Retro-Avant-Gardism in Australian Art

Tue, 21/08/2018 - 04:56 -- eyeline

In Meg Stoios’s Next Stop (2017), a man is distracted while reading Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto on a crowded tram. His gaze away from the book is not unlike the contemporary relationship with communism, that is largely ignored while remaining in plain historical sight. The recent centenary of the Soviet revolution is in this sense an inconvenient one, more so since the failures of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, and the rise of new right-wing governments around the world. There may be no more pessimistic moment for thinking about leftist revolution than the present.

In the numerous exhibitions that took place around the world to commemorate October 1917, and in numerous new histories of Soviet Russia, this pessimism played itself out in a familiar refrain. Two London exhibitions, one at the British Library and the other at the Royal Academy, concluded with archival photographs of those executed or worked to death in Stalin’s gulags. And even though these photographs included many important artists of the era, somehow it remains a truism that, ‘One of the most beguiling yet misleading ideas in 20th-century art was that the avant-garde had some affinity with revolutionary politics’.1 This from The Australian’s Christopher Allen, reviewing the Museum of Modern Art Heide’s Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism & Australian Art exhibition in 2017.2 For Allen the Soviet avant-garde were revolutionaries of form not fire, their execution and imprisonment beside the point of their art.

Amidst the proliferation of brute simplifications, even Fredric Jameson, the most committed of Western Marxists, has sounded the retreat. He suggests it is enough to be anti-anti-revolutionary, to argue against the counter-revolutionaries because of the difficulty in staging revolution at the present time.3 The artworld also plays this game of obscurity with the revolutionary heritage, its recent exhibitions uniformly unwilling to look the Soviet avant-garde in the eye and instead retreating into questions of influence and legacy. Of several Australian exhibitions, Call of the Avant-Garde was by far the most ambitious, and yet its subject was not politics but aesthetics, as it profiled the Australian fascination with constructivism’s style while ignoring its ideology.

The first history of this redemption of the Soviet avant-garde from historical obscurity is Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, published in the 1970s and translated into English in 1984. Although it remains the landmark text on avant-garde art, Burger’s book is however barely about art at all, and even less about art of the revolutionary period. It features Warhol rather than Tatlin, Duchamp rather than Malevich, conceiving of revolutionary art only through the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s. It is only through the historically self-conscious lens of the 1960s that it is possible to theorise a lost time in which art and politics were necessary to one another. This is nowhere more visible than in the reconstruction of a lost wall relief published in the Heide show catalogue. Originally made around 1915, it was reconstructed from black and white photographs published in Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment (1962), that introduced Russian constructivism to English readers. So it is that the reconstruction stands in for the origin of the avant-garde, that is itself a reconstruction, an idealisation of the 1960s. Tatlin’s relief is not so much about revolutionary art, then, as it is about a necessary distance from this revolution, in order that revolution is both possible and impossible, at once exceeding the present time and contained within it.

The artist John Nixon features in three of the four exhibitions here, his mock-ups of constructivism and suprematism works like the National Gallery of Australia’s Tatlin wall-relief commemorating not the avant-garde but the way that the avant-garde has already been commemorated, the historical self-consciousness of the 1960s rather than the 1920s. They do not so much offer an ecstatic recollection of the revolutionary moment as ‘that prevailing sense that these giant events occurred worlds away and eras ago.’4 For the undergraduate student of art today, as for Nixon, the avant-garde may as well have taken place in Renaissance Europe, its visual repertoire a stock of archetypes to draw from. In the face of this sense of archaism, the Marxist and science fiction novelist China Miéville reminds us just how impossible it was for the revolutionaries themselves to imagine the revolution taking place. In his 2017 account of the events of 1917, he argues that it was unexpected even to those who were living it.5 Proving that everything could change in an instant, as if spontaneously, they illuminated the way that revolution is a moment that exceeds anything that could be predicted or explained.

