Christophe Kihm

Olga Kisseleva: signs that don't lie



I am to join Olga Kisseleva at the Abbey of Maubuisson, one autumn afternoon. We have never met. The exercise is peculiar: we will visit the exhibition she conceived for this site in order to prepare the text I shall write for two other institutions, the musée national Chagall and the musée national Picasso. We set to work quickly. Barely a few steps into the park and we stop in front of a cryptographic sign inscribed on a slab on the ground at the intersection of two paths. Olga Kisseleva points her cell phone at the sign; this instantly brings a text to the screen. The text in French states: «The network has a double face: both a danger and a vector of freedom».
The artist disposed about twenty « electronic tags » of this sort around the park: near each entrance (three in all), and at the intersection of all the paths. The tags are square in shape, white on black ground. They are schematic renderings that simultaneously evoke labyrinths and transcriptions of mathematical formulas. In reality, they function like bar codes and obey rather simple technical principles: these « electronic tags » are interactive links (on the model of hypertext links) that allow one to access information from a given medium (newspaper, computer, map etc.). The only requirement is to have a telephone with an application capable of decoding the cryptograms (some are available to the public at the entrance of the exhibition).
The signs set on the ground by Olga Kisseleva in the park at the Abbey of Maubuisson thus function as information relays, and are qualified by the nature of the messages they transmit. To reiterate and invert the notion of relativity as posited by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding the Media – all without denaturing meaning, since it is by nature commutative–, one could propose that with regard to the artist’s electronic tags, the message is the medium.  Hence, taking account of the contents of the information becomes more important than spending time understanding the technology that makes them possible (1).  One remark, however: though there is no doubt that the professional application of this procedure will soon bend itself to the demands of marketing and advertising, one can also image more civic or even contentious uses, echoing a good number of artistic propositions developed in the past years and which made use of cell phones and network technologies for alternative or activist means (2).
Olga Kisseleva avoids both extremes, using her electronic tags neither for advertising nor for protest. Aware of the almost too systematic relationship between consumer space and new technology, she creates inscriptions that act in ways simultaneously more discrete, more subtle and more complex in the interior or exterior spaces in which they are displayed. A point in case, the inscriptions on the ground of her large scale installation CrossWorlds.
At the simplest level, they are to be considered as signs, abstract graphic forms set on the ground or fixed upon the walls. They function as signals structuring space, imposing rhythm, articulating the itinerary. Thus is the minor or minimal mode of their presence. From inception, the scanning of signs allows for the reading of a place. To this minor mode, one can add another reading, that of the message being driven by the graphic interface: such information is of a different nature since it can take the form of slogans, solicit vigilance, attract attention toward events. The information is impersonal and affirmative in its enunciation; but quite personal in the way it is broadcast (the cellular telephone, an object of daily life, perhaps intimate), and interrogative in its reception context:
…Our lives are made of a whole network of intertwined paths, amongst which a fragile instinct guides us in the labyrinth, with that ever-precarious equilibrium between the heart and the mind… The network is a web where passions as well as fantasies, bits of real life and virtual reality, a labyrinth where protest and alienation  fatalism and fanaticism find themselves side by side… Everyone is a hostage of his actions…

Thus, an itinerary among the signs superposes itself on the itinerary in space. To the dialogue with space, as it is posited according to the minor mode of sign recognition, one adjoins a dialogue with the signs, linking an artist with a viewer through contact with a piece of technical equipment (the cell phone) and a graphic interface (the electronic tag). These two possible uses both consider signs as intermediaries – situated between the viewer and the space –, in the manner of a partition inscribed with statements produced by the artist. This position has the virtue of liberating a relationship of communication, specifically that of the dialogue. Depending on the technical, formal and relational terms put into play by this project, the dialogue seems to, in itself, determine a proper administration of the functioning of signs.
The critical, social and political extent of this knowledge is clear, and overflows the specific framework of the proposition to irrigate the relationship of signs resulting from Olga Kisseleva’s artistic production. Different types of dialogues, of different natures, exchanges, sometimes controversies or questions might be acted upon the signs, yet also through the intermediary and thus with the signs, as is the case for the electronic tags that create communication between the public space of the park and the private space of the cell phone (each one being itself linked to mobility and conversation). One must, along with Olga Kisseleva, consider the signs as mediations and not simply as objects, as means, indexial indicators in given contexts, and not as immutable truths (which could explain some of the title of this text …).


