Moscow Romantic Conceptualism was a major Soviet underground art movement and the echoes of its influence still manifest themselves in the pacesetting and often rebellious contemporary art of Russia. Developed in the atmosphere of strict ideological conventionality of the 1970s Soviet Union, Moscow conceptualist art served as not only a form of protest but also a means of escape from artistic and personal constraints characteristic of the period.
This series offers an analysis of the most prominent names and artworks of the movement along with a discussion of such concepts as freedom, choice, and courage in a restrictive environment, as well as the ways they are presented through art. The series consists of six chapters focusing on the works of six individual artists who were categorised as part of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualism movement by the art critic and philosopher Boris Groys (1979), and delves into the topics of protest, escapism and reciprocal influences of the artists and social phenomena:
Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Resurrection of Romanticism.
The Resurrection of Romanticism
Moscow Romantic Conceptualism was an artistic movement and a significant cultural phenomenon that formed in the Moscow art scene during the 1970s and 1980s. It was a circle of artists and writers who rejected rigid Soviet ideology and experimented with new forms of artistic expression. This movement was a response to the dominant socialist realism, the only officially sanctioned style of art during the Soviet era. Moscow Conceptualism sought to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of Soviet art. A key feature of this movement was its use of language, which, in one form or another, was employed as a form of development of new artistic reality. One of the most prominent representatives of the movement, Andrei Monastyrski (born Sumnin), poet and trained philologist, used language as a primary medium not only in his literary works, but in performances and installations as well.
Monastyrski was an annalist of Moscow Conceptualism, leaving a corpus of theoretical and documentary literature on the movement and its artists. He has long been an advocate for the importance of archiving and cataloguing contemporary art, and has worked to establish resources to support this work. In particular, Monastyrski managed the creation of MANI (Moscow Archive of New Art), that included a wide range of photographs and texts, documenting the work of artists associated with Moscow Conceptualism (Monastyrski, 2010). The archives have become an invaluable resource for scholars and researchers interested in this period of Soviet art history, providing access to materials that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain. The artist's work with the MANI archives is indicative of his broader interest in preserving and documenting contemporary art practices in Russia. He has been advocating for the importance of archiving and cataloguing contemporary art and has worked to establish other archives and resources to support this work. He was also the editor of Dictionary of Moscow Conceptualism (1999/2010), which served as the unique encyclopaedia of the movement, helping the interested viewer delve into its world and understand such concepts as artist’s Victor Pivovarov’s sacralizers (mundane objects used to protect the inside from the outside) or Ilya Kabakov’s emptiness, which is supposed to carry the meanings of both the absolute nothingness and the absolute fullness.
In 1976, Monastyrski along with fellow artists Nikolai Panitkov, Georgy Kizevalter, Nikita Alekseev and others founded the Collective Actions art group. The group was initially focused on poetry and experimental writing, but soon expanded its activities to include performance art. Collective Actions performances were often staged in outdoor locations, such as forests or fields, and involved participation of the audience. These performances often had a meditative or ritualistic quality. They were intended to create a sense of heightened awareness among participants and encourage them to engage with their surroundings in a more mindful way. The performances were also thoroughly structured, with the artists carefully planning every aspect of the event, from location and time of day to weather conditions and behaviour of the observers (Groys, 2011a). One illustrative Collective Actions performance was Third Variant that took place in 1978. About twenty spectators who came by invitation were placed on the edge of a field. To the right of a forest, at a distance of fifty meters from the audience, a figure in a purple robe appeared. This participant walked some distance across the field and lay down in a pit so that he was not visible. A few minutes later, he appeared in the same purple robe, but with a red balloon instead of a head from another pit at thirty meters from the place where he had disappeared. After piercing the balloon with a stick, in place of which a cloud of white dust arose, the participant—now without a head—again lay down in the pit from which he had just emerged. Simultaneously with his disappearance, the figure appeared from the first pit, but in ordinary clothes, and, having covered the pit he crawled out with soil, went into the forest in the same direction from which he had come out at the beginning (Alekseev et al., 1980).
