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We are the champions: the wild kids who conquered the art world

Sergey Borisov. Flight, 1968. Photography. Courtesy Moscow Museum of Modern Art

A retrospective exhibition of the short-lived art group ‘Champions of the World’ is opening at the Moscow Modern Museum of Modern Art. During perestroika, these young artists challenged the rules and conventions set by the older generation of non-conformists.

In the history of Russian contemporary art, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika marks the beginning of the end of many political, economic and social constructions. It was then that the Soviet Artists’ Union started to lose its power of censorship over the production of art and exhibitions and the bans that had once kept contemporary art confined to the underground were finally lifted. “Here and now” became the imperative of those young artists who took upon themselves the task of defining what constitutes art against the ideological logic of Socialist Realism, which had long since lost all contact with reality.

Hindsight has shown that the ‘Champions of the World’ – Gia Abramishvili (b. 1966), Igor Zaydel (b. 1966), Konstantin Latyshev (b. 1966), Boris Matrosov (b. 1965), Andrey Yakhnin (b. 1966) and sometimes with collaborators – most notably Konstantin Zvezdochetov (b. 1958) – was a collective that played a leading role as contemporary art began to define its own identity in the years after perestroika. All this despite the fact the group only lasted from 1986 to 1988.

Most of its members had met at school, when they were still practically kids. They had been introduced to contemporary art by a physics teacher, who had shown one of their members samizdat [self-published] literature by Moscow nonconformists. They were wild kids, who came from the streets and not the Academy of Fine Arts, not even from the kitchen of a communal flat. As a group, they were inspired by the legendary criminal gang ‘Black Cat’, saw themselves as some sort of punk or rock band with interchangeable roles of making art instead of music and, rather importantly, were disrespectful of rules just like kids playing football in the street.

Their main activity was that of performance and among their best known actions were: an attempt to wash rocks in Crimea for the sake of hygiene; reading poems in the language of gypsies, while physically bound together; burying their works just to dig them up them some months later. They also made quite a few paintings – many sadly now lost or destroyed through neglect – and some objects. Whatever they did, it was in the name of art and they believed in this with a fervor, not at all religious, but they questioned the principles of what art is and what it is not. Their art was an attempt to build a new language, more suited to perestroika, using words invented by the Moscow nonconformists of previous generations. In some ways, their performances could be seen as an answer – with a degree of irony – to the Collective Actions’ performances made in the previous decade. And their objects and paintings were a challenge to the canons and rules that characterize Russian contemporary art. Their art was more about living the process of making art, rather than creating a product. It did not matter who in the group made what, because there was never a question of authorship. The process of making was always more important. Furthermore, contrary to the Moscow conceptual school, which built in a strategy of survival to their archival activities, the ‘Champions of the World’ did not keep records of their work. Those were not times for survival, rather those were times for living in the “here and now”. Fortuitously, some of the works which have remained today were literally saved from the rubbish bin after the artists had thrown them away. Thirty years later, this light-hearted approach has been quite a challenge for the curators of the Moscow exhibition, French collector of Russian art Paquita Escofet Miro, Russian art critic Evgenia Gershkovich and art historian Olga Turchina.

After about three years of rather intense activity, the ‘Champions of the World’ simply stopped working together as a group. Contemporary art was changing. It was – inevitably – about to be sucked into the laws and jaws of the global art market. It ended, because, as Boris Matrosov once put it, the artist had become “a poet sitting behind the checkout”.

World Champions

Moscow Museum of Modern Art

Moscow, Russia

December 15, 2021 – February 20, 2022

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