Andrei Monastyrski

Andrei Monastyrski is an artist, poet, writer and theoretician. Born in Petsamo in the Murmansk region in 1949, he graduated from the language and literature department of Moscow State University. Since 1975 he has produced performances, objects, installations, texts, and visual poetry. He has been a member of the Collective Actions group since 1976. Editor and compiler of many important editions: first MANI (Moscow Archive of the New Art) folder in 1981, he also collected MANI texts between 1986 and 1991, and since 1976 has edited Trips Out of the City (volumes comprising works by the Collective Actions group) and the Dictionary of Terms of the Moscow Conceptual School (1998). In 2003 he won the Andrey Bely Prize. Member of the group "Kapiton” 2009-2010.

Seven Photographs (Moscow, 1980)

This note assumes that its reader was either present at the actions described here or—even better—is familiar with our book, Trips to the Countryside. I will try to briefly evaluate here the interrelationship between the action’s realization and the secondary material that documents it.

It can be said with a great deal of certainty that in the given case, the secondary material gives rise to a completely different aesthetic reality: those laws of construction and perception that are at play in the process of the action’s realization are essentially different from the structural unity of the secondary material (which includes not only photographs, but texts, both descriptions and participant recollections).

Normally, we assume that secondary material reflects the essence of the work. Examining it, we can discover the authorial intentions, understand and evaluate the work. In our actions, nothing of the sort occurs. In the best case, a familiarity with the photographs and texts can bring about a sensation of positive indeterminacy. But it remains unclear which sign from all this material (or perhaps this is itself a sign of its totality) points to the event’s essence. Let us try to discover this sign.

In order to do this, we must clarify the category “event’s essence.” Upon a simplified and cursory inspection of the problem, we discover three types or three levels of this essence – demonstrational, existential, and intentional. Briefly, let us assume that in our actions, the existential and the intentional essence correspond.

About the existential essence let us just say that the actions result in the reception of some real experience, though not in the reception of an image of that experience. From this it follows that to search for a direct correspondence between the secondary material and the existential essence makes no sense, not to mention that inspecting the secondary material does not give one this experience.

Now we turn our attention to the demonstrational essence, which unfolds “in parallel” with the existential essence in the process of the action’s realization. The sign-quality of this essence is determined by the fact that it belongs to a system of demonstrational relations, and it follows that the secondary material must contain a sign that points to this system. This is what we must look for among the mass of photographs within the secondary material.

In the commentaries to the actions, we located this demonstrational essence in the so-called “empty action,” when a non-demonstrational element is introduced into the action’s structure. The mechanism of the “empty action” can be very clearly seen in Comedy.

The draped figure moves in the direction of the audience. The participant with his arms raised underneath the drapery imitates the space which—for the observers—contains the second participant. In reality, the second participant is not there. It is as if the draped participant is carrying a “hidden emptiness.” Then he lifts the drape and the “hidden emptiness” becomes apparent. The draped participant withdraws into the forest.

The viewers are left before an empty field. But now, the emptiness of this field is not the same emptiness that was there before the action, it is “not arbitrary.” The entire job of the action’s organizers lies in creating this “not arbitrary emptiness,” to return the non-arbitrary quality of the emptiness to the always arbitrary emptiness of space. The emptied-out field, which had “hidden” the second participant, at some indeterminate moment was the site of something akin to that “emptying of the Void” that Heidegger spoke about,

“Nihilation is not some fortuitous incident. Rather, as the repelling gesture toward the retreating whole of beings, it discloses these beings in their full but heretofore concealed strangeness as what is radically other – with respect to the nothing. [...] The essence of the originally nihilating nothing lies in this, that it brings Dasein for the first time before beings as such.” (1)

Before the draped participant lifted the drapery and uncovered the “hidden emptiness,” everything that had been taking place on the field was merely preparation, and the audience remained in an ordinary state of anticipation. But after the emptiness was liberated and “filled” the demonstrational field, anticipation was transformed into event, that is, what we call in the commentaries “completed anticipation” took place.

The experience of “completed anticipation” is that very real experience of which we spoke in connection with the event’s existential essence. But this process takes place in the viewer’s consciousness and can in no way be represented. The only thing that can be represented is the thing that accompanies this internal process, the thing that takes place on the field of action at the time. But what happens on the field of action at this time is nothing, it is empty, the participants have left.

