From inexultant labours to reimagined bodies
Anna Alchuk is a poet and an artist who works in video, visual poetry, installation and photography. Her interests lie in the visual manifestations of the collective unconscious of Russia during the Soviet era and today. She reconstructs and re-sites existing images of men and women, or invites others to do so, in order to explore the governance of gender construction and sexuality. Some of her works suggest how these became important instruments of Soviet propaganda; others open up opportunities for the construction of the identities of women and men in Russia today. Often taking a local perspective, her work sheds light on the parallels and divergences of Russian and western philosophical thought and feminist theories.
´What is most striking is the sense of human redundancy. Whatever the activity, whether it be the harvest, or industry, or the war, vast numbers of people are depicted taking part. The individual is sub-sumed into the undifferentiated body of the masses; even the distinction between male and female is obfuscated. Female bodies with hypertrophied shinbones and muscular arms become metaphors of an ideal collective body merging into the sexual ‘indifference’ of totalitarian androgyny.
– Jo Anna Isaak
Working in installation and photography, Anna Alchuk’s body of work reflects an interest in the visual manifestations of the collective unconscious of her country during the Soviet era and today. Isolating and reworking past images of men and women, and constructing, or inviting others to construct, new representations, her work explores issues of gender and its construction through the medium of photography. Although she often focuses on the local peculiarities of a visual culture that has emerged out of the Russia’s own specific history, her work probes and exposes correspondences and divergences in Russian and western philosophical thought and feminist theories.
Heroic images of women adorning the Moscow metro form the basis of one of Alchuk´s series of photographs. Many of the city´s underground stations, built during the Second World War, bear statues or frescoes that celebrate the ideals of Soviet womanhood through a solitary female who stands out among a group of several male figures.
Art critic Jo Anna Isaak has described, for example, the female figure on the pedestal at Baumanskaya ‘stepping out of a bay of red marble, wearing a wind-blown, quilted worker´s jacket and girded with a holster and revolver’. She writes, ‘In one hand she holds a grenade, in the other a machine gun,’ pointing out that ‘all eight figures on this station … have the same aggressive stride, the same menacing look, and all of them are armed (even the ‘intellectual’ brandishes sheets of paper). But none of them looks so fanatical, none is armed so thoroughly (a grenade, a machine gun, and a revolver) as the woman.’
By locating existing representations of women such as these, photographing them and displaying them in a gallery space, Alcuk focuses our attention on historical constructions of women that are still visible today but largely remain unnoticed by the inhabitants of Moscow as they go about their everyday life.
Isaak has likened Alchuk’s approach to Louise Lawler´s investigation of the ways in which a work of art is altered by its context. She explains, ‘When converted to photographs their original didactic function is undermined. Reduced in scale, framed, and hung on the gallery wall, they are transformed into objects of contemplation for private viewing, and other embedded read-ings emerge.’
Latent in many of these images is a strong sexual charge. Focusing on the triad of female figures at Electrozavodskaya metro station, Isaak points out that the women are less holding than ‘caressing’ their propellers or cannons, and that this ‘phallic and fecund symbolism’ is echoed in a relief showing three fists holding a hammer, which she describes as ‘the apothe-osis of the labor process’.
‘What Alchuk´s work points out,’ Isaak suggests, ‘is that throughout the period of Socialist Realism, labor was increasingly depicted as if it were experienced ecstatically, as if erotically charged. The eroticism was generated and then harnessed, as if it were a natural resource to be expended in "exultant" labor.’
What also comes to the fore in Alchuk’s works are, as Isaak has put it, ‘the empty excesses of totalitarian ideology, the emptiness of the official ritual’. This is exemplified in the untitled work (1992) in which Alchuk rephotographed and enlarged sections of a poster. The image is of a crowd rejoicing on Stalin’s day. Isaak again, ‘What strikes us about this image is its excess, the hypervitality of the crowd, the exaggeration of their enthusiasm. All the images in the photo rein-force and reiterate one another, and each person seems to be a replica of the next.’
Selecting and enlarging two faces from the crowd, Alchuk’s work shows that each bears the same ecstatic expression, or to quote Isaak, ‘the "bliss of conformity" so common in group scenes of the time’. She points out that ‘What is revealed by Alchuk`s gesture of individuation is how depersonalized these people are.’
Alchuk´s manipulation of Stalinist era imagery extends to the film repetoire of the time in the 1997 collaborative project with Ludmila Gorlova, ´Exaltation Spaces´. Taking propagandist films, their dubious nature inferred by sentimental titles such as ´The Pig-tender and Herdsman´ or ´Far from Motherland´, Alchuk and Gorlova embark on a nostalgic project, placing themselves into the movies that once enlivened their childhood. In doing so, they expose the homoeroticism latently most of films of the period.
