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Sergei Buagev. Photo: Nikita Pavlov

Visible and Invisible John Cage 0

Sergei Timofeev

Contemporary Russian artist Sergei Bugaev, who occasionally met with John Cage in Leningrad and New York over the course of several years, has prepared a project entitled John Cage in Russia and Worldwide for the 2011 Cēsis Art Festival.

Leningrad in the 1980s was a cradle for a whole string of trends in Russian contemporary culture. If Moscow’s status as capital city didn’t allow for practically any liberties, then Leningrad was considered a much more free-thinking, artist- and musician-friendly city. In the mid-1980s, the young and incredibly energetic artist and musician Sergei Bugaev, also known as “Afrika,” moved to the city. In Leningrad, Bugaev quickly befriended the leading underground cult figures of the time, such as avant-garde composer Sergei Kuryokhin, rock musicians Boris Grenshikov and Viktor Tsoi, and artist Timur Novikov. In 1986, Bugaev himself achieved renown all over the Soviet Union, starring as the lead character in Sergei Solovyov’s epochal film Assa—the tempestuous, bewitching artist/musician known as Bananan.

The collapse of the Soviet system, which liberated a wealth of energy and striving for a new eruption, also attracted lots of well-known Western musicians and artists to Petersburg. The city was also visited by the composer John Cage, a guru of untraditional cultural thought. Here he was introduced to Bugaev, and they spent a few days wandering around the city together and even organized a joint performance, called the Water Symphony. As Sergei recalled, the performance looked something like this: Directed by Cage, who was standing on a black box, Sergei and Timur poured water from tap-filled vodka bottles—American Smirnoff and Soviet Stolichnaya—into a single large bottle. Capitalist culture and Soviet state culture united, becoming simply water in a big bottle without a label. A while later, Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev traveled to New York, where he was shown around the city by Cage, who at the same time helped to find new project where artists from Russia could participate. Among other things Sergei, also worked with the famous Merce Cunningham Dance Company, whose music was composed by John Cage.

Time has passed. Cage is no longer among the living. “Yet in relation to him I’m unable to use the word ‘died,’” says Sergei. “More often I used the expression ‘went into Nirvana.’ All people are different—some die, and for others something else happens. This couldn’t have happened to John Cage, because he is a special substance that isn’t created, doesn’t disappear, but is somehow present. And at certain moments it appears. Almost like in his famous 4’33’’—a piece of music that doesn’t exist until you have defined certain parameters for where and when it will happen.” 

Sergei believes that “Andy Warhol’s lesson about the creation of valuable objects” has been victorious in global, and particularly Anglo-Saxon, artistic culture. Meanwhile, Cage’s lessons are complex activities and states, close to meditation, whose goal is completely different. “Yes, see—there is a thing, and it is expensive; yet nobody explains what manipulations could be performed with this thing in order to improve yourself. You can improve the country, improve the museum where it will be exhibited. But there is no talk about yourself. In Cage’s case, everything was directed toward individual experience, which you can acquire only personally. There is no way this can be bought.”

According to Bugaev, it important for a project to have a theme not only about an idea, but also about a succession in the soul and style of an artist’s existence. “I, a Russian-Soviet citizen, touch upon an issue that is related to the memory of an American composer, and all of this takes place in Cēsīs. Immediately we recall Rothko, too, whom Cage respected very much and whose roots can be found in Latvia. In other words, a system of fragile threads linking separate individuals in a certain cultural situation undoubtedly exists. Another thing that is very important is simply the message about what a sincere, gentle person John Cage was, because the image of a good and decent composer or artist is disappearing now too. Now there are many detached, closed-off creators, who stew only in their own subjective environments. Cage was a completely different person—open and truly enlightened.”


Sergei also points to Cage’s unmediated link to radical music, noise, and revolutionary art in general. He promises that his next project will be related to the development of phono levitation (the movement of an object with the assistance of sound), his studies of Russian cemetery symbolism, and hardcore LP-cover culture in Rotterdam and Hamburg. “So there will be things that are not directly linked to one another. Yet here hides the essence of original creation. When people move around with their eyes and hear with their ears in these parallel realities, which at the same time allude to a Cage-like worldview—then this is the most interesting thing,” says the 45-year-old artist from Petersburg. 

During our conversation on the terrace of Hotel Neiburgs in Riga, Sergei’s thoughts move in about the same spirit, extracting recent ideas and feelings from the darkness of the storehouse in his consciousness. “A couple days ago I was in Paris, where I visited my friend Rubik Petrosyan, who has lived there for a long time and distributes real electronic, ‘fierce’ hardcore music. It’s close to noise, yet at the same time you can dance to it and it is psychedelic. Yet unfortunately this culture has almost disappeared. We visited him at his office, where there are piles of records that nobody buys or produces anymore. The company that released them no longer exists either. And so we sat there, with these records all around us, with lots of skeletons depicted on the covers, and skulls in various forms and seen from various angles. In my imagination, these records merged with another problem that I’m currently working on. I used to make photographs taken in cemeteries, where I turned my attention to a single thing. In Russia, and before that in the Soviet Union, gravestones often feature photographs of the person buried there. This tradition continues. Enter a graveyard, and you see photographs everywhere. I’ve even been to a company that mass produces ready-made forms for these photographs.