Monday 2 November 2009

Not Made in Russia

Made In Russia, Chelsea Theatre, London

This is it. Tonight, from the modest stage of the Chelsea Theatre, Andrei Andrianov and Oleg Soulimenko will smash their way into mainstream European cultural consciousness. They’ve planned it: the perfect combination of Western and Eastern culture to ensure success, popularity and fame will follow.

Only, unfortunately, Andrei Arshavin and Mick Jagger couldn’t be here alongside them tonight. Likewise, Fydor Dostoyevsky and Julia Roberts. You see, their funding is modest; their popularity-level not quite high enough to beg favours from the rich and famous. Even Andrianov’s supposed father, Jean-Luc Godard, and Soulimenko’s former co-star at the Bolshoi, the revered Maya Pliestskaya, couldn’t make it along. So, um, never mind.

Of course, Soulimenko and Andrianov are astute enough to know that familiar, accepted faces alone do not make for accessibility. Made In Russia subverts the very notion of cross-cultural identity against itself, undermining international presentation as a pretentious, even bourgeois, cultural practice. The need to label according to nationality or origin is, they suggest, preposterous and in doing so we seek only to confirm our own preconceptions about other cultures. In other words, we conceal our bigotry with heavy-handed pretences of liberalism. ‘Of course I understand Russian culture,’ we cry, ‘Why, only the other week I saw a charming little piece of Russian contemporary dance on the South Bank. They even did the low-leg kicking dance. You know, the Cossack one. The Kalinka. The dance of the soldiers. You know. The one Michael Jackson does in the ‘Black or White’ video.’

Employing ticklish tactics of reductio ad absurdum, Soulimenko and Andrianov pepper a reflexive examination of their artistic practice’s evolution (so conforming to ‘the Western value given to personal revelation onstage’) with clumsy clichés. The stage is littered with analogue technology tarted up with geometric shapes and folksy textiles. They don body stockings and militaristic ballet-costumes. They speak in Russian only so as to sound mysterious and exotic.

As a double-act, there are certainly connections to The Right Size or New Art Club, sending themselves up as they go along. A wonderfully po-faced spoof of contact improvisation is followed by a ‘male intuitive duet in which two organisms explore a contemporary urban space’. But beneath the seemingly mocking is always the question of labelling. With such a multiplicity of cultural influences forming such an assortment of work, how can we pigeonhole their practice according to nationality alone. The arbitrary nature of such classification seems disrespectful and dismissive. We may laugh, but there is a definite tone of accusation at play.

If we can’t rely on conventional categories, then the question remains as to how to define an artist’s practice. Soulimenko and Andrianov supply no distinct answers. Perhaps they go so far as to dismiss the need for any form of taxonomy. Even their own daughters seem unable to really describe their work, proffering vagaries in a video-interview without seeming to undermine it. What matters are the propositions made, not the system of reference or regimentation. Not Made in Russia, then, but simply made.

Sacred Festival runs till 22 November 2009

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