There are several ways in which Andrei Monastyrski's art can be considered almost textbook romantic in Moscow Romantic Conceptualists’ oeuvre. His and Collective Actions’ approach to art emphasized the importance of subjective experience and an individual's relationship to the natural world. In his work, the viewer was often invited to engage with the natural environment in a distinctively personal way. His installations and performances frequently used found objects and discarded materials, which are imbued with a sense of history and memory. Monastyrski's work also often emphasized the mystical and the transcendent, another aspect of Romanticism. His artworks incorporated religious and spiritual elements, such as the use of candles, icons, and other ritual objects. His approach to art reflected a rejection of the rational and a celebration of the emotional and the individual (Groys, 2011a).
A characteristic union with nature can be traced in the Losungs (Slogans) series, which was a major Collective Actions’ project. Each of the Losungs was typically a short phrase or sentence, often cryptic or enigmatic, that would serve as the basis for a particular performance or action. The first, created in 1977, was a red cloth, reminiscent of ones used in Soviet propaganda, hung between two trees in uninhabited countryside with the following text on it: “I have no complaints and I like everything, despite having never been here and knowing nothing about these places” (Alekseev et al., 1980). One of the key features of the series was its emphasis on process and experimentation. The group would often create new Losungs on the spot during performances, improvising and adapting to the particular conditions of the moment. The resulting actions were often minimalist in nature and focused mainly on subjective understanding of the moment, making the whole process of creation and contemplation a sort of a ritual act. Losungs used language in a broad sense, combining poetic features of words, structural and compositional characteristics of text in visual art and performative acts, and also the language of Soviet everyday visual reality.
Monastyrski's work was notable for its unique blend of conceptual rigor and poetic sensibility. His performances often involved a combination of text, sound, and visual elements. However, most major work that the artist has done is mainly textual. His poetry and prose, partially gathered in the Elementary Poetry series (2019), demonstrate not only linguistic but also social and political art. Just as he combined means of artistic expression and media in his creative activity, Monastyrski used literature as a multi-tasking tool of experiment and self-articulation. Parts of his poems were used for Losungs, as they expressed the same feeling of antinomy of both blending in with nature and alienation from the world:
there’s nothing here in any sense that’s how it used to be how it was when everything left and there won’t be anything other than me but I forgot that, too this is nothing what could it be nothing it’s all the same I don’t remember it’s all the same here (Monastyrsky, 2019, p. 154)
The subject-centred artistic interest that is apparent in Monastyrski’s poetry and performative acts was developed in the 1977 Finger installation. It invited the participant to point their index finger at themselves through a hole in a black box attached to a wall. By pointing their finger at themselves, viewers were not only acknowledging their physical presence but also asserting their individuality and uniqueness. Text on the lower half of the front wall of the box stated: "Finger, or pointing to oneself as an object external to oneself”. This notion, which was central to the action, encouraged the participant to view themselves as a separate entity, distinct from their surroundings. The act of pointing at oneself reinforced this idea by creating a physical separation between the individual and their environment. The action was a form of self-centered artistic expression that prioritised the individual over the collective. It invited viewers to focus solely on themselves and their own existence. In Soviet culture, that stressed collectiveness as a fundamental value, promoting collaboration and group-oriented activities across various domains of society, this act of self-contemplation could be seen as a necessary part of personal growth and self-discovery. Thus, Finger was providing an opportunity for the audience to reflect on themselves and their place in the world, and to explore their individuality (Tate, n.d.).
The 1983 I Breathe and I Hear was an installation consisting of a wooden box with two tubes and a set of instructions, which asked the viewer to breathe into one tube while placing the other in their ear to listen to the sound of their own breath. This work is a poetic exploration of the relationship between body, breath, and sound, and invites the viewer to engage with their own physicality and sensory experience. Through their use of everyday materials and simple actions, Monastyrski encouraged participants to see the beauty in the mundane and to appreciate the subtle nuances of everyday experiences and self-exploration (Moscow Conceptualism, 2016). He explored the idea of doubting one's own existence in his works. His art invited the viewer to question their own perception and contemplate their own existence. I Breathe and I Hear is a prime example of this, as it invited them to question their place in the world. Doubts about one's own existence can arise from different sources, such as personal experience, trauma, or philosophical inquiry. For some, the experience of depersonalisation or derealisation can create a sense of detachment from reality and one's own self. Trauma or mental illness can also cause feelings of unreality, making it difficult to determine what is real and what is not. In that sense Monastyrski’s artworks acquired an additional therapeutical level.
