Date: Fri, Feb 14 1997
From: Miran Mohar

The Letter of Support

Eda Cufer, Goran Dordevic, IRWIN: Dusan Mandic, Miran Mohar, Andrej Savski, Roman Uranjek, Borut Vogelnik

This is a letter of support for Alexander Brener, an artist who has to stand in front of a Dutch court on charges of vagabondage and destruction of the Malevich painting "Suprematism 1922-1927."

We met Alexander in 1994 in Moscow, where he was known as a poet of controversial Russian-Jewish identity. When we met with him he had just re-emigrated from Israel, where he emigrated with his family few years before. He explained his return to Moscow as a gesture of his disillusionment with any existing political system, finding Russia after the collapse of socialism an appropriate place to make an artistic statement of that disillusionment. Our common language—which resulted in a few joint projects, including Interpol and Transnacionala in 1996—is based on the belief that the contemporary art situation is highly politicized, in the sense that economically stronger countries control and abuse the system of values we inherited from the tradition of contemporary art of this century as a common spiritual good. It is therefore necessary and legitimate for any artist to question the position and mechanisms of implementation of an individual art work in a system of art which refuses to be just a toy of markets and ideologies.

To satisfy this necessity, Brener transposed his poetic statement from literature to the direct physical language of actions-performances. In the beginning of 1994, he did an action in the Fine Art Museum (Puskinskij Musei) in Moscow, where he stood in front of one of van Gogh’s paintings and deficated in his pants while repeating: "Vincent, Vincent." He described this action as a dialogue with the beginnings of modernism, where "excrement in pants" had a double meaning—both of great pleasure caused by the work of art and the notion of excrement as a symbolic materialization of the monolithic ideology that Van Gogh was placed in as its founder.

Once he provoked Dimitry Prigow, who is an exemplary avant-garde artist living in Moscow. While Prigow was reading his poetry, Alexander jumped on the stage, shouting, "It’s burning! It’s burning!" grabbing his own buttocks. That, he explained, was his answer to Prigow’s belief that his poetry is a cold analysis. Prigow accused him of being a Fascist.

Another similar event took place during the reading of poetry by another Russian legend, one of the most sophisticated poets of the sixties - Jevgenij Jevtusenko. During this reading, Alexander stood up and repeated the phrase: "Silence, my mother wants to sleep." His provocation angered Jevtusenko, who called upon his bodyguards to help. Another action was Brener’s public masturbation on the diving platform of the swimming pool built during socialism on the site of a destroyed orthodox church. This action was made during a one-day exhibition organized by the artist Andrej Velikanov. Brener was later arrested by the police for the action. We should also mention one of his most political actions. He went to Red Square in boxing equipment in the middle of the war campaign in Chechniya and shouted in the direction of the Kremlin: "Yeltsin, come out!"

In October 1995, Brener visited Ljubljana where he did three short actions on the streets. One of them took place in front of the Slovenian National Opera and Ballet building, which is located between the Slovenian parliament and an Orthodox church. He climbed onto the balcony, pulled his clothes off and appeared in nothing but a pair of black boxing pants. He then put boxing gloves on, sang an Arabic liturgical song and smashed a baroque window in the Opera house. After leaving Ljubljana, he returned to Moscow, where a few weeks later he threw few bottles of ketchup on the facade of the Byelorussian Embassy, destroying them in protest of the almost-dictatorial Byelorussian regime.

The event that made him a controversial figure in the international art community took place in February last year in Stockholm, Sweden in the context of the Interpol project, where he destroyed an artwork made by the Chinese artist Wenda Gu. As participants in the same project, we understood the reason for his action. Interpol was a project curated by a Swedish curator Jan Aman and Russian Victor Misiano as a three-year project in progress, where the main aim was to establish communication among different artists. The project was not classically curated. The artists were supposed to formulate the exhibition as a collective through communication and interaction between their works. The curators were supposed to provide a possibility for meetings in Stockholm and Moscow and to organize the final event. It was especially stressed that classical individual art objects were not welcome at this exhibition.

