Alexei Politov and Marina Belova. The Machinery of Spectacle. View of the exhibition. ''Magic Lantern'' Hall, 2022. Courtesy Moscow Museum of Modern Art

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Carnival in the shadows: the not-so-playful art of Marina Belova and Alexei Politov

The Russian artist duo which came to existence 25 years ago have unveiled a retrospective exhibition at the Moscow Museum of Modern art.

Two artists Alexei Politov (b. 1966) and Marina Belova (b. 1958) are known for their versatility and they never cease to surprise. Inventive kinetic sculptures, shadow installations with an intricate play of light and dark, drawings and paper cut-outs with witty inscriptions, these are just some of the main paths which make up their idiosyncratic artistic journey. Then there are the occasional forays into the domains of land art, video and performance. None of the pair ever acquired any formal higher artistic education. Alexei attended an art school as a child and trained as an art historian, while Marina studied medicine. The two met in 1997, during the heyday of the rave culture in Moscow and started to work together, decorating night clubs for parties. Today, reminiscing together about the 1990s they see it as almost a Golden Age for art and artists. They remember a “warmer, more soulful” atmosphere back then. “There was a constant exchange of synergies, and nobody cared about money”, Belova and Politov exclaim almost in unison. “Every exhibition opening was a festive occasion, there were fewer of them than now”.

Their tandem is one of the most long lived and productive artist duos on the Moscow art scene today. “Collaboration is a good thing”, Alexei jokes, “because there’s half the responsibility and twice as much productivity”. Marina adds, “Our temperaments are very different. He’s a creature of air, always brimming with ideas while I am more down-to-earth, so I immediately start thinking how to bring them to life.”. It seems to me that there is a common sense of humour uniting them. Their artworks enjoy a whimsical, light-hearted spirit that is very rare in Russian contemporary art. “We are not serious people at all, but we take our work very seriously”, Marina says with sudden gravity. Art historian Sergei Khachaturov who curated their show at MMOMA called “The Machinery of Spectacle” (until the 3rd of July) maintains that their art is deeply rooted in ‘low’ culture, the visual language of a carnival, a village fair tent. “They turn to different stages of art history, from pre-historic petroglyphs, classical antiquity and baroque to contemporary comics and zines and interpret all this in a parodic manner”, he noted at the exhibition opening. Even before the pair came together Alexei Politov was interested in lubok, traditional Russian folk prints. He became part of an informal group of artists who made ‘contemporary luboks’, prints and drawings with crude, deliberately naïve images accompanied by short humorous or absurd texts.

The past project ‘Art of the Future’, (2003) re-created in a museum hall, was a kiosk shaped as an alien spaceship, where Marina, dressed as a Soviet saleswoman served shots of vodka to the visitors of Art Klyazma, a land art festival on the outskirts of Moscow. The event was launched by the artist Vladimir Dubossarsky (b. 1964). Alexei impersonated a porter, hailing crates of liquor with custom-designed labels. There were dozens of different brands of vodka on offer, each one named after an artist, curator or art critic. Today, the installation based on this historical performance creates a feeling of nostalgia, as many of the people whose faces are on the labels of the bottles are no longer alive.

Belova and Politov look at the history of art with a clever, irreverent eye. One of the exhibition’s highlights is Rodin’s Thinker which has been turned into a vomiting fountain, with a thin jet of water erupting from its mouth. Once, the couple turned images taken from paintings by Rembrandt into a sort of a shadow theatre, where moving lights created the illusion of motion. This project, the pair’s first large-scale artwork based on shadows, was shown at the Moscow House of Photography, one of the city’s major museums since than re-branded as Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow. Even apparently innocent folk-style pictures have a hidden other side. Large-scale paintings in red and white from the series ‘Magic Pictures’ turn into explicit erotic scenes when viewed through red-and-blue glasses.

Amusing and playful as they are it is true there is a darker side to their art. Their subject-matter is often ambiguous. There are playful angels at a village fair with amputated legs, or the shadowy figure of an artist standing at his easel on railway tracks and busy painting unaware of the on-coming train. “This installation is about the risks of being an artist”, Marina explains. By ominous coincidence, Alexei broke his leg not long after it was finished. Stuck at home resting his leg he came up with the idea of a ‘shadow film’ where moving silhouettes of people were filmed through a white screen. The filming turned out to be huge fun for the whole family and the video eventually made its way into the Moscow Biennale of Photography. Their current retrospective has a therapeutic, uplifting effect, like a breath of fresh air in a suffocating atmosphere of gloom and doom. Yet, some of the graphic works on display have an eerie resonance with today’s mood. Such as a kinetic installation in the very last hall of the show, where shadows of Big Ben and a Kremlin tower are shaking from side to side and the Statue of Liberty waves its torch under a skull with a condescending grin. As Khachaturov puts it, “In the oeuvre of serious artists, nothing is ‘unserious’”.

Marina Belova and Alexei Politov. The Machinery of Spectacle

Moscow Museum of Modern Art

April 21 – July 3, 2022

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