The Game of General View
To play a game is more important than to gain a result. The critical condition for such a game is modeling of the invented situations. They call an imagination and instigate the real actions. The game provokes the exemption from the obstacles that stifle freedom…
«I say and affirm that the person who wishes to become outstanding in any mastery really should exercise at an early age … For example, who wants to become a farmer or a good house builder, must be in the games, either to cultivate the land or to erect any children’s facilities.»
Plato (427-347 BC)
To play a game is more important than to gain a result. The critical condition for such a game is modeling of the invented situations. They call an imagination and instigate the real actions. The game provokes the exemption from the obstacles that stifle freedom, as well as a commonality with their environment, and, as a consequence, a repetition of action. Through the repetition the pattern of behavior becomes safe and predictable so it can be easily controlled. The rules of the game are being modified during the transition from one social category to another.
A standard model of indefinitely recurring game becomes THE GAME OF THE GENERAL VIEW. Coordination of one’s point of view with respect to others, change of the position, or the desire to get a win is only possible within the rule of that game. The condition of stable equilibrium becomes more beneficial thus any change deteriorates the situation. Imagination here becomes unnecessary as well as exemption from obstacles. Reverse side of the game turns into a rubbish dump of everything what is pushed out of life. Instead of preparation for life the game converts into escape from it.
How can classical painting techniques be used to construct a reality that reflects and critiques contemporary society? This is what Maria Safronova sets out to do in her recent series of paintings, accompanied by three-dimensional props. The ‘freedom’ to adapt to norms and routines is a recurrent theme, as is the complacency and even enthusiasm that such socialisation may inspire in the individual.
Safronova’s images are hybrids, borrowing features from Russian life today, with its neo-Soviet, neo-imperial tendencies, and from fifteenth and sixteenth century painting in the Low Countries and Italy. Safronova contrasts stylised empty backgrounds with patterned surfaces that enhance the central perspective. Both devices create stages, which she populates with compositions of human figures, based on studies from live models and photographs.
The Game of the General View (2013–2014) illustrates the models for behaviour and social interaction that children must internalise if they are not to be ostracised in kindergarten or at school. It consists of eleven paintings and three-dimensional, polychromous ‘situations’ (Storage, Classroom, Building, Playground) displayed in a custom-made cupboard. The title refers to the Nash Equilibrium, named after game theorist John Forbes Nash and describing a set of strategies where ‘players’ can do no better by unilaterally changing their strategies. Safronova writes: ‘This establishes a standard model of an infinitely repetitive game, the Game of the General View, where coordinating one’s own point of view with others, changing positions or seeking real gain is possible only within the given rules. Stable equilibrium becomes the most beneficial condition, and any change is only for the worse. Imagination and liberation from obstacles becomes unnecessary”.
Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (Belgium)
GOSTs are all-important?…
The age old complaint of Russian academic arts educational institutions — a complaint that first revealed itself back in the Soviet era of stagnation — is that they teach students the skills of a craft, but don’t teach them to think interestingly. The institutions of modern art, on the other hand, establish the opposite. There, you are taught to think, but not taught the skills of the craft. Eureka, at last! The young generation of Russians has given us a powerful declaration of its arrival. In plastic forms they have managed to achieve a synthesis of virtuoso professional mastery (skills received in academic schools) and subtle intellectual adventures. The majority of them, after all, managed to combine their academic studies with courses at the Institute of Contemporary Art or other contemporary art institutions. Their names are now familiar to us, they are among the finalists and laureates of prestigious international and Russian awards. This generation is confidently represented by a graduate of the Surikov Academic Arts Institute, Maria Safronova. In her work, Maria convincingly applies stunning professional techniques to create an intellectually packed, multi-layered, accessible image. It is fitting, then, that the artist Maria Safronova was selected as one of the finalists for one of the most authoritative non-state prizes in contemporary art — the Kandinsky Prize. The project presented at the exhibition is titled “The Game of the General View.” It is part of a triptych which Maria is creating using the logic of a crossword. The last section was done first — “Routine”, about the lives of patients in a psychiatric clinic. Now comes the first section, “The Game of the General View”. The second section has yet to appear, and will be titled “Office”. The eschatological outlook of the entire triptych is clear from the titles. The existential drama of human life that is encoded in them references Anton Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6”, the works of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben… In the first project a well-crafted quality in the work, handmade in the best sense, was already very impressive, having noth- * GOST – State All-Union Standard ing in common with the blurred images transposed from photographs that many of today’s energetic icon-painters employ. Horrifying in its hopeless wretchedness, imitating the