In 1978, Irina Pivovarova and a group of other volunteers took part in an artwork called Time of Action, conceived by the Moscow-based artistic ensemble Collective Actions. They were taken to a field near Moscow, given the end of a rope that appeared to run deep into the nearby woods, and tasked with dragging the rope out. They took turns to pull, but the rope seemed to have no end: it was 7km long and it took them an hour and a half. "It was a beautiful day," remembered Pivovarova two years later. "The rope kept coming and coming... I thought, 'Gosh, when is this going to end? Probably not until the evening.' We were in the habit of counting every minute, every second, being on the go, bustling about, rushing, and here was this unpardonable expenditure of time." The participants became aware that they were being occupied for a literal "length" of time that seemed physical, visual and spatial, and that was also a variously boring, fun and strenuous group effort.
Documentation of the work – props, testimonies and black-and-white photos of suitably bohemian young men and women in knitted tank tops, hippy headbands and black berets – can currently be seen in Field of Action, an exhibition held at London's Calvert 22, a space devoted to art from Russia and Eastern Europe. Since opening in 2009, the space has largely dedicated itself to showcasing contemporary work, though this is the first major historical show to take place (it's adapted from a museum show held at Russia's Ekaterina Cultural Foundation in Moscow in 2010). It's a canny choice: this period of Russian art history has recently been attracting critical attention as a kind of precursory movement to participatory artworks, and the Russian Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale, curated by philosopher Boris Groys, is devoted to Collective Actions and includes a restaging of the rope work: visitors in Venice can pull a seemingly never-ending rope out of a hole in the wall.
In Field of Action, the particular abstraction prevalent in Russia – in which monochrome squares and empty frames and spaces represented a kind of mental and spatial freedom – creates a context for the work made by "unofficial" artists in the 1970s, as do quotes and photographs pinned to the wall. Artists had one choice in Soviet Russia: become "official", make commissioned images of state-approved "social realism" (which glorified work, the factory, the state, often characterised by hefty square bodies engaged in physical labour) and be given materials and a studio, or be unofficial and go underground.
The art of the Conceptual School and other unofficial artists in Moscow, was made and displayed in basements and apartments with little resources, or in the fields and forests outside the city. The Totart group made work by sitting in a window, while Collective Actions sent participants trudging through the snow. Romanticised? Yes. There's a freedom in resistance, in being part of antagonistic, unsanctioned groups, but it's a situation that arose out of violent oppression. In other words (and I say this from experience) it's far more enjoyable to look at the documentation of people in a field pulling a string out of the woods than it is to actually pull the string.
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