BURGANOV’S MOTIFS: The Assault of Images Operating in Space. Dialogue with Chaos

Valery Turchin

Article: 
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
Magazine issue: 
#2 2010 (27)

According to Alexander Burganov, art is perhaps one of the few types of evidence that most accurately reflects the general confusion in our souls.

Intellectual, sensual, experimental, traditional... There are many options available for understanding Burganov’s art. His oeuvre should not be reviewed chronologically - chronology is irrelevant here. Nor should we concentrate on typology, because the composition of his art will appear to have more complexity than any possible classification can accommodate. Perhaps it is more appropriate to review separate works. To understand their meaning and form, and the techniques used to create them. Then we can proceed to conclusions...

Take, for instance, his famous “Letter” . Today, when we have witnessed the “fading away” of the epistolary genre, the very thought of envelopes and written letters seems nostalgic. How many paintings in the past portrayed people either writing or reading letters! A letter is a missive full of genuine emotion, a form of contact across space and time. Thus, Burganov’s artwork is an important reminder about an important informational tool, lost but still alive. Whereas we rarely take up a pen today, we still know that our parents, grandmothers and grandfathers earnestly exchanged letters, and the postman was awaited as the herald of hope, or the harbinger of bad news. In the culture of the recent past, the profession of postman had a special, privileged position — while not itself a prestigious occupation, it had a special symbolical meaning. The fact that the sculptor addresses this theme is in a way a matter of expectation.

The letter is a symbol, and sculpture prefers symbolical forms, so one factor is multiplied by another. Nevertheless, I am not aware of any other sculptor who would venture to create an image of a letter — not a flower or a book, but the envelope as it is. Renouncing the human form and addressing instead “dead” objects, even those which provoke different and complex associations, became a growing trend in European sculpture of the 1960s.

Thus, still-lifes, tables laid for a meal, flowers and fruit on chairs were introduced into the visual repertoire of sculpture. In fact, this “matter” has been related to the development of Post-Modernism. The stronger it grew, the more “still-life-centred consciousness” infiltrated sculpture; before, only a handful of early avant-garde experimenters had dared to fashion threedimensional guitars, bottles and hats. However, unlike the “direct” statement of the avant-garde, Post-Modernism (or, as Burganov calls it, “New Romanticism”) preferred to play with images, often using metaphors and layering and multiplying meanings and forms: this is what one sees in Burganov’s work.

It needs to be noted that the envelope does not exist autonomously. The important point here is that the envelope is an emblematic form attached to a female body, replacing the head. In other words, an envelope is the repository of thoughts from which emerges a hand, which can be regarded precisely as the idea contained in the missive. The sculpture itself, meanwhile, does not illustrate a certain poetic vision; its shapes are “dainty”, subtle, delicate. It is the sculptural virtues that render this piece persuasive. The master’s craft in this work is shown off with impressive artistry. The principle of reconciling the irreconcilable itself, which is called sometimes the principle of “naturalistic permutation”, going back to Surrealism, produces more and more novel creative ideas. What matters most here is the poetic turn — the poetism — of an artistic mind, and it is very vivid.

One would like to think that the “Letter”, a very well known and popular piece by the artist, is a clue to the master’s entire oeuvre. Although I am fully aware of its importance, I remain disinclined to think so. Tackling any problem, Burganov always proves himself capable of inventing novel stylistic “strategies”. Just think of his “Arm”, this peculiar arc, stretched out for several metres, with a hand on either extremity: these hands seem prepared to embrace the whole world. The piece is not the only original invention Burganov has come up with.

“Yelena Gnesina” represents the musician at a moment of inspiration, and to highlight the image’s “classic mold”, the figure is seated on a Corinthian capital — the symbol of everlasting perfection of form. The inspired mood of the virtuoso musician at the piano (only the front of the instrument is shown, with the rest suggested by a piece of draped cloth) is conveyed subtly. Her hands do not touch the key board; delicate like the hands of Ingres’ models, Gnesina’s hands soar over it, seeming to bring forth magic sounds almost through magnetism. The power of inspiration is communicated to the instrument itself and, as if by a miracle, wings soar over it, indicating the presence of a greater spiritual power. In essence, all the allegorical themes of this work are easy to identify.