mumbling of a lunatic, a day in a psychiatric clinic was storyboarded by her brush into separate episodes numbered in accordance with the hospital’s routine for the day. We see “the ward” with the number 7.00, tagged “Reveille”, the dining room at 13.15 (“Lunch”), and even a fight at 20.35. It’s hard to believe, but Maria Safronova’s scenes don’t induce depression. They create associations with good painting which manages to capture the moment as something beautiful, and in so doing proposes that we treasure every minute lived. It is as if the artist sees a sorrowful, in its inevitable reiteration, wretchedness through the prism of the various cultural codes of the new era, from the strange and terrifying spaces of metaphysical painting to the dreams of Neo Rauch and the enigmatic shots of the latest cinematic art. This transparency of vision, through the layers of modernity, addresses the essential, constant method of presentation of insane subjects and human foolishness in the old Dutch painting of the era of Brueghel, Bosch, as well as the lesser Dutch and Flemish artists, such as Adriaen van Ostade, Adriaen Brouwer and Jan Steen. Next to the paintings is placed a scale model of the entire premises of the clinic, with tiny reproductions of the canvases hung in it. The model reinforces the tactile, tangible contact with art. It reinforces the veracity of perception of the world that Maria Safronova has depicted. Why? Maria believes that the new media environment with its simulative means for zombification of consciousness with information that is very similar to the truth, but is in essence fake, destroys faith in reality as such. The Dutch painting tradition of creating the illusion of a palpable vision, a tactile perception of the physical world, restores to us the value of the experienced moment, a responsibility for it. Maria Safronova, for example, is annoyed by the monumentalist element that is present in the stream of photographic images. With rare exceptions (art created by talented photographers), the temporal and spatial coordinates in the photo-stream are devalued. A stoppage is required, an experiencing of the process of creation and the very making of form. It is for this reason that each of Maria Safronova’s projects, whether it is “Routine” or the current “The Game of the General View” is accompanied by a model with tiny rooms and doll’s house artifacts. We can recall here that the creation of models during the drawing of spaces (particularly interiors) is a generic quality of Dutch painting of the 17th century. At the London National Gallery there is a wonderful box created by the artist Samuel van Hoogstraten, who lived in Dordrecht. The artist made it in the middle of the 17th century. It’s a so-called “peepshow”, with interiors from a Dutch house. If we look into one of the peepholes that have been made in the side of the box, inside we see 3D depictions of a typical interior of an affluent Dutch home with views of the rooms. The distinct three-dimensionality and stereoscopic nature of the objects placed on different planes (such as the dogs in the middle of the room or a stool in the foreground) is achieved through an anamorphic effect: focusing on an image unwound on a centrifuge in a voluminous whole whilst viewing from a certain angle. “The Game of the General View” leads us to a conception of vital presence that is entirely opposed to authentic reality. “The Game of the General View” is a concept taken from the arsenal of computer games. “The Game of the General View” is a term that presupposes that the computer game reproduces itself along the lines of a nesting doll. The end of one game is the beginning of the next, and so on. Thus, the situation models endless reproduction, networked immortality in which everything is inter-exchangeable, and in which nothing is original or valued. The anthropomorphic dimension is categorically driven out. Maria Safronova’s paradox and bravery lie in the fact that this simulative world is presented with a veristic tactility that makes the rupture between authenticity and the simulacrum even more painful and tragic. At first glance, the oil on canvas pictures in the “children’s series” are entirely successful. Sweet babies, “my bunnies, my kittens, my sunshine”, as the KinderSurprise commercial would have it (also, in fact, created on the principle of a nesting doll-matrix), sit at their school desks, or on pots, playing a game of musical chairs, volleyball, football, hopscotch… Having put on bunny ears, dressed up in best suits and dresses, they march in formation to a celebration. And the more tactile, the more realistic the depictions of the sweeties, the greater the alarm that arises in your soul, developing into an involuntary fear and horror. At a certain stage in the Soviet era, Lenin’s slogan of “Communism is our banner plus the standardization of the entire country!” prevailed in official policy. State standards (GOSTs, to use the Russian bureaucratic abbreviation) were all. Today, it would appear that times have changed. But no. Maria Safronova shares her personal impressions. According to her, when she takes children to the kindergarten or to school she always observes how from the very cradle children are inscribed into the world of life on a conveyor belt. On the surface, at least, it would seem that much has changed since the Soviet era. But in essence, external variety camouflages the matrix, nesting-doll, simulative method for the education of an essence that can be easily controlled by the authorities, with its behavior and consciousness easily manipulated. Maria Safronova addresses the “game theory” of John Forbes Nash Jr. It is formulated on the basis of a study of the inter-relations of the employer and the worker in the modern economic system. In Nash’s “games of reason”, the great mathematician Nash created the theory of “non-cooperative equilibrium.” This proposes that it is in the interests of the players (the employers and the workers) that