Art in the Home: AptArt, Russia & Apartment, Manchester

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“Black Square”, Object, Apt-art Show 1982

One of my primary interests in my research is art that is shown within public and semi private spaces such as the home, the office, waiting rooms etc. I want to know the affect that art has upon a person when they live with it or spend a large amount of time with it. This has led me to research two different cases in which art is shown within the home, integrated in with everyday personal objects, Apt-art in Russia and Apartment in Manchester, UK.

Apt-art and Apartment are from two different moments in time, existing in very different societies but both have the same objective, to show art, to take it out of the studio and play with it amongst the context of the domestic items of the home. Both came about because of a lack in their society, a lack of a platform for artists and while neither are attempting to be particularly political they do make a statement about the politics of art and underline what is needed, what is necessary.

Apt-art came about under communism in the early 80’s; at that time in Russia to show publicly you had to be an official member of the Russian artist union which was reserved for safe, uncontroversial practitioners 1 because of this there was an underground movement of artists  who worked collectively but ‘sought to provide a space for nurturing individualism.’2 This is where some differences are apparent, under communism individualism is not nurtured whereas in a capitalist society its quite the opposite. Artists wanted to create autonomous, experimental work, Nikita Alekseev opened up his apartment as a space to exhibit such art work. The art market was never given the chance to develop in the twentieth century in Russia so there was no such thing as the ‘white cube’ space that was well known in the west, ‘art did not live in galleries and museums, but rather in workshops, in apartments and country homes. The bonds of camaraderie meant more than the pragmatic, temporary community of an exhibit.’3 Apt-art was a parody of the other apartment exhibitions in Russia in previous decades in which collectors would open their doors to show off their collection, this was ‘more lively, expressive and primitivist art which corresponded to the vital aesthetic of New York’s ‘New Wave’ but with a local, soviet twist’.4 The audience was kept to a close circle of friends that could be trusted so the authorities weren’t informed. The popular aims of today to address a range of social ills and be inclusive of disenfranchised communities, in a socialist society such as one they were living in, would be a completely alien notion as there was, in theory, no class system, no divide.5 Although politics had pushed them to this position underground Soviet artists were apolitical, they wanted nothing to do with politics just to create ‘a privatised liberal space…in covert to official social structures.’6

The art itself as I mentioned earlier was experimental and expressive; they used the objects in the space such as making a refrigerator into a book, putting works on the ceiling and having performances.7 It was all instant, there was no market and no media to comment on it so there was no need to create works that could be sold or had to fit into a certain approach. Although the societal structures held them in underground it also liberated them from any expectations.

‘This is simultaneously the broadening of the borders of art to the “total swallowing” of life, and the narrowing of the borders almost to total merging with life which is perhaps the eternal and unsolvable problem of art.’8

In comparison, Apartment in Manchester was founded by two artists Hilary Jack and Paul Harfleet in 2004 under very different circumstances; they both graduated from their Masters in Art in Manchester and found that although there were many artist led spaces there was no platform for the kind of work they were interested in which was more site specific 9 and so decided to open up Paul Harfleet’s one-bedroom council flat in a sixties tower block in central Manchester as an exhibition space- Apartment.

ApartmentManchester

Cherry Tenneson, Cyclists Dismount, Apartment, 2005

Initially they chose to self-fund the project and fundraise at the event openings so as to run independently and keep a sense of spontaneity but eventually applied for arts council funding to cover costs of running the exhibitions. As was pointed out by the editor of Every Curator’s Handbook, there was the possibility of a project like Apartment to be a tool for the local authority in their social and regenerative agenda considering its location but they made a choice to not allow that to happen although it could have offered another funding avenue.10

It is interesting to note that although the roles of Jack and Harfleet may have changed and been reinterpreted over the course of Apartment, they continually saw Apartment as an extension of their artistic practices. ‘We are artists who ran an artist led space for five years. Curating became part of our practice and may do again. It didn’t change our practice but may have changed the way we operate as artists.’11 This question of roles never seemed to come up with Apt-art, although they were presented by Ekaterina Degot in Afterall’s symposium Artist as Curator, it seems that it has only become apparent in the last two or three decades, this leads me to wonder is it necessary? I had an interesting conversation about this recently with artist Stephen Maher which seemed to come to the conclusion that making these definitions is just a translation to others of what you do or have done.

