorship, pressure, bans and lack of freedom of speech. Various political analysts have characterized the regime in Russia over the last twenty years as nothing less than a kind of informational authoritarianism which imitates democracy. With the collapse now of this system into fascism, we can present the history of institutions in Russia as a global history of imitation. This is not to say that artists in Russia took the ambitious institution-building of the 2000’s at face value: they tried to take a critical approach to institutional space and to engage in a political game with imitation. Political actionism, an important genre in Russian art throughout the 1990s, was replaced with a new interest in painting, but the very resort to painting itself was itself still political action. Firstly, because for post-Soviet culture in Russia, the canvas has been a constant space of agonism, a battle for public space under pressure, a zone of fuzzy borders, on which the ghosts of academic heritage or the commercial gloss of the oil boom flicker.
In my view Alisa Yoffe's work needs to be seen not in a modernist, formalist spirit, but as a political continuation of the unfolding of the history of the public space. The city ceased to belong to "us" and Alisa Yoffe's paintings are murals, they should be read in that tradition. But whereas murals are usually unambiguously agitational, Alice Yoffe's work, on the contrary, reveals the very ambiguity of the public field. In this field you can be frightened, amused, and unexpectedly recognize some images. In Yoffe's work, there is ambiguity and forcefullness and the viewer has to confront his or her own ideological projection onto the image. Sometimes in Russia her work has been censored and not allowed through, sometimes she managed to smuggle into the public domain what the censors considered to be mere abstraction. The works in her recent "Chance" series (2021) are created by transferring sketches made on a tablet onto a large canvas. Unlike classical murals, Yoffe's work does not have an initial plan, a drawing. It is always a motor, moving impulse of the finger.
Alisa Yoffe says that the transfer from procreation app onto canvas creates an architectural impression. In her recent work, architecture connects with the randomness of the fingers. The artist says that in this approach she reinterprets or even parodies Malevich's Suprematism, for whom geometric abstraction did imply a view of the city and houses from above. For the world of Suprematism, the industrial city is the result of planning and a system. For Yoffe, the reference to Suprematism reveals the 'incongruity' of the first drawing, its connection to bodily movements. In this way she criticises the hierarchy from the sketch to the finished work, creating a parody of the ‘creative’ design of the modern city. This city is not ruled by the compass and ruler like Malevich, Rodchenko and El Lissitsky, rather it is mediated by the demands of spontaneity and self-expression through application.
By transferring these fine motor skills to a canvas, the artist submerges her whole body in what was a small sketch. This is a subversion of the very subject of the mural where the public becomes fine-motor, and corporeal. There are no images in the classical sense of the word in these works, there are 'graphs', semi-automatic trace drawings that manifest the ambiguity of the place in which they appear.
At the same time, Yoffe's work is not demonstrative in the way that many of the art performances of the Moscow actionists are. In the mid 2000s, distinctive female artist voices began to emerge, questioning the idea of a direct takeover of public space. For Yoffe, it meant that the image constantly came into play with a viewer as an object. In these works she often refers to the act of hoisting something up (onto a pedestal?), but we see that what is raised up is fragile and ambiguous. Phallic associations are overturned and scattered into multiplicity.
Iconographically, this series could easily be linked to various subcultures. But if we take into account the digital nature of these images, they are certainly radically different from anarchist graffiti. Yoffe is not depicting any particular subcultural repertoire. It seems to me that against a distinctly white background, she is keeping an eye on what kind of emancipatory microcultures can emerge in the future, when the horror of the repressive system is broken down. That is, it is also the transposition of pure political potentiality into the public sphere, the flags of the coming resistance. And it is in this sense that these "drawings" are a borderline between manifestation and disappearance.
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