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|The New Artists and the Mayakovsky Friends Club (1986-1990)
Text: Hannelore Fobo, 2021
Chapter 17. The Mayakovsky Friends Club in Europe, 1988-1989
previous page: Chapter 16. The Mayakovsky Friends Club Party 1990
next page: Chapter 18. The Mayakovsky Friends Club in the USA, 1989-1990
Table of contents: see bottom of page >>
Since the party at the Radio Workers’ House of Culture on 14 July 1990 was disconnected from the New Artists, the question of the New Artists and Mayakovsky Friends Club as competing labels must be asked in regard to those other Mayakovsky Friends Club activities from 1988, 1989 and 1990.
If we concentrate on those activities that bear Mayakovsky’s name, the list is actually quite short – it comprehends a total of four exhibitions. Concerning Leningrad, there is only one, the exhibition at the NCh-VCh discussed in Chapter 15, which, according to the chronicle, was a New Arists exhibition.
The remaining three are all exhibitions in the West. The first was “Da Da Majakowski” at the Dionysus Gallery, Rotterdam, 25 March to 8 April 1988, presented as an exhibition by “eleven independent artists from Leningrad” from the Friends of Mayakovsky Club more >>. The other two took place at Paul Judelson’ place in New York: The first North American Exhibition of the Friends of Mayakovsky Club, which opened on 1 May 1989, and The Friends of Mayakovsky Club Leningrad USSR, Exhibtion II, from May 1990. They are the subject of the next chapter.
“Da Da Majakowski” was a follow-up exhibition to “7 Artists from Leningrad” at the Young Unknowns Gallery, London, 2-27 February 1988, exhibiting practically the same works more >>. It also used the same photograph of a wrk on textile from 1985 or 1986 for the invitation card and poster. The work itself, presumably by Andrey Krisanov, was not part of the exhibitions.
Like the Young Unknowns Gallery, the Dionysus Gallery was a non-for profit artists’ space. Although both exhibitions were the result of Timur Novikov’s personal contacts to the organisers – to Peter Sylveire from London and Paul Vink and Hans Miltenberg from the Netherlands – the exhibitions were set up independently from each other. Yet the main information from the London typescript catalogue more >> was again used for the Rotterdam press release which included the (translated) fragment of Timur Novikov‘s (Igor Potapov’s) New Artists’ text from 1986 more >>. The London catalogue presents the fragment with the headline "The History and Principles of the ‘New Artists’, by Timur Novikov (Chairman of the Fine Arts Section of the Club of Friends of V V Mayakovsky)”. I would assume that the Dionysus Gallery kept the headline in the same way. Apart from that, the Dionysus Gallery promoted the Mayakovsky Friends Club without any mention of the New Artists, while the London catalogue featured their group name on several pages – and also Bugaev as chairman of the Friends of Mayakovsky Club.
There was yet another, quite interesting discrepancy between the exhibitions, concerning the fact that the works were presented without name tags. In the introduction to the London catalogue, Bugaev wrote that artists created the works collectively, "without the need to divide the work according to the artist.” more >> The Rotterdam curators, on the other hand, insisted that there were no name tags because the works had been smuggled out and the authors had to remain anonymous more >>. Accordingly, the same arguments appear in the press reviews.
In the context of London / Rotterdam, it is worth examining another "pair" of New Artists exhibitions, “The New from Leningrad”, Kulturhuset, Stockholm, August 27 to September 25, 1988 more >> and “Perestroika in the Avant-Garde”, Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, 21 January to 4 February 1989) with a poster presenting “The New Artists. Members of the Club of Friends of Vladimir Mayakovsky” more >>. Both were organised by public institutions as part of larger festivals with Pop Mekhanika concerts and other events.
Among these four exhibitions,“The New from Leningrad” at the Kulturhuset, Stockholm, was doubtlessly the one which had the most expertise on the New Artists. For more than a year, the Kulturhuset staff prepared the festival in close collaboration with the Swedish General Consulate (Leningrad), and consulate members and Swedish curators knew the local scene quite well.  It is interesting that in the Kulturhuset exhibition catalogue, there is only a short paragraph dedicated to the Mayakovsky Friends Club – in Meka Tillberg’s article, where it is erroneously dated to 1984. By contrast, Tillberg features ASSA as another name for the New Artists, and in the English synopsis of the catalogue, there is a statement “The NEW ARTISTS were formed in the early 1980s under the name ASSA.” The year 1987 saw the release of Sergei Solovyev’s movie "ASSA” with Sergei Bugaev in one of the main roles. The movie made an impact as a "perestroika" film, and Bugaev made “ASSA” his personal label more>>. It is possible that it was Bugaev who exaggerated the meaning of ASSA for the New Artists to Tillberg, expanding it to the group’s early period, when he was not yet a member of the New Artists.
