The descriptive language of modern art is somewhat impoverished, lacking a set of basic words - "project," for instance, is as if armless.
Essaian, too, calls what he is showing today a "project." We must introduce more precise clarifications. Most representatives of so-called "actual art" do indeed think projectively. That is, in projects. This is not a metaphor, it is a description of a certain intellectual procedure as a system of sequences: first the explication of a complex of ideas; then the search for an adequate visual form for translating these ideas externally.
Thus the actual artist lives from project to project. And he cannot do otherwise: all these mostly cerebral thought procedures call for total concentration. True, all other connections (they may be conventionally defined as biographical - that is, moments of personal evolution, states of the inner world, and other old-fashioned things) weaken. Incidentally, they also weaken because of the ways art essentially exists. The artist simply has no time,for his own biography; with each project, he inevitably gets caught up in the marathon of various biennales and documenta: actual art, like vengeance, is only good when hot. It can grow cold.
In the light of all that has been said above, Serge ESSAIAN is not at all an artist of the actual sort. He does not live from project to project, but all of a piece, seamlessly. He is not a marathon runner who covers stretch after stretch; on the contrary, he is a Sybarite. His life connections - biographical, as we have agreed to say - are extremely important for him: he lives his own life. And what he is showing this time is the condition of the experience of that life, so to speak, as of today, in the stretch between past and future. So that if the term "project" is applicable to Essaian's "case," it has a different meaning from the above-mentioned type of marathon runner of actual art: it is his life's project, an existential project.
It seems impossible to do without the history of the question. Of all Russian-born artists, ESSAIAN is, I think, the most deeply rooted in European tradition. And that at a certain stage and mode. Namely, in the new figurative art and the new intensity of spiritual and expressive quests associated primarily with the London School. To be sure, he also had "earlier" points of reference - in painting, I would mention Daumier; in sculpture his interests were generally "peripheral" - he clearly took a close look at Giacometti and Marino Marini. But for some reason it seems to me that the archaized and spiritualized anthropology of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud was precicesly the milieu in which the young emigre artist from Moscow with an Armenian last name and an inborn, familial involvement with Russian culture felt himself at home.
As I see it, much here, if not everything, suited Essaian. First of all, there was the autobiographic and psychotypic principle, probably expressed most strongly in the art of that time, the courage to thematize, among other things, one's own phobias and fixed ideas.
Of that time -1 remind you that it all happened a hundred years ago, that is, in the eighties. Most of the artists of Essaian's generation, those living in Russia and those who put down roots in the West, were then interested in something quite different: in social matters in their direct or indirect, conceptualized form; and then, or parallel to that, in language practices. Essaian, however, shows a serious interest in existentialism, then in post-structuralism. This interest lay at the basis not only of a quest for self-identification, but of the sphere of representation itself. Following the older "Londoners," he looks for a direct blood tie between perception and existence. And then for the forms of representation of such basic categories for post-structuralism (getting outside the framework of the structure) as the acgident, the event, the affect, the body. Hence his avid interest in the flesh, in all its deformations and metamorphoses, in which, incidentally, he was almost alone at that time. Who else among the Russian-born was so insistently occupied with embodying (in Russian this word has a more sensual, almost tactile, quality than the English term - the point being precisely flesh and not the body in general) such moments as the event of passion, affect, bodily repression?
There is another line that also belongs to the history of the question. At his exhibition in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg in 2002, ESSAIAN showed architectural-sculptural objects: the facades of model houses, images of some uniform urban environment (see the section "Other Houses" in the present publication). There was in them something of the archaic practice of making architectural scale models (which evidently survived into the computer age only in Russia), still more of stage design (which is natural, since ESSAIAN worked for many years as a theater artist and director). The result was an effect of drawing in, of some sort of emotional funnel: the model as a project for living quarters presupposed a sort of trying on of future life; the scenicality promised an event, an intrigue . . . The small figures that inhabited the objects emerged as some sort of signs, if not of a drama, then of a possible drama - if worse comes to worst, of a classic English detective story.
The experience of living his life at its present stage includes these two lines of development quite organically - as has already been said, the artist lives all of a piece, seamlessly. The accents may shift: previously he was interested in situationism, affect, event, less often in typology. Now he is drawn to certain universals . . .
