(E-E) Ev.g.e.n.i.j ..K.o.z.l.o.     Berlin                                                  

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(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov • White on Red

Five paintings from 1987

(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov at his apartment-studio Galaxy Gallery, Peterhof (Leningrad), 1987 Left: Звезда. 6 Фигур / Star. 6 Figures, white paint on red calico, 211 x 230 cm, 1987 Right: Звезда / Star, white paint on red calico, 207 x 225 cm, 1987 Photo: Andrey Fitenko

(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov at his apartment-studio Galaxy Gallery, Peterhof (Leningrad), 1987
Звезда. 6 Фигур / Star. 6 Figures, white paint on red calico, 211 x 230 cm, 1987. The Tate Gallery Collection
Звезда / Star, white paint on red calico, 207 x 225 cm, 1987. The Tate Gallery Collection
Photo: Andrey Fitenko

Image and sign

In 1986, before perestroika became a trend, (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov started to redesign Soviet symbols in a number of sketches – the letters CCCP, the star, the hammer, the sickle, a skyscraper, an airplane, figures, and others. “Rebranding” these symbols, he removed their political charge – their function as a tool for visual propaganda.

Visual propaganda is the translation of the Russian term nagliadnaia agitatsia (наглядная агитация, literally: visual agitation) and a category of political propaganda or agitprop in the larger sense, institutionalised by the Bolsheviks via the Agitation and Propaganda Section at the Central Committee Secretariat as early as 1920. Thus, visual propaganda includes visualisation of political key terms and concepts or slogans, often personalised through cult figures.  

Today, visual propaganda is best known for the Constructivist print design of the early Soviet period, created by such innovative artists as Lebedev, Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Lisitzkii, Stepanova, Popova, and others. The sharp geometric forms, extreme perspectives and contrasting colours of constructivism – especially of white and red – did, in fact, influence Kozlov‘s sketches.

However, if the main slogan of early visual propaganda was Art into Life, to quote the title of an exhibition at the State Russian Museum in 2018, then Kozlov followed the opposite approach. He decided to bring Life into Art – to resuscitate images that had become stereotypes and clichés, merely signs in sign system representing a totalitarian system.[1]

Before I explain some of the features Kozlov used to bring life into art, I will attempt to outline the difference between an image and a sign, as employed in this text. It goes without saying that here, “image” is not understood in its conventional meaning of a (photographic) reproduction of something we view with our eyes.

Thus, image and sign both refer to specific mental concepts, but an image has a life of its own, while a sign is more likely to be taken as a placeholder for what it stands for, pointing from here to there, like an arrow  – as a signifier pointing to the signified, to speak in terms of Saussure. In other words, an image renders a concept as a living idea, while a sign captures it as a static concept.

What we call conceptual art are images treated as signs. As signs, they may be plurivalent, but generally speaking, our first reaction to a conceptual work would be “what does it mean?” An image, on the other hand, makes us question ourselves “Why am I touched by it?”

Of course, a material object may raise either question, as the passage between image and sign is gradual and a matter interpretation. But with a conceptual work of art, the artist places its sign quality in the first place: looking at a conceptual work, we immediately “slide” along the arrow’s shaft, from its rear end to the arrowhead, to its “meaning”. And there we remain, in determination. An image, on the other hand, keeps us in a moment of indetermination – Bestimmungslosigkeit, a term coined by Fredrik Schiller in his Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Manbefore our desire for determination makes us consider the meaning of this image.

Indetermination, produced by a work of art, comprises both motion and repose. It is the aesthetic disposition of the mind, a specific feeling of inner freedom Evgenij Kozlov calls a perception of pureness (ощущение чистоты).

But this indetermination doesn't go away after we have interpreted a specific work of art as sign. Quite on the contrary, as soon as we have determined the meaning of an image, we remember the state of indetermination it brought about, and this elicits a desire to return to the image and ponder about other possible interpretations. In this way, we “slide” along the arrow in both directions, back and forth, a number of times: like in a quantum system, it’s either the impulse or the location.

Following this definition, the difference becomes clear if we compare Da Vinci‘s Mona Lisa with Duchamp‘s Fountain. We understand why the first is more intriguing than the latter: the first is primarily an image, while the latter is primarily a sign. Imagine you want to describe these works, perhaps to someone who has never seen them: you will be confronted with the fact that it is impossible to convey an adequate idea of Mona Lisa by listing some or even all of its references, be it biographic details of its author, the name of the portrayed, or speculation about whether her smile was caused by pregnancy – simply because the portrait itself conveys this very moment of indetermination. Yet in the case of Duchamp‘s Fountain, we are fully satisfied with a list of references: the riddle is solved.

