The Underground of the 1990s: Artists on the Dance Floor
September 8 - October 31, 2021
Exhibition curator: Olga Tobleruts
The exhibition features works by Timur Novikov, Inal Savchenkov, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, Georgy Guryanov, Oleg Maslov, Olga Tobreluts, Sergey Enkov, Marat Murakayev, Grigory Strelnikov, Sergey Bugaev-Afrika, Andrey and Aleksey Haas, Bella Matveyeva, Andrey Krisanov, Andrey Khlobystin, Igor Shikunov and Denis Yegelsky.
In the early 1990s, a sweeping revolution of the public mind occurred in Russia resulting in drastic changes in all spheres of life: from economy and politics to music and the way we store and share information to, obviously, art. Being an artist became an extremely fashionable occupation. And even those who had never given a thought to painting took up the brush. Following the perestroika, canvases and paints, which had been in short supply before the reforms, could be easily bought, and enthusiastic young people began to create works of art. That's right - create works of art! As opposed to just painting or producing pictures as professional artists would often designative their creative process. Those youngsters did not doubt for a second that their output was anything but up-to-the-minute works of art.
Everyone thought they were a part of global changes, an avant-garde force of contemporary art, and, with great gusto, they created collages and objects, and painted cheerful pictures imbued with the spirit of the times, carelessness and reckless fun. Admiring each other, enjoying new paintings and dancing, these were the three things a small group of young people indulged in, united by one address in Saint Petersburg - 145, Fontanka Embankment. In 1990, this address became a place like no other, the sole spot on the map of the Soviet Union where they listened to techno music; a place squatted by artists who set up their studios there. Situated on the fourth floor of the Fontanka building was Evgeny Kozlov's photo studio Russian Field, while the Pirate Television director and cameraman Yuris Lesnik lived on the third floor, as did Ivan Movsesyan, who conceived and organized the exhibition Palace Bridge Museum. Also on the third floor of the building, Aleksey and Andrey Haas opened Russia's first private techno club Tantspol (or Dance Floor). Georgy Guryanov occupied the apartment opposite the nightclub and set up his studio there. Fellow artist Marat Murakaev lived and worked in the courtyard, while Alexander Nikolaev, known as Zakhar, as well as the Depressionists art group, made up of Oleg Kuptsov, Viktor Malyshev and Viktor Snesar, all worked next door.
That fusion of a nightclub and an art exhibition space gave rise to a brand new format of party show, which was also the latest fad in New York back then. Timur Novikov, Andrey Khlobystin, Sergey Bugaev-Afrika, Irena Kuksenaite and Georgy Guryanov, who had already travelled to America by that time, were the flagships and the trendsetters; as they danced, their gestures and postures echoed the vogue dance style, which was so popular in New York's underground clubs. Their body movements imitated the women featured on the cover of the Vogue magazine and alluded to Madonna's 1990 hit single Vogue and the accompanying music video. In Madonna's iconic live performance video for Vogue, the American entertainer and her dancers stroke sensual poses, clad in Marie Antoinette-style costumes and dresses. The video generated a fashion for wigs and outfits Ã la Madame de Pompadour.
In the meantime, the economic situation in Russia went from bad to worse. Saint Petersburg natives, who were getting desperate because of the state of need and all the hardships they endured, took all the treasures they had been storing in their grandmothers' chests, their clothes and shoes to pawn shops hoping to scrape together at least some money, so resourceful creative young people had little trouble finding outfits they needed to dress up and combine different styles and eras, inventing a new look for every party they went to. Another reason why they wanted to look unusual and wear showy, original clothes was the fact that flamboyant personalities were more likely to be admitted to a party. Freaks attracted everyone's attention and caused everyone's delight, setting the general mood with their looks. Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe was no doubt one of the foremost freaks frequenting the Fontanka building as he tirelessly experimented with his appearance, taking his friends by surprise every time he turned up dressed up as a new persona. Every now and then he would put on a performance at the Dance Floor, leaving a lasting impression on the audience who were blown away by his talent for impersonations.
Combining a nightclub with exhibition spaces was a brand new trend, pioneered by the Dance Floor, and, soon enough, artists came along who wanted to show off their works there. The walls of the Dance Floor were lined with collages and paintings by artists who were collectively known as the Engineers of Arts, including Inal Savchenkov, Sergey Enkov, Grigory Strelnikov and Franz Rodwalt; a collage by Sergey Bugaev-Afrika was also on display. Georgy Guryanov's new paintings, transformed by the neon lights, received surprising new dimensions thanks to the luminous effect. Young people lost themselves in the techno music, they forgot about everything else as they admired the blue-eyed gaze of the serious young man painted against an orange background as he peered through cigarette smoke watching them dance. Back then, Georgy Guryanov gigantic self-portrait, which has been recently sold at an auction for an impressive sum making Guryanov the top-selling artist of the 1990s in Russia, was a constant feature at numerous parties. The energy of the painting created a one-of-a-kind space around it, where everyone present felt like a heavenly being, a lucky one, an elect member of a secret society. It was actually true since the rest of the enormous country listened to a different sort of music, enjoyed a different sort of paintings and were interested in a different kind of things altogether; and only those who frequented the 145 Fontanka squat possessed the arcane knowledge of a different kind of entertainment.
