In the last few years, society has constantly faced new challenges: from a pandemic in the whole world to global socio-political changes. Everything familiar seems to sink into obscurity, and the changing everyday life leads to ever-increasing anxiety, increasing the feeling of insecurity and uncertainty in the future. A new group — the Union of the Impossible — appears in the Russian art space authors, who prefer to remain anonymous, as a response to these changes. In their “meme” series, the artists make fun of everyday life, and in social ones they play with various themes and plots of the world around us.
Text: Evgeniya Zubchenko.
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic began. A general quarantine was introduced in countries. This led to a change in normal life, a feeling of instability, fear for one’s life and the lives of other people, an increase in anxiety and nervousness in society. This was accompanied by a massive departure of people online. At one point social networks suddenly turned into the only communication channel. It was then that several artists, without naming their names, decided to create a union called the Union of the Impossible. They chose “new memes”, which emphasized the absurdity of certain real-life situations, as one of the directions of their artistic practices. So, for instance, in the painting “Blue Dream” (2020), we see a dog in intricate white clothes, a wig and jewellery in front of a mirror, admiring itself in the mirror. There are hundreds of thousands of photos with a similar plot and with the participation of any pretty girl on Instagram. But instead of a girl, the picture shows an animal dressed up in “human” things. The images are mixed up. We seem to no longer be able to understand who has turned into whom. In the work “My Description Keeps Me Safe” (2020), everything is also mixed up. A man stands on his head in the middle of the street opposite an inverted traffic sign. The hero of the picture literally resists space, drifting in place, standing on his head. Whether this is a spontaneous game or a manifesto is up to the viewer to decide. On the canvas titled “Night” (2020), we see an airplane passenger, who is “packed” to the full. He is wearing a medical mask, a sleep bandage, and headphones. Here one detail adds to the situation absurdity. On top of this entire “outfit” he also has glasses.
Reacting to all social changes and unrest, the members of the Union choose humour and irony as a tactic of internal liberation and getting rid of traumatic experience. Something similar has already happened in history before. Let us call to memory how during the First World War the avant-garde nihilistic movement Dadaism was born as a reaction to the events taking place in the world. Negation art, art without author or direction. Core values of their art movement were cynicism, lack of aesthetics, rejection of standards, irrationality, and disillusionment. In the early 2020s, artists again turn to the Dadaism principles and values, reworking them to fit the new situation. In their “meme” works, the members of the Union provoke the viewer, baffling him, confusing him. Concurrently, they themselves act as a chance witness to this or that everyday and at the same time absurd situation, which they seem to have just stealthily filmed on the phone and posted on Instagram. For instance, in the work “Dust Has Risen Over the Edge” (2021), the straw hat of an elderly lady effectively merges with the shadow line. But here occasionality turns into a subtle visual game. If you look closely, you can see unevenness in the bottom left corner, as if the picture was taken on a phone from a computer screen.
Traditional painting on canvas has become the main technique of the artists’ works, which gives the works realism. The image of the “new memes” in most cases is placed in a white frame, which is part of the picture, and also recalls a photograph taken by a Polaroid. Polaroid pictures exist in a single copy, unlike replicated Internet memes, in some sense, this is a hint at the exclusivity of this or that image proposed by the artists. Concurrently, they perceive anonymity not as an attempt to hide authorship, but as a way to demonstrate that authorship is not so important in the current context. Currently, the network is filled with millions of different memes, but hardly any of us have ever wondered who the author of this or that funny picture is.
The pandemic and the associated social restrictions are also reflected in the “New Optics” series (2021) that combines still life classic genre and computer vision modern aesthetics. Visual digital effects are reproduced using again the traditional technique — oil painting on canvas. This is how a new look at everyday themes is formed: we have household items on the table, but the angle and details of the image confuse us, offer us a new vision of simple things. According to the general idea of the series, the artists are trying to capture modern life “according to the new rules”, as if looking at it through their home computer or smartphone. It doesn`t seems like painting in front of us, but a monitor screen, on which we see the world around us with a 3d scanner. This detachment, watching the world, and events through smartphone screen, was significantly increased at the time of the beginning of the pandemic, and now continues.