When we actually came to realize the project, we were all shocked to see that an enormous work by Wenda Gu took up the central alley of the space, with no attention to any other artist presented there. The disappointment was even bigger when we realized that the organizers represented by Jan Aman were very proud of this work, accepting no objection that this work by definition broke the rules of the game established in three years of prior communication.

As Jan Aman was the financial supporter of the project, the whole story became West-East polarised, also the more so because it was obvious that Victor Misiano was ultimately thrown out of the game. Therefore, on the day of the opening, Brener simply destroyed Wenda Gu’s work. For that, he was accused of being a fascist by the group of artists and by the organizers of the exhibition, and a very primitive and nonchalant letter was sent to all important addresses of contemporary art institutions, claiming that Misiano and all Russian artists present are a group of fascists.

Our position toward this is that his action was completely legitimate in the described context because, after three years of talking and constructing a bridge of values between individuals of two different socio-political and cultural contexts, the organizers allowed an art work that totally negated the basic ethical imperatives of the project to be presented in the classical and universally accepted manner. None of these actions could be called vandalism or Fascism—the method by which even people from a sophisticated contemporary art community usually stigmatise them. They are based on a very consistent and carefully built value system presented in his literature, essays and public speeches.

As Alexander stated during his visit in Ljubljana, he doesn’t believe in a political democracy, but he does believe in a democratic art—that is, an art of individuality fighting for mental and spiritual freedom and moral progress. Political democracy is impossible because it demands total responsibility of every member of the society. Therefore, art is a good tool, which should be used for democratic self-development. For Brener, the majority of Russian art is not democratic because it derives from a very narrow circle of Russian intelligentsia. There are some exceptions such as Tolstoy, Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov. He distinguishes avant-garde art from modernism by the difference in their impact. Avant-garde art has an ethical impact, which is completely different to the formal impact of modernism.

For Brener, the avant-garde artist is a man who is able to pledge all his being against Western civilization. As Western civilisation is a violent appropriation of all other worlds, for him the language of affect (as defined by Antonin Artaud) is the only weapon against the unquestionable power of Western societies. In his actions, he articulates this language of emotions through three basic feelings and principles: sexuality, aggression and impotency. We described some previous works and actions, together with Brener’s philosophical and ethical position in relation to the question of art, in order to prove that his latest action—in which he sprayed green paint in the shape of a dollar sign on the Malevich painting "White Suprematism 1922-1927", a white cross on a white background— is an act of consistent artistic language of expression and therefore can not be interpreted as the act of a lunatic or a criminal act.

Of course, we understand that on the judicial level there is a difference between the legitimate and legal aspects of a specific incriminating act. We all know that one of the main purposes of law is the protection of property. As we are informed, the market value of the painting before Brener’s intervention was claimed to be 20 million Dutch guilders, and after the action, according to the Stedelijk Museum’s evaluation, the painting lost one quarter of its market value.

We state that this is an arbitrary evaluation, which should be discussed in the context of the mechanisms that create the value of artefact in the 20th century. First of all, there is no evident proof that the value of the painting is really lower then before. It may be even higher if the legitimacy of Brener’s act can be explained, proved and accepted now, or in the future. The economic value of an artefact depends on its symbolic value, and symbolic evaluation is made under certain value systems accepted in an economic-spiritual-social exchange. Therefore there is the possibility that Brener’s act didn’t cause any financial loss but rather a profit to the legal owner of the painting.

Another question here involves the legal ownership of the painting—and thus the legitimate right of the museum in exhibiting it. It is known that Malevich exhibited in Berlin in 1927. Because he had to return to USSR before the exhibition ended, he asked Hugo Haring to keep the works until he returned to Germany. He asked another person to keep his theoretical writings. He never returned to Germany, and it is not known what exactly Malevich asked Haring to do with his works. Some of them now belong to the Stedelijk Museum and probably got there as the result of transactions made after Malevich’s death in 1935, when various political regimes in Western Europe as well as in Russia were hunting this kind of work and the value systems attached to them. It would be interesting to see the documents of those transactions and the economic values that the works had at that time.

