Artists 21-11-2016

How the underground proved that Lenin was a mushroom — audiovisual actions in Eastern Europe 1968-1994

As hard as it is to believe, in 1991 musician Sergey Kuryokhin and reporter Sergey Sholokhov managed to broadcast on what was then known as “Leningrad Television” a documentary entitled Lenin Was a Mushroom — a highly influential hoax narrating the story of Vladimir Lenin’s alleged transformation into a mushroom following a heavy use of psychedelic substances.

This anecdote is pulled from the exhibition “Notes From the Underground. Art and Alternative Music in Eastern Europe 1968-1994”, at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland, running until January 15, 2017, continuing the discourse that curators Daniel Muzyczuk and David Crowley had inaugurated with the 2013 show “Sounding the Body Electric. Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984”.

Whilst the idea of “the underground” is commonly connected to alternative culture, independence and the breaking of social taboos, with this exhibition, Muzyczuk gives it an extra dimension. In one of the exhibition catalogues, he argues that most of the non-official practices in URSS were not supposed to be against state authorities, but artists purposefully avoided official channels in order to create elusive, unanalyzable and incorruptible forms of outsider art where spontaneous initiatives played a major role.

exhibition view


Between 1968 and 1994, performances and exhibitions were taking place in private houses, in the countryside, in students’ clubs or in abandoned chapels. In the 80s, the group Nowyje Kompozitory (The New Composers) took over The Society of Friends of Science Fiction in Leningrad’s Auditorium, where USSR’s first rave club later opened. Spaces like this were the launch pad for groups such as Aktual Group, who mocked the official language of The Party with their shrill, drill sounds, or Katalin Ladik,  who presented their phono-poetry,  or else Hardijs Ledniš, giving his “disco-lectures”.

Whilst the term “Eastern Europe” may seem to suggest that the exhibition is built around a dialectic between Eastern and Western Europe, Muzyczuk and Crowley focused more on what the artists living in the Eastern area had in common and on the experiences and peculiar networks they created, as well as on the two major themes they had in common: improvisation and primitivism.

“Need is the mother of invention”: this Polish proverb speaks volumes about the ways these artists worked. Marek Rogulski, for example, constructed his own saxophone, whilst other artists created new instruments, including the “utiugon”, made of scrap-metal and wood from a kitchen table. Vinyl records were crafted from waste materials.
Samizdat — the clandestine distribution of literature and publications banned by the state — was also born at this time to fulfil the need for independent information and for a freer cultural flow. Improvisation didn’t only inform the production of materials, but was very present in jazz and punk music, which became the soundtrack of  those by the system — who, very often, ended up in jail, especially in the German Democratic Republic.

exhibition view

Muzyczuk and Crowley try to answer questions surrounding the emergence of this amateur culture, asking themselves why artists went back to the notion of primitivism. On the one hand, the lack of materials translated, among others, into a desire for free-self-expression. On the other, as the curators of the exhibition have stressed,  there is an additional, ideological reason behind the return to primitivism, which artists saw as an alternative to the brutally logical system behind the governments of the countries of the Eastern European bloc. Artists such as Ziemia Mindel Würm took this literally with their ritual performances, whilst others, reappropriated the discourses of the authority through the process of “overidentification” as defined by philosopher Slavoj Žižek. This is evident in songs like “I love you and Lenin” (Miluju tebe a Lenina) by Aktual group, reflecting the absurd reality of Eastern Europe through a representation of the absurd in art.

All these artists operated on a number of different levels, engaging with a range of sentiments and medias, causing the line between sound and visual to blur. By presenting an impressive variety of artworks and documents, the exhibition “Notes from the underground” not only tells the story of artistic expression under a complex political situation, but also offers new approaches to Eastern European art, revealing previously hidden phenomena.

Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź
« Notes From the Underground. Art and Alternative Music in Eastern Europe 1968-1994 »
Until January 15, 2017.
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