Gor Chahal

Born: 1961, Moscow

Gor Chahal is an Orthodox Christian. While he is not the only one among Russian artists, for many this aspect is merely part of their lives, not influencing their professional activities. For Chahal, however, his faith is also the source of his creative ideas.

One of Gor Chahal’s main images is burning figures, representing the divine fire enlightening souls. These are the same flames that set the Burning Bush ablaze and took Elijah up into heaven in a chariot of fire. The artist believes that they “burn up the wooden beam in the eye and restore the purity of the mind, returning the natural vision, so that a man does not look at the splinter in his brother’s eye, but incessantly cognises the miracles of God.” The fuel for these flames is our sins: the more sins one destroys, the brighter burns the fire.

Chahal even speaks in religious terms of the way in which he creates his fiery figures on the computer, without resorting to physical models. He calls this a virtual form of the image of Veronica.

The Figures in Fire video is one of the stages in the development of Chahal’s fiery project. In the first, Man, the burning individual is lonely. In the third, Joy, he has turned into a plasma substance. In the second, he is engulfed in burning love.

The First Light video reflects hopes for the resurrection of the dead. A bugler goes to a cemetery and plays the signal to “rise.” This is a touching yet hopeless attempt to singlehandedly bring about the end of our weary world and hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God. Chahal’s short video addresses the contradictions in the teachings of Nikolai Fyodorov, the father of Russian cosmism, who believed that the Resurrection was no metaphorical event, but had to take place literally. The philosopher Vladimir Solovyov criticised Fyodorov for “placing the cart before the horse; to resurrect mankind at the stage of cannibalism would be both impossible and completely undesirable.” This “home-made” magic approach to the Resurrection is dangerous, concentrating on the body and overlooking the transformation of the soul. The bodies of the dead have arisen to the sound of the trumpet – what happens next?

Gor Chahal is one of the rare examples of an artist with a talent for literature. Besides remarkable poetry, he often accompanies his works with detailed hermeneutic texts. The artist’s own commentaries are usually themselves the object of additional critical interpretation.

Regarding his Mary project, there is a broad commentary regarding the symbolical meaning of gold in culture. I received the following short and aphoristic oral advice from Gor regarding my future text: “The most important thing is not to forget to mention that I am making a virtual sculpture.”

The inner disquiet evoked by this oxymoron is like the combination of bewilderment, agitation and convulsion experienced when looking at the works from the Mary series. The eye is not given any opportunity for ironic or metaphoric estrangement. There is not even any back-up from the metaphysical symbolism on the surface (the name Mary, the blue colour, the golden shining). While clearly referring back to the classical painting tradition, the artist’s emblematic system is based on a series of contradictions, which block the opportunity for a traditional reading of the image.

There is a fundamental disruption of the function of spatial perception. Classical round sculpture always has one or several preferred points of view. Here, the artist offers angles that do not bear any relationship to the concept of “sculpture.” Such flying and spliced bodies can only be seen in three-dimensional digital animation – for example, when moving across an architectural model in a game. A virtual trip, however, is always “channeled” by the constructed space. Gor’s bodies hang in an abstract blue environment. The viewer revolves around the bodies, like an insect, without a distinct trajectory of its own flight.

Another factor instilling uncertainty is the breakdown of the traditional symbolical codes. Gor uses the colour yellow to convey the shining of the native gold. Traditional iconography, however, only permits one replacement of gold – a white background. Alongside gold, therefore, white can be regarded as not only a colour, but also the light. The colour yellow is ambiguous. On the one hand, in the modern consumer consciousness, yellow now designates the exalted “elixir of youth” – a retinal assisting the rejuvenation of the cells (there is even a tale in Moscow of one artistic duet, who embarked on a project of self-preservation by only eating vitamin-rich carrots, and turned yellow.) On the other hand, yellow is a traditional sign of withering and aging, for example, yellowed paper or the yellow skin of elderly people. Yellow is even the colour of death, as in Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad.

There is another possibility of the effect of shining – in a light box or on a computer screen – where the aforementioned series was, in effect, created. In this case, there is no need for a metaphor; all colours, as one might guess, are shining. Highlighting the image from inside is a literal incarnation of the idea of the icon. The light of grace, traditionally depicted with the help of gold, is conveyed by an electric light. Attempting to create the maximum effect, instead of prints, it would be possible to create an ideally “working” icon – with highlighting, withdrawalinto the necessary points of myrrh and even with real anti-bacterial attributes. The symbolical concedes place to hyper-verity, hyper-precision and the technical perfection of hi-fi, which, according to Jean Baudrillard, is the most destructive factor in modern culture.