The art work shown over the course of the five years that Apartment was open were interpretive of the domestic space that they were being shown in they highlighted, interpreted and questioned the setting. It was experimental, intuitive and playful. They brought up a dialogue on what it is to live in such spaces, to live with art, to exist in today’s society and as the art objects and non art objects mixed with, in some cases, very little to differentiate them it raised the question of what is and is not an art object which is especially interesting in a space such as this where the surrounding objects are personal and domestic objects in a home.

Over one hundred years ago Duchamp opened up the idea of what constitutes an art object by exhibiting an everyday object, the urinal, as an art object in a gallery. This idea has had a continuing ripple effect upon the art world, everyday objects are common place in contemporary art but the crux of the idea was that showing it within a gallery raises its value to that of an art object, in both these cases and many others these objects are no longer shown within the art context of a gallery but within everyday spaces. Is it that we are told it is an art object that makes it so, reinforced with research and explanations, is it the audience’s interpretation of this that makes it so?

Referring back to the quote on the merging of life and art that came from Apt-art’s press release, questioning what is art and not art, where the lines blur and mix and disappear shows that this mode of exhibiting art work brought up such a debate on art and life, art object and non art object with no answer, maybe this is why it was chosen as the place to exhibit instead of a more plain space that would interfere with the work less. My sense is that there is no real want to make that definition of what is art and what is not because as soon as that happens it creates limits on creative practice although in saying that artists have always enjoyed breaking through such limits.

It is interesting to see that although Apartment and Apt-art exist in two quite different societies both reject the political agenda of the ruling authorities, choosing to be as autonomous as possible. This is what has allowed for the level of experimentation that was evident in the art work, they created their own agenda. What also allowed for experimentation was each case’s disregard for the market and media. In Russia, as I mentioned, the market was non-existent and, as what they were doing was strictly illegal, there was no media. In Manchester, to an extent, they chose to ignore these two influences and I can imagine media and market attention weren’t always forthcoming in central Manchester, they fulfilled their own agenda and left it open to the interpretation and reaction of the media and market.

It is the devil may care attitudes that allow for such exciting, creative and history moulding moments in time. They created caverns of creativity, separated from outside influence in one sense yet integrated into every fibre of life. I think this quote from the founders of Apartment summarises their approach; when asked what advise they would give to other artist- curators just starting out they answered ‘Just do it…’.12

(1) ‘Unofficial art began in Moscow in 1964, after Khrushchev visited the thirtieth anniversary show of the Moscow Union of Artists at the Manezh Gallery, which included a display of non-figurative, abstract paintings; Krushchev declared these to be (among other things) “private psycho-pathological distortions of the public conscience.” ‘ Claire Bishop, Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art, e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/zones-of-indistinguishability-collective-actions-group-and-participatory-art/, Accessed 05/08/14

(2) Ibid

(3) Ekaterina Degot, Russian Art in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century, http://cdclv.unlv.edu//archives/nc2/degot_art.html, Accessed 05/08/14

(4) Ibid

(5) Claire Bishop, Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art, e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/zones-of-indistinguishability-collective-actions-group-and-participatory-art/, Accessed 05/08/14

(6) Ibid

(7) Ekaterina Degot, Apt-Art and the Trekhprudny Squat as case studies of artists curating, http://www.afterall.org/online/artist-as-curator-symposium-apt-art-and-the-trekhprudny-squat-as-case-studies-of-artists-c#.U-CrafldW8A, Accessed 05/08/14

(8) Quote from press release for AptArt, Totart: Natalia Abalakova & Anatoly Zhigalov, AptArt Show http://conceptualism.letov.ru/TOTART/APTART.htm, Accessed 29/07/14

(9) Hilary Jack and Paul Harfleet, Apartment: A short account of an artist led space in a domestic environment, pg 29 Every Curator’s Handbook, edited by Anne Klontz,Karen MacDonald and Yulia Usova in partnership Perfect Art Institution.

(10) Ibid pg29

(11) Ibid pg29-30

12. Ibid pg30

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