Between “comrades” and "fags"
Jānis Borgs, Art Critic
Kinetic artist Vyacheslav Koleichuk and his era
This time Vyacheslav Koleichuk (b. 1941) turned up in Rīga on a dusky day in December of last year. It should be mentioned that for Moscow artist Koleichuk, it was his first visit to post-Soviet EuroLatvia since his 1983 solo exhibition at the then Soviet-contemporary art venue nicknamed Dieva auss [‘God’s Ear’], which in atheistic nonchalance was located in the spacious body of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity on the Esplanade. To look at – a seemingly simple Russian fellow, but instructively confirming the old adage yet again: don’t judge a man by his hat. Standing modestly under this hat was a middle-aged and well-educated intellectual with the status of being a classic and a “legendary star”. Professor, architect, designer, outstanding art theoretician, award winner, veteran of about 70 large international exhibitions... It’s true, despite this no-one was waiting for him here, as they would for some glossy ‘New Wave’(1) celebrity, say, a Pugacheva or a Kirkorov... However, this particular man is renowned as one of the founders and big names of Russian kinetic art. However much elsewhere in Latvia the glam waves of Russian pop have been surging in year upon year, he too enjoyed quite considerable enthusiasm, limited though to a much narrower circle of experts and gourmands of modernism, who this time gathered at the Contemporary Art Centre in Alberta iela. I can confirm – it was right here that an average winter’s evening was warmed by the most intellectual flame of Russian culture.
Vyacheslav Koleichuk. Spatial Sphere-Hieroglyph. Self-strained structure. 2001
Photo from the private archive of Vyacheslav Koleichuk
A squabble at the Manezh
For younger practitioners of the arts, Vyacheslav Koleichuk’s name and the glory years of his activities may be little known. That’s why these lines of text, perhaps, will seek to redress the balance somewhat. Koleichuk can be acknowledged as one of the brightest and most successful representatives of the second wave of Russian avantgarde art (after the first upsurges in the 1910s-30s). His finest hour was associated with the beginning of the renaissance of Soviet modernism, which really came to a head in the tragic-comic and at the same time “volcanic” 1960s, which in turn grew out of the post-Stalin Thaw of the 1950s. The rebirth of modernism in the USSR became possible due to the slackening of ideological strictures and to a partial reopening of cultural “ventilation shafts” on the Western side of the communist monolith. The refreshing ideas flowing in through these gaps allowed the shoots of “formalistic” art to flourish quite healthily, mainly in large centres like Moscow or Leningrad.

The most diverse representatives of various “isms”, which had up till then had been taboo, appeared on the Russian art arena in great numbers. Their activities and work sparked a growing fear among the conservatives in the Communist Party, for whom the spectre of an unacceptable retreat from the sacred “principles of social realism” and an outright “cultural counterrevolution” began to loom. That’s why for the Soviet art innovators the enjoyment of creative freedom, high hopes for a humanized and liberal socialism was brief, and was cut short on 1 December, 1962. On this date the 30 Year Anniversary Exhibition of the local branch of the Union of Artists which took place at the Moscow Manezh [Drill Hall] was visited by the leader of the nation and party, “our dear” Nikita Sergeyevich Khruschev himself, accompanied by the USSR Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furceva and other CPSU Politburo bosses. Observing the works of Russian modernists represented in abundance at the exhibition, Nikita “went ballistic” and decided to show these young hooligans “Кузькина мать” or Kuzka’s mother(2): “This kind of “art” is alien to our people, they reject it. Look, this is what these folk who call themselves artists should think about. Here they are making all kinds of “pictures”, you have to wonder if they’d been painted by human hand or smeared by the tail of a donkey. They need to understand the error of their ways and to work for the good of the people...”. And in order to reinforce his artistic revelations and thoughts more expressively, the Leader furiously reviled all modernists pidorasi [‘fags’].