Brener’s action consciously and deliberately stuck a finger into a very deep and serious wound in contemporary European political history caused by proletarian revolution, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, the Cold War and the chaotic process of establishing a new world order under the leadership of global capitalism. As the matter of fact, contemporary art—modernism and avant-garde art—was the only value system that opposed the aggressive and narrow social and political divisions of the past as they fought for primacy and the globalization of their ideologies. Only contemporary art was creating a value system and language of integral individuality, first spread throughout European culture regardless of political and social borders. During the Cold War, this first autonomous and independent language of early avant-garde art became the official value system of Western democracies, and therefore one of the most sophisticated ideologies ever existed. The end of cold war brought out many unresolved questions and conflicts of the past. Among other things, it raised the question of the historical roots of Western economical supremacy, which plays a major role in adding market values to the symbolical values of global civilisation.

The main strategy of maintaining cultural, symbolical supremacy through the economical supremacy are appropriations which can be followed through many examples from legitimately questionable but probably legal (we say probably, because of the slippery definition of the real market value of a cultural object) appropriations of archaeological treasures from ancient cultures to the unclear material identity of the Malevich collection left in Western Europe after the exhibition in Berlin in 1927. Is it true that the global capitalism is a new definition of the cultural colonization of the Western world of all the rest of the world?

We believe that Alexander Brener didn’t destroy anything that Kazimir Malevich contributed to humankind. On the contrary, he artistically enlightened the misunderstanding as to what Malevich actually contributed to humanity by reflecting the act of reification, where the so-called cultural world is showing respect to his dead object while at the same time disrespect to the genuine, living culture he comes from. The force behind this misunderstanding is symbolized in the sign he sprayed over the work.

Knowing Brener, we believe that his action didn’t take place in the name of any political or national identification but in the name of individual and artistic expression and the legitimacy of artistic intervention in—and interpretation of—actual historical injustices and violations. His action proved that he is a legitimate descendant of the best minds of his cultural tradition. He belongs to the spiritual continuity of Futuristic poets such as Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov. Therefore, his action is legitimate if not legal—and sometimes legitimacy has to be put above the legality if we want to preserve our spiritual life against narrow materialistic dictate.

By that we don’t want to legalize the ritual of destroying objects of art as a normal way of cultural communication. There have been [a] few examples of destroying an art object of one artist by another in the history of contemporary art. Only a few of them became legitimate in the contemporary art tradition. Their legitimacy is based on the clarity of reason, on the clearly defined ontological support behind an act and not in the act of destruction as itself.

We are aware that these kind of spectacular actions can be a very convenient way of getting attention and publicity in the context of present societies, which are guided by the power of information. We sincerely believe that Brener’s action is not an abuse but rather an act of risk and heroism dedicated to his genuine beliefs.

Finally, we would like to say something about his charge of vagrancy. Stating what he is stating, doing what he is doing, Brener’s artistic activities produce values that are still priceless in any of existing states of the world. Therefore, it is quite normal that he cannot afford accommodation in an expensive, welfare town as Amsterdam is at the moment. Being poor or attacking the norms of the present is another legitimacy he shares with the dead and living individuals who created, and who are creating, the very controversial notion of art.

We sincerely hope that the Court of Netherlands will approach to Alexander Brener’s act by spiritual intellectual vigour which will enable its representatives to think out all the complexity of the event and make a charge in his defense.

1. See his texts "I speak in the language of emotions," Interpol project. (A global network from Stockholm and Moscow), Catalogue published by Fargfabriken, Stockholm 1996, and "I am spending the night in Brooklyn," in the book of poetry called Transnationala, published by Hereford Salon, London 1996

2. See the text "Malevich: Falling into a black square" in ARTnews," (Summer 1991) by Konstantin Akinsha

Ljubljana, February 11, 1997