Groys on Pepperstein

Boris Groy’s essay on Pavel Pepperstein reproduced below with kind permission of Julie Saul Gallery:

The Greek Afternoons of Jacqueline Kennedy

Contemporary celebrity culture permanently confronts us with the images of politicians, sportsmen, actors or singers who seem to be totally reduced to their public roles. This inevitably provokes in the reader or spectator the desire to look behind the surface – and to discover real persons behind the formulaic media figures. The attempts to satisfy this desire produce numerous memoirs, documentaries and “true stories” told by “authentic witnesses”. However, all these documentaries and memoirs only add new narratives to the mythology that media has already created around celebrity figures. Thus, the desire of “private” and “human” remains forever unsatisfied and merely serves the media letting its mythology grow. The new series of drawings by Pavel Pepperstein exploits and at the same time ironize this desire. Pepperstein pretends to present the unknown drawings by Jacqueline Kennedy that allegedly were made by her after the death of Aristotle Onassis – drawings that reveal her secret desires and obsessions. However, these drawings refer to nothing personal or private. Rather, Pepperstein relates the myth surrounding Jacqueline Kennedy with other myths and thus creates a network, a rhizome of mythological references and connections. Instead to reveal a private person behind the myth the artist integrates this myth into the tradition of Eastern and Western mythology – from antique Greece to the Cold War.

In the context of Pepperstein’s drawings USA and USSR are presented as enemy twins that are more intimately connected than divided by their ideological and political conflict. Lee Harvey Oswald and his Soviet wife Marina connect the death of John Kennedy to the long history of American vs. Soviet intrigues and conspiracies. However, Pepperstein is less interested in the Cold War itself than in the fact that after the assassination of John Kennedy Jacqueline moved from the USA to Greece. Greece is, of course, a place where Western mythology originated. It was a sensual, erotic mythology that celebrated sexual desire and at the same time stoicism in the face of death. This erotic aspect of Greek mythology builds an obvious contrast with American Protestantism – and Pepperstein plays with this contrast. Jacqueline looks as a big fish when she is carried to the see by Greeks who look more like servants than captors. But at the same time she appears very small compared to the head of Athena who symbolizes the wisdom and power of the Greek state tradition. On the head of Athena is an owl that has the eyes that represent the sign of infinity.  But on another drawing “Noon on Scorpios Island” we see a scene that obviously refers to the poem of Mallarme “The Afternoon of a Faun” that celebrates the ephemeral, fleeting character of erotic dreams. But to an even greater degree it refers to the eponymous ballet choreographed by Vaclav Nijinsky – one of the highlights of the famous “Ballets Russes” performed in Paris in 1912.

But, of course, Jacqueline came not to antique Greece but to the Greece dominated by Orthodox Christianity – the faith that it shares with Russia. Thus, a sojourn in Greece meant for the Jackie of Pepperstein’s drawings not only a vacation in the paradise of erotic dreams but also a cultural space that was and still is religiously and culturally alternative to the West. The drawings reflect this ambivalence of Jackie’s Greek experience: to their main protagonists belong the centaurs that display their “material bottom”, as the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin would say, but also their torsos and heads covered in the manner of the Christian Orthodox priests or monks. Now, Pepperstein makes obvious that the whole Greek mythological world can be easily destroyed by the American supremacy attacking it from the skies. Thus, “Mr. America”can relax and drink a glass of wine that looks like a glass of blood – and could also be the Holy Grail. However, even here Pepperstein remains ambivalent: the geometrical forms symbolizing the American attack remind one, of course, of the Suprematist paintings by Kazimir Malevich that can be seen as symbols of the Russian avant-garde and, actually, also of the Russian revolution.

Thus, the chains of mythological associations that are displayed by Pepperstein’s drawings do not serve to elucidate or clarify anything at all. From the beginning of his artistic career Pepperstein practiced polemics against psychoanalysis. The psychoanalysis subjects the free play of associations to a certain goal – to reveal some real facts behind the private mythologies of the patients like the people who try to find the private facts behind the public mythologies of celebrities. Pepperstein, on the contrary, uses the technique of free associations to get rid of any interpretive control and therapeutic goal. Jackie begins to fabulate and associate precisely to escape the control by menacing, terrifying – when also purely phantasmic – figures of the psychoanalytical doctors. In his young years, in the 1980s, Pepperstein belonged to the (post)conceptualist group “Inspection Medical Hermeneutics”. The artists of “Medical Hermeneutics” practiced precisely this kind of free play of associations devoid of any practical goal – to get rid of any kind of ideological control. In so doing they were radicalizing the positions of such Moscow Conceptualist artists of the older generation as Ilya Kabakov or Andrei Monastyrski. These artists presented their artworks as starting points for a play for associations and interpretations into which the audience was also involved. It was the diversity and heterogeneity of interpretations that was consequently aestheticized by the artists, i.e. became that field in which artistic activity in fact took place, so that these interpretations and illustrations were themselves transformed into the artworks. The premise for such aesthetization of theoretical and therapeutic interpretations of artistic activity is, naturally, a total loss of faith in their effective explanatory force. The “Medical Hermeneutic” diagnosed health as the more radical form of illness – and used art as a means to cure this illness. The alleged drawings by Jacqueline Kennedy are a good example of this anti-psychoanalytical cure.

Boris Groys, philosopher and art critic, February 19, 2017

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