equilibrium be maintained, as an imbalance leads to collapse. It would seem that a wish to orientate oneself in accordance with the actions of another is commendable. But only to a certain extent. If it is taken to a tragicomic, grotesque absolute, it oppresses the individual, making possible the development of an inferiority complex, the atrophying of initiative, and the engendering of a weakness of will. A genuine threat is created to a society of people who are quickly being taught not to think or to reflect. A deepening of this problem is successful when an artist with his own method for the creation of an image returns us to a romantic experiencing of the values of the Lord’s World which in its most unattractive social algorithms preserves the imprint of perfection. Treasure life and be brave enough to be an exception from the conventional rules and official propriety! A representation of that goal can only be successful when the method used to capture this reality is inspired by the joy of touching upon the authentic perfection of creation and, it follows, the authentic Rules and higher School of Painting. Maria searched for this School by addressing the monumental genres of old art, starting with fresco painting and the canvases of the Dutch masters. They help to precisely lay out the composition, removing anything that is excessive. “Any monumental painting retains its meaning,” believes Maria. We might add that painting envelops this meaning in an entirely plastic formula. Generous in detail, whilst at the same time being ideally con structed, precious in the tactile experiencing of each object rendered, mournful at man’s foolishness, without exhortation, but with a philosophical acceptance and sympathy — such was the painting of Safronova’s favorite artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who lived in the 16th century. It is enough here to recall his grandiose picture “Netherlandish Proverbs.” Maria Safronova creates her painting on the basis of natural impressions that set the theme for analytical work in the studio. The artist sets out the envisaged space, sketches out the premises and space in perspective, beginning with a drawn plan. Then she populates it with people. She fills every crease, rumple and detail, down to an acute, precise expressiveness. She creates sketches. And then transforms them into canvases. This noble retrospectivism in her manner of execution is, at a minimum, worthy of respect against the background of accepted simulative painting: an approximate imitation on canvas of flat photographs. “I attempt,” Maria admits, “to ensure that the tiles in my pictures are painted in such a way that we can almost sense and experience the clack of a ball bouncing off them.” Maria Safronova regards each of her works like an architect, beginning with the laying out of the architectonic space. This is another reason why it is logical to install a large theme with the aid of separate scale models. In the case of “The Game of the General View”, the eleven canvases are accompanied by a seven-section installation titled “Card Index”. At its base lies a three-level cupboard with draws – an imitation of a card index, a symbol of bureaucratic well-being, an indispensable companion for human life from birth to the passage into the next world. Three rows of draws with cards (in each row there are ten draws) distinguished by their color. In the lower row the labels are pink, in the middle they are blue, and in the upper they are white. The colors unavoidably link the subject to state emblems (the tricolor of the Russian state flat) and to the gender stratification of society (the boy’s color ‘blue’, the girl’s color ‘pink’). This tricolor becomes the dominant in the color range of all the painted themes in “The Game of the General View” series: in the colors of the shirts worn by the football players, in the festive balloons, in the coats and hats of the kids in the kindergarten groups. This alarming unification system for the world is not only developed in the color scheme. The very installation of a model “card index” in some way recalls the experiments of constructivist theatrical set design with its scenes-factories complete with conveyor-belted life processes. Such a technocratic, conveyor-belt theme structures the image of Safronova’s “Card Index.” Over the gray draws with their tricolor labels, there are strange premises — they are strange, frightening in their absurd stupidity, whilst being imprinted into one’s memory at the level of childish phobias. One of them is a new-build construction, submerged to half way up the first floor. A football has been left in it. The other is a children’s playground with a rocket. Beneath it is a swimming pool with a high diving board. There is also a warehouse with toy dolls, and a premises of indeterminate purpose with a vast metal chimney. These draws of childhood memory at one and the same time terrify you and draw you in. They are familiar to almost everyone from the tenderest of ages. They are archetypal in terms of their subjects, running from the absurd orderliness of life to wanderings through the collective subconscious. The ordering of nightmares, the archiving of phobias, no doubt provides a decent chance for attempts to free oneself from gloomy oppression. In this aspect, Maria Safronova’s installation, perhaps, has a psycho-therapeutic impact. It’s interesting that the artist Safronova, who just five years ago began her life in the world of major contemporary art, precisely and convincingly selected her trajectory for movement within it, and her personal method for social criticism with the aid of virtuoso, high quality plastic statements. What’s more, strict discipline with regard to oneself allows a certain vector to be traced from instructive illustration (one of the earliest works was on the subject of “a fight in the underpass”) to a conceptual asceticism. Indeed, Maria Safronova is now working on a project devoted to subtitles in the figurative arts.