Interview with Keti Chukhrov (Ketevan Chukhrukidze) on her research in the Russian Federation

In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?

Socialism’s initial claims-including class equality and others-implied a set of conditions capable of undermining a number of institutions that, up until then, had significantly impacted the traditional Orthodox culture of pre-revolutionary Russia. These included the following: the church, the patriarchal family, the hierarchy of the noble-class, and education (segregation on the basis of  origin and status), etc. Having rendered those institutions invalid, socialism’s biopolitical preoccupation was to establish equality in living conditions, education, and medical treatment. The reverse side of such imposed equality was often depersonalisation and androgyny.

It should be noted that a significant difference exists between how gender issues were manifested in the 1990s versus the 2000s. In the 1990s, despite the economic chaos, one could definitely speak about an openness in public politics. Accordingly, gender-related issues, along with the introduction of other political themes, were considered important and received a significant amount of attention. As soon as the art establishment was formed-with its primary emphasis on recognition and financial success-gender topics were marginalized and, to a certain degree, became the purview of the underground. This wasn’t because any of these subversive methodologies were banned, but because contemporary cultural policy in Russia fails to adequately respond to or give heed to such methodologies.

Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less-known subjects of local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies, or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during your research?

In general, gender-related issues have been neglected despite their brief rise in popularity during the 1990s. They were neglected during the socialist period as a consequence of ideological inflexibility, and, in the current art climate, continue to be ignored since contemporary art in Russia seems to be mired between prestigious state projects and the market economy. Examining Soviet and post-Soviet art from the point of view of gender served as a kind of social psychoanalysis.

One of the main discoveries was that most of the extreme, subversive breakthroughs of the vanguard in the 1990s were by male artists: Brener, Kulik, and Mamyshev-Monroe. As a rule, female subversions did not gain acceptance and were, quite frequently, even suppressed. In other words, if male radicalism was “fashionable,” female radicalism (as in the case of Kovylina, whose main works were created outside of Russia during her stays in European residencies) was often, and is still, labeled as something weak, secondary, and even obscene.

It means that, despite the significant number of gender conferences and projects held thus far, the present situation, even in artistic and intellectual circles, doesn’t vary drastically from the 1970s when the feminist work of Moscow-based conceptual artist Simona Sokhranskaya The Trial of Paris (this artist was definitely a discovery) caused surprise among conceptual artists; they immediately suspected her of being a lesbian.

You mention that as early as in the 1970s Tatiana Goricheva and the Leningrad feminists spoke about gender inequality in the USSR. Did they refer to Soviet Russian feminism (Alexandra Kollontai)? How did reading the arts from the viewpoint of gender evolve in the 1990s? It seems that a group of artists, curators, and philosophers exists that addresses gender and feminism in Soviet and post-Soviet society?

The Leningrad feminists involved with the journal Marjia were fervent Orthodox believers. For them, their religion was the counter-position to the anti-spiritual atheism of Soviet ideology. Therefore, the revolutionary icons of Soviet feminism, such as Alexandra Kollontai, served as their anti-heroines. What was novel about their activity was that for the first time they combined anti-Soviet dissident movement and metaphysical themes with exclusively female participants.

Starting with the first publications on gender-marked by the collaboration between Russian artists and critics and the US feminist journal Heresies in 1990-through today, gender themes play a definitive role in Russian art. Nevertheless considering art in terms of gender issues is treated with condescension. One reason for this is that in certain cases gender-based or feminist research coincides with an essentialist stance. For example the major show Femme Art, Women Painting in Russia, XV-XX Centuries in 2002 curated by Natalia Kamenetskaya, was an important step for introducing gender issues into the art scene. But the exhibition insisted on examining gender diachronically in its presentation of five centuries of female creativity in Russia, rather than examining the social, political, or cultural aspects of gender. As a consequence, the proponents of universalism in its many forms-be it philosophical, artistic, or political-immediately use such projects as examples for linking gender issues to the ghettoization of art and culture. For example curator Ekaterina Degot or the artist Dmitry Gutov (to mention only a few prominent figures in Russian contemporary art) emphasize that human beings, regardless of their gender roles, transcend differences in gender. Yet such universalism ignores the fact that universality is not a state or a stable presumption in itself but must be attained through multiple and differentiated singular efforts-i.e. it is an action.

Keti Chukhrov, Research Russia

Born in 1970, Keti Chukhrov is an art theorist and philosopher. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and works as an editor and translator for Logos-Altera Publishers. She also writes for Moscow Art Magazine and has authored numerous publications on art theory, culture, politics and philosophy in various Russian and foreign magazines, such as New Literary Review, Logos, Critical Mass, and others. Her monograph Pound &£ (Logos, 1999) was the first in Russian dedicated to Ezra Pound’s works, investigating the interrelation between poetics and politics; in 2004 she published War of Quantities-A Book of Dramatic Poems (Borey-art).

In 2007 Keti Chukhrov lectured in the Slavic Department at Humboldt University in Berlin. She is currently teaching at the School of Contemporary Art Problems in Moscow, and is finishing post-doctoral research and a book on The Concept of “Theatre” in Philosophical Criticism of Art at the Philosophy Institute of Moscow’s Academy of Sciences, Department of Analytical Anthropology.