A different image is conjured up in the composition “Princess Turandot”, to be seen on the Old Arbat Street and thus well-known to Muscovites. This sculpture is marked by a certain mannerism, quite in conformity with the production of the play as staged at the Vakhtangov theatre next to which it stands. The princess’s graceful figure seated on a throne is placed in a cage, an emulation of enclosed space; the princess herself looks like a beautiful and elegant apparition. Characteristically, the sculptor created this effect using special proportions. The form has an emphatically vertical format, and verticality is the sign of spirituality and a longing for heaven. Gothic culture, as well as the European culture that followed it, was well aware of that, and as we see, this principle can be used in Russian sculpture today. The modern master is very well acquainted with the heritage of the past and masterfully applies necessary elements as he grapples with vital creative challenges.

Burganov is a virtuoso of sculpture who has created many statues, all of them different. Take, for instance, his statue of Walt Whitman. The bronze figure of the American poet is mounted on a granite cube, with a column with a Corinthian capital topped with a winged Pegasus behind him. The iconography of the monument is simple and clear, and it cannot be otherwise: such works are programmatic. The treatment of the poet’s figure is appealing. The entire image is a “portrait statue” — the dress is historically accurate, and the face has a “typical” look: exalted, laden with meaning. Burganov’s Whitman figure in Moscow is matched by his statue of Alexander Pushkin in Washington.

“Girl Racing with Birds” shows yet another important facet of Burganov’s art-work, highlighting as it does his mythopoetic worldview. The nude girl races across the heavens with birds alongside her; her body weightless, she easily overcomes the force of gravitation. The totally orgiastic body reveals its essence “over there” — in “that” space where we breathe freely and our bodies live up to their potential. The observer is expected to experience a similar lightness, needing similarly to take off, not in body, but in spirit. The earthly realm, recalled by the ornamental, nearly Gothic images of plants, has been left behind — the plants contrast with the cloth flapping in the wind and nearly sliding from the runner’s hand. We know nothing of the nude’s destination, but are confident that her flight is justified by a feeling of the sheer joy of being. The flying nude figure seems to be locked between the silhouette of the bird and the piece of cloth, and the viewer should look at the composition from its front. The piece is pictorial, meaning that this is a visionary picture. The sculpture conveys the feeling that it contains a certain formula — a sculptural formula as well as a formula of worldview.

The first version of “Girl Racing with Birds” was created in 1968, and followed by a second, but neither has survived. Even without specifically focusing on chronology, we know that it was during that period, the 1960s, that Burganov’s art started to take shape, in parallel with sea-changes in both the wider artistic culture of the time, and in people’s perception of their worlds. To some extent, we all are “children” of those times — both those who lived and created art at that period, and those who followed them. The 1960s provide the basis of our art, and even more so of our artistic thinking. Both moderate reformers and bold experimenters mustered strength to express “the new spirit”: it should be noted that Burganov combines experimentation with a marked respect for tradition. He is a sculptor, a master of forms who thinks with images that are projected on to space; he does not like it if a work he creates turns into an object. Objects have different aesthetics, and different yardsticks for their evaluation. The traditions of antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Baroque, and those of Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol are important for Burganov, but he has transformed these traditions in a very brilliant and personal manner.