Thereafter a bleak period ensued for followers of “alternative art” as, in tandem with the “master’s” anger, an ambitious and completely grotesque, long-lasting Soviet Union-wide campaign, fighting for ideological purification and against “formalists” and abstractionists of all kinds in all areas of art and culture, began in 1963. The big brainwashing commenced. Needless to say that the Soviet people referred to in the ideologues’ argumentation, “who own the art and who are served by the artists”, had in fact no idea about the criticized authors and the directions they were following. But – the era dictates the style. When, for example, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for ‘Doctor Zhivago’, published in Italy, the powers that be construed this as dishonourable anti-Soviet provocation. Even here “the entire Soviet nation” protested. At meetings, the speeches of workers, kolkhoz workers and the “Soviet intelligentsia” railed against the writer with the standard introductory phrase: “Although I myself haven’t read ‘Doctor Zhivago‘…(logically, as it hadn’t even been released in the USSR, JS), I ardently condemn this grubby text...”

The evolution of a new kineticist

So that was the hypocritical background of public life, which former country boy and officer’s son Vyacheslav Koleichuk from the Stepanceva village near Moscow, now an energetic and stylish twenty year old big city lad, had to contend with. Koleichuk completed studies at the Moscow Institute for Architecture and began to scale the heights of new art in the Soviet metropolis. Possibly it was precisely this fact – his belonging to the world of architecture and engineering, with its characteristic exactness (mathematical logic and thinking) – that played a decisive role in the budding artist’s destiny and achievements. He didn’t start on the continually distrusted and provocative path of expressionist art, he didn’t venture into the morass of ideology, and avoided literary messages in his art... Life directed the young achiever along the channel of beautiful and elegant technocratic abstraction. He was acceptable to just about everybody, as the perfection of geometry and mathematics couldn’t be argued against with any kind of ideological argument, although many “uncultivated” viewers often considered such kinetic objects to be a kind of circus art. There was a reason why later, in 1986, Mosfilm cinema director Georgy Danelya thought of Koleichuk when shooting his film ‘Kin-dza-dza’ and invited him to create “Martian-like” devices – a tranklikator and a gravicap(2), the “semiotics” of which indirectly originate from kinetics.
Vyacheslav Koleichuk's studio
Photo from the private archive of Vyacheslav Koleichuk
During the Thaw or liberalization period after 1956, a huge interest in the experience of Russian and Soviet avant-garde art from 1910–1930s was awakened among intellectual circles. The art of those authors who had been proclaimed as “enemies of the people” in Stalin’s purgatory, with its taste of having been very recently strictly “forbidden fruit”, was attractive. The greats of the Bolshevik revolution years, now legalized, but still very “suspect” – Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Gustavs Klutsis, El Lissitzky, were discovered anew. And towering above them all, the mighty Elbrus(3) of art – Kazimir Malevich. These men represented an era when Russian art, perhaps for the one and only time, moved to the forefront and led the world. For many artists of the Thaw period, the new discoveries in Futurist, Suprematist and Constructivist art were inspiring and invited further innovative achievement. Koleichuk wasn’t the only one who, immersed in the depths of these ideas infused with revolutionary high emotion and romanticism. Malevich and the Constructivists along with the ideas of the Bauhaus movement fertilized the new Russian art, or to be more accurate – one of its rationally thinking flanks. In this way the Soviet school of kineticism developed in the 1960s.

Kinetic art ideas in the West, in parallel with the practices of the Soviet Russian avant-garde, were already known since the First World War, when Marcel Duchamp and his confederates the Dadaists introduced them with their ready-made objects. They tried to add to the expressiveness of art with motion, either direct or sometimes – illusory, in the work as a whole or just in individual elements. The motion manifested itself as the symbol and challenge of a technical, motorized and scientific era. Dynamism was assigned significant ideological meaning, symbolizing social progress. The Italian futuristic Fascists (by the way Il Duce’s Blackshirts, in expressing the idea of dynamic progress, would demonstratively move about at a trot), the repudiators of the old “bourgeois world”, Russian communists obsessed with the idea of building a new world, Western functionalists – both liberal democrat and those inspired by socialist concepts, and representatives of the Bauhaus school, all responded to this equally passionately.

