Death for All, Victory Over Resurrection – Reflections on Art Without Death: Russian Cosmism
The ANS synthesizer is not what one would call an elegant instrument. It looks like a nightmare of a piano-forte that has been upended and rigged to automatically shave deli meat. Finished in the late 1950s after two decades of development, it is the engineering marvel of Evgeny Murzin.
Unlike the resonant synth tones made famous by Western vacuum-tube inventions of the 1920s and 30s, or the plug-and-pull analog coldness of Robert Moog’s Moog of the 1960s, the ANS produces ghostly warbles and whines derived from graphical scores.
In order the play the unique and singular ANS, one feeds a large glass plate covered in black mastic and marked with lines, patterns, or other imagery into a frontal slot. The orientation of the marks on the plate determine the quality of tone perceived. The closer the mark to the top edge, the higher the tone, and vice versa. Through an almost unbelieveable relationship of artificial light, sine wave disks, and amplifying receptors, the synthesizer scans the plate, then speaks its music.1
The sound is almost dulcet, but more importantly, it’s otherworldly, continuing the Russian tradition of coupling musical innovation with the eerie, alienating, and “cthulhic.” After all, its name is an homage-bearing acronym for Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, the renowned composer and theosophist mystic whose monumental yet unimagined gesamtkunstwerk, Mysterium, was intended to initiate nothing less than the end of the world. Murzin’s brainchild is the legacy apparatus of these dimension altering intentions.
Early recordings of ANS performances are rare, and though the machine is occasionally used by artists or filmmakers, its permanent home at Moscow’s Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture limits further output. To experience any form of ANS music beyond headphones and an unstable Internet link is a special occurrence.
This is why I waited the duration of a small eternity in the foyer of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt to procure a ticket to Victory Over Death!, a concert featuring Dorit Chrysler on theremin and Carsten Nicolai operating “sampled sounds generated by the legendary ANS synthesizer.”2 The special event marked the conclusion of Art Without Death, an exhibition and conference program that examined Russian cosmism, a utopian ideal that fused “…Western Enlightenment and Eastern philosophy, Russian Orthodox traditions and Marxism, with an enthusiasm for science and technology” to envision a universe in which all of time and space is wholly collectivized.
Although embraced by artists and intellectuals of the Russian avant-garde, cosmism has its origins in nineteenth-century intellectual and creative developments. It was especially championed by Nikolai Federov, who “demanded that the ultimate goal of technology must be to overcome death” and proposed that anyone who had ever lived and died should be resurrected. Federov further advocated for the practical necessity of interplanetary colonization in order to accommodate the drastic increase in human population once revitalization began—a project he termed the “common task.”
Federov’s ideas scaffolded Art Without Death, which was more of an elaborate rumination on cosmism than a vast survey of the topic. This is not to say that its components were meagre. The vernissage was paired with a weekend conference featuring over sixteen speakers and participants; the exhibition filled two of the HKW’s main halls; and the Intergalactic Mobile Fedorov Museum-Library, Berlin, by Arseny Zhilyaev, dominated the space of the foyer.
Zhilyaev’s giant star-shaped table enjoyed lavish attention on the night of Victory Over Death! as the queue of ticket-seeking hopefuls grew longer than the Volga, curving around and away from the installation like a meteor. For many, it was the highlight of their evening because it wasn’t long before the well-coiffed staff of the HKW announced the performance had sold out. For me, the Museum-Library made a special sort of impact when the apex of one of its five arms plowed into my leg as I stormed off in a huff, proving there was nothing mobile about it.3
The resulting contusion was impressive by all accounts, and, having blossomed deep purple and squash yellow, possessed more than a passing resemblance to the “Eye of God” Nebula. A fitting tribute to the occasion wherein so many celestial bodies were referenced, designed, or imagined through word and image.
Unlike my bruise, cosmism was short-lived—mostly due to the cultural restraints imposed by Stalin, but also because it failed to crystallized as a formal art movement like the contemporaneous Suprematism, Constructivism, and the Italo-Russian Futurisms. Nevertheless, it engendered extraterrestrial aspirations among the major players of the art world, who, according to the exhibition statement, “…saw themselves as prophets of a new age in the history of mankind—the Age of Cosmic Mankind, when humans would leave the Earth and conquer cosmic space.”
