From Avant-garde to Avant-garde

Elena Aydinyan

During the 1920’s, the Soviet people were engaged in building a utopia. That utopia seemed to be absolutely feasible. Russian avant-garde was one of the ways to construct a new World. The subsequent periods of Soviet history indicate the failure of the realization of the utopia assumed by the 1920’s. One after another they alienated and washed away its contour.

At first, Karen Ohanyan’s collages remind us of Russian constructivist works thanks to the combinations of black, white and red, the usage of black-and-white photographic fragments and sharp geometrical forms. Upon a closer examination one realizes that time travel is taking place. In his collages the artist uses clippings of Russian language Soviet magazines published since 1950’s. Having the production of the period of the utopian failure “cut into pieces”, the artist shuffled it so that it has returned to life as avant-garde. However, the product of shuffling is not a rebirth or a continuation of the 1920’s avant-garde. It belongs to its own time and its own historical context. First of all, this art is deprived of the obvious political function that its “prototype” had. It does not aspire to build a new world, but tries to make heads or tails of the one it finds itself in. Its political resistance stays in the limits of culture.

Those collages are a combination of incomparable cultural signs. On the one hand there is a form that refers to constructivism, on the other hand – the images that refer to Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Soviet history. Thus, for example, the collage with the inscription “Shooting” referring to the aesthetics of the 1920’s at the same time touches upon the subject of Stalinist repressions. In addition, this collage has a great emotional impact that is generally not typical for constructivism. The collage with the inscription “After the dictator’s death” makes one suspect whether the death has really taken place. The dictator looks out of a small opening in a large red plane with a cunning smile and assures us of his constant presence by a salutatory gesture. Interestingly enough, Stalin's photograph is bordered with a red line. It is just a fragment of the magazine design that has nothing to do with constructivism, but being taken out of its context it becomes an element of constructivist aesthetics. Nevertheless, in the collage with the inscription “The Monument” another dictator is already a mere image. Inside an almost symmetrical composition the protagonist becomes a decorative element, because he is deprived of the most significant instrument of power – the gaze. Meanwhile the photograph loses its capacity of referring to the reality and states the fact of being just a document.

In another collage a protagonist that reminds us of Lavrenty Beria “falls victim” to abstract elements and becomes an abstract element himself.

The collages that concern the subject of sport remind us of constructivist works most of all. In some cases they could even have been taken for Russian constructivist works. However, the image again gives away a chronological discrepancy. The images of the sportsmen are typical for the magazines of the Era of Stagnation and undoubtedly call up associations with that period.

Moreover, similar associations are evoked by the collage with the inscription “UFO”. The interest towards flying saucers, aliens as little green men and other manifestations of “inquisitiveness” of the kind were possible only during the Era of Stagnation, but by no means in the early Soviet years when both scientists and artists got down to constructing a new reality on Earth. The necessity of parallel realities is the result of the failure of this construction. The collage with the inscription “The explosive on the rails” is a unique example of a parallel between abstract constructivist elements and semantic meaning of the text: grey lines which are the vertical axis of the composition remind us of disordered rails. The collage “The 7th Day, Lesson Seven, Sunday” draws a contradictory parallel between Soviet reality and Biblical references. On the one hand, the expression “The Seventh Day” refers to the Creation of the World, on the other hand – “Lesson seventh” refers to a systematic everyday work. While the image most probably shows some sport or health-improving action, the figure reminds us of a hero condemned to torture or death and accepting his sentence proudly and silently. The impression of defenselessness and complete “openness” is achieved by the vertical rotation of a lying figure. Only one collage out of fifteen tends to be a pure abstract image of forms and text. The word “Form” here becomes part of an abstract composition along with geometrical forms. The juxstaposition of different periods of Soviet history, the consideration of some of them through the others are important not only per se but also as an event in the cultural life of today’s Armenia. It is an attempt to realize our own past as a Soviet past. We are a product of a complicated tangle of processes that today are being methodically obliterated from our historical memory all at once.

The artist takes an important step: without any pathos, assessments and Greek chorus he creates a cultural space in which our society can experience the aspects of its own history, that it commonly does not realize in its everyday life. The artist makes a great case for being an avant-gardist; it is his principal position in the cultural space. He plays with cultural signs juxtaposing that which cannot be juxtaposed. There is a certain shade of irony in this gesture. However, Ohanyan’s works are not the harsh hybrids created by Komar and Melamid, but subtle and witty observations on our “common childhood”.