top of page

Serge Essaian

A typified contemporary urbanistic environment: standardly functionalized, technological, sterile as a model - not a speck of dust. White panels - the walls of an apartment building, a simple rhythm of closed window apertures, a "habitation factory" in its modern execution, and only that. In this representa­tion of the mode of standardization and modelization one subconsciously seeks some hoax. What has Essaian got up his sleeve this time? What is this, in fact - an architectural maquette? Perhaps. In this ves­tigial genre, with all its auxiliariness, there lives a childishly naive game of adult - that is, of real - life: how will it all be "in reality," how will the tenants make their home in it, what will they do, what will keep them going? Essentially, it is for the sake of this illusion - the game of making oneself at home with the possibility of an almost tactile palpation of future life - that the architectural maquette is preserved in the computer age. However, architectural maquettes are made nowadays for particular, unique objects, which call for specific methods of attracting, of luring customers. While here there are no special effects - everything is markedly standard and mono­tonous. One naturally sees a certain deliberateness in this: since it was worth the fuss of sawing up and cut­ting out these styrofoam panels, it means there was some reason for all this toil. It looks like something close to a theater maquette. And it is correspondingly pregnant with action, or, more precisely, the expecta­tion of action. Then its "minimalism" becomes understandable. As the experience of the contempora­ry theater teaches: the more ascetic and functional the scenic space, the more inevitable the intensity of the action. And in "Essaian's case" scenographic associa­tions are wholly appropriate: he gave many years to the theater, worked with Ingmar Bergman, was a director himself. And yet the whole sequence of my deductions is only an approach to the phenomenon of the artist's latest installations. In contemporary art-practice there exists the notion of the "culture of dis­play," of demonstration, and that with a tinge of dan­dyism, of maestria. The architectural-spatial situa­tions created by Essaian have qualities that might be defined as the "power of display," the power of the created situation of display. This situation, of course, works on a condition of no little importance: that one has something to display. Meaning that there is at least a bit of power and pithiness in the artist's poe­tics. Only then does the hard-to-interpret "stagey" category begin to bear a meaning- and form-shaping character.
Essaian has something to display.
The environmental situation he creates begins to work for the image.
The image of what?
A small, expressively modeled figure stands fixed in one of the windows.
Earlier Essaian was occupied with pure plasticity. The little figures made use of in these latest installa­tions constitute something like an archive of his pre­vious images in their corporeality and physical being. The body in its hand-worked, tactile essence remains the mode of his characters' existence. But, as it turns out, this is not enough. It is necessary to include this corporeality in certain other processes -social, quotidian, existential. And here the scenogra-phic memory comes in handy: the ability to organize action in its objective spatial-temporal expression. The created environment is the condition for inclu­ding "pure plasticity" (corporeality) in the most diverse processes and ceremonials. In other words, this inclusion is given the character of an event. These events are many-layered. The first layer is that most current of motifs in contemporary art: the "view." Michel Foucault, who was a sort of mentor for several generations of current artists, persistently studied the socio-cultural and aesthetic symbolism of vision, beginning from the sixties with his Histoire de lafolie a I 'age classique and continuing to the end of his days. However, for a long time situations of viewing, filled with various meanings, have been specially created by art and, consequently, have been subject to reflection. Modern art had already thema-tized "vision," among other things, as "peeping" -this moment can be clearly read in Gustave Courbet's "Origine du monde " and, in an articulated and spe­cially orchestrated form (by the creation of a special installation, the first of its kind in practice, imitating the real situation of peeping through the crack of a door), in the Etant donnes of Marcel Duchamp in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Since then, the thema-tization of "peeping" has become widespread. Thus, Kara Walk's trademark is precisely the motif of "intrusion into private life," a sort of voyeurism, observing the silhouettes of the inhabitants in apart­ment house windows.
It looks as though there are similar things in Essaian's works - a monotonous row of windows and a personage in one of them: who is he if not the observer, the peeper? True, all the other windows are closed, and closed substantially, with some sort of blinds. Well, so much the keener is the realization of the function of peeping - it is inevitable, it is as if expected, anticipated... Or maybe the personage, with his grotesquely broken silhouette and helplessly crossed arms, is himself the victim of observation? The other windows are closed; it's handier to peep from behind the blinds... This turn of affairs - the observer becoming the object of observation - is a typical method of the "advanced" English detective story... However, Essaian, with his experience of being formed in the mainstream of classical Russian culture, is hardly interested in the "situational" cross-section...
The trail here is not a detective's. The trail here is existential. Essentially, it is here that the deeper layers of the image begin. Perhaps closest to the problema­tics of this cycle is Vladislav Khodasevich's tragic poem of 1924, "Windows on the Courtyard," constructed as a series of sketches of everyday situa­tions, which in the general context acquire a piercing actuality:

A wretched fool in the courtyard well
Has been lamenting today since morning.
And I haven't got a shoe to spare
So that I could throw it at the fool.
An unshaven old man moves the bed
And carefully hammers in a nail,
But today the visitor climbing the stairs
Will come in time to hinder him.
A worker lies on a bed among flowers,
Glasses on the table, pennies on his eyes,
Jaw bound, palm laid over palm.
Today into ice and tomorrow into fire.
Water squealed in the depths of the wall:
It must find it hard to run through pipes,
Always confined and always in the dark,
In such darkness and in such confinement!