The gallery subsection of Art Without Death, entitled Cosmic Imagination: Artists of the Russian Avant-Garde, demonstrated the presence of what we might now call a “sci-fi sensibility” in post-revolutionary and early Soviet art. Selected by none other than Boris Groys himself, the works on display largely favored geometric, biomorphic, and color field compositions because of their ability to evoke “the possible sights viewers could experience on other planets or on their way to them.” In the heyday of cosmist zeal, Groys claimed that “Abstract art was not understood as opposing ‘reality.’ Rather, it functioned as a blueprint for or announcement of a new, as yet unknown, but coming reality.”
In no example was the cold thrill of the future more distinctly conveyed than in the few figural representations that punctuated the show. Bodies appeared as either automatons or somehow transmogrified into energized flesh, maybe by the effects of unforeseen science; maybe by the trauma of being awoken from their graves à la the Common Task. And the human face? It was deliberately stylized or abused to dissociate its appearance from anything that could be mistaken for portraiture. Case in point—the small charcoal drawing Face (c. 1934) by Solomon Nikritin, which depicts a man’s visage wildly distorted as though spun by light years and speed and the gravity of a distant world.
Even the great Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko made a cameo appearance on the walls of Cosmic Imagination with an early oil-on-canvas piece entitled Composition No. 117. Consisting of red, green, and yellow dots floating upon a vacuous dark ground, the imagery is spare and, as a cohort pointed out, rather sentimental in its geocentric depiction of the heavens. Oh, what potential there is to the vastness! it says. Oh, what distances to traverse for the ultimate dream.
The sentimentality of cosmism’s dream, and sentimentality for all of its idiosyncrasies as a philosophy, formed the crux of Art Without Death’s other major gallery component, Anton Vidolke’s Immortality for All!, a trilogy of films that “probe cosmism’s influence on the twentieth century and suggests its relevance to the present day.” Housed inside structures that resemble mausoleums more than cinemas, the work is meditative, and fueled from beginning to end by its investigation “of cosmist influence in the remnants of Soviet-era art, architecture, and engineering, moving from the steppes of Kazakhstan to the museums of Moscow.”
Relying on conjectures set forth by Federov and other cosmist-related thinkers for support and focus, Vidokle fashioned a series of films that are equal parts educational and poetic. The information presented is, of course, dense, but that is the intent, and, as is common with most films, certain moments shine forth like irreducible jewels. For example, in the earliest, This is Cosmos (2014), the footage is regularly interrupted by a plane of red light, the specific color frequency of which is intended to promote healthfulness and well being—an immediate aesthetic encounter with immortalizing cosmist technology.
In the third and final episode, Immortality and Resurrection for All, the action takes place within the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Zoological Museum, Lenin/Russian State Library, and the Revolution Museum/Museum of Contemporary Russian History. This containment to cultural establishments illustrates one of the more (though not the most) bizarre principles of cosmism: that museums offer a precedent for the preservation and physical return of the past. Scaled up, this idea could potentially be applied to all past generations of human beings, who, through technology and the archive, would be resurrected via a “radical museumification of life.”
It is fitting then, that a central figure of the film is a mummified human being who wanders through the halls of these illustrious institutions encountering the history that he has missed since burial. In a process of touch and encounter, the figure is reanimated through modern knowledge, and in the final stroboscopic moments of the film, denuded to reveal a fresh and breathless man bewildered by the glare of the twenty-first century. His astonishment is more than understandable, and the term bewildered is likely too gentle a description for the sudden shock of a full-consciousness rebirth. Like first birth, it must be a violent affair.
Behind the cosmist’s furious competition with mortality lurks a macabre obsession nothingness, the darkness and anxiety to which Kazimir Malevich gave symbolic form when he first created The Black Square in 1915. The iconic quadrangle appeared multiple times throughout Art Without Death, popping up in lectures, plagiarized in a collage, and featured as a focal point in Vidokle’s Immortality. Decades of neglect have rived the Suprematist masterwork with a lattice of cracks, but the degraded condition only strengthens its mystique as a representation of profound dread.
To my eye, the desiccated face of The Black Square resembles an overworked ANS plate, and I wonder if anyone has ever tried to play it. In all likelihood, the painting would issue a long howling moment of dissonance, but a part of me likes to think otherwise, that it would remain true to its enigmatic nature by emitting no sound at all.
No sound but for the hum of the void itself.