Constructivist ideas, as well as an architect’s and designer’s way of thinking, naturally drew Koleichuk to rational art forms, which surprised many with their engineer-like wit as well as the brilliant beauty of their technical aesthetic. Koleichuk gradually developed a whole series of new artistic and technical concepts in the field of kinetic constructive sculpture, environmental objects and performance. Among these one should mention the “self-tightening” and “self-raising” constructions of steel cables, pipes and other elements, the “high-tension completenesses”, as being the most significant. Their expressiveness corresponded with 1920s Soviet Constructivist works, as well as, from more recent times, objects by international kinetic and geometric abstraction and construction master Nicolas Scheffer, engineer – architect Buckminster Fuller, and most of all – Kenneth Snelson. Koleichuk’s works had the capacity to surprise viewers with their apparent impossibility (очевидное – невероятное). The object Standing Thread for example, was like this: a vertically tightened string fixed to the base at only the one point. With their “unearthly” character, Koleichuk’s works such as this were able to create “hypnotic trance” effects.

Vyacheslav Koleichuk and the Movement group

In the mid 1960s, Vyacheslav Koleichuk got involved for a few years with the Движение (‘Movement’) group of artists led by kinetic art trailblazer Lev Nusberg. The group had already attracted international attention by that time and the like-minded people in it were quite obsessed with the romantic Constructivist and proletkult feeling characteristic of the Soviet 1920s. A new idealistic manifesto was developed, slightly in the spirit of futurist Vladimir Majakovsky’s poetry, an original “protocol of intent” – to establish kineticism as a factor in world art. The English translation of this manifesto is provided here:

(The Dvizheniye [‘Movement’] collective)


THE WORLD TODAY: “I demand my own forms and symbols!”
In the XX century TECHNIQUE betrothed ART to SCIENCE.
The human being TODAY: “Absolute freedom for FANTASY, people!”
FANTASY says: “Give me a new instrument – a means and I’ll change the world”.
Many new branches are growing from the TREE OF SCIENCE, from the TREE OF ART – FORMS
the face of the XX century.

KINETICS – the FRUIT of many branches.
ONE ALONE CANNOT GRASP IT. Even a strongman on his own is weak!
KINETICIST – that is one and many. He ----- a person and a collective!
THE WORLD SAID: “MAN, if you’re not for yourself, then who is with you?

But if you are only for yourself ----- then what’s your value?”
The world TODAY: “People, why aren’t you brothers yet?”
You have ART ...”
TODAY – musicians, physicists, actors, ...architects, psychologists,
engineers, sociologists... and poets ---- TOMORROW KINETICISTS.

With the COLLECTIVE a new quality in art was born.
Together we’ll create the kind of art which individually it isn’t possible to create.
(artist (Science and Technique
ARTIST) Person)
“ENGINEER, – what have you done for BEAUTY?”
“ARTIST, how do you improve the art

“WORLD, we offer you the art of the SOUL, MIND and BODY”.
KINETICS – the revelation of life’s secrets and the art of Change.
The Era of REAL ART is approaching, approaching, the epoch of humankind’s general understanding of art. The Era of KINETICS will arrive!

Kineticists of the PLANET EARTH, the most wonderful spiritual thing is in your hands.

KINETICS – not only a new form of art, and not only a new type of art; it is a new attitude to the World, to the Human Being, developed over thousands of years!

There isn’t art outside the Person and without a Person. We – the pioneers.

So let us then bring the WORLD together with KINETICS!
The human being TODAY is torn, sick. “Man, are you not tired of destruction?”

The child TODAY – already the space generation. The stars have come closer. Then let ART bring people closer to the breath of the stars!
Let kinetics bring life closer to the world of dreams and fantasy!
Let us open the horizons --- so that we see TOMORROW. Let us learn a new spiritual language!