Observing the life in the neighboring house, the poet observes himself and all his phobias with the sober objectivity of a diagnostician: the acute anguish of everyday life, the rupture of communication, the fear of the finiteness of human existence. Essaian's perso­nage - the angularly expressive modeling seems to confirm his status as a mobile, restless, receptive person - is ready to observe the surrounding world. He is also ready to be the object of observation on the part of this world, externalized by the urbanistic environ­ment. Both of these processes are "put on stage," arti­culated by means of "display" (let us remember the meaningful term "stagey"). The ceremonial of pas­sing time (the business of living one's life), owing to this "directed optics," becomes charged with events. The event of solitude... The event of the search for contact (any contact - mutual, one-sided, accidental, or marked by mutual presence). The event of the impossibility of contact... The event of withdrawal into oneself, autism... A sort of "politics of the repre­sentation of the body," to speak in today's art-critical argot...
Yes, Essaian has something to display on the stage of his installations.
He appears to me as an artist deeply rooted in the tra­dition of European modernism. And in a certain stage and degree of it at that. Namely, the new figurative-ness and the new intensity of spiritual-expressive see­king connected first of all with the London school. Of course, he also has "earlier" reference points - among painters I would count Daumier, among sculptors Giacometti. But it seems to me for some reason that the archaized and spiritualized figurativeness of Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, and Lucien Freud was precisely the milieu in which the young artist - an emigrant from Moscow with an Armenian family name and an inherited, familial share in Russian culture - felt himself at home. Essaian, as it seems to me, found much here that sui­ted him, if not all. First, a serious interest in existen­tialism, lying at the basis not only of the search for self-identification, but also of a seeking within the sphere of representation itself. The "Londoners" did not simply borrow the words risk, passion, cruelty, wildness, hopelessness from the vocabulary of the existentialists, they found painterly plastic analogies for them. The most direct blood tie was established between perception and existence - hence the greedy interest in the deformations and metamorphoses of the flesh. Of course, there were also other points of coincidence. Especially impressive, for instance, was their understanding of the canvas as a stage, an arena (let us recall the above-described work on "display" in the artist's latest installations): Michel Leiris, an investigator of Francis Bacon's work, maintained that for him a painting was an operating theater. Even the behavioral and social pattern suited Essaian - the "Londoners" cultivated the status of wanderers, out­casts, "diasporists" (a term especially invented by R. B. Kitaj) - and what else could he be at that time? To sum up, I will say: the "grafting" of the artist's art-practice onto the tree of the tradition described above, which occurred at the right time and the right place, allowed Essaian to be guided - and that in a period ruled by "cerebral," conceptualized art - by the "logic of sensation" (as Gilles Deleuze called his book on Francis Bacon).
This logic allows the artist to go beyond the frame­work of "figure," "subject," "concept." More precise­ly, to convey a certain synthetic, albeit archaically unarticulated and unreflexive, proto-sensation or proto-feeling "through" all the components of the image's realization. Thus, in the series of portrayals of naked male figures with uplifted arms, this pervasive proto-sensation appears as the triumph of the victo­rious sexual principle. It is realized not only, so to speak, mimetically, "figuratively," but also tactilely, visually, and even, audio-visually (being a sort of shout of the triumphant flesh). While everything is subordinated to the "event of passion" in these works, in another series, which could conditionally be called "Under the Lamp," there is the triumph of the logic of despair, hopelessness, the rupture of communication. Two naked figures in a closed space under an agressi-vely enormous lamp (a shower-head?). A seated woman. Two male figures walking in a circle. What is it - a Soviet prison? Hitler's "final solution"? Some inhuman experiment in which people serve as guinea-pigs? Or more simply an image of repressive space, a visual metaphor for passages from Michel Foucault? Everything is possible: follow, with the artist, the logic of sensations. It will not let you down. In the artist's sculptural works, the logic of sensations simi­larly conducts its own game - often exploding, or at least loosening up, a perfectly respectable and even necessary cultural layer (in Essaian's case it is Giacometti and Marino Marini). Not only cultural associations, but the very logic of form (whatever you call it: plasticity, "anatomy," figurativeness), its madeness, its styledness, are under threat. Thus, in the numerous "Heads," the articulated moment of pal­pating, picking, breaking off, compressing, in a vir­tuoso realization of modeling and casting, cleans the plate of this very logic. It seems as though the heads look, breathe and speak by means of this new tactili-ty - in grooves, scars, folds. Precisely "through" them the event of transformation proclaims itself. There is something of the sort in the large sculpture of a man with a raised leg. From a certain angle it is not a leg at all, but a phallus. Man striding? Man desiring? The logic of sensation suggests the second. Plastic anato­my takes a rest.
Serge Essaian, as we see, is no stranger to escapades in which a certain carnivorous vision and mischie­vous execution are manifest. As a whole, this articu­lated sensuality is a companion to dramatism. It can­not be otherwise: the artist deals with flesh that is transformed traumatized, frightened by the sense of existential finality.
However, dramatism is not pessimism. In certain parts of the installation with urbanistic environment (of which we spoke at the beginning), Essaian's sculp­tural personage does not hover in the window, pee­ping or displaying himself for review. He rushes ener­getically for the entrance. And though this is simply a dark doorway, a motif is inevitably called up in our memories connected with a series of not unimportant names, from Ghiberti to Manzu. Yes, yes. The gates. In our case, not the "Gates of Paradise," of course. But all the same, all the same...


Alexander Borovsky

translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky


bottom of page