Of Mushrooms & Malevich
Makarevich & Elagina: Mushrooms of the Russian Avant-Garde, ARTiculate Art Fund, 2008
In 2000 rogue mushroom-pickers from the small northern town of Krasnoselkup, intent on gathering the finest specimens, persistently strayed onto the busy runway of a nearby airport, ‘causing havoc, preventing flights from landing and creating a major security risk’. The mycophiliac menace was only contained after local authorities hurriedly issued strict new laws. Mushrooms – even the non-psychoactive kind – often cause Russians to lose themselves: In a single month during the summer of 2003, over one hundred and twenty-one persons went missing while foraging for fungi in the forests outside St Petersburg. The same year, a bumper crop was responsible for thirty-four reported deaths and four-hundred and fifty-seven cases of poisoning.

The mania is nothing new: Stone-age petroglyphs on the banks of Siberia’s Pegtymel river depict figures whose heads are crowned with mushrooms. They are material evidence that Russians have embraced fungus, as both food and visionary intoxicant, since time immemorial. Throughout, mycomania has transcended social divisions – from gastronome to hallucinaut, child to grandparent, shaman to city-dweller, peasant to political leader. Lenin was supposedly no exception. A story goes that while in rural Switzerland he was hurrying through the rain to catch a train when he spotted a bunch of boletus and suddenly stopped to collect them. Whether true or not, the tale is ideologically charged. It makes Lenin look ‘like a simple Russian muzhik, one passionate enough to flout adverse weather – and miss a train – for the sake of a few mushrooms’. That is to say, it communicates the ‘simple essential humanity’ of the great revolutionary.

The association of mushroom appreciation with the national character has had the highest cultural consecration. The eponymous hero of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – a dandy with a penchant for foreign delicacies such as Oysters – eventually falls in love with a country-girl called Tatiana whose name-day feast features fungi. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace the character Natasha Rostova, a daughter of nobility raised by a French governess, displays her genuine Russianness by appreciating the offering of pickled mushrooms.

Along with such representations of ‘natural’ character, links between fungus and self-abandon are also notable. In the latter author’s Anna Karenina Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev is so distracted by talk of forest mushrooms that he fails to propose to Varen'ka. Prefiguring Lenin’s missed train, as well as the residents of Krasnoselkup’s disregard for planes, his behaviour seems to encapsulate something essential.

The Russian Revolution may have been extreme, but it was thought extremely reasonable by its proponents. The avant-gardes Kasimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin disagreed about whether art should serve a social purpose – Tatlin thought so – yet both prophets of modernity shared a disdain for individual subjectivity and a desire for objective progress. Tatlin’s stupendous design for a Monument to the Third International (1919) was meant as a blueprint for a new headquarters of world communist government. The political process was to be reflected in the monument’s structure: its four rooms, decreasing in size towards the top of the building, have been described by John Milner as paralleling ‘the evolution of decision-making and power’. In ascending order from the assembly hall to the propaganda centre they were to express as much as condition the ‘purification of collective will’ by ‘the process of dialectical argument and its continuing resolution and purification’. Ostensibly, Malevich’s paintings were no less engaged with logic. Described by the artist as a ‘hard, cold system, unsmilingly set in motion by philosophical thought’, his ‘Suprematist’ visual language – beginning with the square – symbolized the primacy of a reality that transcended appearance.

The Mushrooms of the Russian Avant-Garde implies that Malevich and Tatlin were agents of irrationality despite their pursuit of objectivity. According to Igor Makarevich & Elena Elagina, as much is evident in the ‘hallucinatory forms’ of their modernist creations. Apart from interpreting the past, the artists’ project also suggests that contemporary Russian society – viewed through the prism of its architecture – likewise displays signs of mystical delirium. ‘We were seeking to find the impulses of irrationality in architectural artifacts’, say the artists. The Tables (2003) series of photo-montages function as ‘empirical material or evidence’ of these impulses. They record its symptoms, which are manifest in the appearance of both socialist and contemporary architecture. Supplementing these pseudo-scientific revelations of reality Makarevich & Elagina also supply a ‘formula’ in the form of sculptural objects.