Several of Burganov’s works feature loosely-arranged pieces of fabric, and the sculptor himself says that such drapes are a stylistic trademark of his. Fabric tightly fitted the bodies of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, and draped wraps enabled the observer to “read” the body in Greek statues, whereas Gothic sculptors, showing off the “agitation” of cloaks, hinted at the presence of “soul”; in Baroque art dress “bespoke” the emotional universe of those who wore it. Today it is a different story, and fabrics have become the equivalent of a vision of the world, purpose-made, as it were, for each creator. Their introduction was likely an offshoot not only of sculptural traditions, but of those of painting as well, of Surrealist trends in painting above all: just recall the meaning of mantles and pieces of cloth in the works of Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. In Russia Surrealism failed, even if the environment might have seemed favourable to its flourishing. In Europe, however, Surrealism remains to this day a gigantic treasure trove for the interpretation of the world and the purposes of art. It is not surprising that the memory of Surrealism lives today - it is no thing of the past, but continues to be relevant. The heart of Andre Breton beats no less strongly today than in the past.

Two hands descending from the sky cover a human head with a piece of fabric, in the composition “Drape”, an image that conjures up a feeling of mystery. In fact, this sort of treatment is contemporary: one is reminded of the happening at a Docu- menta exhibition in Kassel, where the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth covered the heads of the busts of great thinkers with pieces of fabric printed over with their texts (this approach was obviously dominated by pure “brainwork”). In Burganov’s treatment, the sensual element is important, and is more disturbing. Instead of the kingdom of thought, we have here the artist’s attitude to Nature (with a capital “N”). In terms of its structure, this piece somewhat resembles “Letter” — both images suggest the presence of a mystery, or at least something approaching the mysterious.

A whole series of Burganov’s works is devoted to the relationship between human beings and fabrics, with a complex interaction at the level of symbols. Sometimes, as in the composition “Pieta”, the folds of a wrap are so expressive that the body presumably resting “inside” them seems to be almost superfluous; several works also feature a stage curtain of sorts. Finally, there is sometimes room for further symbolical interpretations. We are talking about a “game” — a notion highly important in the art of the 20th century. All kinds of forces — intellectual, physical, elemental — are engaged, forming a kind of unity. The artist must closely watch their moves - watch and use them as a source of inspiration. It is a joyless science, addictive, raising questions as to what are the bets, and why we are engaged with it.

Does the draped fabric play a game with the creator, or is it the creator who plays with the fabric? A self-portrait looks through one of the seemingly wind-blown pieces of fabric. The fabrics appear to be imparted with a certain vital force — a human soul has transmigrated to them. Everything is interconnected. Fabrics, like birds, are a symbol of freedom for Burganov. Clearly, the master never stops thinking about freedom and captivity. A human being dreams about freedom, but reality never allows the dream to come true. If there is freedom, it is a “secret freedom”, as the sculptor believes, recalling Pushkin’s phrase. Following Sartre’s line of thinking, existence consists in the fact that the “human” is suppressed by forces alienated from human beings.

It is not nature that provokes fear, but the unknown that lurks inside the alienated human nature. This alienated state engenders monsters — the alienated human nature includes the appalling “Power”, and a high-heeled boot whose top morphs into a skull. This is a special and particular world, which is, however, opposed by another — even if this other world is only a phantasm, only a dream (Burganov himself talks quite often about the visions that he sees in his sleep). However, without the confidence that things will turn out for the better, reality itself will appear to be a dream — an awful, nightmarish dream. Undeniably, Burganov is a moralist; many of his works are allegories of sorts. He not only shows, but proves as well. His works are programmatic, and the more and the longer you watch them, the better you realize it. The sculptor himself says that his programme is internal. Some of his works were commissioned and intended for official use, but we are talking here about the other ones, those that convey the maestro’s moral stance. The word “moral” is used here in its old sense, from the times when the artistic quest was connected with a quest for the truth — whatever that truth might be.

The images of cages are clearly symbols of captivity. Sometimes the cage (there are many of them, and each is different) is a construction with a composition inside. Especially impressive are the cages that evoke a female half-figure. Some of the cages feature various plastic elements inside, including the draped pieces of cloth mentioned above. One of the compositions is centred around a gigantic cage (1995, Tretyakov Gallery). Apart from the spatial “compartments of captivity”, Burganov eagerly uses the theme of a frame as a constraint, the sealing of a space; such examples include compositions like “Meat”, “Girl with a Horse”, and “Profile”. The twelve-scene composition “Resurrection” is sure to attract attention. Characteristically, the figures in every “little cell” of the composition are of varying size, producing an impression that some figures are close and others are distant; the very distribution of the scenes across the different cells adds a new element, that of time.

