Video-play Undead (2022, HD, 35 min., English subtitles) by Keti Chukhrov premiered at the Steirischer Herbst, 2022. Camera/editing — Alexei Shemiatovsky, Line producer — Mikhail Sedov, Sound — Victor Timshin, Translation — Anastasia Osipova. Cast — Evgeny Kapustin, Keti Chukhrov, Yuri Vasiliev, Sergey Epishev, Laran, Olga Shirokostup, Sirbey Sangulia, Irina Sajaia. Produced and commissioned by Steirischer Herbst. With the special thanks to the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
We publish a review of this work by Andrei Shental on the split between spirit and matter in the life of the inhabitants of the former USSR’s periphery and the futile attempt of contemporary art institutions to intervene into what happened there.
In her texts, plays and films, Keti Chukhrov consistently criticizes contemporary art as a social institution and ideological apparatus of late neoliberalism. The realist art of past eras, according to her hypothesis, could reflect the fundamental experience of the event. At the same time, modern artistic practices, which claim to transform the existing order, lack such a deep connection with reality. Fulfilling the request for criticality that progressive art institutions demand from them, they only turn reality into a curious artifact that can be presented at the next exhibition, biennale or festival, and thereby only reproduce the order of things they try to negate.
This assumption sets the frame for Chukhrov’s latest film, Undead (2022). As we are informed by a preliminary commentary, what we see is the CCTV camera footage. For half an hour, we spy on the eccentric and cutesy woman Lema (her role is played by Chukhrov herself), who, despite the lack of food, medicines and personal hygiene products, refused to leave her home in Abkhazia. Together with relatives and neighbors, she is waiting for an interview with her niece Ilona (Olga Shirokostup), who, as one might assume, received a generous Western European grant to produce an anthropological research in one of the “problematic” areas on the periphery of Europe. Since all interviewees are not aware of the documentation that has begun, but are only preparing for the upcoming filming, her research project is not only blatantly politicized and opportunistic, but is indeed a cynical social experiment. For example, one of the protagonists, the decadent Klava (Yevgeny Kapustin) is rehearsing how to present her image more effectively for the “Western gaze”. The future festival project commissioned by Van Bregge (this Dutch-sounding name epitomizes for the author the critical institutions), is an example of a сondescending benevolence; the reality of the protagonists’ post-war existence is staged and objectified by them in exchange for humanitarian aid.
While watching The Undead, one heartbreaking and unforgettable episode from the military drama by Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) immediately came to my mind. On the ruins of the Soviet village, which the Nazis burned to the ground, people roam collecting the surviving belongings. One of them, an elderly man, fires up the brick oven in a wholly destroyed wooden house and is looking for a nail among the ashes to attach a picture to the surviving pipe before his wife arrives; he does so despite knowing she is already dead. In the penultimate scene of Undead, the camera trucks along one of the streets of Ochamchira, which fell victim to the Abkhaz-Georgian war (1992-1993) and has been under Russian occupation since 2008, and shows an endless row of ruined and abandoned houses. This world is almost completely destroyed, and the remaining inhabitants are neither alive nor dead. They are like spirits suspended in limbo or, as Batal (Yuri Vasiliev) notes, only “aspirations”. Like the hero of the aforementioned Ivan’s Childhood, they are trying to revive the past and preserve dignity in the present. Klava finds refuge in the classical culture and embroidered clothes, Lema’s obsession is performing arts and music theory. Dressed in a black dress and a translucent blouse, she alternately plays music on a half-broken piano, as if not noticing the devastation around. Despite the lack of food and household items, she tries to surround herself with an ersatz of beauty and coziness, preferring to drink hot chocolate from coffee cups, serve canned food as cakes and drink French perfumes instead of alcohol.