Olga Kisseleva’s exhibition at the Musée national Marc Chagall in Nice will include works with « electronic tags ».  Nonetheless, this is not the first point she brings up when we discuss this upcoming show and pursue our visit. Indeed, she calls my attention to her relationship with Chagall, his universe, his story, and the importance these have for her. Chagall spoke Russian as she does; and according to family legend, Olga Kisseleva’s great grandfather, a rabbi in Vitebsk, figures in some paintings by Chagall. These coincidences, which operate along biographical and cultural lines rather than formal or esthetic affinities (Kisseleva’s visual propositions, as well as the means she uses are quite different from those of the painter), testify to her interest in culture and life, but also in the encounters generated by culture and by life.
Her encounter with Chagall takes place in a specific context, that of the museum specially built to house the series of seventeen paintings that constitute the Biblical Message. Thus a location that is determined by the works it houses, and works whose place in Chagall’s oeuvre is absolutely singular: the illustration of the Bible. Chagall expressed two wishes regarding this location: that it would be a place for the viewer to find an « ideal of brotherhood and love such that my colors and lines have been dreaming of » ; and where it was possible « that in this place could be shown works of art and documents of great spirituality of all mankind, and that one could hear their music and poetry guided by the heart. » In this place where an encounter between two artists is to take place, the testament of one and the ambition of the other call for a dialogue between two works (remember, on one of the tags placed in the Abbey park, this inscription: « It is not in places that one lives, but in the heart »).
From her study of Chagall, besides the drawings and preparatory sketches for illustrating the Bible, Olga Kisseleva has noted the presence of the prophet Elijah in a mosaic composed in the manner of a Russian icon (3): Elijah is at the center of the image detailing the narrative of his life within the cycle of time. To emphasize this Orthodox icon in Nice though Chagall was Jewish might seem anecdotic or anodyne. Yet, for Kisseleva this can be seen as process of decrypting the real requiring great acuity toward signs, their nature, their displacements, and their recontextualizations and redefinitions—as can be deduced from numerous other projects of hers such as  Where are you ?,  in which the main idea consists of photographing replicas of architectural archetypes and copies of world-famous buildings and presenting them in exhibition spaces where the context in which they exist has been evacuated.
Olga Kisseleva’s project for the Musée Chagall, Windows, is formulated as an echo to the works displayed in the exhibition space but opens the proposition as it expands its reach. She takes illustrations from sacred books as does Chagall, but her intention and means are not the same. She prefers a more critical and conceptual mode to Chagall’s figurative and allegorical approach. Taking as starting point the three founding texts of the religions of the book: the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, Kisseleva also interrogates another book, - Capital by Karl Marx – a book that in its own way also evokes, as do the other three, the notion of  « Paradise ». These books propose either the possibility of attaining paradise after life on earth, or the creation of a paradise here on earth.
The project is articulated in two parts. First the entire surface of the wall facing the mosaic depicting the life of the prophet Elijah, an electronic tag whose interface leads to the word « Paradise ». The dialogical structure linking the two images, the instigation of a discussion with the viewer in the physical space of the museum (since the sign is legible from the rooms containing Chagall’s work), is accompanied by a group of text fragments excerpted from the four different books in which one finds the word « Paradise ». These fragments are inscribed on colored mirrors (four colors, one for each of the four books), distributed along the walls of the room.
The second part of the project also creates dialogue between two images, though in this case it refers to a clearly more material vision of paradise on earth. One enters a room through a door and finds oneself in the presence of an image four meters by three projected onto a wall: the screen shows display windows containing objects of luxury and desire (clothing, jewelry, foodstuff) on which the lens zooms from time to time. Depending on the viewer’s position, he may find himself face to face with a second superposed image on the wall. This second image  was produced in differed countries of the third world by children filming themselves as they looked at the camera. The artist has set up a situation in which the viewer feels that he is being questioned by the children’s gazes. The signs in the window, objects of desire, are thus perceived differently according to whether the image is simple or superposed in a dialogical relationship that formulates itself fully in an exchange of views between the viewers and the children, where the consumer object is radically requalified by the affect associated with it.