If traditional sculpture addressed eternity (as a form of art, it was intended, from its inception, as a “servant” of eternity), then today, having occupied the vacant space between reality and eternity and heartily gesticulating, it reminds you of time alienated from eternity. For this reason, Icarus falls and love flees. Finally, Burganov’s artwork is often themed around various metamorphoses, with the transfigurations occuring before the eyes of the astonished observer. One wing of the falling Icarus is still alive, while the other is already dead. In the “Birth of Pegasus”, we watch the “birth” of the mythical horse from the maiden’s head. In the composition “Bouquet” a female figure morphs into a vase... the list can easily be continued.

Another distinctive feature is the way that Burganov “turns” figures any way he wants. Some figures are turned upside down, while others freely soar in space. One of the versions of the composition “Fleeing Love” features a frame with a hand, a leg and a draped fabric. A style of loose combination distinguishes the piece “In Memory of Art Scholar A.K. Chekalov”, one which is very important for the sculptor. The object is an assemblage of gypsum forms. As a method, assemblage also evokes the duration of time, or “processuality”. The very name of the composition “Portrait of an Artist in the Process of Creation” indicates that the viewer and the sculptor are immersed in duration — using Henri Bergson’s connotation, duree. Images are engendered inside this duration. Alberti’s visual pyramid, with a bird fluttering inside, is drawn close to a mannequin-like head. Inspiration and intuition make the bird morph into a winged muse. All this is shown to the assumed viewer, so that he can partake of the mysteries of creative pursuit.

The themes of freedom and captivity are the backbone of Burganov’s art, but we concentrate our attention on other themes, too. Excluding pieces where a portrait-like resemblance was required, there are those that do not have altogether “perfect” heads, or those where heads are sometimes missing altogether — recall the “Letter” and the “Drape”. “Bouquet” features a handsome “sheaf” of flowers crowning a female figure; “Power” features a bird of prey in place of the head. One of the “Chimeras” has a fissure running across her entire body, including the head, while another has a bundle of ribbons instead of a torso. The facial features of “Nude in a Cage” are somewhat blurry (like the faces of some of Medardo Rosso’s busts). A few of the heads look like those of mannequins. The “Fantastic Portrait”, instead of a head, features a bust assembled of different objects, including a chair. Apparently, the kingdom created by Burganov, where everyone and everything lives by their own laws, is dominated by the instinct of survival rather than by the power of reflection. The bodies have their own ideas about the world, which are not limited by our everyday reasoning. Burganov’s kingdom has a distinct gravitation, a distinct reaction to what is going on — it is a kind of analogy with our world, but nothing more than an analogy. Analogies are inevitably evoked.

Burganov’s style, or rather certain stylistic techniques, combines a multitude of different tendencies. Nevertheless, looking at Burganov’s world, we perceive it as a whole. The faculty of thinking metaphorically and the ability to fulfill elegantly what has been conceived pulls everything together and makes it one. This solid mass is the powerful stream of images that are energetically invading reality — invading and transforming it.

Aware of the importance of each of his works, Burganov nevertheless perceives his oeuvre in its entirety, as an ensemble. The museum “Dom Burganova” (Burganov’s House) is a complex spatial structure with rows of statues that look like sentinels watching over a certain territory. The space of the courtyard is filled with images echoing one another. The “Big Angel Arcade” with niches and statues, gracing the museum’s fagade, resembles a backdrop painted with architectural elements from an ancient Greek or Roman theatre. The interplay of spaces and images continues in the museum’s rooms.