Cannon (1975) was another piece of art created by Andrei Monastyrski that encouraged active participation from the audience. It involved an object that consisted of a black cardboard box with a black tube attached to the side facing the participant. Inside the box, there was an electric buzzer whose switch was located on the left side of the box as it hung from the wall. A set of instructions was placed on the front of the box, inviting the visitor to use it. To participate, one had to look into the tube and switch on the "device" with their left hand. What happened when the "device" was switched on was unexpected. Rather than a visual effect, the sound of an electric buzzer was heard from inside the box, creating a shift in the viewer's perception. This change of perceptual paradigm challenged the participant's expectations and highlighted the importance of sensory experience in engagement with art. By using a combination of visual and auditory elements, he created an immersive experience that invited the viewer to engage with the artwork in a more profound way. Participation required of the visitor marked the performative aspect of the artwork, blurring the line between the artist and the audience. This approach aligned with Monastyrski's interest in creating art that encouraged communal participation and rejected the idea of an artist as an isolated genius. Through Cannon, he demonstrated his belief that art is not something to be passively consumed, but rather a space for active engagement and participation. The act created a sense of anticipation, heightening the viewer's awareness of their own presence in the gallery space. Cannon was a truly innovative artwork that challenged traditional modes of experiencing art. Through its combination of visual and auditory elements, the artwork stated the importance of sensory perception in the appreciation of art (Monastyrski, 2010).
Apart from creative work itself, the artist has made significant contributions to the field of conceptual art through his theoretical and documentary works. Monastyrski's theoretical writings offer insightful commentary on the nature of art. One of his books, Aesthetic Research, is a collection of essays, notes, and reflections on art and aesthetics, and is notable for the writer's deeply philosophical approach to the study of art. One of the key themes of the book, which can describe the artist’s creative approach as well, is the idea of art as a process. Monastyrski argues that art should not be seen as a static object or a finished product, but rather as a continuous process of exploration and experimentation. He emphasizes the importance of process over product and suggests that artists should focus on the journey of creation rather than the end result (Monastyrski, 2009). In his theoretical writings, Monastyrski has explored a range of topics related to language and its relationship to art and culture. He has written extensively on the role of language in shaping our understanding of reality, arguing that language is not simply a tool for communication, but is also a powerful force that shapes our perception of the world. He has also written about the ways in which language can be used to subvert dominant power structures, and he has explored the relationship between language and social change.
Andrei Monastyrski's work can be viewed as a response to the oppressive Soviet regime's efforts to control and regulate every aspect of life, including artistic expression. The artist and his collaborators sought to create works that were spontaneous, unpredictable, and resistant to the state's directives. Their performances and installations often took place in remote natural settings, such as forests and fields, where the group was free to experiment without the constraints of societal norms and governmental interference. In doing so, they aimed to evoke a sense of freedom and autonomy, providing a rare outlet for expression that was otherwise heavily suppressed under Soviet rule. One of the key aspects of Monastyrski's work was his use of language. He was interested in the ways in which language shapes our perception of the world and how it can be used to create meaning and provoke thought. In many of his performances and installations, the artist used language in innovative and unconventional ways, often incorporating spoken word poetry, nonsensical phrases, and cryptic symbols. Thus, he challenged traditional understanding of language and communication, expanding the list of what could be expressed through words and symbols. Through his use of language and unconventional installations, Monastyrski resurrected the romantic spirit of the avant-garde, where the author was seen as a total artist of any media, rather than a specialist in a particular medium. His art blurred the boundaries between different forms of artistic expression, including performance, installation, poetry, and visual art. Overall, Monastyrski's work was characterised by a sense of experimentation, spontaneity, and unpredictability, allowing for new forms of creativity to emerge. It represents a significant contribution to the development of contemporary art in Russia and beyond. By resurrecting the spirit of romanticism and experimenting with different art forms, he provided a new framework for understanding the relationship between art, language, and reality.
