Chto Delat is a Russian collective of artists; founded in 2003, they are one of the most respected political art groups working today. Their new exhibition at Vienna’s Secession museum, Time Capsule. Artistic Report on Catastrophes and Utopia, is ripped straight out of the headlines and image banks of recent catastrophes and conflict: Ebola, the war in the Ukraine, ISIS beheadings, downed passenger jets. Chto Delat torques a journalistic truism: if it bleeds, it teaches us something. As litany of the disasters of war, these Russian artists have more means at their disposal than did Goya when he made his etchings 200 years ago. But they also face a different pictorial economy. For now, thanks to social media, we all suffer from a kind of cyber-induced compassion fatigue. Not only do we see mercenaries holding up a child’s toy, or a charred corpse pulled from the site of a car-bomb; but these images are ensconced in a stream of cat memes and our coworkers wingeing over deadlines.
Chto Delat deals with this problem head-on. In Secession’s grand hall, we first see a series of large images joined together by a river of red fabric that, despite a blurred pixilation, betray their origins. Chto Delat has often made art about the body as metaphor, the social body. “Radicalize your disease” runs a slogan in one of the videos that play in the archival rooms to either side of the hall. The red connective tissue may be a “red thread” – the idea of a secret, communist, subtext underlying history – or it may be more obvious: the blood that suddenly, with Ebola, is again a bearer of our deepest anxieties.
Hidden behind a large wall is a four-channel video (whose title, in typical Chto Delat fashion, includes a period), The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger, 2014. It was made in the summer of 2014 with former students of the collective’s St. Petersburg-based pedagogic project, the “School of Engaged Art,” and presents a series of episodes in which a dozen young people aimlessly scroll through social media, confronting images of the most dire sort. The online maelstrom leaves them wordless, and they collapse on a set of large, colorful cubes, gradually stirring when a large ear is brought into the space. So it’s about listening, and they start listening to each other as they relate where they were when they learned about a disaster, from 9/11 to the 2002 gassing of a Moscow theater, wars in Chechnya, Serbia, and Iraq, attacks on the Russian punk group Pussy Riot at the Sochi Olympics. Connected to personal events, the film tells us, history can be located even if it’s incomprehensible. At one point, a woman, Anya, leaves, to “picket alone” – the only type of protest permissible in Putin’s Russia. She comes back beaten, her body carried through the air like a martyr in Gaza, and her friends wonder who the assailant was – an army vet suggests one person, an old lady suggests another, a professor offers a third. Chto Delat’s film is truly a report on “Life During Wartime,” as the old Talking Heads song has it, and it would be dire-watching if it wasn’t so artfully assembled. The four-channel installation requires a viewer’s careful attention that’s rewarded by quick edits, unexpected details, news footage, and shots of heroes from Guy Fawkes to Aaron Swartz.
If the film is a tragedy – the story of our image-besotted weariness – and the large pictures are the rubble of history, a figure mediating between them forms a curious presence. Twenty feet tall, made of torn paper and a metal superstructure, and variously termed, by the artists, a zombie soldier and an angel of history, the statue carries his own backstory. In the spring of 2014, on another visit to Vienna, Chto Delat made a monument for the Schwarzenbergplatz square, referencing a Soviet monument to an unknown soldier fighting Fascism. That structure was then moved to Berlin, where it was attacked by an arsonist on a June evening. The new structure, assembled in Vienna, is a memorial to art, to its ungainly attempts to be in public, to be noticed, to simply be. “History is what hurts,” in the words of Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, quoted in a newspaper distributed by Chto Delat for their new show. And it’s not just the history depicted in art – the old paintings of Bible stories and heroic generals, but the history of the art. In a dialectical fashion, the Berlin arsonist may have done Chto Delat a favor: by destroying their work, he not only pushed them to make a new one, but brought to the fore the fragility of cultural response in the face of violence.