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Conceptualism in Literature
October 30, 2013 12:12


The principles of conceptualism were manifested in Russian literature as well. The stereotypes that the Soviet ideology constantly “bombarded” consciousness of people with were revealed in conceptualists’ poetry, which was made emphatically detached, insensible, and mechanized. M. Epstein, the researcher of postmodernism in Russia, considers the creativity of conceptualist poets as one of the two main poles of modern poetry: “Time breaks up into extremes to reach its potential … In poetry of every era there is struggle of convention vs certainty, play vs gravity, reflection vs integrity… In the 1970s the same opposition giving dynamics and intensity to poetry, was finding new forms: metarealism vs conceptualism.


… Distinctions between new poets are defined by how much ideas and realities are blended in their creativity. …. Metareality is the limit of their unity, whereas concept is the edge of their contraposition… They carry out two necessary and complementary tasks: peel habitual, false, jaded meanings from words and impregnate them with new polysemy and deep meaning. The verbal fabric of conceptualism is careless, artly defective, and broken into pieces, since the task of this movement is to show the decay and senile helplessness of the dictionary that we comprehend the world with. 
Metarealism looks for the higher limits of meaningfulness, immersion of an object into meaning, eternal themes and archetypes. Conceptualism, on the contrary, pinpoints ostensibility of any axiological denominations, and therefore is defiantly attached to the current, the momentary, daily round and the lowest forms of culture, to mass consciousness”. (M. Epstein. Postmodernism in Russia). 
 
Development of Conceptualism in Russia was a predicted and natural phenomenon. The Socialist Realism was creating plethora of defective images illustrating overvalued ideas, which turned to be “the fueler” of Conceptualism.
M. Epstein writes: “… Conceptualism does not argue with incendiary ideas, but inflates them to such an extent that they blow out… Any weapon was powerless against the Gorgon Medusa, who struck her opponents ideologically, so to speak – with her look from distance; the one who in the old manner attacked her with his sword, suddenly froze on the spot. There was one way out: not to look directly in the monster’s eyes, but approach it while looking at its reflection in the mirror… Mirroring shield is a reliable weapon against the Gorgons of the 20th century: to double the mighty opponent and win over it with the charms of its own image. Modern Conceptualism is a smart weapon of Perseus in the battle against modern Gorgons …”
Conceptualists deal with concepts – jaded language and visual clichés – which are invariable weapons of totalitarian ideologies. The concept is an idea or abstract concept, a peculiar label to reality that it does not meet, and thus causes alienating, ironical or grotesque effect with this incongruity. Concepts as they appear in texts by the poets Prigov and Rubenstein are reflected images of injured consciousness, which plays with them and thus nullifies them.
Russian literature of the 1970s-1980s was influenced by a number of bright and original conceptualist authors, including the old masters of the Russian underground Henry Sapgir and Vsevolod Nekrasov, belonging to the Lianozovo group, as well as the younger generation of Dmitry Prigov, Lev Rubenstein, and others.
 
Dmitry Prigov’s writing was based on playing with speech clichés that had taken shape in Soviet society. His poems were inseparably linked with the author’s reciting manner. The poet connects and clashes words not based on their sense, but by go-as-you-please attributes, and it depends on the reader’s “immersion” into the author’s poetic system, if a new meaning will be born from these word combinations.
 
Lev Rubenstein (born in 1947) changed the mode of existence of the poetic text. Having worked long in libraries, he came to writing ordinary phrases in library cards. It results in something in between verses, prose and “solo performance”. The texts are chaotic, just like the consciousness of a modern person: scrappy, unstable, and restless… Intensity and drama is felt in them. These are not characters with feelings and attitudes that are talking, but voices echoing in the void. 
The cento master is Timur Kibirov (born in 1955), the author of New Sentimentalism (as classified by Epstein), a derivative and transitional trend from Conceptualism. A paragon of Conceptualism is Kibirov’s poem Life of Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko glorifying feats of the USSR leader, who was turned into an epic by means of Socialist Realism clichés. A mix of solemn and official style with poor content creates a comic, nearly satirical effect. Official clichés in unusual environment are filled with new meanings. Kibirov used informal speech, household details, playing with literary personalities and quotes, including official Soviet ones. In general the poet upholds a simple cozy realm of an independent person from all kinds of fighters for unfading ideals.
 
Alexander Eremenko (born in 1950), whose writings, according to Epstein, are in between Metarealism and Conceptualism, resorted to scientific terminology. 
 
Poems by Nina Iskrenko (1951–1995), “the muse” of the Poetry club with Prigov, Rubenstein, Irtenyev, Gandlevsky, Kibirov, and Eremenko as its members, are also replete with ironical use of well-known quotes, and language play connected with motives of female lyrics.
 
Epstein found a special notion for the styles of Alexey Parschikov (born in 1954) and Ilya Kutik (born in 1960) – Presentalism, that is poetry of presence and the present. Phenomenological approach of Presentalism claims presence of a thing, its visibility and tangibility, which is a necessary and sufficient condition for its meaningfulness.
 
Among the Russian conceptualists Vladimir Sorokin (born in 1955) (novels and stories Turn, Norm, Marina's Thirtieth Love, Hearts of Four, etc.) became the world renowned writer. His writings combine avant-garde and postmodernism poetics. The palette of postmodern devices in Sorokin’s works is extremely varied. It is also typical for him to play with stereotypes of mass culture of totalitarian ideologies – Soviet and German. The combination of feigned or cloned (stylized, with only external similarity) texts in his works takes place in a casual manner, with the plot developing at random, or with the plot now appearing and then disappearing in the cacophony of sounds or jabberwocky of words. Sorokin is inclined to playing with concepts – for example, suggesting options for interpreting the category “norm” in his novel The Norm.
 
Works by conceptualists often seem to be gestures or projects only. Nevertheless conceptual creativity approves new type of freedom: human existence beyond ideological plots. Aimless play activates vital energy and gives an impulse to perception released from ideological clichés. Such play can clear the space from residue of previous ideologies and return to the initial silence preceding the birth of new meanings.
 
The Moscow Conceptualism is often called the second Russian avant-garde, emphasizing its continuity in relation to domestic modernist tradition, the ideas of Kazimir Malevich, V. Tatlin's, etc.
 
Russian conceptual poets and artists continued their creativity in the 90s as well. Devices and ideas of Moscow Conceptualism partially shifted to the cinema and can be traced in creativity by the underground film directors Svetlana Baskova (Green Little Elephants, Four Bottles of Vodka, The Head, etc.) and Oleg Mavromatti. They unfold their movies on the basis of performances, happenings and characters’ semi-senseless dialogues, in which one can find cliches of thinking and behavior modes by representatives of different sectors of society.
 
After the blossoming of Conceptualism in the 1960s–1980s – the peak of fighting with ideologically overloaded art, there came a sort of tiredness from this theme in the 1990s. Traditional forms and plots, style and technique of the past were coming back, but the tendency for fresh and more independent vista of art was getting stronger: traditions ceased to be dogmas, and it was to a great extent thanks to Conceptualism.

Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Conceptualism Russian Avant-Garde Russian Literature   

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