Andrei Monastyrski's art was renowned for its deep exploration of the subtle nature of individuality. His approach to art was one that prioritized individuality over conformity. His works often challenged traditional ideas of art and instead focused on the individual's relationship with themselves and the world around them. His artworks demonstrated that the true value of art lies not in its ability to produce beautiful objects, but rather in its capacity to help the viewers understand themselves and the world in which they live. Mastering numerous means of artistic creativity, Monastyrski became a total artist, working with any media that suited his purposes. Through this, he was able to explore his ideas in a variety of ways. His work was marked by a sense of mysticism and a search for the sublime. His projects involved creating elaborate installations, which often involved light, sound, and other sensory elements. These works were frequently meditative in nature, encouraging the viewer to slow down and contemplate their surroundings. Like the Romantics, Monastyrski is interested in exploring the emotional and spiritual aspects of human experience, and he does so in a way that is deeply personal and individualised. Exploring the human psyche, the natural world, and the relationship between the individual and society, he created works that were both deeply personal and socially relevant, connecting the individual to something greater than themselves.
Alekseev, N., & Kizelvater, G., & Panitkov, M, & Monastyrski, A. (Eds.). (1980). Poezdki za gorod [Trips to the countryside]. Vol. 1. Moscow. https://conceptualism.letov.ru/1st-Volume--13-3-1976-13-4-1980.pdf
Groys, B. (1979). Moskovskij romanticheskii kontseptualizm. [Moscow Romantic Conceptualism]. A-Ya 1, Paris, 3-11. (Original work published in the samizdat magazine 37, Leningrad, 1979).
Groys, B. (Ed.). (2011a). Empty zones: Andrei Monastyrski and Collective Actions. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Groys, B. (Ed.). (2011b). Issue 29: Moscow Conceptualism. e-flux, 29(11). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/29/
Monastyrski, A. (1977). Finger. Tate. United Kingdom. Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/monastyrski-finger-t14133
Monastyrski, A. (Ed.). (1999/2010). Dictionary of Moscow Conceptualism (O. Esanu, Trans.) https://monoskop.org/images/c/cb/Monastyrsky_Andrei_Dictionary_of_Moscow_Conceptualism.pdf
Monastyrsky, A. (2009). Esteticheskie issledovaniya [Aesthetic research]. Vologda: BMK, German Titov.
Monastyrski, A. (Ed.). (2010). Sbornik MANI [The collection of MANI]. Vologda: BMK, German Titov.
Monastyrski, A. (2019). Elementary poetry (B. Droitcour & Y. Kalinsky, Trans.). (B. Groys, Preface). New York, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse.
Moscow Conceptualism. (2016, August 27). I breathe-I hear. [Video] Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20160827140115/http://conceptualism-moscow.org/page?id=816&lang=en
Sutton, K. (2019, October 8). Andrei Monastyrski's elementary poetry. Artforum. https://www.artforum.com/books/kate-sutton-on-andrei-monastyrski-s-elementary-poetry-82802
Figure 1. Collective Actions (1978). A photograph capturing the moment of the Third Variant performance act. Retrieved from https://conceptualism.letov.ru/3-variant/slides/3-variant-2.jpg
Figure 2. Collective Actions. (1977). Losung. Photograph of the performance. Retrieved from https://conceptualism.letov.ru/Slogan-1977/lozung77-4.jpg
Figure 3. Andrei Monastyrski in 1980. Retrieved from https://conceptualism.letov.ru/14/monastirskomu-2.jpg
Figure 4. Monastyrski, A. (1977). Finger. Object, installation. Retrieved from https://conceptualism.letov.ru/palets/palec.jpg
Figure 5. Monastyrski, A. (1975). Cannon. Object, installation. Retrieved from https://conceptualism.letov.ru/RolfuPuchki.jpg