As Andrey Haas wrote in his book Corporation of Happiness: "It was a typical situation for creative idlers of the early 90s: they would find an abandoned apartment, or better still, an entire building, occupy it, listen to music, paint and draw, entertain guests and would not care about anything but their own amusement. Everyone was young, new times were coming, and what's more important new music had arrived." It seemed as if there were no obstacles, no taboos and everything was possible. Aleksey Haas needed just a day to paint, on a canvas, a copy of his favourite work by Keith Haring - a dog on a red background - and later that night his new painting was hanging on the wall at the Dance Floor, where it became the talk of the town. He went on to effortlessly create a series of paintings that later became a symbol of the Dance Floor. The Engineers of Arts experimented with collage after finding, in a trash heap, rolls with printed copies of paintings from the Russian Museum. They cut them up and put the pieces back together to create new versions and interpretations of familiar scenes. One of their large-scale collages adorned a wall at the Dance Floor for quite a while; as did Inal Savchenkov's painting depicting two cats, which looked like Martian pets when lit by mercury-vapour lamps; and Bella Matveyeva's collage, where two figures made of gold foil glued on a piece of dark blue fabric were frozen in a vogue pose with their arm raised and legs bent. The likes of Boney M, Supermax, WestBam, Brian Eno, Andrew Logan, Technotronic, and many more visited the Dance Floor. The place became increasingly popular, so, in 1991, an idea came up to stage a party at the Leningrad Planetarium: it hosted exhibitions by Oleg Maslov and Timur Novikov; and my video installation Laboratory Research, the first of its kind in Russia, was also shown there. Initially, paintings were put on display at the Dance Floor only occasionally but eventually, they became an essential feature of any party so no one could any longer see themselves dancing without paintings hanging on the walls. Paintings became indispensable to the parties, they were an extra window to be looked through.
The parties grew ever larger and therefore required larger spaces. And on December 14, 1991, Aleksey and Andrey Haas, in collaboration with Evgeny Birman and Ivan Salmaksov, organized Russia's first-ever rave - the Gagarin Party. It took place at the VDNKh Space Pavilion in Moscow. Works by Timur Novikov and Grigory Strelnikov adorned the pavilion. Posters and flyers were produced for the event, which were designed by various artists; several versions of those were printed. Andrey Medvedev's poster featuring a space rocket carrying Yuri Gagarin became the most iconic of them but Denis Yegelsky and Andrey Haas also designed admirable pieces. Those bills are worthy of further research and a separate exhibition. Each party was elaborately planned, with its concept concealing a kind of short message to those in the know. The best artists designed posters and flyers, each of which was a work of art in its own right reflecting the spirit of the times.
The next large-scale rave, the Mobile Party, was held at the Olympic cycling track in Moscow's Krylatskoye District. The poster for the party was designed by Georgy Guryanov, whose paintings were exhibited at the track, while actual cyclists were riding around the partying crowd. Georgy was extremely serious about everything he took part in, his perfectionism knew no limits. After organizing the Night Party at the Dance Floor, he also released a series of T-shirts with silk-screen prints. Working in his Fontanka studio, with loud techno music almost always on, Georgy created some of his best pieces, including the large 3 by 4 meters painting Wrestlers. Andrey Khlobystin wrote in his book Schizorevolution: "The "heroic era" of the Saint Petersburg raves lasted about a decade - from 1990 (a party at the House of Communications Workers) till 2000 - the first open-air party at the Alexander I Fort in Kronstadt. It could be divided into three stages: 1. Squatting period. 2. A period of nightclubs and large-scale parties in an urban setting. 3. Open-air parties by the Gulf of Finland. The Saint Petersburg rave possesses distinctive features that have turned it into an important phenomenon in the history of modern culture. Firstly, a key role was played by the bohemia - the New Artists (we have already mentioned that they were Russia's first pop stars: musicians, filmmakers, fashionistas), who shaped its looks and ideology and paid scrupulous attention to design and marketing. Secondly, in contrast to the initially marginal Western rave, the Saint Petersburg version developed in the context of the luxurious urban milieu of the former imperial capital, rooted in the traditions of the Silver Age of Russian culture, which it explored and re-interpreted. And of course, the crucial factor was that the Russian rave flourished during the severe years of schizo-revolution - against the backdrop of ideological, juridical, social, political, financial and other types of chaos."
Considering all the hardships and perturbations of the times, it is exciting to watch how contemporary art that was born in squats was later transformed and forged before departing from the Dance Floor and becoming a key document of the epoch; to see how these works have ended up in museums and important private collections. Looking at these paintings now, which were created three decades ago (in 2019, the 145 Fontanka squat turns 30), you can't but see just how amazing that short period was and how much the artists managed to produce as they chose creativity and art over anything else.