The various pieces which make up the project might be characterized as positing the supremacy of hallucination. Rather than the transparent geometry which fascinated the avant-gardists – Rodchenko, for instance, claimed that art was ‘a branch of mathematics, like all the sciences’ – Makarevich & Elagina seem to be claiming an all-pervading intellectual substrate that is uncontrollable and ungraspable. They imply that the fundamental condition of avant-garde art was pre-reflective mysticism and that today’s architecture is subject to the same force.

Makarevich & Elagina employ the fly-agaric mushroom as symbol of this hallucinatory force. Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Malevich’s Black Square, The Lenin Shack, various Socialist Realist monuments, the Patriarch House and other pieces of material culture are all paired with this symbol. The implication is that each is underscored by the transcendent hallucinatory principle. In Toadstool with Tatlin’s Tower (2003) Tatlin’s monument actually sprouts from a fly-agaric, while in the Tables series of photomontages both socialist and contemporary architecture seem brimming with fungal characteristics.

Why the mushroom? Firstly, it is important to recognize that it is a manifestation of the natural world which is, in a sense, prior to both practice and discourse. We have also already touched upon its longstanding cultural significance. On both counts, the historicity of Tatlin and Malevich’s revolutionary and forward-looking art is reframed by being paired with this ancient organism. After all, the Russian avant-gardes are often characterized as ‘timely and responsive to the Zeitgeist’ – as symptomatic of modernity itself. In the first case, Makarevich & Elagina’s gambit inscribes Tatlin and Malevich’s attempted breaks from the past within a continuum that transcends the ‘rupture’ of Russian revolutionary modernity, evoking prehistory and even the primordial absence of man. In the second, it does so by invoking ancient rites, folklore and tradition. For example, Suprematism – a modernist vision par excellence – is equivocated with a more archaic catalyst for transcendent experience – the fly-agaric, whose role in shamanistic rites is of immense antiquity in northern Eurasia and elsewhere. In this way, Malevich’s vision is denied its ‘white free abyss’ of infinity, beyond the sky, and is rendered unto the Russian soil. In Toadstool with Tatlin’s Tower this message is reinforced. Not only is Tatlin’s monument to revolution, to the new society – described by one historian as an ‘emblem of industrialization’ and ‘technological-“scientific” principles’ – of a piece with the primordial Amanita muscaria; it is also associated, counter-intuitively, with classical architecture in the form of a Corinthian capital.

The nub of the matter seems to be a rather serious claim – that sub-rational ‘hallucinations’ are unavoidable. So why do the objects look absurd?

According to the artists, this kind of presentation serves to offset the potentially ‘oppressive effect’ of the conceptual content. However, the ridiculous look is not only the artists’ good taste to avoid pomposity by deploying strategic bad taste. These objects wear awkwardness – or ridiculousness – on their sleeves as part of their claim to truth. It is a formal device which visually presents the pervasiveness of hallucination in a graceless manner: Every seeking is guided by what is sought, said Heidegger. ‘You need to search for the mushroom form’ in order demonstrate its ubiquity, says Elagina; ‘[n]ot everyone can see [it]’. Thus, both herself and Makarevich were already bearers of a ‘truth’ or so-called ‘impulse’ even before they began to gather their mushrooms. Their foraging was guided by delirium; they were mad enough to find mushrooms in bricks and mortar, plaster and paint. The pair’s aesthetic senses are seemingly subject to an impersonal force. Accordingly, their supposed compulsion is reflected in the look of their sculptural objects, which constitute symptoms of hallucination.

The project’s absurdity is also the rhetoric of authenticity spoken in a language shared by many artists of their generation – wry laughter. Like Kabakov, the Gerlovins and other artists, Makarevich & Elagina’s humour has a metaphysical weight that is informed by Russian literarature, taking cues from Rabelais, Bakhtin and Gogol. More so, it is informed by Absurdist poets and performers such as the Oberiuty – Kharms and Vvedenskii. In fact, Elagina’s teacher Alisa Poret was directly connected with these figures, having created ‘films’ – which Makarevich characterizes as ‘performances’ – with them in the nineteen-thirties.