In the “News from Outland” series (2021-2022), the artists take the viewer somewhere deep into Russia, into a deaf and gloomy, a little disturbing, with its eternal paradoxes and metamorphoses. In the winter of this year, the Union of the Impossible presented “A Long Happy Life” exhibition in the Victoria Gallery in Samara. The name gives us some idea of the principle, by which the exposition was built. Canvases illustrating various paradoxes of Russian reality symbolize a certain life circle. You get up early in the morning, there is darkness outside the window, and you go out. On the street frost stings your face, however you continue to wander along the half-empty streets under the light of dim lamps. Around there are gloomy impersonal panel houses, reinforced-concrete design of buildings from the times of the USSR, as a reflection of the general mood of the population, without joy and smiles, like stagnation or like a freeze of time. You see how it starts to get light, however there is no sun over the city, but there is just a spot, instead of the sky — hopeless greyness. You go down to the subway, merging with people like you, you ride, squeezed from all sides, and now you finally get to work… You look out the window. It is already dark again. The day flew by, and you did not even notice. You again go down to the subway to do the same way back. And there is so from day to day.
The exposition central work became a huge canvas, framed by majestic red curtains, reminiscent of either a theatrical curtain, or the scenery for the meetings of the Soviet Politburo, distinguished by their desire for solemnity and grandiosity. The main character here is a crowd in the subway, consisting of many different faces, merging into a single whole. This is not such a romantic subway as, for instance, at Alexander Labas, where escalators direct multi-coloured crowds of people up to the light. Here, the multi-coloured crowd turns into a single mass, humbly floating somewhere down the stream. From time to time, the sound of an approaching train was heard in the gallery space. It allowed viewers to merge literally with the subway passengers in the picture.
“News from Outland” is no longer an attempt to rethink Dadaism in a modern way. It is rather a new wandering movement (Peredvizniki). The paintings of the wanderers (Peredvizniki) were characterized by heightened psychologism, social orientation, realism bordering on naturalism, and a generally tragic view of reality. Members of the Union notice not the most attractive aspects of Russian life, showing the paradoxical nature of the surrounding reality, to which, however, everyone here has long been accustomed. On one of the canvases we see a house, half of which is completely destroyed, and the other half is inhabited. This is a strange, “impossible” house, as if from a horror movie, post-apocalyptic fantasy or computer game. And here there is another plot: a man in an orthopaedic corset, kneeling in front of a small reception window. We do not know for certain, but we suspect that his back hurts because of the constant kneeling. A tall and stocky man turned into a small man, crushed by some huge force, which he was not destined to cope with. Or a “normal barbershop” located somewhere in a residential area on the first floor of a dilapidated residential building. How can they cut your hair in such a hairdressing salon? Normal. What hair setting will they do? Normal. You do not have to worry about choosing.
The theme of choice continues in another work in the series, where a character with a cigarette in his mouth holds two lighters in his hands: red and blue. As in the movie “The Matrix”, where Neo was offered to either wake up completely, faced with a harsh reality, or return forever to an illusory, but such a beautiful and familiar world. All this is a response to our same reality, where anxiety and intense expectation of something bad do not leave for a minute, where your personal choice does not determine anything. Whatever you choose, everything will remain the same as before. Or here there is a crowd of people standing near the train on a platform in a pitfall. The easily recognizable provincial scene is not without elements of surrealism, referring us to the absurdities of domestic public services. However, in real life you can find even more absurdity. Broken roads and platforms do not seem out of the ordinary. Russian infrastructure paradoxes can sometimes strike even the most daring imagination, so the picture can pass for a documentary. One of the works — a lonely light bulb, bizarrely decorated with elements of a Soviet chandelier — is such a poor, timid attempt to brighten up reality. It is worth adding that social photorealism has become the main direction of the series, which greatly enhances the believability of the paintings.
If the “meme” series, like “New Optics”, in one sense or another, is a response to changes in the world, then “News from Outland”, on the contrary, refers us to something undeniable and even ancient that exists in society. On the one hand, the world outside is changing rapidly. Circumstances are also changing. On the other hand, we seem to be in some kind of timelessness, frozen, and sometimes we lack emotions, lack the strength to realize and understand what we feel. The artists of the Union visualize these feelings and sensations in images and plots familiar to us, sometimes amplifying them grotesquely, sometimes turning everything upside down. The viewer approaches, feels the response. Thus, it is easier for him to understand what he feels, this is like a hint. The fact remains that sometimes we are afraid to be aware of our emotions, to call them words. Perhaps the practice of living complex feelings through art can give us some support in these difficult times.