As a result of one participant, having “liberated” emptiness, withdrawing into the forest, and the other disappearing in a field already metaphorized as “hidden”, what remains before the audience is an “unarbitrary” emptiness, which is different from the always arbitrarily empty space.

This unarbitrary emptiness is that very demontrational essence of the action, and a photograph of an empty field taken at this moment is that very sign pointing to this essence. All the other photographs of Comedy are merely documentation of the preparatory work, including even those photographs that illustrate the draped participant moving around the field (that is, the things that the audience observed directly during the time of the action).

And so, the photograph of the empty field, extracted from the series of documentary photographs that tell the story of the things that transpired on that field on October 2, 1977, ceases to be documentation and becomes a sign of a higher order, a sign of an “unarbitrary emptiness” with the following meaning:

“nothing is represented on it not because nothing happened at that given moment, but because the thing that happened is essentially unrepresentable.”

The demonstrational essence of the action—“empty action”—is represented by an absence of representation. This quality of “unrepresentability” is what functions, in my view, independently and positively (in the context of this discourse) in the present sequence of seven “empty” photographs of seven of our actions.

Aside from the photograph of Comedy already examined, this series also contains three other photographs similarly representing empty fields. All these “empty” fields appear as signs of “unarbitrary emptiness.” Leaving the place of action in Lieblich, the participants knew that the invisible electric buzzer in the snow continued to sound.

Standing at the edge of the forest before the empty field (Comedy) after the draped participant withdrew into the forest, the audience knew (though with less certainty of location than in Lieblich) that the invisible participant laid somewhere in the field. Also clear to them was that somewhere in the field remained the headless double of the participant who exited into the forest during the action The Third Variant. Similarly invisible, both from the original position of the photographer and the observers, from the start and for the duration of the whole action, was the replacement of one participant with another in Place of Action.

All four of these “empty” photographs reflect a constructive, substantive moment of action. They represent “invisibility” as a demonstrational relation formed in one of two ways: the method of “hiddenness” (Lieblich, Comedy, The Third Variant) and the method of “distancing” (Place of Action).

The invisibility represented in these photographs points to a hiddenness, the opposite of “distinct visibility,” the realm of concrete meanings where the “essence as a whole” (2) disappears into some definite phenomenon of the endlessly differentiated world. Between “invisibility” and a “distinct visibility”—within the demonstrational structure—exists a transitional step that can be called “indistinguishability” and where the “essence as a whole” occurs and slips away; it is precisely there, breaking through the screen of hiddenness, that it transforms into the visibility of the visible world.

The marginal nature of “indistinguishability” justifies, in my opinion, the addition to this series of “empty” photographs three others: Appearance, Paintings, and Slogan-80 (For Kisewalter). On the photographs of Appearance and Paintings, at the border of the far end, between the field and the forest, we can see the barely distinguishable figures of participants.

The photograph of Appearance represents emptiness that only just ceased being empty. The participants have not yet appeared but are already emerging from “hiddenness” (here we are dealing with a purely discursive “hiddenness” – on the level of event and secondary material, the participants are coming out of the forest which has not been metaphorized as “hiddenness” either in Appearance or in Paintings); or they have already come out of “hiddenness” but have not yet entered the “visibility of the visible world.”

They have not yet clearly been signified as “appearing,” they still carry the mark of an arbitrary coincidence, the anticipation of the audience has not yet been destroyed by the banality and unambiguousness of the situation. At this point in the action, the semantic space has not yet been defined, it lags and does not unfold simultaneously with the physical space of the occurring “appearance.” This discrepancy of several seconds between the start of the action and the beginning of its being understood is precisely the demonstrational essence of the event—“the empty action”—the sign of which is this photograph.

A different situation is represented in the photograph of Paintings. Here, the participants, unseen by the audience, have already passed the demonstrational field of “distinct visibility” and are just about to disappear into “hiddenness.” The action is constructed in such a way that the participants appear before the audience already in “indistinctness,” as “people disappearing in the distance.” But the photograph does not speak about them disappearing in the distance. The photograph is already overfilled with empty space, the emptiness uncontrollably fills the photograph, washing away the figures of the participants into “invisibility.” The emptiness is poised to appear in its entirety and its meaning here dominates all other possible meanings.

