A interview given by Pavel Pepperstein to Andrei Yerofeev on the creation of a new version of the series of works “Empty Icons” (March 2012, Moscow).
Pavel Pepperstein: An image is not holy in and of itself, it only becomes a sacred object at the moment of consecration, when a rite is performed over the icon, following which this icon was accordingly considered holy, as an object that had undergone the Rite. But at the same time the tradition of the iconoclasts was preserved within the Russian clergy, especially in the monastic tradition, and so there was always an ambivalent attitude to icons on the part of the church hierarchy, icons were not especially revered in the inner circles. That is, the old Byzantine iconoclastic tradition persisted, a tradition that was related to apophatic theology, while at the same time the veneration of icons was considered a part of cataphatic theology, the theology addressed to the laity. But the recommendations and precepts for monks, who meditated in seclusion, included an injunction not to look at icons, because they are no more than images, which can distract from the constant, inward recitation of the Jesus Prayer [“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”]. Of course, in the Eastern Christian tradition of Hesychasm, which is very close to Oriental meditation, great emphasis was laid on purging the praying individual’s inner space of images, including the images that can be seen on icons. In this way, icons were regarded and perceived as a kind of wall that separates cataphatic theology from apophatic, as Father Pavel Florensky mentions in his work The Iconostasis. There is a cataphatic theology, addressed to the laity, in which something is communicated about higher powers, about God – certain images. At the same time, in hierarchical terms the higher stage was always the apophatic, theological tradition, in which it was asserted that it is impossible to make any statement at all about God, that any concept of God is impossible, and accordingly meditation developed in an entirely different direction. And so when we were making this ...
Andrei Yerofeev: But in general, how did you in the MH [Medical Hermeneutics] group come up with the idea of making this series?
Pavel Pepperstein: It’s no coincidence that when we were making this exhibition (I think it was in 1993, that was when the catalogue was made), we chose as our text the Letter to the Hierarch Titus by Dionysius the Areopagite, better known as Pseudo-Dionysius. This work, written by one of the founding fathers and most important theologians of the Orthodox Church, states that one should not fantasize about God. It is not proper to picture the Lord to oneself in images of any kind, for this is not the way of Orthodox meditation. And the entire Letter to the Hierarch Titus is a recitation of the images – glorious, powerful, imperious and so forth – in terms of which one should NOT picture the Lord God. And we were basically delighted by the brilliance of this text, and we actually used it instead of our own text, as a commentary or preamble to the work in question. I’d like to emphasize that this work is in no way anti-religious or anti-Orthodox. Quite the opposite, it’s the fruit of certain meditative explorations undertaken by us in this area and an attempt to follow a very old, primal and canonical Doctrine. But at the same time, naturally, we were not in any way attempting to create objects intended for veneration. This is merely a specific stage of the contemplative process, which is depicted here for certain aesthetic purposes. Our works are not charged with any theological significance. The actual gesture of creating such works can carry a certain theological significance. But this gesture is also fairly free, because all of this took place in a therapeutic context. But now, since so many years have gone by and the context has changed, certain political labels have been applied, certain markers, within the institutional framework of contemporary art, this territory has been tagged in a certain way, marking it as necessarily anti-religious, anti-church and somehow opposed to religion and the church in general ... So I’d like to mention specifically that this particular work has its own context, which doesn’t correspond at all to the context of contemporary art today, and that is the relatively internal, laboratory context of the MH group’s work and the hermeneutical process taking place in the 1990s. We didn’t make it any kind of goal to wage war on icons, quite the opposite in fact: we regarded them with great respect.
Andrei Yerofeev: Why did your group suddenly decide to take up the subject of icons, although in general, in the Russian art of the 1970s, 1980s, conceptualism and soc-art, I can only recall isolated examples of icons? Artists didn’t address this theme. They dealt with the void, they dealt with light, otherworldly and metaphysical. But they didn’t deal with Orthodox Christianity and canonical religion at all.
Pavel Pepperstein: I wouldn’t say that, recalling the fundamental literary work of Moscow conceptualism, Andrei Monastyrsky’s Kashira Highway, which is totally and completely devoted to a description of the hallucinations caused by his Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer and other meditative techniques (mostly Orthodox) learned from reading the ascetic literature of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But undoubtedly he also combined them with eastern spiritual practices. He achieved an articulated hallucinatory effect so profound that it was comparable with the effect of various potent drugs like LSD. But he achieved it without any drugs, solely by means of his practices. And then he managed to describe his experience, and also his experience of emerging from this condition to some extent. It’s no accident that this text is one of the cornerstones of Moscow conceptualism, so the problematics of Orthodox Christianity were always very important. That is, Moscow conceptualism could just as well be called Orthodox as Romantic.
