The latest exhibition of Konstantin Bessmertny, Ambitus I, marks the 100th anniversary of the Russia
The latest exhibition of Konstantin Bessmertny, Ambitus I, marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and is a rebellious homage, not so much to Lenin and what his seismic movement brought to Russia and the world, but to Dadaism, the anti-art artistic movement born during the First World War, whose principles and ideals are more pressing and relevant than ever. ‘Idiots of the World, unite! ’ ... Again.
There’s an extraordinary piece, The Comintern Dollhouse, which encapsulates what Ambitus I is about: in a classic English drawing room, with a marble fireplace, Winston Churchill faces a black canvas in one of his trademark attires - naked but for a Fedora hat and a cigar. But it’s the painting collection around him that impresses - a vast iconography that puts together Gandhi and Stalin, Napoleon and Trotsky, several female nudes, and a very contemporary (and slightly apocalyptic) Donald Trump next to Kim Jong-un.
In one revealing painting, a small pig with the inscription “the artist”, is topped by a bigger one marked as “art mafia”, the two overtaken by a humongous porcine beast named “art gods”.
The installation is classical and self-contained in appearance, but boundless in jokes and metaphors of how the artist views art is today, or at least mainstream art.
Subversive humour is present in every piece, directed to what Konstantin sees as art’s current inner identity crisis.
“We live in a world where art fairs have become like real-estate selling events, where people go buying like they do in a shopping mall,” he says. “There are 10 brands or so controlling the arty financial playground, with rich people buying things they don’t understand.”
Art was, and is, traditionally a favourite way for the rich and powerful to show off their success, a perennial rescue from their inevitable mortality.
But globalization has turned it into, first and foremost, a commodity. Aesthetics, symbolism and meaning have little or no importance. Bessmertny makes the comparison with what tourism has become: a mass-market recreational circus, where landscapes, monuments and landmarks serve to glorify our banality. Places “exist” because we’re there, but we don’t really see them. Paris is a bit of Eiffel Tower as a background drop for a selfie. Box ticked, next!
“We live in a world where poor people want to become middle classes, middle classes want to become rich and rich want to become oligarchs,” Bessmertny concludes.
All the above is brilliantly captured in the painting Napoleon Bonaparte in exile in Sardegna, the Corsican emperor with his bicorn and shorts on one beach of the internationally fashionable island. No Elba here, that’s so 19th century...
It’s satirical, rebellious and outrageously funny in equal measure. And that’s what Bessmertny wants in this exhibition where nothing is random, not even the city chosen for it. London was the place where Stalin first met Lenin in 1905 in the borough of Clerkenwell, where Karl Max visited the British Museum reading room, his favourite place to read and write, and where he famously had a fight with Mikhail Bakuninn, the father of anarchism. A city of effervescent, anti-establishment minds ready to proclaim and fight for new paradigms.
“In Russia, there was a colonial type of society. But in the period that preceded the First World War, the opposition to the tsarist regime was avant-garde. The same applied (later) to Cabaré Voltaire, to the Bolsheviks, and even to Bakunin,” Bessmertny explains.
This exhibition happens at time of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, but what the artist celebrates is in fact the avant-garde movement of Dadaism, where artists rejected the logic and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead veering to nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works, including provocative slogans like, ‘Down with Art!’ and ‘Dilettantes, rebel against art!’, visible in the striking video artwork shown at the exhibition.
Bolsheviks were avant-garde when they took to the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow, inspiring and prompting the masses to join them in the revolution. But the creative chaos full of possibilities quickly turned into a new oppressive order with tragic consequences to everyone adverse to orthodoxy, including artists.
The figures of Lenin and Stalin surface briefly in Bessmertny’s paintings and installations, but the real heroes of the artist are anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin, Marcel Duchamp and Frida Kahlo, known for their relentless rejection of any established regime or status quo, certainly the capitalist one, but also the communist.
“Ambitus I is a guerilla style exhibition,” Bessmertny proclaims.
Even its geographical location - an upper floor in a well-heeled but otherwise discreet street in Piccadilly - has the allure of a secret society.
“It’s restricted by access, but not restricted by effort. You have to know how to access it, have a name on the list,” Bessmertny explains.
The space is effectively a gallery/office of Rossi & Rossi, which represents Bessmertny in Hong Kong and London. Two small rooms that could be described like the Comintern Dollhouse created by the artist: the physical space is irrelevant; we’re dealing here with the mind universe.
“I want you to go to my exhibition, not for entertainment, but to trigger thinking, Bessmertny concludes. “I want to trigger thinking.”
Ambitus I can be visited until 28 February 2018, by appointment only, at Rossi & Rossi, 21 Georgian House, 10 Bury Street, London SW1Y 6 AA. Tel: +44 207 629 6688