Arseny Zhilyaev: In the Days of War


Arseny Zhilyaev: In the Days of War

23.05.2023 - 27.08.2023 / MSU, 2. kat

The title of the exhibition, "In the Days of War," was taken from a painting by the prominent socialist realist Geliy Korzhev (1925-2012). The artwork, also titled "In the Days of War," marked a significant milestone in the artist's career was completed in 1954. It was during this year that the City Gallery of Contemporary Art (later known as the Museum of Contemporary Art) was established in Zagreb by a group of artists and cultural innovators. These events occurred one year after the death of Joseph Stalin and two years prior to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, which is renowned for Nikita Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" denouncing the personality cult and dictatorship of the former Soviet leader.

The painting depicts a room that has been converted into a workshop, likely during World War II, where a soviet soldier-artist is shown meditating in front of a blank monochrome white canvas while holding a folder containing sketches. Korzhev, when describing the story behind the painting, revealed that the canvas originally featured a portrait of Stalin. However, he found it challenging to accurately depict the angle of the Generalissimus' head and ultimately decided to repaint it white in order to reconsider his approach. At that moment, a friend of the artist happened to pass by and exclaimed, "You simply invented geniusly." Confused, Korzhev asked for clarification, to which his friend responded, "A blank canvas." Following the successful exhibition of the work at the First Youth Exhibition (established after the death of Stalin and almost free of bureaucratic control of art officials), Korzhev was accepted into the Moscow Union of Artists, bypassing the usual candidacy stage. For some scholars, the decision to reject portraying the dictator was pivotal in shaping the artist's destiny. He went on to break away from the heavy influence of socialist realism of the 1940s and became a pioneer of the truthful "severe style," even bringing a sense of thaw into official Soviet art. Only decades later, in the 2010s, did a sketch of "In the Days of War" from 1953, which had been held in a private US collection, become accessible to the public after its photo was published on the internet. The painting depicts a room that has been converted into a workshop, likely during World War II, where a soviet soldier-artist is portraying Stalin.

“In the Days of War” is the first exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb and Museum of Museums, Venice, a non-existent institution dedicated to researching and reconstructing the (future) history of museums, collecting, preserving and exhibiting, in order to free (from) time by means of art. The project includes a reconstruction of the similarly titled show held in 2033 at the Museum of Arts of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, as well as a curated selection of artworks created during the various conflicts involving Croatia: World War I (1914-1918), World War II (1939-1945), the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995) from the collection of Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb. Additionally, the exhibition provides a link to the UNESCO list documenting verified damages to cultural sites in Ukraine caused by Russia between February 24, 2022, and May 10, 2023.

Created on the principle of a display collage, the project is intended to become a platform for a polylogue between different historical contexts and types of memory handling shaped by methodology of art, museum collecting polices, history of exhibitions. Each of a collage element tells own histories. The disappearance of the bloody dictator provides an opportunity for a more daring artistic experiment, leading to the emergence of an innovative plot using emptiness of the monochrome as a promise for a possible brighter future in place of death mask of the past. This event coincides with accelerating towards the path to contemporaneity in another country. However, after some time, the emptiness of polylogue again becomes substantial imperialistic monologue, indicating that the repressive function represented by the figure of Stalin cannot simply be "whitewashed", it is deeply inscribed in the fabric of the Russian context. So, an attempt to forget at least for a while the avatar of repressive mechanism, leads to its reincarnation and a new wave of repressions and an attempt to vanished the culture of the neighboring independent country of Ukraine through the catastrophe of the war. History repeats itself. First as tragedy, then as tragedy, then again as tragedy.

Arseny Zhilyaev (b.1984, Voronezh, USSR) is an artist based in Venice. His projects speculate about possible futures histories of art using the museum as medium. Artist's works have been shown at the Manifesta 13 in Marseille, the biennales in Gwangju, Liverpool, Lyon, Riga, Thessaloniki and Ljubljana Triennale as well as at exhibitions at Centre Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo (Paris); de Appel (Amsterdam); HKW (Berlin); Kadist Art Foundation (Paris and San Francisco); V-a-c Foundation (Moscow and Venice). Zhilyaev graduated from Voronezh State University (2006); Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art (2008); and MA International Program, Valand School of Fine Arts, Gothenburg, Sweden (2010). The artist publishes articles in e-flux journal, Iskusstvoznanie,, He is an editor of an anthology Avant-Garde Museology (e-flux, University of Minnesota Press, V-a-c Press, 2015), co-founder of Institute for Mastering of Time (with Asya Volodina); Institute of the Cosmos (with Anton Vidokle); Museum of Museums, Venice and a member of Moscow Art Magazine's editorial board. Zhilyaev gave lectures and master classes at MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, Bard Graduate Center, CUNY (New York); Tate Modern, Whitechapel (London); Princeton University (New Jersey); Moscow State University, Russian State Humanitarian University, Higher School of Economics (Moscow). He is a professor at NABA (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti) in Milan. Artist's works are in the collections of Tate Modern (London); M HKA, Museum (Antwerp); Tretyakov Gallery, Multimedia Art Museum, NCCA, MMOMA (all Moscow); Kadist Art Foundation (Paris, San Francisco); V-a-c Foundation (Moscow, Venice).

Curated by Jasna Jakšić