This sense of ensemble also comes through in Burganov’s exhibition projects, as seen in his recent grand show at Moscow’s Manege. Such an idea of synthesis dominated “How Beautiful Is This World” arranged by Pierre Cardin at his Chateau Lacoste in Provence, and later in Paris. Finally, the grandiose display of Burganov’s work in Brussels, where the figure of a gorgeous woman was arranged on one of the homes on a central square, her leg hanging down from the roof to the ground floor. Those who have seen this sculpture will never forget it — it is as if Burganov’s images multiply by themselves and live by their own laws. They come to own the world.

Yt it is clear that sculpture, which previously “belonged” inside churches and in the vicinity of church buildings, now finds itself in very particular areas to which access is restricted. Previously, sculptures were “nourished” by the sanctity of the space where they appeared. Now the statue itself is expected to “sanctify” its particular space. Burganov is aware of this issue, and has his own solutions to offer.

One more issue is relevant here. In the past, statues existed on the threshold of eternity, keeping guard over it along the frontiers of reality — hence, they were idols, like the gigantic figures of Ancient Egypt and on Easter Island, the colossi of the Buddhas, and the Statue of Liberty in New York. Today the function of statues as idols is gradually dwindling. Instead, they are located in a narrow space between eternity and reality; they have become more active, energetic and diverse. They can be ironic, paradoxical, Surrealistic. Alexander Burganov’s art vividly illustrates what happens — and how it happens — in the domain of culture, achieving a maximal effect, regardless of the set course of things. He both uses new opportunities, and brings them into existence.

Actually, this endeavour requires not only talent but an utmost exertion of the creative will and mobilization of the power of the body and soul — and, it should be added, a keen curiosity about the bodily and intellectual manifestations of the world. In addition to creating sculptures, Burganov has authored several noteworthy theoretical articles and books. He is an enthusiastic teacher, he writes poetry and creates paintings. His sculptures are surrounded with texts and numerous ink drawings, as has been the case at several of his shows. He likes to arrange his works into different compositions, every time producing new “knots” of meanings; the possible theatrical display of his works appeals to him. He dreams about synthesizing different arts, including music.

Of course, we have suspected all along that Alexander Burganov is the best interpreter of his own art. Many of his literary opuses are worth noting, especially the “Fantastic Autobiography. Murder of a Hen” and “Secret Freedom”. Yet, commenting on the maestro’s art, I did not mean to maintain the artist’s line, but rather to lay out my own interpretations.

Following the development of “Bur- ganism” in art, we see that the maestro is engaged in a desperate dialogue with Chaos. In his “vagabond dreams” he also searches for a certain conceptual and artistic basis that could help him to conduct such a dialogue. Therein lies the message of this kind of art. This determines the focus on the masse gёnёгale and the concentration on forms — both meaningful and disturbing.

Illustrations

 
Alexander Burganov. Photo. 2001
Alexander Burganov. Photo. 2001
Golgotha. 1989
Golgotha. 1989
Ink and quill on paper. 43 × 30.7 cm
Fresh Wind Self-portrait. 1987
Fresh Wind Self-portrait. 1987
Bronze. 90 × 90 × 20 cm
The Cell. 1988
The Cell. 1988
Bronze. 171 × 75 × 62 cm
Kiss of the Moon. 2004
Kiss of the Moon. 2004
Bronze. 149 × 135 × 70 cm
One-man Exhibition, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2006
One-man Exhibition, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2006
Chimera. 1985
Chimera. 1985
Bronze. 120 × 76 × 88 cm
Portrait of Peter Ludwig. 1980
Portrait of Peter Ludwig. 1980
Bronze. Height 100 сm
High Heel. 1992
High Heel. 1992
Bronze. 110 × 52 × 137 cm
The Soul. 1998
The Soul. 1998
Bronze. 73 × 48 × 71 cm
Seated in an Armchair. 1979
Seated in an Armchair. 1979
Bronze. 165 × 70 × 75 cm

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