Moscow 1966


NUSBERG                        ORLOVA
KUZNETSOV                   MURAVEVA
BUTERLIN                       BITT
KOLEICHUK                    DUBOVSKAYA
1/2 Manifesto of the artists group 'Movement'. 1966
2/2 Manifesto of the artists group 'Movement'. 1966
The Movement group’s activities unexpectedly turned into a great success story. In their endeavours to achieve the recognition of “cyber-romantic” kineticism, they had to first of all get the Soviet leadership used to it. They had to prove the design-usefulness or “innocently” decorative importance of this direction of art, and its capacity to enhance the living space of the Soviet worker. They succeeded in this and, for example, in 1967, in the darkest days of the Brezhnev stagnation period, the group was entrusted with an important communist ideological task: to design the decorations for the centre of Leningrad to mark the 50th Anniversary of the October Revolution! Secondly, an outlet to the art arenas and media of the world was sought, where the innovative artistry directed specifically to the future which had unexpectedly appeared amidst the stifling fumes of Soviet ideology, like a green blade springing up through asphalt, could be displayed. This aspiration, too, was gradually fulfilled at the time and the young Russian kineticists were regarded seriously in other countries, with their art considered of major significance, as well as being revolutionary and daring, and unconnected with decorativism.They say that one kitchen is too small for two cooks. In Movement, of course, there were many more “cooks”. An overabundance of talent and personality quickly developed there. The young “geniuses” didn’t really want to be subjected to Lev Nusberg’s “communal” style of working in art. The leader, to put it mildly, sometimes confused the concepts yours and mine, and an understanding of intellectual property seemed to vanish. Already by the mid 1970s Movement had stopped “moving” and its leader Lev Nusberg emigrated to the USA. In turn, Vyacheslav Koleichuk left the group in 1967 and established his own group of like-minded people Мир [‘World‘]. But the relationship with former comrade in arms Nusberg deteriorated to the point of being unbearable.

Design is not art?

In accordance with the “norms” of the era, their allegiance to geometric abstraction forms and to “formalism” as if automatically consigned both Koleichuk and his confederates to the “fag” category. But, paradoxically, this didn’t happen! They began to enjoy the recognition of the “comrades” in power, began to take on large state commissions, and were even partly as if included among the legion of contracted artists. Truly, one could quote Dostoyevsky’s phrase from ‘The Idiot’ here: “Beauty will save the world!”. Nevertheless it wasn’t Dostoyevsky’s spirituality, but the physical beauty and fascination of the work of the kinetic artists that, like a kind of cinema diva, captivated the Communist Party chiefs. The confrontation between the “formalists” and the powers that be here turned out to be much milder and often even developed into constructive collaboration, while tens of other avant-garde and non-conformist artists working in different directions were quite brutally and in bulldozer-like fashion driven underground. For the kineticists, at the height of the “ideological battle” the worst of it passed them by. Koleichuk too, with his contribution of theoretical work, made the whole movement quite seriously respectable. But still – how was this possible? And here, when searching for an answer, many additional circumstances relating to the ideological background should be remembered.

The 1960s anti-formalism campaign had to have some sort of result. The powers that be, who had let the genie of liberalism and the anti-Stalinist out of the bottle, no longer dared to openly deal with “dissidents”, using the “good old” roughly repressive methods, because apparently a “Leninist lawfulness” had now been renewed. Every so often some of those who “thought differently” could be punished, for example, consistently with the commandment of the “builders of communism” that “he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat”. They were charged with тунеядство – idleness and sentenced to hard labour, as happened to be “enjoyed” by the future Nobel Prize winner, poet Joseph Brodsky. A person could also even be locked up in a psychiatric hospital, because only a madman could oppose something as good as Soviet socialism. However, this was no way to wage war on a large number of people. Massive psychological pressure was brought to bear in the public space, people were forbidden to publish, preventative work was implemented by summoning people for discussions with the “organs” of state and other “softer” methods of influence were used as well, which for many turned out to be sufficiently burdensome.

In order to neutralize the problem in some way, a scholastic “Solomon’s solution” was devised: followers of “formalism” were given the opportunity to give up working in the fine arts, which was considered the absolute “sacred cow” pasture of Soviet ideology, and were offered more neutral grazing fields, something not quite as prestigious and existing outside the ideological, namely – design or architecture. Wherewith the very exact and “nice” kineticists also were as if de-ideologized, as this wasn’t really art, but rather merely a sort of “decoration”, decorative design... And the Soviet person was allowed some pleasure from the shiny steel of the kineticists, like a child by a Christmas tree delighting in the glass baubles. Even more so, many kinetic artists in their defence referred to the blatant Bolshevism of the 1920s Soviet Constructivists. This was a card the ruling powers were unable to trump ideologically with the accusation of conforming to “bourgeois culture”. The dyed-in the-wool Redness of the Constructivists was a far too powerful argument and an almost indestructible shield for their successors under the conditions of “developed socialism”.

