Contemporary Art In the Time Of late Christianity

Ekaterina Degot


The project ’Deisis’ exhibited at the Tretyakov Gallery in October 2004 shocked Moscow’s art community like no other exhibition before it. The ironic statements of crit ics barely disguised their rage and even alarm. According to some, the project not only pretended to be an example of advanced art, but even turned out to be a threat against it. Hence, one can imagine that the computerized version entitled ’Deisis/Anthropology’ will give rise to a similar reaction. It seems that the authors succeeded in seriously inflaming the frontiers of the very concept of «contemporary art» — however, I am sure, from its own territory, not from the outside.

Icon collector Viktor Bondarenko came up with the project consisting of synthesized portraits of characters from Biblical history and the Russian saints, from Adam to Seraphim Sarovsky. Artist Kontanstin Khudyakov made digital pictures of numerous real-life people, assembled small fragments of them onto a computer, printed them in large format, then varnished and airbrushed them to look more and more like a painting, without actually being one. The portraits, resembling an iconostasis, were displayed in a barely-lit room, and were accompanied with texts written by orthodox essayist Roman Bagdasarov, sometimes presented with music. In the computerized version, the graphic part is shown on monitors as moving images, whereby each portrait is transformed into another; the suggestive influence here is not created by the play of light or sounds, but rather by the captivating metamorphosis of the same «image».

Arguments against the project usually consist of the following points. First, critics turned out to be allergic to extreme naturalism, which they saw as a populist step towards the «ordinary spectator» — like kitsch, and even, because of sick Soviet history, like a symbol of power that forced the intelligentsia to take a primitive glance at art. Diakon Andrei Kuraev found its own precise expression: he called «Deisis» a missionary project, which does not please anyone, being too simplistic for specialist theologians, but too serious for the mass public.

Secondly, the forms were seen to be too primitive and lacking any explicit critique. Not only that, but the content also seemed questionable: the project is founded not on some philosophical reflection (i. e. doubt), but on faith, which in relation to the philosophy of our time is somehow itself considered kitsch.

Finally, this project, which is disliked by the critics because of its religious and naturalist character, appeared to be bad also because, anyway, it was not religious or naturalistic, since its pictures (according to many critics) looked «lifeless», and because it used new technologies. The titles of all the articles about it sounded the same: «Show-iconostasis», «Techno-spirit», «Digitized-illumination», and even «Danger, Photography», as though its use was actually shameful.


It is obvious, however, that these arguments do not attack religious art from the position of secular art, but, on the contrary, belong themselves to the long tradition of religious iconoclasm. The discussion is about the impossibility of representing of the sacred.

In this respect, ’Deisis’ finds itself at the very center of theological debates concerning art that began with the rise of Christianity and still go on. in the Judeo-Christian culture, which we belong to, every human representation is an icon because humans are proclaimed to be icons of God themselves. This is the basis of the fundamental contradiction of Christian art: the sacred can not be represented but at the same time, the representation of humans is the key to what is sacred. The project makes sense only whilst remembering this connotation. We are living in an epoch post the revenge of iconoclasm. And this revenge was awaited for more than ten centuries. The first battle occurred, as it is known, in the 8th-century, when the elitist and scientific movement of iconoclasts, who claimed that the representation of saints was a profanation, were defeated in battle by the iconophiles, who drew up the rules for representation, later developed by any representational theory. As the iconoclasm researcher Alain Besancon rightly wrote, the price paid for this victory was grave: representation lost its mystic ambitions and was transferred to the field of rhetoric and even didacticism (a missionary project!). As a matter of fact, still in the 8th-century, the Second Counsil of Nicaea established that icons did not represent the nature of the God or the saint (which was considered irreprehensible), but its hypostasis, its human form. So was the ground prepared for naturalism. Revenge came by the beginning of the 20th-century, with the birth of abstraction, the fundamentals of which were drawn up by Hegel, who was the first to recognize that art could no longer represent the divine anymore, and anything else was hardly worth representing. With abstraction, mystic ambitions reappeared in art, ambitions of «incarnation», which, however, was only seen possible in its spiritual, ascetic form. After the invention of abstraction, this asceticism appeared in very different forms, but what remained unchanged was the prohibition of «full» representation, where forms would remain «undamaged». We still dismiss «carnal», naturalistic art as devoid of spirituality, exactly like old, passionate iconoclasts. This is contemporary intellectual mainstream.


However, there exists another argument, emerging from the Russian artistic context, which has long been considering itself the only successor of the only alternative to the western aesthetic order — the successor of the vanished Greco-Byzantine world. This argument consists of the idea that while Latin art lost its mystic ambitions, Greco-Byzantine art preserved them, having somehow integrated the criticism of representation brought up by the iconoclasts. For that reason, Byzantine and later Russian icons were made on the principle of asceticism of the flesh, almost its disappearance. It is in early 20th century that Russian icon were actually discovered as a form of art, which coincided precisely with the first appearance of Cubism.