Andrei Yerofeev: Well, and apart from that text?
Pavel Pepperstein: The image of the icon is present in Kabakov’s early work, specifically the white icon – a surface purged of images, one on which it is possible to meditate without becoming snared in spiritual deception. So, for instance, if we take the aesthetic asceticism associated with conceptualism, it is based entirely on this concept of spiritual deception. This is a purely Orthodox theological concept. In the aesthetic of conceptualism very many things were rejected precisely because they were construed as a lapse into spiritual deception. And they were denoted by remarkable words like “VLIPARO” [from a Russian word meaning to get into a jam, a real mess]. Any loss of conceptual distance was labelled with these concepts. This is only one example. Close examination of the structure of Moscow conceptualism’s ideas and priorities shows that it is bound to Orthodox Christian tradition by a billion threads.
Andrei Yerofeev: Are you thinking of its asceticism, its prohibition of a search for new aesthetic forms?
Pavel Pepperstein: Of course. The experience of Eastern Christianity and its theology, beginning from its Byzantine and Greek roots ... it all always had a colossal influence on Moscow conceptualism. This happened directly via the texts, bypassing even the experience of Malevich himself, who also touched on this range of problems. This is an important point: conceptualism pondered directly on theology itself. It was a reaction to the philosophy of Orthodoxy.
As for the Protestant practices that we encounter nowadays, which are being implanted pretty successfully in people’s minds, they can be called Protestant atheism. We should note that atheism, as a certain negative schema, is linked, in all the geographical regions and places where it has arisen and still arises, with the religions that exist in those places. And this implanted atheism that we have now, it isn’t local atheism. It isn’t the atheism of Russians and East Europeans, it’s Protestant atheism. This is an interesting subject: What is Russian atheism and how does it differ from the Protestant version introduced from the outside? It’s a very wide-ranging theme. A very great deal could be said about it. I don’t know if you agree with me, if I put it simply at the level of taste sensations. At the level of immediate response we all know more or less what the Protestant aftertaste is like and how its perception of reality is different. When you walk round a Western European city and go from a Catholic church to a Protestant one, it’s clear that at that moment many things change, although you apparently don’t change, you’re just a tourist. Strolling about. But Eastern atheism always presupposes the unknown, it’s an Eastern figure of speech when someone tells you: “God doesn’t exist”. Only I tell you that because you don’t know about what I know, and I don’t know what you know about. That’s the Eastern interpretation of this assertion. Whereas the Protestant slant on it goes like this: “God doesn’t exist. So why fucking bother constructing all sorts of illusions?” This second phrase is far more mendacious. The first one may be structured as if it’s mendacious, but that’s what makes it truthful. Because only the truth has the statement that it’s a lie written across it openly. But the second phrase is intrinsically mendacious. Because it’s structured rhetorically as if it were truthful. And as soon as that tone sets in, you know you’re being fucked-over. And that’s what we’re dealing with now, this aggressively advancing Protestant atheism, and it would be good if every artist rebuffed it somehow on his own level, providing he feels the desire to do that. A contemporary artist who wants to make a career in the territory of the art world can’t be a believer. It’s as if it was forbidden. We’re dealing with a new type of totalitarian censorship here, a Protestant-atheist kind this time, in short, spirituality is under a ban. But if someone does say that he’s a believer, then he has to theatricalise his religiosity to an extreme, make it a part of his image, rather like a circus act, or simply stay quiet and keep his mouth shut.
Andrei Yerofeev: That’s right, when I started collecting works by contemporary artists that included sacred objects and images, it turned out that very few things had actually been done. And moreover, artists were more or less convinced that there couldn’t be any connection between the icon and contemporary art. Art is constantly evolving, but the icon is regarded as an unchanging, petrified object that should not be tampered with. This is the perspective of people who have absolutely no sense of living faith. Right?
Pavel Pepperstein: Absolutely. This is a purely anti-religious perspective. But then there was, for instance, Oleg Kulik’s exhibition “I Believe”. It was a very successful event. I remember I liked it because there was an actual change of some kind associated with that exhibition. Kulik actually achieved that kind of effect (I think he consciously set out to do it), changing the visitors to the exhibition. He managed to pull the event off, and since then, that’s how things have gone, events involving art are attended by a quite different, broader audience than before. A revolutionary event. Thanks to Kulik (he laughs).