New Hagiography

George Kiesewalter
A New Hagiography Project

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

From the point of view of content, this hagiographic project is trying to build a bridge from the present time to a time “long gone” and partly forgotten, which played a significant role in the formation of the current ethnic group on the territory of Russia and its modern culture. We will talk about the generation of the Russian intelligentsia, the nobles along with “raznochintsy”, which was practically erased during the turbulent times of the 1917 revolution and the subsequent civil war. Those people formed the core of scientific, cultural and social life in Russia right up to the abovementioned events. The carriers of Russian culture, highly gifted and spiritually rich people who in the decades following the revolution were driven out of the country, exterminated and crushed in detention camps, were replaced by a new tribe that had a completely different upbringing, a primitive education, and differing life criteria and priorities. Many books and articles have been written about that mind-bending shift, and I do not want to spend time discussing this topic here. However, I am inclined to believe that we should not carelessly forget about this period of history or about the noble-stem people who have already passed away, – the question is, however, if we feel a real connection with them.

The project was born after studying very interesting documentary evidence from the era of 1915-1930s, which consisted mainly of the correspondence of my relatives who then lived in Russia, the USA, Latvia and Switzerland. These letters present the literary component of the project, expressed in the drama of the separation and disintegration of a large family from St. Petersburg, a sharp change in their life patterns, departures to other countries, numerous deaths, arrests, bans, exiles and other large and small life collisions. The picture they created was so comprehensive and tactile that I experienced, to be honest, a kind of existential shock. For a long time, I could not read anything else and decided to transform the experience gained through those letters into an exhibition project.

In terms of the exhibition form, the New Hagiography project was shown in three large halls at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. The first hall was dedicated to people of different eras who are compared like the German Plusquamperfekt and preterite in each image; the second – to crumbling, abandoned old houses, and the third presented the installation River Lethe made of the surviving letters and documents and real family objects, the museumized remains of past lives. For the author, the old houses of the second hall symbolize those “long gone generations.” In the 1980s, when the author, born on Mokhovaya Street next to the Kremlin, tried to capture with his camera the process of endless destruction of the centre of Moscow, he always imagined the people who had lived in those houses. Those who were taken out to nowhere in 1918-19, and then again arrested and evicted in the 1920s and 1930s. Who were “compacted” into small rooms according to the “residential norms of socialist society”. Their children and grandchildren, who in the sixties and seventies were forced to move from the city centre to the outskirts due to “improvement of living conditions” in the “era of stagnation” …

At the time of filming, here and there, now and then, the traces of bygone lives, past joys and tragedies were still visible. The old houses were being demolished. But the aura of the dwellings and their inhabitants remained on film.

Thus, from the destruction of families and the death of people, we move on to the destruction of their homes and proceed to the hall of documents as the only artefacts remaining from them in later times. “Art’s over. Only documents remain.” But these docs are not carved in stone either. They are getting lost, destroyed, just like this epigraph, eventually transforming into the initially incomprehensible “Rt’s o’er. Cums main”…

The gap between the tendency towards museumification of modern art, divorced from reality but rich in exoteric works of music, literature and fine art, and real life with real emotions and tough problems often causes reasonable protest among viewers. However, the artists often have to look for an answer to the question: is it possible to integrate personal experience in some aesthetic form into a museum context in such a way that this experience is recognized as a work of art? And further: will the viewer agree to understand and accept the nature of such a work? Is it possible to institutionalize personal experiences and personal history as an object of representation and discourse?

This project is an attempt to find an answer to these questions.