Goncharova, Malevich, Kandinsky and others proclaimed that the solution avant-garde found in Cubism and, later, abstraction, was already discovered by Greco-Byzantine world back then in the depth of the Middle-Ages. For that reason the turning-point of the latest times had to happen in a radically different way, the vector having to be directed in the opposite direction, in a «backwards perspective» -i. e. not from naturalism to elementary forms, but on the contrary, from elementary forms to a new naturalism that contains the mystic prerogative in itself. This naturalism has to be extremely ambitious, for its goal was to find a language for the simultaneous representation of the divine and human nature of Christ which, according to the Chalcedonian Definition, exist «inseparably, unceasingly, indivisibly, untransformed». The word «transformation» is the key here, for the transformation into some elementary symbol was exactly what was to be avoided in this naturalism. So were the ambitions of Russian art at least from the early 19th-century.

We tend to see naturalism today as accessible art, while abstracts symbols are said to be highbrow. However, it is not always this way. Folk art, for instance, does not conform to this rule. There are spheres in which, on the contrary, naturalism means art which is «educated», elitist and highly theoretical. This refers, in the first instance, to the icon, where naturalistic aspects are present during all its history, particularly at the very beginning (with antique influence) and in late times, beginning with the 17th-century. Bondarenko collects icon-painting from precisely that last period, and it seems to me that from that period comes the idea of connecting icon-painting with illusion. In ’Deisis’, nationalistic, «Byzantophile» and «Slavophile» components are discernable. Khudyakov imparted almost all its characters, and even in some versions Christ himself, slave traits with cheek-bones and a bulbous nose, leaving a striking Semitic expression only to Sim. Moreover, we have to mention the absence of chauvinism in this nationalism; Russian features are not emphasized here as opposed to other features, but traditionally as a universal synthesis of all the best, created by the torn-to-pieces Latin civilization. This is how Kandinsky understood «Russianness», proclaiming that what he has been painting all his life was what he used to call «Moscow», some absolute synthesis of the hour before sunset, when every church dome glowed in all its colors and no one dimmed in its intensity («inseparably» and «untransformed»).


But, more than anything else, Khudyakov’s photo-portraits are close to bizarre paintings by a Russian avant-garde artist Pavel Filonov, which produce an effect of a poignant cacophony of forms and fragments. As far as we can tell, Khudyakov consciously transmitted the hyper-ambition of its synthetic image through its imperfections (each fragment is illuminated by a different light source, explaining where the strange impression of a worried face comes from).The ideal synthesis would be simply not visible. Strangely enough, it is exactly this «dead flesh», unsuccessful incarnation (heroes do not return to life) that make «Deisis» part of contemporary art. Fundamentally, the principle of representation, and of visual art in general is based on the dogma of the incarnation of the divine in the human, but representing this incarnation is not simple, especially if — as in an icon — the saint is always represented after his death. In the Greco-Byzantine tradition, the icon is being charged with the task of representing the Transfiguration of the flesh — achieved only in the resurrection; that is to say death must already be considered, integrated in the face.

Filonov dreamed of absolute «achieved» (his term) painting, which implies precisely that this painting could not be made by human hands, but by miraculous forces. However, despite the artistic nationalism of the ’Deisis’ project, it can be nevertheless fully inscribed into contemporary international visual culture, and even, to some extent, into the realm of cinema or publicity. More than anything, the new version of ’Deisis’ looks like advertising, or, to be clearer, shows how advertising resembles an icon. While iconoclasts of the early 20th century thought that defeated iconophiles, positions of the latter, not without Byzantine overtones, silently crawled into universal culture. Today, the challenge of representing of the immaterial is being taken by video- and digital art which shows to the public what has been done by some incomprehensible — i. e. miraculous — means.

Images are being produced by light, this is why video fits perfectly as a reference to the sacred, something first known by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (in 1912, they created what was probably the world’s first video-installation — the «Photodrama Creation»), and now is being well exploited by American video-art star Bill Viola who brought to the screen the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. Those who say that the Bondarenko-Khudyakov project is religious kitsch must take responsibility to claim that Bill Viola’s work is nothing else. And this will probably be the truth about our entire late Christianity era.

Translators: Jean-Francois Dumas, Anna Likalter

Deisis/Anthropology: Catalogue of the exhibition at the M’ARS Centre of Contemporary Art. Exhibition is presented as a part of the Second International Festival of Digital art ’Art Digital 2004: I Click, Therefore I am’ - 1 Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art: Parallel Programs. Moscow: ArtChronika, 2005.

автор идеи, продюсер:
Виктор Бондаренко

Константин Худяков

автор текстов, консультант:
Роман Багдасаров