The Brotherhood of New Blockheads (1996 - 2002)

Curated by Peter Belyi & Lizaveta Mateeva   
Interview with Peter Belyi

Interview, 30 January 2020

The Brotherhood of New Blockheads existed in a time when socio-political tensions were high in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Informed by punk, the group comprised eight young artists and a rotating cast of locals. Founded in 1996, they created works through the early 2000s. The New Blockheads took over 100 collaborative performances to the streets, homes and galleries. Their collectivist approach leaned towards absurdity and some self-deprecation.

Their performances are revisited in an exhibition at The Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College in New York. Curiosity towards the New Blockheads can be attributed to sparse documentation of their work. The gallery’s Director, Alaina Claire Feldman, attributed this to the fact that the people and works, which surfaced with great spontaneity, could not thoroughly consider the possibility of being archived or exhibited two decades later.

Feldman began her introduction by making clear the peculiarity of living in Saint Petersburg as a young adult around the time when the group founded. The environment in which they lived was changing rapidly. With the fall of communist ideology and the Soviet Union, Russians were experiencing new forms of freedoms; including entertainment, cultural knowledge and business from the West.

Unlike political expressions today, the New Blockheads’ performances were far from angry. Faced with undefined hopes, the group seemed to exercise self-exploration in post-Soviet Russia. In this interview, co-curator Peter Belyi explains this phenomenon.

The Brotherhood of New Blockheads (1996 - 2002), The Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, New York

What roles would you say performance art has taken on in areas of discourse within the Russian socio-political environment of that era and today?  

Art of that period as a whole, against the backdrop of huge social changes in Russia of the 90s, played almost no role at all. In contrast, for example, to the role of the Russian avant-garde during the time of the 1917 revolution where it became an organic part of communist propaganda.

Under the Bridge, 1996. Photo by Vladimir Kozin

Today the meaning of the New Blockheads’ legacy has grown. They are well known in artistic circles but this popularity came 15 years after the group dissolved as a result of several large museum exhibitions. Until now, they existed as a legend of the Petersburg subculture. In fact, a rediscovery of this phenomenon has taken place for a new generation of young curators.

What was it about the physical presence of the New Blockheads’ work that could not entirely be fulfilled in the archival presentation?

In the case of the New Blockheads, as strange as it may seem, documentation was carried out quite carefully as one of the members of the group, Aleksandr Lyashko, is a professional photographer. Of course, many spontaneous actions were not documented but they exist in the form of stories told by the members of the group. As a curator, I try to recreate the atmosphere of the times in the exhibition to immerse the viewer into the condition of the absurd reality of Russia during and after Perestroika (a political reforms movement within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1980s). 
As a rule, I do not use frames and glass cases, approaches that tend to academicize and separate the viewer from the work of art. I use a large number of banners, old television sets, cheap plastic chairs – things that cost nothing, and are garbage. This is done to emphasise the original material world in which the Blockheads existed, or rather the lack of it. It should be noted that most of the members of the group continue to live in the same way as then, extremely modestly.

Based on their performances and the history of Saint Petersburg, did the New Blockheads in any way express anger towards the system and society? What can be said about the relevance of their intentions to youths rallying in Russia today?

Anger is the wrong word in relation to the Blockheads. Their attitude to surrounding life was extremely friendly, which was a surprise for many people at that time because life was very brutal. This was a time of cut-throat capitalism coming to Russia – of lawlessness and acute, dramatic social, economic, political and cultural change.

Neither was it a time of stagnation. It was a time of great hope, excitement, chaos and wild freedoms. It is not possible to compare current rallying of young people and the kinds of political events of the late nineties when the Blockheads were active. The scale and type of rallies were completely different than now.

Would you say then that their works are integral to the understanding of artistic and political activism in Saint Petersburg among Russian and global audiences? What aspects of the group and their performances strike you as important examinations of Russian politics, arts, religion and culture across generations?

I think that their body of work brilliantly reflects the history of Russia during that period, with all the signs of total freedom in society – excessive freedom rather, in a way that’s almost anarchy. The state institutions – police, social services and so on – were almost dysfunctional. The citizens of Russia of that period lived absolutely without protection.