In all the stages of this project, from its preparation (consideration of the context) to the gathering of the information allowing for the genesis of esthetic propositions, one finds a linear relationship between the various elements. As if ultimately, Olga Kisseleva might function as an address to a given situation. This manner of addressing spaces and persons places the artist in a form of engagement that consists of questioning, affronting or testing the constituent elements of the reality of a situation. This engagement can take the form of numerous mediations, media and modes of presentation as diverse as the situations themselves (if by « situations » we mean the entity constituted by the various elements garnered during the site investigation). But it always implies, for the viewer as for the artist, fidelity to a rule, vigilance, and refers to a principle of responsibility requiring the instauration of open relations between the different elements called into play by the esthetic propositions. Hence, the presence of signs is never considered outside of human presence; and even more radically, finding the meaning of signs within their relationships to beings. To do so, examination, testing, contradiction, questioning of the relations established between being and signs, creating open situations wherein the subject is led to interrogate the world….
Within the artist’s chosen production protocol for Seven Deadly Desires, similar prerequisites are necessary, notwithstanding potential anxieties and interrogations. The piece known as Seven Deadly Desires traces its origins to work undertaken with schoolchildren from an educational priority zone in the Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen. The first phase consists of a video in which the adolescents describe their dearest dream. The same experience was repeated a year later with a group of Russian men in Moscow. The two tapes were subsequently given to sociologists for analysis. Using this data, the sociologists named seven desires, the seven deadly desires: « power », « success », « beauty », « health », « celebrity », pleasure », « riches », which served as the basis for both productions. The first one, Powerbike (2003), is a tricycle whose contradictory mechanism is restricted by a double necessity: one must climb the seven steps of a staircase (upon which are inscribed the 7 deadly desires) in order to sit on a promontory saddle, all while this vertical movement provokes the vehicle to move backward and perhaps even the regression of the subject, who is inexorably distanced from the realization of his desires just as he tries to attain them. The second is a series of images shot in Saint-Ouen with the teens, in the place where their cherished desires and the fantasies they carry take place in the daily context of their lives.
Two works by Picasso, La Guerre (War) and La Paix (Peace) presented in a chapel in Vallauris, alternate black and white imagery with color imagery. Olga Kisseleva also uses this scheme to present a choice of works resulting from the collaborative process of the Seven Deadly Desires.  Powerbike as well as the children’s videos in which they state their desires are placed in the east-facing apse. Interestingly, in Russian churches, the eastern apse usually contains frescos depicting heaven, while those on the west side depict hell. A selection of photographs produced in collaboration with the youngsters are also hung on the walls of the chapel.


We have already noted the importance Olga Kisseleva attributes to place in her work. This always engenders a form of negotiation.
One can attribute an almost literal sense to the term« negotiation » when it is applied to the protocol used in the Seven Deadly Desires. It achieves its full meaning in the two projects that Kisseleva has proposed for the Musée Chagall and Musée Picasso, both of which entertain critical and complicit relations with the works of the two artists who occupy them, just as they are ontologically linked to the sacredness of the places which house them. Here as elsewhere, Olga Kisseleva produces an esthetic in which the work is required to determine itself in relationship to culture, to context and to the site. Through a multitude of questions embracing everything from the membership of individuals to a given cultural sphere, the displacement of signs in renewed contexts, the evolution of contentious affects and resistant behavior in consumer society—the artist for example, able to note the implications of large corporations on recent events such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine –, by questioning the nature of power through the constraints suffered by the body at work, individuals in controlled societies etc….all this always in the creation of situations neither voluntary nor inspired by a documentary ethic since they are not content (either in the creative process of the works, nor in their formal realization) to state any truths as a simple observation. An essential dimension of Kisseleva’s work is the performative form engaged by its process (elaboration and effectuation) whether this be in collaborations such as Seven Deadly Desires, or in forms of interrogation that require the vigilance and acuity of the viewer or even in the interactive forms where active participants are solicited by the works themselves. The interfaces (electronic tags), machines conceived on the model of Powerbike (and numerous other displays directly engaging the viewer’s body have since been presented by the artist), all state it explicitly with more or less irony: one must get to work and commit oneself concretely in order to feel the contradictions of our contemporary world. Encounter, dialogue, address and negotiation can only be effectuated at this price.

(1) Should one wish to know more about this subject, one can consult the site, where specifics about the technology are available.
(2) I am thinking specifically about projects such as TextMob, in which information can be shared simultaneously in real time among thousands of users and which can serve, for example, in public demonstrations to activate strategies allowing the avoidance of forces of order.

(3) In Russia, the prophet Elijah is the patron saint of peasants. The Old Testament recounts that Elijah had the power to open and close the heavens. He was called by God to break the cult of idols amongst the king and his people. Thus he provoked a terrible drought in the kingdom of Ahab, who, influenced by his wife Jezebel, worshipped the false gods Baal and Astarte. The drought lasted three years and provoked famine. Elijah told Ahab that the plague would end when he ceased believing in false idols, since God did not wish the death of sinners but the conversion of men.