Friend of the powers that be?

Vyacheslav Koleichuk comments on this in an interview: “It’s interesting that particularly at that time I was working on large state commissions, creating important objects for world exhibitions (EXPO’67 in Montreal, EXPO’75 in Okinawa, EXPO’85 in Osaka). Because in all periods there have been tasks that can’t be solved in the manner of realism. For example, in 1967 I made a huge kinetic object, Atom, which was mounted at the I. V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. An atom is an abstract thing and that’s why the artistic solution was also in keeping with that: a sphere in which colours glimmered and sparkled. The eminent Lev Termen, the inventor of the Termenvox, composed the music for my object…However, I wouldn’t say that these sorts of commissions were regular.”
Vyacheslav Koleichuk. Dedication to Constructivists. Self-strained structure. 1977-2011
Photo from the private archive of Vyacheslav Koleichuk
As regards his state commissions and work on the EXPO objects, Koleichuk says: “Overall, nobody formulated my tasks. The ideological magnitude was reflected in the fact that I didn’t make Soviet-level trivial things – from their very foundations they were addressed to the whole world. And it was also considered to be a sign of our progressive thinking, not only at an artistic level. The task was to create extraordinary things, at least so as to leave an impression on the West. Within the nation internally, obviously, there were complications and there were problems, both artistic and ideological. Evidently I led my life sufficiently correctly, as many others in our country didn’t achieve what their talents really deserved. Freedom, in the sense that we know it today, was more limited, of course, but the attention the ruling powers paid to art was incomparably greater, and for an artist that is sometimes useful. When you are being taken seriously, you immediately perceive matters in a different way, you position yourself as an important person who can be of use for something. In this way we were able to save our art and inspire respect for it. It’s far worse when nobody needs anything.” – “In connection with the EXPO works, I also had to think about the state’s image. That’s where the politics start. We had to show them that, see, we’re not to be dealt with lightly. But how to achieve this? They had to invite someone who was up to world standards, so that they in the West would understand: yes, in Russia, too, it is possible. Looks like I was successful.”

As regards the interaction between artistic thought and technology, as well as public relations, Koleichuk explains: “Of course, I’ve always had problems with this. But, despite the fact that the artist always thinks imaginatively, I’ve also tried to think in technical categories, to become aware of the methods of how and what can possibly be constructed; sometimes I‘ve had to invent the technology myself. So, for instance, to obtain new means of expression, I invented quasi-holography”. – “Also no less important is society’s ability to absorb new art forms. If you offer a new structure of artistic thinking, then you should also educate your viewer in these ways of thinking. Give then an alphabet book, vocabulary, grammar etc., as it is when learning a new language. Without all that there won’t be understanding. In this respect I can’t complain I’ve been misunderstood, and if on occasion this has happened, then I’ve realized why. And really, you can develop experts on a new direction only by showing examples of it, so that people can get used to it. How else could it be done?”(5)

Vyacheslav Koleichuk and the Latvians
The generation who experienced Soviet times will still remember that, for example, to get from Riga to the almost adjacent towns of Stockholm or Helsinki by air, one had to fly 800 km to the east and then transfer through Moscow. Centralization and control – over everything. In a centralized state even the processes of modernism, logically, took place most quickly and intensively in the major centres of confluence – in Moscow or Leningrad... In the early 1960s “formalistic” and “free” art and culture had already been established and were thriving there, whereas at the periphery, even in the “Western” Pribaltika [Baltic territories], these things were delayed by five or even up to ten years. Koleichuk was already in full flight, creating his large and famous objects, when in Riga an awareness of “design art” was only just germinating. It all started to come together in the late 1960s. At any rate, the first significant public manifestation by Latvia’s modernist artists, it would seem, took place only in 1972, at the ‘Celebration‘ exhibition (as part of the 9th Republican Exhibition of Young Artists) in the exhibition hall of the Institute of Scientific Technical Information and Propaganda (now the Art Museum Riga Bourse). Marked kinetic features were apparent in a whole range of objects: movement, lighting effects, sound, environment... these were new means of expression, used here quite freely. A favourable environment for these processes developed in the Latvian Academy of Art department of design. Gradually a new circle of artists came onto the scene, in whose works the revelation of kinetic ideas held a significant place. Among them were, for example, Artūrs Riņķis, Valdis Celms, Andulis Krūmiņš... Mention should also be made of – at that time totally unknown – the objects by artist Auseklis Baušķenieks, something we discovered only after Latvia regained its independence.