With artists and curators alike so captivated by this moment it is no wonder that the relationship between art and politics has become so oblique today. No wonder Jacques Rancière pushes back to the French Revolution instead, one that grounds the discourses of modern capitalism rather than what has become a diffuse grasp of communism’s lived reality. For Rancière art and politics are modern antinomies, produced in the ferment of centuries past. Yet art is also, in a counter-intuitive twist of his argument, ultimately more political than politics itself, as it exhibits a self-consciousness about its politics to become political without actually being politics. Rancière’s position is ultimately, after Burger, a neo-avant-garde one, obscuring the relationship between art and politics enough so that art remains in its own ‘regime of the sensible’, its politics of an ineffective kind. No wonder then, that this most popular theorist of art and politics prefers a good piece of video art to a street protest, his focus on ‘the politics of aesthetics’ rather than the other way around.6

Rancière might have looked to Nixon’s works to think through his argument, as Nixon’s series of Australian mock-ups recalls the revolutionary imperatives of avant-garde art, while remaining ambivalent about its fate. His fidelity to constructivism and suprematism is tragic, recreating the mystery of the revolution, its enigmatic impenetrability to historians and artists alike, while also making it more opaque. Rex Butler has theorised Nixon’s contradiction as a marking and remarking of the event of the avant-garde, recreating the avant-garde’s sameness, while also recreating the possibility of the avant-garde taking place for the first time.7 Nixon endlessly commemorates and negates the possibility of anything that could come after the original event while this event is still being replayed over and over again.

Butler’s is a retro-avant-garde argument, one that draws partly on the theory of Boris Groys, who famously argued that the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism marks the realisation of the avant-garde rather than its failure.8 Groys experienced the transformation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and drew upon ideas circulating among artists there. Most famously in Yugoslavia, the industrial music group Laibach, the art collective NSK and its visual arts arm IRWIN mimicked the totalitarian nationalisms of what would become a new, post-communist Europe. They issued passports and to the horror of their fellow Slovenians mixed up national, Nazi and pagan mythologies. Instead of being nostalgic for the avant-garde, the East developed a retro-avant-garde that recognised totalitarianism as the founding trauma shared by post-war capitalism and communism. As Laibach used industrial music to cover the pop songs of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, IRWIN repainted Malevich’s oeuvre while proclaiming totalitarianism to be the truth of art. By making propaganda, the retro-avant-garde occupied the impossible, neo-avant-garde place demanded of Western artists, that they be both aestheticians and politicians.

Butler’s second argument about Nixon, that he is ultimately a communist artist, is also located at this retro-avant-garde juncture of East and West.9 Yet although he has inscribed both constructivism and suprematism into his reconstructions, Nixon has never taken that next, communist step into socialist realism or in Malevich’s case into figuration. Nixon moves back in Malevich’s life rather than forward to the communism of Red Cavalry at Full Gallop (1928-31), or Female Worker in Red (1933). In these late works, as the Marxist T.J. Clark argued recently, Malevich returned to the figure in order to be more adequate to the revolution, as Dali returned to classicism in order to be a better surrealist.10 So it is that even Malevich partakes of anachronism, going so far as to return to the classical portrait in order that politics might once again be realised in his art, that his art might prove adequate to the changes going on around him. Even for Malevich there was no starting again, once again, once the revolution had already taken place. There could be no going back to suprematism or constructivism, and going retro was a way that he could grapple with the contingencies of an emerging totalitarian regime, to work with what was possible, and what could be done.

It may be, then, that it is not Nixon who best represents an Australian retro-avant-garde, but instead Richard Bell and George Gittoes, both self-proclaimed revolutionaries who draw upon anachronistic forms of the world in order to be better adequate to it. Bell’s Embassy (2013-ongoing) and Gittoes’s Yellow House Jalalabad (2011-ongoing), and now the Yellow House Chicago (2018-ongoing), look back upon the radical history of Australia in the early 1970s. They relive their own ground zeros of the 1972 Tent Embassy and the 1971 Yellow House, two retros that were themselves retro, as the first looked back to Australia before invasion, while Gittoes models his houses on Vincent van Gogh’s ‘yellow house’ in the south of France. Such anachronisms are only possible because of historical distance, because revolution only ever takes place in retrospect, and from afar. In Moscow in the 1980s, artists were not at all concerned with the Soviet avant-garde but stayed up all night translating Art Forum.11 They looked to postmodern New York just as the West looked back to Malevich. After 1989, when many of these same Russian artists moved to New York the circle of difference was broken, as artists became contemporary, and everywhere drew upon the past in order to forge their places in a global artworld.