The Brotherhood of New Blockheads (1996 - 2002), The Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, New York

Defenselessness is one of the main unifying characteristics of nearly all of the New Blockheads’ performances. It operates like a document of the times and as an independent phenomenon in art – beyond the context of the times. Many of the Blockheads’ actions acquired new, unforeseen meanings.

For example, performances dedicated to religion. In contemporary Russia, the church has become the main ideologue – a semi-mafia type structure affiliated to the state and the meaning of the performances done by the Blockheads on this subject in the contemporary situation are much more acute than then. Performances such as Image of a New Leader, today, with the lack of opportunity for real elections, have acquired new political meanings.

Which parts of Russia’s social and political instability could have informed the transference of absurdity from what some viewers may interpret as ‘dark humour’ by the New Blockheads?

I think that the absurd is first and foremost in the actions of the Blockheads, leaning in some ways on the poetic traditions of the 1910s-20s (Daniil Kharms and others) and Velimir Khlebnikov, perhaps a parodic reflection on the world around them. I don’t see dark humour in their work. An innocent look is the basic setting of the Blockheads. Dark humour at the time was more in the realm of the Necrorealists (Evgenii Yufit).

Fried Eggs, 1998. Photo by Alexander Lyashko

Referencing their works Under The Bridge (1996), Blessed Easter Sunday (1998) and Roly-Poly (1999), it seemed like bodies were treated as sacrificial objects. How does that relate to their messages addressing the roles of mass media, religion and politics?

I would say that public nudity is of principle importance for performance artists. It separates the artist from the context of life, making him or her eternally vulnerable on one hand and inaccessible on the other, immediately conferring on him or her the position of the central hero. Such an aggravation of the situation, almost despair, exposure, makes a performance more resonant – as if declaring at once a rejection of social norms.

Roly-Poly, 1999. Photo by Alexander Lyashko

Blessed Easter Sunday, 1999. Photo by Klavdia Alexeeva

In the exhibition publication, you mentioned that ‘the slogans proposed by the Blockheads were always absurd… making meaningless the very concept of demands….’

In what ways did these performances express their sentiments towards change and assessment against the status quo?

I think that here we can see part of the Soviet legacy taken to a critical stage of comprehension. All of the artists in the Blockheads were born and grew up in the Soviet Union and were surrounded by meaningless ideological slogans (‘Labour is our wealth’ or ‘Forward towards a brighter future’) since childhood.  In the New Blockheads’ versions, the slogans are nearly always parodic and addressed to a concrete group of people (‘Go to hell art lovers’), unlike soviet slogans that were addressed to the whole country.

To answer your question, I don’t think they acted contrary to or were being critical of society. Their style was more about being together with society, while all the time asking simple, naive questions – I’d say that was the house specialty of the New Blockheads.

Lizaveta Mateeva brought up the idea that ‘the Brotherhood of New Blockheads refers to the ritualistic, even to paganism, while resorting to laughter as an instrument for ‘distinguishing truth from falsehood’.

Vladimir Kozin is the main member of the group who was inclined to rituals. His individual performances always bring to our minds a prayer of some kind. He brought thoroughness and organization to the group performances and often initiated repetition of the same actions, set a rhythm. For example, the act of shaving with boot polish is endlessly repeated and in doing so gave meaning to the mistake and legitimized its right to exist.

When founding member Igor Panin said ‘the blockheaded way of seeing leads to blockheaded art, and that is harmony’ – what do you think he really meant?

It is a way of behaving where the artist does not distinguish between performance and life.  Therefore, the Blockheads’ main positioning was that all of life is one big performance.

Guppy, 1996. Photo by Alexander Lyashko

The Brotherhood of New Blockheads (1996 - 2002) at The Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College is on exhibition through February 21, 2020. It is presented as part of the Performa 19 Biennial.

Exhibition audio guide by Visnja Begovic (Mishkin Gallery's 2019-2020 Nagelberg Fellow) available here. Exhibition booklet available here.

© 2020 sand magazine and the author