Malyshki 18:22. 12 Magical Stories in the Underground. Installation. Photo: Mikhail Grebenshchikov © Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

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Russian artist duo ‘Malyshki 18:22’ and beauty vandalism

A fraternal double act from Siberia called ‘Malyshki 18:22’ has recently unveiled an installation in the library at the Garage museum in Moscow which invites us to reflect on the machismo culture of Russian contemporary art of the 1990s.

Back in February of this year the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow announced there would be no further exhibitions at the museum for the forseeable future. Those which had already been scheduled were cancelled or rescheduled in edited form in other art spaces, such as Anne Imhof’s total installation ‘Youth’ project which was opened six months later in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. The Garage has however carried on with other activities, notably in the field of publishing where several new books written by Russian academics and researchers have appeared this year, as well as their popular workshops for young artists.

Then there was the uptake of an idea first explored six years ago when selected artists were invited to take works of art or personal objects by other artists from the museum's archive and create a work based on them. This programme, called the Garage Archive Commissions, led to the exhibition in 2017 'Towards the Source' and included a project by Olga Chernysheva (b. 1962), who had found inspiration in the letters of artist Lev Snegirev (b. 1931).

At the end of October, Malyshki 18:22’s show called ‘Twelve Magical Stories in the Underground’ took place as part of this programme. The duo was founded in 2018 by two sisters Nika Sarycheva (b. 1999) and Aksinya Sarycheva (b. 1990). They created an installation curated by Ekaterina Savchenko in the Garage library, which was inspired by video documentaries of performances in the museum’s archive by the Siberian and Ural artists Dmitry Bulnygin (b. 1965), Maxim Zonov (1966-2022), Vyacheslav Mizin (b. 1962), Konstantin Skotnikov (b. 1958) and Alexander Shaburov (b. 1965). In the 1990s, they did a performance in a bunker in Novosibirsk, where they hung out together and worked. Later, some of them formed the group ‘The Blue Noses’, which post facto appropriated projects they had created earlier. The performance video is called ‘Blue Noses. Fourteen Performances in a Bunker’. For five and a half minutes the artists frolic around, they make rude jokes, throw mud, figh, imitate sexual acts and even conduct capital executions of tea bags.

Today exhibition-goers, especially those among younger generations, may find such overtly masculine projects rather shocking. Malyshki 18:22, represent what one identifies as Siberian art as they come from Tomsk. They work with a strong feminist voice, and they decided to address their male predecessors and translate part of their local heritage into what they see as contemporary language. Where artists of the 1990s flaunted masculine brutality, Malyshki 18:22 use a method which they term ‘beauty vandalism’. That is, ‘interventions in space with which to mark the imperfections of the world by ‘decorating’ it....a feminine method, it is very gentle it goes by way of insinuation, it is not self absorbed. There is no hierarchy, only horizontal interaction and gentle resistance to the imperfections of reality.’ That was how Nika Sarycheva explained the nature of the technique in an interview with the Russian magazine ‘Dialogue of Art’. They decorate filthy walls with rhinestones, paint rocks pink in the street, paint hearts, walk in high heels or use a magic wand to change reality, as if in some cartoon series about witches. They are always laughing and having fun. The artists play with a ‘girly’ aesthetic in a deliberately hyper-trophied way. The project ‘Twelve Magical Stories in the Underground’ consists of a video of the same name with many objects scattered around a room, which appear in the stories.

Early on in their career Malyshki 18:22 was actively working in Tomsk. As well as being a street-based beat and vandalism group, they were behind the creation of an independent art space in an abandoned building, also called the anarchogallery: ‘ars kotelnaya’ (translated into English as the ‘artsy boiler room’). The space existed from 2018 to 2021 and was broken up by the local authorities. In 2020, the Sarychevs set up an apartment gallery called Malen’kaya (Little), in their bedroom, and it is still in operation today.

Later ‘Malyshki 18:22’ broadened their scope of geographical influence and became active in neighbouring Siberian cities; in 2019, they took part in two exhibitions in Novosibirsk in one of a number of underground ‘garage shows’ (which actually took place in a garage belonging to artist Alexey Grishchenko) and in the ‘New Materiality’ project within the Russian-German Festival ‘48 Hours Novosibirsk’.

In the spring of 2022, the project ‘Break Your Heart into a Piece of Cake’ opened at the Antonov Gallery in St Petersburg. In their own words it was ‘a compulsive exhibition about methods of absorption’. The conundrum in the title (you can't break something into one slice, only many) calls forth the kind of absurdity to which female artists appeal as evoking our human condition. The world is full of horror, but it is always mixed in with something else, sometimes it is neutral, but sometimes it is comic. Maybe that is why one of the centrepieces in the exhibition was a ceramic cake with sinister tentacles spilling out of it. Put together these elements are more playful than frightening. Another piece that immediately attracted attention was a table which seemed to have survived a dinner which ended in some awful event. The tablecloth was torn in half, blood-red wine was spilled, and there were traces of purple lipstick on the glasses, wilted flowers in vases, and mould on food scraps that hinted at the decay of all things.

At the same exhibition the Sarychev sisters put Pushkin's white head with his lips painted in bright lipstick, among plaster fragments. This was a reference to an action in 2021, when they did the same with a monument in their hometown of Tomsk. The event sent shockwaves through the local internet and urban media. The artists were accused of everything from ‘propaganda of unconventional values’ to creating ‘degenerate art’, but the police limited their charges to ‘defacing a monument’.

Nika and Aksinya Sarycheva often say that pink, their favourite colour, is produced by diluting water with a thick red substance, which could be blood. Behind a façade of rhinestones, cartoons and girlish aesthetics lies an abyss. It's just that ‘Malyshki 18:22’ points to the surrounding catastrophes in a relatively humane way.

Malyshki 18:22. 12 Magical Stories in the Underground

Garage Museum Library

Moscow, Russia

October 31, 2022 – end date to be announced

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