The same sort of ideological climate and regime which the Kremlin masters maintained throughout the Union was prevalent in Riga, too, in the 1960s-80s. Consequently here also a group of young artists were forced to repeat similar tactical efforts to those adopted by the Russian kineticists, to justify their ideas by referring to the experience of the Soviet Constructivists of the 1920s. Their Redness was very useful as an unshakeable argument for the legalization of “formalistic” art and geometric abstraction, as well as for overcoming the opposition of the ideological leadership. For instance, examples of Gustavs Klutsis’ avant-garde art sometimes turned out to be the oil to calm the troubled waters: “... Oh, and this one even guarded Lenin himself...! Well, then there must be something of value there... Klutsis became a kind banner for “Leftist” art in Latvia. With his name, as if it were a batteringram, one could knock a hole through the wall and seize the “fortress”, and then other species of “formalists” would begin pouring in... By putting a “design” tag on it, one could afford to make art that otherwise would have been forbidden. The Riga kinetic artists’ exhibition Form, Colour, Movement which took place at St. Peter’s Church in 1978 is worthy of note.

Naturally contacts were sought with like-minded souls in other art centres of the “empire”. In the early 1970s he Riga kineticists led by Valdis Celms had already established contacts with Vyacheslav Koleichuk, Francisko Infante, Bulat Galeyev... Koleichuk proved to be particularly responsive and this cooperation was crowned in 1982 with his solo exhibition Kinetic Structure in Riga, in the so-called Republican House of Knowledge.

Koleichuk always speaks with great fondness of Latvian Constructivist Karl Iogansons’ (1892–1929) groundbreaking contribution to the development of kinetics. It was this grand master, specifically, who first made tensioned construction objects, and some of his principles later found their way into Koleichuk’s own works. In paying respect to this pioneer of kinetics, Koleichuk remarks, for example, that it is doubtful whether Kenneth Snelson would have become so world famous had it not been for Johansons’ experience. Snelson himself is reluctant to comment on this, however.

One of Koleichuk’s “sacred” masterpieces is associated with his research activities. In 2006, using some ordinary-looking historical photographs, the artist-theoretician made a full scale detailed reconstruction of the famous ОБМОХУ (Young Artists Association) 1921 exhibition, which is now a part of the Tretyakov Gallery permanent exhibition. Russian Constructivist luminaries such as the brothers Vladimir and Georgy Stenberg, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Konstantin Medunetsky, Nikolay Denisovsky once participated in it…And, among them, our countryman Kārlis Johansons as well, who had joined the ОБМОХУ group. Koleichuk prepared copies of his works, too, and is of the view that Johansons is the original author of (and the first to put into practice) the idea of “self-tightening” construction. This principle was expanded upon and developed internationally only after the Second World War. Iogansons, taking into account his work in the metal industry, can be assumed to be the only one who succeeded in incorporating the Constructivist utopia into a synthesis of art and production. Even today, only about ten of Iogansons’ Constructivist works are known of, but their value far exceeds that of being a purely formal exercise. These works are fundamental. It is pleasing to note that in Latvia an initiative of a friend of the arts, entrepreneur Juris Sils, is under way for the reconstruction of the works of this classic, in order to put them on display in his homeland. And Vyacheslav Koleichuk has agreed to undertake this highly significant task. A huge circle of ideas and connections has now gone the full circle.

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/

1 International contest of young pop singers
2 To teach them a lesson / in no uncertain terms
3 Untranslateable terms used in the movie.
4 Mount Elbrus peak is the highest in the Caucasus in Russia.
5 Fragments of the interview in Radio Svoboda. August, 2010.
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