Komar & Melamid

Vitaly Komar, 11 September 1943, Moscow Alexander Melamid, 14 July 1945, Moscow


Presented to the public in 1976 in an apartment exhibition, the “Posters” series was made in the name of a completely different character—a group of inventors who want to offer the world something totally global but at the same time extremely beneficial. For example, a special mechanism that would convert the bounces of a marital bed into electricity. They created a new trademark for the project and the title poster was accompanied by the slogan: “If you don’t believe in anything, believe in us! We think of you!” The reference to Orwell’s Big Brother was understood unambiguously in the anti-Soviet intelligentsia—people quoted Animal Farm by heart in those circles.

But in the role of Big Brother the two merry cynics offered curious and hilarious things: they sewed red underwear for the poor and proposed to send their own excrement to developing countries to improve crop yields there. That poster definitely had a reference to Piero Manzoni’s “Artist’s Shit (Merda d’artista).” Komar and Melamid planned to send their feces in tin cans. There was nothing of Soviet reality in this project, except for the address of the private apartment from whose window they planned to send improvisations in lights, devoted to “the life of mankind.” We could imagine that this kind of project was developed at some crazed KGB department, where they wanted to convince the world of the humanistic essence of socialist ideology. Or by a group of Western volunteers who altruistically wanted to help this world.

This fundamental ambivalence of the new “Conceptual Pop” was underlined by the fact that all the captions were in English. The next Komar and Melamid project, “Super Objects—Super Comfort for Super People,” also had only English texts and also had no purely Soviet elements. It was first shown at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York in 1977, and then in 1978 at their first museum exhibition opened at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford (Vitaly and Alexander had already moved to the USA by then).  They had missed the first show, for their plan to emigrate was held up by the Soviet authorities. Yet the project as a whole bore a purely ideological and even conspirological character—it told of a new aristocracy that could devise a new language, traditions and culture that would be “incomprehensible and alien to the plebeians.” This new aristocracy would revive the glorious traditions of Mediterranean civilization, and rejecting them would lead to the world back to prehistoric times.

On the whole, the provocative text was written in an intentionally ultra-right style, unacceptable to most American intellectuals, who didn’t even want to hear about the European “new rightists” like Mircea Eliade. According to the classic definition, Sots Art was a response to an overabundance of ideology in the USSR, while American Pop Art was a reaction to the ecstatic consumerism in the West. But in fact, it wasn’t quite this clear cut. Back in the 1920s the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote harsh poems harshly criticizing the “petty bourgeoisie,” the people who cared more about lifestyle comfort than about building communism. The leftist theorist and constructivist Osip Brik elaborated ideas for living in the magazine Lef. Lili Brik, who was in a ménage à trois with both these heroes of the late Russian avant-garde, had very broad opportunities to order and receive the most sophisticated products of the consumer society—the latest haute couture and even cars. By the 1970s, this hidden consumerism of the Soviet elite was legitimized by the creation of a chain of Beryozka stores. Special currency was needed to buy things there, scrip that they called “checks.” No advertising from the consumer society for these wares was necessary in the socialist society.

For their work on this project, Ronald Feldman sent the artists a pack of American shopping catalogs, and they managed to imitate the style very deftly. The crazy wares they offered were placed diligently into categories like: Prestigious Things, Sensation Things, Wearing Things, Land-Owning Things, Protection Things, Self-Penetrating and Contacting Things, and Anti-Energy Crisis Things.

The photographs depicted concentrating people demonstrating all kinds of curious items, such as “Cachepot Body Earth Flower,” worn over the shoulder on a heavy metal chain. For example, the object Olo (language ornament) was a pearl that was attached to the tongue. The advertising promised: “A tongue ornament! Your every word will be a pearl!” However, the most expressive objects evinced that we were dealing with an anti-utopia of the broadest quality. You can take CHAROG-15, which “guarantees the purity of thoughts,” as a direct illustration for Orwell. Thus, this “project for America,” created by artists still working in Russia, criticized in equal measure the hidden reality of late socialism and the consumer society. Today, it is easy to imagine the gilded object BIKLIOTIK, “a small rear-view mirror that warns the wearer of a follower,” being used on Rublevskoe Chausee, a Moscow suburb where former Party functionaries-turned-oligarchs have moved and given themselves up to the charms of capitalist superconsumerism.

 Andrei Kovalev