Museum of Proletarian Culture. The Industrialization of Bohemia

In their novels, the first utopians described a new type of institution accessible to every single citizen. The museum ― a distant relative of Campanella’s City of the Sun ― was a public space where the creation of knowledge was founded on the cooperation and communication between free citizens. The emancipatory purpose of the museum was to establish a better future for everyone, here and now, in a particular moment of history. According to the facts, though, the only element of the museum’s utopian function that still remains is the fervor of knowledge reproduction. The achievements of art have been preserved there, where the past is exhibited and the future is not spoken of anymore, whilst public spirit has been slowly replaced by recreation, relaxation and leisure.

The museum has turned into a sanatorium for well-educated citizens ― it has provided the viewer with a cultural and recreational service with service staff ― artists and their works, art historians with their texts, and curators with their exhibitions. Upon becoming autonomous, the institution that had originally been created by artists and philosophers gave birth to artists and philosophers who service the institution (Castoriadis). Thus, the museum space became a place for the reproduction of dogmas, hierarchies, and systems of existing relationships, which were exactly what museum exhibits are meant to inform us about.

At the core of the exhibition 'Museum of Proletarian Culture. The Industrialization of Bohemia', there turns out to be a complex dialectic in the relationship between the museum and the artist. How and in what way does an artist get to be exhibited in a museum? When and why does an artist engage in artistic creation beyond the museum walls? Is the museum that space where a 'happening' takes place? What does establishing a museum mean and who establishes it? Does a museum make it possible to change our future? And who is the subject of these changes?

According to Arseniy Zhilyaev, the answer to this question can be found in the history of the oppressed, of those whose art was shown and preserved outside of the museum. This perspective gives rise to a complex study in which takes place the analysis of the museum as an institution and the genealogy of the ousted art forms. Here, Zhilyaev draws a contrast between two epochs ― the latter-day Soviet era of work and leisure, on the eve of which independent, control-free, anonymous art forms were born, and the post-Soviet era which made them professional and brought amateur artists to the level of commercial culture. While the museum dictates the rhythms of artistic creation where the art fits within the framework of the institutional machine of societal and political demands, anonymous recreational art is a side effect of this machine as it is born in amateur art circles, in the workers’ clubs and cultural centers.

In addition, the exhibition 'Museum of Proletarian Culture. The Industrialization of Bohemia' is a conceptual response to Fedorov-Davydov's 'Experimental Complex Marxist Exhibition' which opened at the Tretyakov Gallery in 1931. For the first time, viewers saw this art of the oppressed as a layer of Soviet society. At the time, the exhibition was criticized for its vulgar determinism as art appeared to be fully bound within the social and economic context. Only after half a century, has Fedorov-Davydov’s innovative approach been evaluated and reassessed. Today, Arseniy Zhilyaev offers us a chance to regard once again the correlation between aesthetics and the conditions of artistic creation, enhanced in his project by an analysis of history and the political context.

Zhilyaev enters the museum through the back door while acknowledging the Soviet museum’s architecture and design, and exposing its architectonics whose purpose is to support specific mechanisms of knowledge production. Here, the museum appears as a medium allowing the artist to deconstruct institutional politics as such. Thus, the exhibition becomes a whole installation where it is impossible to distinguish architecture from assemblage, facts from fantasy, document from fiction. The artist partially imitates and partially appropriates some elements from those Soviet interiors with their typical stands and flowers planted in wooden barrels, while showing his preference for a linear historical chronology, simplification of material, visual impact and instructiveness. The viewers find themselves as if they are in the era of didactic exhibitions; first, the latter-day Soviet history unfolds before them whereby the main protagonists are the workers, engineers, and amateur artists, and then it’s replaced by the history of the creative class of the almost-futuristic 1990s and 2000s.

Here are the anonymous artists of the latter-day Soviet era: The railroad worker Ilya Dmitrievich Dondurenko who dreamed of an era of new high-speed trains and spaceships which would enable people to move around the globe easily and quickly. He laid kilometer after kilometer of railroad ties, and in his leisure time created masterful architectural models from matches. His 'Model #14' is built in the shape of a sickle and hammer capped by the colorful forms of five-domed churches. The maniacal love for creating tiny houses out of matchboxes, burning portraits and landscapes onto wood and building shelves and tables amidst the scarcity of Soviet reality, has only one face and that is the face of the Soviet worker escaping from the factory discipline into the realm of 'creative relaxation' where the dogmas of Soviet ideology pass through the filter of his social experience.

Zhilyaev attempts to show us the features of that face, and that is why the composition has a certain Kabakov-esque theme: the protagonists of this exhibition are partially invented, partially made into leading characters. Partially they become artifacts of the Soviet and post-Soviet culture themselves. They get replaced by a whole cacophony of experiments and trials from the 1990s when workers’ clubs and cultural centers gave rise to a new pop culture. Here is collected a whole ensemble of voices, histories, and documents which tell us about a period of legitimization of folk art which independently left the underground of "cultural relaxation initiatives" and entered the arena of marketable, assembly-line production. Once the 'free from work' time of creative activity was liberated, it demanded to be recognized as work. Thus, in the 1990s, the dream of Kafka’s Josephine was fulfilled. Former workers, engineers, and female vocational school students started becoming musicians, artists, and talk-show hosts, thanks to which new forms of cultural politics and show business emerged, the culture of the future was forged and the model of alternative cultural production turned into entrepreneurship.

At the same time, grassroots culture was privatized by private business; almost the same thing happened with the institution of contemporary art which went through an analogous process of emancipation and in the 2000s returned inside the museum's walls. The industrialization of bohemia (Andrew Ross) began when business started imitating all the attributes of artistic life. The notion of counterculture lost its meaning entirely because pro and contra didn’t exist anymore. Just like folk culture, professional art became a part of the landscape of the entertainment and tourist industry.

This cacophony is replaced by a harmonious chorus of the new poetry of the multitudes who create the language of contemporary visual culture in social networks. In its analysis of this situation, the exhibition’s narrative approaches a culmination. Despite the industrialization of art and its transformation into show business in the 2000s, a new emancipatory culture emerges among the users of social sites ― folklore, graffiti, and texts create a place for free exchange and cooperation among thousands of people around the world inside as well as outside of the networks. A similar type of art grows from the experience of the new generation of non-material workers ― students, office employees, media workers, and IT specialists. This is the very part of society which actively participated in the protests during the winter and spring of 2012 and established new forms of political life. One such form is the Assembly. According to the artist, the Event of the Assembly heralds a new decade of the 21st century. This is Zhilyaev’s statement ― in the place of established authority (the authority of institutions with the accompanying hierarchy and rigid forms of representation), we encounter the foundational authority of the majority and the anonymous authors who continue opposing official authority in spite of everything.

The exhibition 'Museum of Proletarian Culture. The Industrialization of Bohemia' does not give the final answer but rather leaves the question open: who is an artist at this point in time and what should we call art? What are its functions and can we talk about the emergence of a new subject which does not conform to the rhythms of the institutional assembly line? The exhibition opens before us a view of the future with its new forms of creative activity. Based on this, the museum ought to become a social center where these forms acquire their new foundational meaning.

Maria Chehonadskih