´In 1930–50-s it was prohibited to openly show, to put on screen the signs of heterosexual sensuality,´ Alchuk explains. ´As a result, we have a substantial number of homosexual kisses and embraces that serve as a replacement of the repressed sensuality.´ She continues, ´An attempt to tackle those Stalin-epoch film stills in a new, contemporary vein consists not merely in the replacement of actors´ faces and bodies by ours, but in introducing a would-be psychodrama between two women characters.´
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work remains for Alchuk the enlargement of the movie stills. She explains, ´once you enlarge them, a lot of strange things come to light: you may see among other things the shadow from the camera and reflected fragments of other equipment, black holes, the vaguely looming painted background´.
Even closer up, at the level of fragmentation, nearing the ´grain´, the images become a ´fascinating net of lines and spots, existing independently from the whole, as if they were pictures made in abstract, expressionist or suprematist style´. For Alchuk, such images provide evidence of ´the artificial — and at the same time repetitive and premeditated — nature of signs in early Soviet-epoch cinema´.
Alchuk’s work has recently also expanded to incorporate the gender constructions of others in ‘Figures of the Law I and II’, in which she invites people to pose for photographs, which she then displays as installations. Alchuk initially invited men to be photographed in the nude holding phallic objects such as knives or daggers. Then women were also invited to pose nude but were allowed to choose their props themselves.
Alchuk discusses the differences between the participants’ gendered approaches to the project: ‘Men treated the act of photography with easy improvisation, while women had more serious approach to it: their poses, attributes and the very images were thoroughly developed and discussed. It seemed that most participants had nurtured certain images associated with their own body before, and the project provided the reason to document these conscious and subconscious fantasies.’
The women were not only granted the freedom to choose how they were to be represented, but also to articulate their decision in an accompanying text. Alchuk explains, ´It was important to reveal the discourse of gender both in the visual and in the speech aspects.’ Alchuk found ‘the feminine body manifested itself as a considerably more extensive medium than the male one’.
The work was to an extent consummated by the reaction of most male viewers to Alchuk’s photographs, which they noted, as the artist says, were ‘"non-erotic" with sincere surprise’. For Alchuk, this provides ‘proof of the stability of patriarchal views based on the conviction that feminine body is instrumental and its nakedness can only be associated with seduction’. Figures of the Law II, however, proved otherwise. The project, published by the London-based art journal n.paradoxa in 2003, recalls a similar inversion at play in Alchuk´s earlier work, ´Maiden´s Toy´, in which she presents six blow-ups of male torsos in pose of Venus of Milo, thus displacing the female nude as – and transforming the male body into – the traditional object of contemplation.
Alchuk has exhibited widely in Russia and has also participated in several group exhibitions around Europe. In 2002, she participated in the ´Artists and Cosmonauts´ project organised by Arts Catalyst, London and partly funded by Visiting Arts. The project enabled British and Russian artists to visit Star City, the heart of the Russian space programme and to develop projects for a parabolic ´zero gravity´ flight. Alchuk collaborated with the art theorist and philosopher Mikhail Rylkin to present new video-visual poetry and commentary for the project, in which they explored the replacement of Russian cosmism with consumerism and new capitalism.
Sources include: text by Jo Anna Isaak in ´Feminism And Contemporary Art. The Revolutionary Power of Women`s Laughter´, Routledge, London and New York, 1996 and artist statements
Author: Diana Yeh, Visiting Arts
Anna Alchuk was born in 1955 in Moscow, Russia, where she currently lives and works. She studied at the Moscow State University from 1973 to 1978. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions, in the UK, Germany, Hungary and Sweden, as well as in Russia, where she has also staged several solo shows. She is also a poet and a critic and has published several books.
