Monday, 21 November 2011

The Mitki

Moritz Kasper looks at the subversive 1980s underground art movement
The term “Mitki” was first coined by Vladimir Shinkanev in 1983, when he wrote a short treatise on his friends, calling them Mit'ki. This was a reference to the painter Dmitri (“Mityok”) Shagin, who popularized the Mitki with quick and poignant sketches of the “Mitki lifestyle”, which included working weekly 24-hour shifts in boiler rooms to earn enough money for a minimal diet in the Soviet Union (accommodation was provided by the state). In 1985, the creative energies of these two men were united to publish a book illegally as samizdat about the theoretical and practical aspects of “Mitki life”. The language used was pseudo-scientific, imitating the tone of Marxist sociology as well as anthropology, mixed with dadaistic Mitki vocabulary; almost every second page was filled with an illustration by Shagin.
Here is an extract from a typical chapter. This one is from “The Mitki and the Epic”:

 "Goethe and Jean-Paul expressed the opinion that the epic is the opposite of the comic. The oral literature of the Mitki not only refutes this opinion. It proves that the opposite is true. I will cite one funny story as the most lofty example of the Mitki epic:

"The captain of an ocean liner yells from the bridge: “Woman overboard!” An American runs on deck. In one spirited motion, he tears away his white shorts and a white T-shirt with the slogan “Miami Beach.” He wears steel-coloured bathing trunks, his body is covered in a bronze tan. Everyone watches breathlessly. The American runs to the railing, gracefully flies over, enters the water without a splash, and confidently cuts the waves in international breaststroke style toward the woman. But . . . ten meters from his goal he drowns!

The captain yells again: “Woman overboard!” A Frenchman runs on deck. In one sweeping motion, he tears away his blue shorts and a blue T-shirt with the motto “L’Amour Toujours,” remaining in yellow bathing trunks with parrots. Everyone watches breathlessly. The Frenchman soars over the railing like a bird, performing three somersaults before he hits the water without a splash! He elegantly swims in international butterfly strokes to save the woman. But . . . within five meters from his goal he drowns! 

The captain roars again: “Woman overboard!” The door to the broom closet opens and a Russian stumbles on deck, blowing his nose and hiccupping. “What broad? Where?” He’s wearing a threadbare, torn, greasy quilted jacket. His pants form huge bubbles over his knees. He slowly takes off his jacket, his striped sailors’ shirt, and unbuttons the only button on his fly, remaining in baggy, dirty, kneelength underwear. His body is white and bulky. Shivering with cold, he clutches at the railing, awkwardly tumbles overboard, and falls into the water with a lot of noise and splashes. 

And . . . drowns instantly!" 

What is remarkable about this passage is that it shows the Mitki were clearly not pro-Western. In the context of the “Mitki epic”, Western culture is irrelevant; the outcome stays the same. But it is the Mitki man who is more true to life. It is not that he recognizes failure, he lives it, he is its incarnation and this is what makes him a more natural character in Soviet society and perhaps the world in general. Another typical work is Olga Florenskaya's series “The Heroes of Russian Aviation”, which is reproduced below.

It shows pre-revolutionary aviator Lev Matsievich as he plummets from the sky towards an ageing couple. In the left half of the picture we can already see a monument erected in Matsievich's honour; a father and his child are walking around it, accompanied by two birds. The sky's intensive blue could also be interpreted as a maritime allusion. In fact, the word used in the text to the right of the aeroplane, воздухоплавание “the celebration of aeronautics”, is a compound of воздух (air) and плавать (to swim).
In any case, whether this event is meant to be related to the sea or not, it provides us with another example of the failure of a grand Russian undertaking, and a typical Mitki tactic to defame official state grandeur, in this case the monument for the hero of aviation who cannot fly, just as earlier we met the Mitki sailor who could not swim.

One among many other attempts to escape the dull everyday reality of the Soviet regime, the work of the Mitki belongs to a time that is now almost forgotten – by cosmopolitan Russians and “Westerners” alike. In a time where everything is available at the touch of button, people are now looking for a hold on, rather than a distraction from, reality.

Moritz Kasper is a second year TSM student of Russian, currently on a year's study in Moscow State University

For an in-depth look at Soviet culture, enrol now in the second semester of the 'Milestones in the History of Russian Culture' course. 

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