Yelena Yemchuk, Notes on Fantômas

The Alchemic Origins of Yelena Yemchuk’s “Notes on Fantômas”

Fantômas, a morally ambiguous character of film noir crime stories, was significant in the work of the Surrealists, particularly Magritte, and was an extremely popular anti-hero in the Soviet Union for decades. To Yelena, Fantômas was her sinister-looking grandfather who had been so nicknamed by the neighborhood children who feared him. Yelena is a Surrealist, but as no good artist is in any way pedantic, she developed into the tradition through everyday and casual exposure, adopting and adapting to her tastes, blending and distorting as she pleased. Surrealism, the decadent alternative to Social Realism, was the more persuasive artistic influence in Kiev where she spent her early years. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Marguerite was her bedtime tale, intermixed and maybe confused sometimes with Russian folk- and fairy-tales. She remembers well Surreal street performances, with actors wearing animal heads contorting themselves into mythical beasts. Daniil Kharms and Francis Bacon were heroes. Gypsies, carnivals, and acrobats fitted equally well into her cultural milieu. The Soviets could not censor the Slavic awe for the subterranean expressed by Surrealism, which placed special value on dreams, gnomic truths, a Manichean mix of good with evil, and the irrational. “Official” atheism may have licensed a disregard for traditional religions but it fanned the fire of disorganized spiritualism. If a rational and good deity is difficult to conceive, a devil is slightly less so, and capricious demi-gods, daemons and magicians, comparatively easy to imagine, can be even more readily seen toiling among the ordinary.

“Dreamreaders,” Yelena’s 2004 exhibition at Dactyl Foundation, introduced us to the sinister characters who, in her current exhibition, enact a number of Faustian vignettes. Her beloved Bulgakov had refashioned the Master after Marlowe himself and turned, with a beautiful economy of effort, Protestant into Soviet censorship. In the Faustian story, a desire to understand truth, a pretty highbrow interest, is followed by a bunch of comic antics. Philosophy gets tangled up with farce. The devil, even more than pain and suffering, delights in absurdities. Yelena, in her own turn, adds yet another layer of idiosyncratic and contemporary reinterpretation. Recalling imagery found in painters Paula Rego, Henry Darger, Goya, and James Ensor, as well as film directors Fellini, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch, she simultaneously looks forward and back. This collection is primarily inhabited by half-naked flappers (a crucial scene in Bulgakov), but also by some of the zebras, elephants, cats, dogs, horses, fish, monkeys, swans, chickens, bears, bats, frogs, and mice that have appeared before. Among the props available to her characters one tends to find blindfolds, dead birds, old-fashioned wheel chairs, guns, nooses, nets, red flowers, wrecking balls, axes, masks, animal heads, megaphones, umbrellas, black flags, clubs, capes, balls, crowns, bags of money, knives, tutus, berets, bicycles, hula-hoops, and prosthetic devices. The list is various but finite. Objects and characters repeat often such that one might be tempted to look for “image clusters,” a term used in Shakespeare studies referring to a kind of visual grammar that is idiosyncratic to an artist’s way of seeing the world. It’s something like a signature, an identifying pattern, always similar, never the same.

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