This shift can be seen in the communist forms at the Sydney Biennales of 1988 and 2008. In 1988, as Milosevic tried to consolidate his power over a disintegrating Yugoslavia, IRWIN exhibited massive, propagandistic portraits, alongside the Aboriginal Memorial (1987). The politics of the Second and Fourth Worlds, communism and Aboriginality, are here aligned but different, but by 2008 this distinction had collapsed. So that it was possible for the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz to install a model of Tatlin’s Tower made from condemned Aboriginal housing in Redfern, in a mixing and matching that makes one politics interchangeable with another. Curator of the 2008 show, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, is well versed in this kind of shuffling of global cards, writing of her Biennale theme, Revolutions: forms that turn, that it could equally be understood as ‘turns that form’, as if the one were equivalent to the other.12 By 2008, the avant-garde and its revolution had become a history that was interchangeable with other histories, communist politics one anachronism among others.

This long, refractive effect of the Soviet avant-garde was best represented in Chelsea Hopper’s exhibition I Can See Russia from Here. Its artists addressed ‘a Russian imaginary’ rather than the avant-garde itself, content with the amusements and paradoxes around communism rather than its legacies.13 Thus we see the Communist Manifesto on a Melbourne tram in Stoios’s Next Stop, while Stuart Ringholt’s Wrist Watch (19 hour) (2004) is a meticulously designed simulation of a watch, but with nineteen hours on it. The revolution is sped up, glimpsed fleetingly between tram stops and fitted into a shorter day. This interest in refracted histories is a persistent theme in Hopper’s shows. In 9/11 she recalled the significance and insignificance of the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, while more recently presenting Alex Hobba’s A Conversation (2016), that is both about and not about the 2006 Ukraine-Russia gas crisis.14 The centrepiece of Hobba’s installation is a video of a man nervously trying to recall what actually happened in 2006. Stumbling over the details, his ignorance illuminates the place of the historical event today, that is marked less by its significance than by the obscurity of anything having that much significance at all. So it is that commemorating the Soviet Revolution is also a forgetting of that which cannot be recalled in the first place, a retroactive myth whose truth may at one time have been a way of opening up the possibilities of art, but whose return ties these possibilities to their own anachronism.

Meg Stoios, Next Stop, 2017. Inkjet print. Courtesy the artist.

John Nixon, Red and Black Cross, 1988. Enamel and egg shell grit on industrial cardboard, 57 x 57cm. Collection of Peter Jones and Susan Taylor.

IRWIN at Art Gallery of New South Wales and Pier 2/3, Australian Biennale 1988. Courtesy the artists.

Stuart Ringholt, Wrist Watch (19 hour), 2004. Edition of 2.

In Moscow in the 1980s, artists were not at all concerned with the Soviet avant-garde but stayed up all night translating Art Forum. They looked to postmodern New York just as the West looked back to Malevich.


1. Christopher Allen, ‘Out of the Revolution’, The Weekend Australian, 12 August, 2017.
2. Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art, curated by Sue Cramer and Lesley Harding, exhibition catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2017.
3. See Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Verso, London, 2005, p.xvi.
4. China Miéville, ‘Why Does the Russian Revolution Matter?’, The Guardian, 6 May, 2017.
5. China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, Verso, London, 2017.
6. See Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum, London, 2014; and ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’, in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran, Continuum, London, 2010, pp.115-133.
7. Rex Butler, ‘Russia in Melbourne’,
8. Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, trans. Charles Rougle, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1992, pp.14-32.
9. Rex Butler, ‘John Nixon: A Communist Artist’, Discipline No.3 (Winter 2013), pp.33-40.
10. T.J. Clark, ‘Reinstall the Footlights’, London Review of Books, 16 November, 2017.
11. Komar and Melamid, ‘The Barren Flowers of Evil’, in Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, ed. Laura Hoptman and Tomas Pospiszyl, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, pp.258-271.
12. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ‘Artistic Director Foreword’,
13. I Can See Russia From Here,
14. 9/11 was at Moana Project Space in Perth from 21 August to 13 September 2015, and Alex Hobba: A Conversation was at Moana from 4 to 26 August 2017.

Australian art and the Russian avant-garde was at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, 29 July to 29 October 2017; Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art was at the Museum of Modern Art Heide in Melbourne from 5 July to 8 October 2017; I Can See Russia from Here was at the TCB art inc. in Melbourne, from 7 to 24 June 2017; Russian Avant-Garde was at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra from 11 August 2017 to 4 March 2018.

Darren Jorgensen teaches in the area of global contemporary art at the University of Western Australia.