Sots-art breaks the taboo against identification

Unlike socialist realism, sots-art breaks the taboo against identification with the leaders. In sots-art, leaders turned from gods into heroes, and therefore became accessible for direct identification. The Double Self-Portrait (1973) is one proof of the modification of the identificatory function. In The Double Self-Portrait, K/M depicted themselves in the manner of stereotyped mosaic representations of Lenin and Stalin. These authoritarian icons were essentially impersonal, vacant, “eidetic.” The most important thing about them was the exhortation to identify regardless of any specific identificatory project. The same is true of The Source of Socialist Realism (1982-83). In this painting, Stalin is shown in the presence of the Muse who is sketching his profile on the wall. The association with the tyrant turns the identificatory function into an imperative: the interest taken by immortals in the leader’s image obliges the mortals to imitate their heroes. On the other hand, Stalin’s transposition into the context of Greek mythology is an obvious travesty of the transreferential function.

In the early 1980s in New York, in the Ronald Feldman gallery, K/M exhibited a series of paintings done in a deliberately traditional, academic manner. The moniker “nostalgic socialist realism” fully reflects the artists’ state of mind at the time. The ways in which sots-art has changed in emigration are most vividly illustrated by their painting Thirty Years Ago 1953 (1982-83). The character depicted in it is captured in a moment of intimate contact, i.e., transposed – by means of the transreferential function – into a genre scene. All this unfolds against the background of a portrait of Stalin which hangs on the wall and by its very presence, as it were, sanctions the viewer’s identification with the event. This portrait on the wall can be regarded as a rudiment or remnant of the identificatory function (trace, in Derrida’s terminology). Thus, the identificatory icon undergoes a sort of retreat (a displacement to the background), becoming a painting within a painting.

Lacan’s notion that “the father [or the ancestor] is an embodiment of the function of symbolic identification” (12) is visually paraphrased by K/M in the series Family Portraits (1980), where dinosaurs are represented as ancestors. In these “portraits,” the transfer metaphor is reduced to the level of the absurd: the transreferential function plunges us into the deep recesses of the identificatory dimension. The phallic appearance of the ancestors (“I’m Adonis, here’s my penis,” wrote the poet Genrikh Sapgir) is in accord with the Lacanian definition of the phallus as the “repressed signifier,” which nonetheless “spurs on” all of our identificatory efforts.

As soon as the moi–>je shifter works, the identificatory dimension turns into a palimpsest of identifications. Thus, in one of Eduard Gorokhovsky’s 1989 paintings, six images of Lenin can be discerned through the image of Stalin, as if surfacing from the “bottom” of representation. Thanks to this technique, the interworking of identificatory mechanisms becomes visible.