What is the Message?

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What is the Message?

New media and its influence on the contemporary art scene is one of the hottest topics these days. Some art historians debate whether it is art if the piece has no canvas or paint. However, all these "fights" seem a little outdated because this issue has been discussed for at least 50 years.

Contemporary art

 As Walter Benjamin highlighted in his famous essay at the beginning of the 20th century, a photograph or anything with technological origin lacks aura. But did it help to exclude photography, video, digital or post-digital art from visual culture for eternity? It did not. Until today these mediums have developed and presented us new names in the sphere. All thanks to technology, new media, and new media theorists who gave those artists hope and the understanding that what they do matters.

Vika Malysheva “Three Guys” (2020, digital print). Courtesy of the artist

"Three Guys" by Vika Malysheva is a great example where the young artist does not even try to hide all the photo editing she made. This peculiarity is not some sloppiness – Malysheva did this intentionally. Her agenda is not to make us believe in this image. The artist wants to show us that it is just a dream, maybe the same one her models have in the picture. A closer look reveals a clear understanding that the artist is trying to introduce a visual puzzle to her viewer.

On the one hand, the Holy Trinity iconography is presented in the picture. On the other hand, Malysheva is also demonstrating some of the Seven Sleepers. The fireplace, which is the focal point of the artist's composition, visually unites the saints' iconography world with her own. Malysheva's figure, which we see at the bottom of the piece, can be understood as the eye of the Omniscience: spectators see a figure which observes the peaceful sleep of three men with halos over their heads. So, everything in this roughly made work has lots of coded information that only a true art lover can decipher. 

Valerii Konkov “Medium“ (2022, digital c-print). Courtesy of the artist

Valerii Konkov directly references Marshall McLuhan's famous "The Medium is the Message" statement and Nam June Paik's work "The Medium is the Medium." The TV set image in his "Medium" series demonstrates upside-down footage on a screen to the viewers. This is how the artist metaphorically changes the meaning of any information given through a screen; it switches to the opposite. Unlike his predecessor - Nam June Paik, Konkov pictures TV sets on some homemade altars. It provides spectators a hint that television can be understood as a religious object in this artist's interpretation. However, the viewers see it as an object of individual worshiping, an intimate piece one can cherish away from the public eye like the catacomb period of Christianity was like. Another important detail is that the artist pictures daily news broadcasts – an outdated form of getting up-to-date information for most young men. This way, anonymous viewers become a contemporary version of old-type believers who cherish their rituals in an ancient form of presentation. 

Katerina Serioznaya “<West>” (2022, mixed media). Courtesy of RuArts Foundation

Katerina Serioznaya transforms a photograph into a powerful visual message – her digital collage "" refers to the unspoken opposition of the East and West mentalities. All people in this piece demonstrate the collective unconscious, each trying to choose a side to show their uniqueness. But what the viewer sees is a group of people that looks alike. This way, the artist raises the question of the necessity of this dispute and whether it is needed in the contemporary world. The answer lies in small mirror fragments, where one can spot a bit of their reflection. This elegant gesture puts the viewer in one space with the "models" and gives the understanding that all feuds are just a glitch in a human's mind. 

Ruben Sogomonian "The Person Who is Not" (2019, video). Courtesy of the artist

"The Person Who is Not" by Ruben Sogomonian is a very moving, tragic video about almost every family traumatized by the loss of their loved ones. Since the artist chose time-based media, spectators can see a solid visual narrative the artist establishes in his footage. Sogomonian's characters demonstrate all sorts of Seven Deadly Sins but still gain the viewer's forgiveness: they all experienced tremendous loss, which affected their lives. The passed-away person in this work transforms into an impersonation of sorrow: his image accompanies every character throughout the video. The artist hurts his viewers' old wounds to remind them how painful such an experience can be. In some way, Sogomonian forces spectators to re-live the loss experience to find future happiness.

Gentle Women “On Happiness” (2021, video performance). Courtesy of the artist

 Happiness that comes through trauma is also one of the "Gentle Women" art group topics. Alexandra Artamonova and Evgenia Lapteva demonstrated it in one of their recent video performances, "On Happiness." Two women stand on high ground and break porcelain plates to strike the happiness' attention. This gesture is based on one of the Slavic nations' superstitions, where the damage of a glass or ceramic object like the ones mentioned means that these kinds of sorrows are so little that the only thing they can bring is happiness. Video performance is "Gentle Women's" primary medium – it helps the artists transfer intense feelings and emotions into an exhibition hall and share it with the viewers. Through these simple actions, they create a ritual that makes the feeling of happiness inevitable for themselves.

All these examples demonstrate how wrong Benjamin was in his new media judgment. Contemporary artists who figured out how to take advantage of all that new media can offer transform it into solid messages that touch the viewer's soul. The details they plant in their works make spectators find cultural and historical references and create an atmosphere where one can establish an intimate dialogue with an artist. 

Alexandra Orlova, PhD