In Seduction, Baudrillard compares a technically perfect performance to pornography, claiming that absolute visibility, like an absolutely pure sound, kills everything living and human in art, depriving it of seduction and attraction. With the wide spread of digital technologies, the man in the street now has unlimited possibilities for creating smug and lethal images, correcting all the external imperfections of the world. The circumstance that seduction disappears along with imperfection, incompleteness and understatement is another great advantage of popular culture, intended to defend the man in the street from the worry and contradictions evoked by philosophy and art.

Theodor W. Adorno was one of the first to express alarm regarding the absolute harmony inculcated by mass culture. He was responsible for the thought that imperfection and understatement are needed by art. Adorno joined these factors in the concept of interrupted transcendentalism: “The enigmatic in works of art lies in their incompleteness ... An enigmatic character is something slipping away and jumping out of the sphere of art. After its loss, art retains what once fulfilled first a magic and then a religious function.”

In this way, Gor Chahal’s technical devices for creating an unstable and ambivalent artistic system can be regarded as subtle “therapeutic” work on the reconstruction of visuality in a digital format. Thanks to deliberate imperfection, the rights of the symbolical series to bypass vulgarity and claims at precision are restored, for example, regarding Mary’s loin. It might be possible to linger on this merited and very advanced artistic stance, were it not for one circumstance, appearing in the wake of the process of contemplating the works. This circumstance knocks one off balance, not allowing our opus to end on a high note.

Reconstructing Gor Chahal’s creative method in line with the mechanism of resistance to modern religious kitsch, it would seem logical to evoke the idea of the reactivation of metaphysics and the triumphant restoration of its socio-cultural rights. The equable composer would immediately be faced with a broad horizon of possibilities, for example, linking the artist’s skepticism regarding the possibilities of the representational tongue and the Armenian version of Christianity – monophysitism – which prohibits any images of God.

This would be possible and even compelling, were it not for one sudden, sobering doubt – who is actually talking about metaphysics? The name Mary, the gold, the blue light of the background (not the cape!) … there are no distinct symbols, everything is neutral, while the artist’s claim that the prototype of Mary “was a real woman called Maria” allows both a Christian and an atheistic interpretation. Imprinting the human body in gold, the artist hints at the conserving and preserving functions of this metal. Being logical, if something requires conservation, this means that it is perishable and subject to decomposition. No miraculous inner possibilities of self-preservation of the body, which is usually dated by metaphysics, are envisaged here. Mary is, consequently, a live and living creature – why else would the artist concern himself with the future preservation of her body? Perhaps, with our discussions of the sublime, we have simply fallen for an acquaintance, a neighbor or even his girlfriend?

It is nevertheless fascinating to trace the source of unwitting disappointment arising as a result of our realization of the human nature of Mary. Our consciousness appears to readily agree to generous concessions on the level of the formal presentation of the image, even accepting such a paradox as a virtual sculpture, i.e. non-existent, imaginary matter. A reverse course of thought – from the private to the general, when the real, empirically perceptible world is examined thought the prism of metaphysics – is only implemented with great difficulty. This reflects the traditional priority of theology in relation to ethics. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. A former lesson of survival is transformed into a distinct model of the division of the world into the ranks of “high” and “low”, eternal and perishable, spiritual and scientific – a model, one must confess, fraught with sanctimony.

There are probably real historical reasons why this opposition grew particularly topical in the age of positivism. The destructive irony expressed by Søren Kierkegaard during the economic boom of the mid-nineteenth century, regarding the microscope as a means of cognizing the world, is very close to Gor Chahal’s destructive work today with respect to digital technologies. They are also linked by an intrepid union of the eternal and the subjective, metaphysics and existence. Without a personal relationship to us, to our bodies and souls, the concept of eternity otherwise loses all meaning, since truth is subjective and “no one will take my place before God” (Kierkegaard).

That is why the central figure is endowed with such a clear personality in the Mary graphic series. Born from the conflict of meaning between the metaphysical symbolics of the image and the physical concreteness of the body, this is the most important of all devices of disintegration activated by the artist. This profound paradox of meaning transforms the Mary project into an open and precarious sign system, in which the final meaning of the image depends on a third factor – the viewer and his or her subjective desire to decide whether to see the eternal or the private. In this way, philosophy is transformed from bombastic phrases into a concrete position of life.

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