The whole project, including the empirical fact-gathering, should be considered an absurdist performance whose material remainder is a conceptual installation.

The Tables series has an art-historical dimension that is worth mentioning: It is informed by the memory of unstable links between Soviet photography and its referents. One critic has pointed out that almost ‘the entire photographic heritage of the Soviet Union consists of manipulated or constructed social and documentary photography’. This tradition has been termed ‘mythographic’ as opposed to ‘factographic’ by another writer. The progenitor of its spirit was Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin’s commissar of culture, who described the function of photography as “a profound act of social and psychological creation”. He might have better said destruction – David King’s book The Commissar Vanishes provides chilling examples of how Stalin’s purges were reflected in re-touched pictures. It was against this background, during the nineteen-seventies, that members of the Collective Actions group including Makarevich & Elagina swam against the mythographic current, pursuing ‘factography as resistance’ by documenting ‘marginal practices and activities’ as well as performances by Moscow’s unofficial artists. Their aim, according to Victor Tupitsyn, was to ‘implement the principle that […] idiomatic narratives are endowed with a destabilizing potential capable of shaking faith in the affirmative culture of Socialist Realism (read metanarrative)’.

The Mushrooms of the Avant-Garde, while certainly an idiosyncratic narrative, is also factography as resistance. But how can its ‘empirical’ proof – in the Tables series – be such if the Soviet Union no longer exists? Simply, because as much as challenging past representations – Is that a statue of a worker-hero or a fungal growth? – the project demonstrates the concrete ambiguousness of the everyday in an exemplary fashion. The contemporary world, supposedly comprehensible and ordered, is ‘proved’ hallucinatory.

It has been said that Tatlin’s Tower aimed to satisfy Russia’s ‘psychological need for a symbol of national progress and technological acheivement’. In this spirit, it was to stand one hundred metres taller than the Eiffel tower. The latter was so powerful a representative of modernity that the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky implored the structure to abandon Paris and “Come/To us”. The USSR never did receive a fully realized Monument to the Third International. In the twentieth century its most spectacular skyscrapers would be the vysotki, high-Stalinist pastiches of Russian Baroque, Gothic and New York Art Deco. However, ninety years after Tatlin’s vision, a mega-building in the neo-international style of computer-aided engineering has been given planning approval by the Moscow Public and Architectural Council. Foster + Partners’ Crystal Island is to be the ‘largest single building in the world’. Beyond mere skyscraper, it will be a ‘macroenvironment’ which houses everything from apartments, offices, shops and theatres to a hotel, a museum, a school and public space within a single tent-like superstructure. Moscow will finally have a totalizing and progressivist behemoth to replace Tatlin’s unrealized vision. As if in acknowledgment of this fact, Crystal Island echos the Monument to the Third International by also incorporating spirals as a major structural feature.

Is the avant-gardes’ utopian dream about to be realized by petro-dollars and Twenty-first Century technology? In an unlikely way, The Mushrooms of the Russian Avant-Garde offers an answer. As we have seen, Makarevich & Elagina’s project suggests that hallucinatory visions are not the sole province of shamans, lunatics or dropouts. They are closer to us than we think – in the products of modernity as well as our personal projects. The question of insanity need not only be asked of miscreants and eccentrics, but of cultural and technological rationalism – perhaps of Crystal Island as much as the Monument to the Third International. In the spirit of Makarevich & Elagina, one can observe that the former resembles an upside-down fly-agaric whose stem takes root in the sky. Its cap contains a microcosmos – a world, a society, within a hallucination. That the artists have not mentioned this particular example is unimportant: They have shown us how to gather mushrooms.

Makarevich & Elagina: Mushrooms of the Russian Avant Garde