Why then did the Liverpool exhibition return to the Mayakovsky Friends Club label? A look at the Bluecoat Gallery press release shows that it also made use of the fragment of Timur Novikov‘s (Igor Potapov’s) New Artists’ text from 1986, presented as "The History and Principles of the ‘New Artists’, by Timur Novikov (Chairman of the Fine Arts Section of the Club of Friends of V V Mayakovsky)” more>>. Thus, the same English translation of the same Russian text fragment was used in London, Rotterdam, and Liverpool, and with it, the mistakes in the “London” translation were perpetuated.
The most serious error was “The New Artists have no official status but manifest themselves through various official youth organisations”, which became "The club has no official status but manifest themselves through various official youth organisations” more>>. Due to this error, Novikov’s carefully created opposition between the New Artists as a more flexible and the Mayakovsky Friends Club as a more formal association of artists was annihilated with sentence that followed “In this way the artists preserve their informality and save themselves from inevitable bureaucratism and official obligations”. Put differently, through the club, we read, the artists preserve their informality.
It is difficult to say whether the misinterpretation as such played a role in highlighting the Club's function in Liverpool. At any rate, it gave artists an image as an easy-going collective. Be that as it may, this text played no role in the Kulturhuset catalogue. Several of the Swedish curators, among them Meka Tillberg, were fluent Russian and therefore obviously not dependent on some rare English translations of Russian texts. On the other hand, the Kulturhuset catalogue, as a monolingual Swedish document – except for an English synopsis – was of limited use for the Liverpool exhibition. Therefore, Brian Biggs, director of the Liverpool Bluecoat Gallery, must have welcome an English text.
Resuming the situation between February 1988 and February 1989, it turns out that each of these four successive New Artists’ exhibitions announced the New Artists in a different way, although they all had a more or less identical lineup of artists and displayed the same or similar works. In fact, at least two works were displayed at all four exhibitions: Timur Novikov’s “Rocket” and an unsigned work on plastic. Likewise, Oleg Kotelnikov’s "Madonna” was presented in London, Rotterdam and Stockholm. On top of that, the textile work from the London and Rotterdam invitations, was displayed in Stockholm and Liverpool (but neither in London nor Rotterdam).
This short review shows that choosing one label or another for the same group of artists depended not on whether their works were perceived as "new", that is as works by New Artists, or rather as standing “in the tradition of Mayakovsky” – an opposition Novikov had tried to solve with the compound "patriotic, innovative tradition”. The label simply depended on available information and what the organisers made of it. It followed the principle "you name it – we take it.”
Novikov's intricate explanations – originally written for a local audience – of the purpose of one group creating another one travelled along with the exhibtions.Yet their meaning got completely “lost in translation”. Who actually founded who became a matter of chance: “The Friends of Mayakovsky founded the New Artists in 1982” (Utrechts Nieuwsblad and the Leidsch Dagblatt more>>) – which may be completed by the statement from the Kulturhuset catalgoue “The NEW ARTISTS were formed in the early 1980s under the name ASSA.” Consequently, the Friends of Mayakovsky founded the New Artists in 1982 under the name of ASSA.
Like in a game of Chinese whispers, the original message and the message percieved had little to do with each other. I guess that Novikov didn't mind, if he ever knew of it, given the fact that he enjoyed subverting logic.
 Other partners were the Soviet Ministry of Culture, Swedish Institute, Soviet Embassy (Stockholm), Leningrad Komsomol. In all likelihood, they supported the festival with administrative and logistic help, but did not decide on the programme as such.
 Liverpool actually put the focus on Sergey Kuryokhin’s Pop Mekhanika concert staged by Leningrad and British musicians and performers, which was filmed for a twenty-minute BBC documentation, which is now available in two parts on antonichkov‘s YouTube channel. Part one>> and Part two>>
Uploaded 17 August 2021