Figures of the Law II
Publication of the art project ´Figures of the Law II´, n.paradoxa, 11, London
2005 Verses in "Diapason. Anthologie Deutscher und Russischer Gegenwartslyrik", Univeritaet Natalja Nesterova, Moscow
2004 Verses in No.6(17), Moscow
2003 Photoproject , "n.paradoxa", No.11, London
2002 Article "An Artist as a Criminal, a Crmiinal as an Artist" in "Art of Tortures and Execution -- Art Against Tortures and Execution", The National Center of Contemporary Arts, Kaliningrad Branch, Kaliningrad
2001 Introductory article for the catalogue for feminist exhibition "Men in my life", Magazine Iskusstva, Saint Petersburg
1999 Article "Gender Boundaries" in catalogue "Woman in Art", "Istina i Zhizn", Moscow
Exhibition / Installation
2007 ´ZONA´ (in collaboration with I. Sundulevich), Jaani Seegi Museum, Tallinn
2005 ´svetoTEN´, Sakharov Museum, Moscow; ´Spider & Mouse Gallery´, Moscow;Performance in “Responsible for Everything” (in collaboration with M. Perchihina)
2001 ´Figures of Law II´ \in collaboration with S. Bratkov, II International Festival of Photography, Nizhny Novgorod: "Pro Zreniye" (catalogue), Nizhny Novgorod
2000 ´The Exaltation Spaces´ (in collaboration with L. Gorlova) Club ´OGI´, Moscow
1999 ´Figures of the Law´ (in collaboration with S. Bratkov), in ´II International Photo Festival in Nizhny Novgorod´ : ´Pro Zreniye´(Catalogue), Nizhny Novgorod
1998 ´Happy Shopping!´, ´Velta´ gallery (in the project ´ARTMANEGE 98´), Moscow
1998 ´Gefaerdungsgebiet (the Rama Group, in collaboration with M. Ryklin), Gallary ´Velta´, Moscow
1997 ´The Exaltation Spaces´ ( in collaboration with L.Gorlova )
1995 ´Ratification Of Illusion´, ´Spider and Mouse´ Gallery, Moscow
1995 ´Obscuri Viri´ Gallery, Moscow
1995 ´Double Game´ (in collaboration with G. Kizevalter), ´21´ Gallery, St Petersburg
1994 ´Maiden’s Toy´, ´21´ Gallery, St Petersburg
GROUP EXHIBITIONS (Selected)
Exhibition / Installation
2007 Moscow Biennale Contemporary Art, “KATOPTRON”, Museum Center, Moscow
2006 ‘Homo Grandis’, Museum center, RGGU, Moscow; ‘Frtist-Frt critic-Photographer. Alternative Art, 1960-1990’, Central House of Artist, Moscow; ‘Off Book. Ex Libris/Vne knigi’, National Center for Contemporary Arts, Moscow
2005 ´The ABC. Zur Semiotik des Widerstandes´ \in collaboration with O. Kumeger, Galerie Neurotitan, Berlin
2004 ´Body, Culture and Optical Illusions´, Museum Center, RGGU, Moscow
2003 ´Battle Readiness´, National Center for Contemporary Arts, Kaliningrad Branch, Ekaterinburg, Nizhnij Tagil
2003 ´Be cautious, religion!´, Museum of Saharov, Moscow
2002 ´Femme Art´, State Tretyakov Gallery´ (Catalogue), Moscow
2002 ´Artists & Cosmonauts´, Arts Catalyst, London
2002 ´Art Frankfurt in Curator Choice: Art Frankfurt looks East – to Moscow´
2002 ´MM-Moscow Minimalism´ by Masha Chuykova, Frankfurt
2002 ´Moskau-Berlin´,, Kulturfoyer der Deutschen Botschaft, Moscow
2001 ´Art Catalyst Art-Science Project´, Star City
2001 ´Our kind and tender animal´, ´Rigina´ Gallery, Moscow
2000 Videofilm ´SLOVAREVO´ (in collaboration with O. Kummeger) at the Festival
2000 ´RISK VIDEO´, SOC. Stockholm riktar ett varm tack till Svenska Institutet, Stockholm
2000 ´Men in My Life´, VII International Festival of Woman Photography, Museum of History of City, St Petersburg
2000 ´Efemera´, The British Council, Moscow
2000 ´ART-Forum ´Perm 2000´, ´SL´ Gallery, Perm
2000 ´Avtoritet Biblio´, ´Zverevskiy Centre of Contemporary Art´, Moscow
1999 ´Visual poetry´, ´Spider & Mouse´ Gallery, Moscow
1999 ´The Book of Artist´ (Catalogue), ´Museum of Private Collections´, Moscow
1999 ´Borders of Gender´ (Catalogue), ´Ciber-Femin-Club´, St Petersburg
1998 ´Praprintium´ (Catalogue), ´Staatsbibliothek´, Berlin, Bremen
1997 ´Word`s Row in Russian Postmodern Art´ (Catalogue), Russian Cultural Center, Budapest
1997 ´The Future of Art´, ´LAIS´ Gallery, Moscow
1997 ´Kredo´ (catalogue) and ´The Material Sphere of the End of 20th Century´ (catalogue), Fund of Culture, Moscow
1997 ´16 Ribs´ (Catalogue), Schwules Museum, Berlin
1996 ´4th St Petersburg Biennale, ´East Europe: SPATIA NOVA´ (catalogue), St Petersburg
1995 ´Woman-worker - II´, ´L´ Gallery, Moscow
1995 ´Kulturdorf Project´, Tzarskoe Selo
2005 Member: Russian PEN Centre
2003 Member: Union of Journalists of Russia & International Federation of Journalists
2003 Scholarship: Baltic Center of Writers & Translaters, Visby, Sweden
1991 Member: Writers´ Committee of Russian Federation
1986 Co-founder: Club for "History of Contemporary Art", Moscow