Thus indetermination is a state of interminable possibilities. To say that a work of art creates a state of indetermination can be expressed by a metaphor: the work of art possesses life. Schiller was more precise: it is “as if it possessed life”, and he used the metaphor of “lebende Gestalt”: living form or living gestalt. This is a metaphor insofar as it describes the impact the work of art has on the viewer, and not the work itself.

Walter Benjamin used the term “aura” instead, but Benjamin struggled with the fact that he perceived panel paintings as nothing more than historical artefacts, as signs, not images, and thus denied them an “aura”. In order to find “life”, Benjamin looked for a technique that imitates life in a more direct way: motion pictures. Yet he welcomed film as a means of mobilisation of masses, of determining the individual. In other words, with regard to the role of a “living” work of art, Benjamin propagated the exact opposite of Schiller, determination instead of indetermination.

If we focus our attention on art presented through single pictures, as is the purpose of this article, we can, however, attribute indetermination and determination in the following way: indetermination = image; determination = sign. We will look for the quality of motion/repose with an image, and for the quality of meaning with a sign.

To differentiate between an image and a sign in the way I suggested may seem risky. After all, whether we interpret an altarpiece as an image or a sign depends upon which of the two questions comes into mind first – the question “Why does it affect me?” or the question “What does it mean?” To complicate things further, we may draw a conclusion from what was said earlier: an image is also a sign, while a sign is no longer an image.

What is more, when applied to a particular work of art, the question “Why does it affect me?” seems to lead us into a maze of subjectivity, as such concepts as perception of pureness, a work of art possessing life or aura are utterly subjective, as the example of Benjamin shows.

Yet art is about the perception of aesthetic qualities, and this type of perception cannot be but subjective. If we shy away from creating such “subjective” criteria for visual art and concentrate on an artwork‘s more obvious and, perhaps, more objective sign quality instead, we will miss art‘s raison d’être. Thus, the question is not to do without such criteria, but to argue why they are not random, even though in the case of a particular work of art, different people will apply them differently.

Returning to Kozlov‘s compositions, my position is that they are images in the first place and signs in the second place, and in this text I will show why this definition includes such works that prima facie appear as signs.

In my opinion, it is this “image quality” that distinguishes Kozlov‘s approach to “signs” from Moscow conceptualism and Sots art. Moscow artists are drawn towards semiotics, with a particular emphasis on deconstructing an established reference. But in this way, the connection to the original mental concept remains very strong – the arrow still points from here to there, and this stresses the sign property of Sots art.

For instance, when comparing Erik Bulatov‘s texted painting Vkhod-vkhoda net (“Вход-входа нет / Entrance-No Entrance”, first version 1974/1975) with Evgenij Kozlov‘s texted object Ne Khodi (Не ходиь / Don’t go, 1988), we notice that Bulatov visualises a political message, while Kozlov treats the text as one of several figurative elements composing the image, including an “unnecessary” letter, ь. From this it follows that contrary to Bulatov‘s clear-cut formula, the sign function of Kozlov‘s text remains rather subtle, and this subtleness contributes to creating a moment of indetermination. 

(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov Не ходиь / Don’t go Oil, marker, and ink on wood, 37 x 55.5 x 2.7 cm, 1988 Inv. no. E-E-188030 Photo: Hannelore Fobo

(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov
Не ходиь / Don’t go
Oil, marker, and ink on wood, 37 x 55.5 x 2.7 cm, 1988
Inv. no. E-E-188030
Photo: Hannelore Fobo

Erik Bulatov
Вход-входа нет / Entrance-No Entrance
Oil on canvas, 180 x 180 cm, 1974-75
Photo credit © Philippe Migeat - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI

[1] The paraphrase “Life into Art” is my own, not Kozlov’s. Already before the First World War, Natalia Gontcharova and Mikhail Larionov introduced the slogan “Art for life and even more—life for art!” (Искусство для жизни и еще больше — жизнь для искусства!) in: Rayonists and Futurists: A Manifesto, 1913  (ЛУЧИСТЫ И БУДУЩНИКИ. Манифест / Luchisty i budushchniki. Manifest), First published in: Oslinyikhvost i mishen [ Donkey's Tail and Target] (Moscow, July 1913)

Russian text: http://rozanova.net/second_page.pl?id=928&catid=14

English text: https://monoskop.org/File:Larionov_Mikhail_Goncharova_Natalya_1913_1976_Rayonists_and_Futurists_A_Manifesto.pdf

However, other than in the case of Goncharova and Larionov, Kozlov‘s approach was not based on an ideologically motivated struggle against his fellow artists.

Uploaded 4 May 2020
Last updated 30 November 2021