ESSAIAN builds (essentially fabricates) a very individual, authorial, personalistic house - a house in Essaiandom. At the same time, it is a universal house. Hence its cruciform plan: what can be more universal than the experience of sacred architecture? Hence its programmatic polyfunctionality. Before turning to the option of "a choice of functions," I will note a most important peculiarity of the house. Above the basic volume rises a monumental rectangular construction that looks like a cour d'honneur stood on end. This construction, by virtue of its demonstrativeness and declarativeness, literally cries out for interpretation. It is hard not to respond, but for the time being I will choose what is, in my view, the chief function. Chief, but paradoxical. And, of course, symbolic - though who knows...? It is the function of a handle. A person takes hold of this handle and places the house wherever he likes. The house is outside all topoi; it can settle anywhere. A manifestation of universality. (This reminds me of Beuys's suitcases - he also carried everything he had with him.)
Beyond that, take any interpretation, utilitarian or quite offhand. Naturally, they are there in Essaian. Some one of the classics, I believe it was Vladimir Nabokov, compared a street to an English novel: church, post office, hospital, cemetery. ESSAIAN offers us the choice of a house as a dwelling place, a factory, an army barracks, a phalanstery, a prison. Prison is the most expressive and persuasive possibility: the superstructure immediately acquires a utilitarian meaning, reminding us of a prison watchtower, the "Panopticon" (all-seeing, all-observing) of an eighteenth-century architectural project. ESSAIAN populates his prison with his own people. His own, because they come from the period of his interest in social anthropology, the articulation of various kinds of bodily repression (greetings M. Foucault!). These inmates, naturally, go back to Van Gogh's, but this is not a quotation or an appropriation, it is, so to speak, a prison roll call.
It is curious that, for all the variety of its functions, the basic constructive particularities of the house do not change. A house in Essiandom is not a transformer, it is a single body repeatedly trying on new possibilities of functioning and ways of existing.
Gradually, however, a new theme emerges. This is the theme of the frame, of framing. Most likely it goes back to specific architectural impressions. Before all, I think, to impressions of post-Stalinist triumphal architecture, which was able to create truly inhuman, cyclopian viewing situations: archways and openings giving directly onto the transcendent. However, perhaps we should not omit La Defense here . . .
One way or another, the idea emerges of the same universal viewing situation: a framed piece of reality is different from an unarticulated, wild, simple one. The house gives this point of reference: the notorious rectangular superstructure now becomes first of all a frame, and ESSAIAN begins to paint a universal landscape "for this frame." Of course, this landscape cannot be universal in its content, so to speak; what can be universal is the aim itself, the impression. And ESSAIAN paints versions of this impressionistic landscape, articulating just this moment in the temporal regime of painting which is able to "keep pace" with impressions. This is a standard postmodernist situation: the language, the instrument of expression, is appropriated. However, within this situation, the artist acts in a non-post-modernist way: unforgivably unironic, unreflexive, lawlessly enjoying the very process of painting. In short, an excess of the performer . . . And maybe precisely because of this reaction, the image acquires a new dimension. The point now is not so much the frame as the framing-in - the framing-in of life in the most existential sense.
Someone must live in this house, look into this frame, experience the finality of existence . . . Thus the fourth component of one composition emerges - "The Seated Man." However, the "sitter" is incapable of all this, for he is fettered, unfree, fixated, as they say in psychiatric clinics. ESSAIAN radicalizes his old theme of bodily repression as event. The man is nailed down, stapled to the chair, in the most literal sense of the word - in one of the drawings the back of the chair goes through his ears like a staple.
What is the result? A disjointing, a loss of balance, lying outside the normal conceptual project? Because each of its four components exists within its own regime . . . Especially the "sitting man," who, in accordance with the logic of the project's development, can by no means rise to the occasion . . .
Again I repeat - this is not a project. It is the projection of the artist ESSAIAN living his own life, the state of the experience of that living, so to speak, as of today. And the state of that experience, in its wisdom and sadness, tells us: it is precisely the "nailed-down man," feeling pain and pressure, who is capable of fully realizing the destiny of living in this house, of looking into this frame, of experiencing the finality of existence . . .
translated from Russian by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear