Lot 11
  • 11

Vyacheslav Akhunov

bidding is closed


  • Vyacheslav Akhunov
  • Party Line
  • each: signed and dated 79; signed, titled and dated 1979 on the reverse
  • found photographs and pencil on paper, in 33 parts
  • each: 29.5 by 21cm.; 11 1/2 by 8 1/4 in.; overall with frame: 115 by 188cm.; 45 1/4 by 74in.


Collection of the Artist

Catalogue Note

Born in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, Akhunov served his obligatory military duty in Russia. His interest in art was so strong that he ran away to Moscow during the army service in 1967 in order to visit a museum. In Moscow he came accross the solo exhibition of Andre Fougeron at the State Pushkin Museum. The work of this Socialist minded French artist, the only kind of modern painter that would be allowed at the Pushkin Museum at the time, inspired Akhunov on a quest to acquaint himself with new philosophies and movements, particularly Surrealism, Dada and the avant-garde. His explorations lay through an odd magazine article or a radio programme discussing the degenerate nature of 'foreign art', which saw modernism as the weapon of reactionaries. Nevertheless, books like Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment (1962) provided the building blocks for Akhunov’s self-identification as an artist.

Having graduated from Moscow's famous Surikov Institute in 1979, Akhunov moved to Uzbekistan. Two years later, forty-five of Akhunov's paintings and graphic works were acquired by Igor Savitsky, the founder of the Nukus Museum who saved hundreds of outlawed masterpieces of the Russian avant-garde. However, such early recognition among connoisseurs did not prevent the artist’s ideas from being considered politically dangerous in the Socialist environment and in order to protect his integrity as an artist Akhunov chose a new format for his creative output: a notebook that could easily be hidden or disguised as, say, a cooking book, upon unwelcome inspection. The artist’s witty and innovative manner not only saved him personal trouble from the authorities; surprisingly his first marriage was to the daughter of a high-ranking KGB official, a fact of which the artist himself was of course unaware, but also ensured the preservation of the 3000 images for 200 projects that Akhunov created in notebook format between 1973 and 2000[1].

Much has been written about the archival qualities of contemporary art[2]. Artists across the globe have dealt with history in their own particular ways. Some prefer to dig out marginalised histories of unknown proponents, some construct and consequently archive their own outlandishly fantastic narratives as alternatives to reality, while others assemble snippets of varying histories to try and make sense of the world. In Akhunov’s case the archival impulse was not one of choice, but rather of force. His projects subverted the dominant ideology by manipulating propagandistic imagery and from inception could only exist within their own archive. Doomed never to be materialised, Akhunov’s ideas for Abandoned Pedestals (The Empty Pedestals Intended for Monuments of Leaders) (1975-76) or Meteor Rain (1978-79), break through the exclusive walls of institutions and come to  life on paper, as a series of elaborate drawings and instructions for their hypothetical realisation. Unlike llya Kabakov’s schemes for impossible projects, most of Akhunov’s projects are of local character. Rather than exploring individual freedoms and man’s liberation from the system, Akhunov wittily criticised the system directly by, for example digging out skeletons from public institutions (Art-Cheology, 1975-86), or placing monumental sculptures of the letters ‘USSR’ in a restricted museum space creating an effect of suffication and general impropriety (Hindrance, 1974). In this way, Akhunov’s so-called art-chive establishes a social critique peculiar to the Soviet realities. The artist himself refers to his practice as 'social-modernism'.

Party Line (1979), presented here, is made up of 33 single worksheets. Akhunov cut up a book on the Soviet space programme and used portraits of individual astronauts who travelled into space between 1961 and 1971 for each sheet. A field that warranted a particular sense of pride at the time of the Cold War elevated astronauts to the status of national heroes. Sticking each photograph in the middle of a sheet, the artist painstakingly wrote around them phrases borrowed from the same book. These constitute slogans that were characteristically directed not at praising the individual achievement of cosmonauts, but rather exalted Soviet bravery in general. For example, the writing around the image of Yuri Gagarin reads 'The first flight of a man into space will forever glorify our Socialist Motherland, our Communist Party and the Soviet People!' Such mottos in support of an ideology were prolific and saturated every aspect of Soviet daily life. Starting out by carefully writing out every character, Akhunov deconstructs the slogans as the words begin to merge through repetition and handwriting becomes less and less clear until proving altogether illegible. Towards the end of the page the writing collapses into a single black line. Calling them mantras, Akhunov inscribed similar maxims into familiar silhouettes of Communist leaders in a related work entitled Mantras (1975-1982). He often keeps the original mantras, however, playing on the semantics of language he sometimes subtly changes punctuation to detrimental effect: 'Lenin is alive!' becomes 'Lenin is alive?' Here, again, the mantras dissolve into darkness. The artist presents this impenetrable black hole, devoid of any meaning, as an inevitable result of blind repetition of imposed truths. Making use of suggestive titles the artist once again points out the parallels between the Party line's spell-binding mantras and ultimately nonsensical gibberish.
Party Line is exhibited here for the first time in its unfolded form. Framed together, each sheet is clearly visible, yet in its totality the work accentuates the sheer scale of the exercise undertaken by Akhunov. Strangely nostalgic, the slogans themselves have become relics of the past. This large-scale presentation stands as a wall of fame, evoking an overarching presence of ideology, Soviet or otherwise.
Around 1989 Akhunov decided he was "tired of everything, tired of politics, tired of myself". He packed away all his drawings and notebooks, determined not to return to them for a long time. He turned to cinema and literature, performance and video art. It was not until 2009 that Akhunov’s 'art-chive' was requested for the 11th Istanbul Biennale. Since then, it has been exhibited internationally, most recently at Documenta13 in Kassel, Germany in 2012. 

Today Akhunov prefers to remain apolitical. His current project Gerbarium examines birds and flowers through installations of collage. Still, such 'political apathy'[3]suggests a politics of its own, while the 'socialist modernism' that Akhunov created throughout his oeuvre continues to be universally relevant becoming increasingly popular through global cultural awareness. As the artist prepares to jointly represent the Central Asian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, he maintains an air of dissidence in his position as an icon of social critique.

[1] L. Ahmady, Ed., Vyacheslav Akhunov, Kassel, 2012, p. 3

[2] See, for example, H. Foster, “An Archival Impulse” in October 110, Fall 2004

[3] J. Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, New York, 2004, p. 65