In all six photographs discussed here, the “hiddenness,” depending on the method with which it is achieved, “invisibility” or “indistinctness,” that is “recorded” on the photographs is expressed either through the far line of black forest (“hiddenness”), a perspectival space (“distance”), or the field itself (“concealment”).

The photograph of Slogan-80 similarly serves as a sign of perspectival space: the distance from the object (the white stripe on a distant black forest) forms an “indistinctness,” a narrow barrier of disappearing objectness behind which begins the emptiness of “invisibility.” But if in the photographs of Appearance and Paintings, this “barrier” is mobile and in one case, is already about to disappear (Paintings), while in the other, to transform into a distinct concreteness of visibility, then on the photograph of Slogan-80, it is immobile.

Like a barrier, it does not allow the emptiness to fill the perspectival space of the photograph. The “indistinguishability” does not become “invisibility,” and this “hiddenness” is not expressed through perspectival space. But it is evident that the connotation of emptiness is dominant in this photograph, just as in the photographs of Appearance and Paintings, it “represents” an “invisibility” that points to a “hiddenness” which is not contained in the forest, the field, or the perspectival space.

Let us turn our attention now to the single participant and the photographer of this action. Where is he and what is happening to him? The mechanism of the work Slogan-80 is very similar to the mechanism of Comedy. The participant of Slogan-80 (he is also the photographer) combines within himself both the “draped participant” and, at the same time, the viewer.

The draped participant of Comedy knew that he was carrying a “hidden emptiness,” while the participant of Slogan-80 did not know this, though in carrying out the action with the slogan, he also carried and hung up a “hidden emptiness,” in this case a “hidden indistinguishability.”

Having discovered the indistinguishable text from afar (having removed the covering of the slogan with the help of long strings), he simultaneously discovered himself on the border of a prohibition laid out by the work itself. The space between him and the slogan became for him prohibitive. There remained for him only one direction of movement, further away from the slogan. “Indistinguishability” tends towards “invisibility,” demands empty space.

The emptiness expands and drives the photographer, who disappears in the multiplicity of the visible world. The “hiddenness” of this photograph is expressed through its extra-photographic space, that space where the photographer remains “concealed” and where we exist, inspecting this photograph. The “unarbitrariness” of the potential emptiness of this photograph is conditional upon the invisibility of the “concealed” within the extra-photographic space of the photographer.

In this photograph, emptiness, arrested by the barrier of the slogan, unfolds towards us, unlike in the photograph of Paintings, where it unfolded into the distance, away from us. There, the participants disappear into the forest which then becomes a sign of “hiddenness.” In this photograph, the photographer (and we) are “concealed” in extra-photographic space, in the “real” world which then becomes a sign of “hiddenness” in this photograph.

The “unarbitrariness” of the potential emptiness appears here through the peculiarity of the “concealing” space which does not allow the photographer and us to read the indistinct letters of the slogan’s text.

We began our discussion with the idea that “unrepresentability” is the demonstrational essence of the carrying out of our actions and correlates with their existential essence. Next, we found that this “unrepresentability” is constructed using various methods and, in this sequence of photographs, it represents either forest, field, perspectival, or extra-photographic space, all of which point to the “unarbitrariness” of the emptiness in these photographs.

The seven “empty photographs” discussed here, being signs of a higher order than a mere document precisely in their own independent metaphoricity, correspond to that aesthetic reality that occurs in the process of the action’s realization. Their aesthetic reality functions within particular laws of construction and perception, which are different from the event’s rules of construction and perception and exist on the same sign-level as the aesthetic reality of the event.

Any other photographs of the action and texts, including the entire totality of the secondary material, do not reflect the demonstrational essence of the action and, consequently, are not equivalent to its existential essence. A single register of sign levels is the condition that allows a correspondence between the secondary material and that event which it reflects. This necessary quality—an independent metaphoricity—is present, in my view, in the series of seven “empty” photographs presented here.

1 English translation of Martin Heidegger’s 1929 inaugural lecture at the University of Freiburg, “What Is Metaphysics?” is by David Farrell Krell. Can be accessed here. The excerpted passage is paragraph 32 in section III of the text. | back |
2 This phrase again comes from Heidegger’s “What Is Metaphysics?”, paragraph 18 of section II. Krell translates it as “beings as a whole,” which has been modified to “essence as a whole” to suit the usage in Monastyrsky’s text. | back |


Andrei Monastyrski (original text)

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