In addition to the film by Andrei Tarkovsky, it is logical to recall here Tengiz Abuladze“s The Tree of Desire (1974) with his image of the gentile wanderer Fufala (Sofiko Chiaureli), who, despite being humiliated by the local villagers of pre-revolutionary Georgia, is trying to defend her chimerical aristocracy. Similarly, the apparent erudition, spirituality and sensitivity of the numerous characters from Chukhrov’s works (Afghan-Kuzminki, Love Machines (2013), Communion (2009/2016)) are transferred to modern geography — to the harsh everyday life of the post-Soviet reality. For example, the name Lema comprises two first syllables of the names of Lenin and Marx, and Diamara from Communion means dialectical materialism. On the ruins of the ideals postulated by the Soviet ideology such as universal economic equality, the friendship of peoples and protection of women”s rights (as we know, all of them were often far from reality), we see bizarre forms of exploitation, patriarchy, futile belief in high art or simply bare life. The characters of the Undead are fragments of the Soviet elitism, surviving on the periphery of the former empire and impersonating “the aristocracy of the spirit”. And even living in anomie (Abkhazia is unrecognized by most countries of the world), they are not so much immersed in their Mingrelian-Abkhazian identity (although they speak Mingrelian at times), but continue to think of themselves as part of a global high culture and sometimes recourse to the language of Diamat — dialectical materialism, the soviet scholastic version of Marxism. The comical aspect, expressed in the fetishization of high culture, so characteristic for the late Soviet period, sublates in this case the tragic one — the realities of post-war devastation and occupation.
In her book To Be — To Perform. Theatre in the Philosophic Critique of Art (2011), Chukhrov describes Erika Kohut, the protagonist of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher (1983) and the film adaptation after it by Michael Haneke (2001), by contrasting art as the localization of the spirit and the body that it suppresses, the passion for music-making and addiction to masochistic self-mutilation. Similarly, Lema, wholly immersed in performance and retelling of music theory, profanes and abolishes the physical body when she willingly allows Tonchik (Sergei Epishev) to pull out two gold teeth from her mouth in order to cast wedding rings. It can be assumed that this manifestation of masochism is a kind of professional deformation, an attempt to revive the body mortified by the practice of playing music. But, as we learn from conversations, Lema could have been raped by soldiers during the Abkhaz-Georgian war, although she denies this fact to marry her fiancé. In this world of post-war brutality and oppression, where violence no longer seems abhorrent or even reprehensible, it seems to be internalized by the victim herself. Perhaps playing music and singing is not merely a struggle to preserve dignity, but also an attempt to experience a humane attitude toward oneself.
For many years, Chukhrov has been exploring Soviet Marxist philosophy, particularly its humanistic line, developed by Evald Ilyenkov. In the context of this film, we can speak about both, the split between spirit and matter in a broader sense, — which the authors of this tradition wrote about, — as well as the narrower manifestation of that split in economic exploitation. For Karl Marx, this tragic split was expressed in the division of labor, where the main inequality occurs along the demarcation between manual labor and intellectual one. In Chukhrov’s other projects, Love Machines, Communion and Global Congress of Post-Prostitution (2019), the confrontation between mind and matter becomes one of the main subjects. Lema, who speaks in the esoteric language of art theory about the Russian pianistic school and German romanticism, does not seem to speak herself, but is led by some force. The Lacanian “discourse of the University” is transmitted through her speech acts. Yet in this case, it is not so much Lema, but rather her Europeanized niece Ilona who is the main target of the critique. Behind the identitarian logic of a socially engaged artist who probably wants to ‘sell’ her ethnic background to the Western public, one can discern the self-irony of Chukhrov herself, whose relatives lived in the region where she came to shoot a film commissioned by an art institution. According to the author of the film, when referring to the ideas of equality, cultural workers often do not notice the colonial optics that they produce and the actual violence that it could generate. But eventually the violence turns back on the researcher-artist, who promises to help her objects of study by providing publicity to their resilience. Ilona, who epitomizes contemporary art as a pseudo-democratic institution, becomes the primary victim of abuse herself.