- Keti Chukhrov’s Theater of Communion
Among recognizable characters of contemporary Moscow—a socialite from the oligarchic-patriotic class, her sycophantic hanger-on friend, and a migrant laborer hired to paint her apartment—Keti Chukhrov’s Communion presents a clash of social identities and religious and political creeds. Russian readers and audiences are invited both to profound identification with these figures (to communion, or to communism) and to extreme alienation from them (communion is deferred here, and communism has been deferred by history, of course). Is this parody or realism? Comedy or satire? The audience’s interpretive indecision derives from the compositional heterogeneity of Communion. The form is recognizably dramatic, but something is askew in the characters’ speech, which sways between usually incompatible registers. Naturalistic dialogue peppered with scraps of found language seems normal enough for contemporary theater (especially in the context of Moscow’s New Drama scene of the 2000s), yet here it is set in lines of verse, at times rhyming and singsong, and it often veers off into poetic diction and philosophical and political discourse.1 The result is a riveting intersection of familiarity and peculiarity. Although that may be a recipe for art in general (think of Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of defamiliarization, which [End Page 126] Alexandra Berlina elucidates in this issue of Common Knowledge), the result startles each time it is achieved in a new way.2
Chukhrov’s biography, which has conspired to place her between institutional, political, and social positions, offers one avenue of explanation for her works’ stylistic and formal heterogeneity. Born in Soviet Georgia, she was propelled out of the Caucasus by the civil war and the economic devastation of the Soviet collapse. Landing at Moscow State University, she devoted herself to comparative (English and German) literature and philosophy. She now holds a position in the School of Cultural Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Chukhrov has sustained a longstanding collaboration with a network of philosophers and writers, including Artemy Magun, Oxana Timofeeva, Alexei Perzin, and David Riff, who have articulated a theoretically acute and nonsystemic Marxist intervention into contemporary Russian and global realities (and who, in recent years, have coalesced around the collective What Is To Be Done? [Chto delat’?]). Theirs is perhaps the first conspicuous attempt in Russia to wrest Marx from the hold of the Soviet past and of the present Communist Party—still the second most powerful party in Russia, distinguished by its rather careless approach to both theory and praxis. (In recent years, for instance, the party has taken to sending out greetings to members on Christian Orthodox holidays.)
Communion, and Chukhrov’s writings in general, reflect this trajectory, drawing on Russian social realities ranging from the poverty and social collapse of the early post-Soviet era to the present epoch of precarious security combined with extraordinary economic and power disparities under the watchful eye of the authoritarian state. Her work reflects as well her disparate institutional contexts—the academy, elite literature, the contemporary art world, and political activism. Chukhrov’s first creative publications, in the middle 1990s, were of experimental lyric poetry, but by the end of that decade she was turning to dramatic forms. Her dramatic works, however, have not been performed widely in conventional theaters and are more frequently presented as texts, as group or individual readings at poetry festivals, and, in the context of contemporary art exhibitions, as performance and video pieces. Communion has been released as a video play, the result of a collaboration between Chukhrov and the video artist Viktor Alimpiev, supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and commissioned for the “Beyond the Globe” exhibition at the Goderna Galerija, curated by Boris Groys for the Ljubljana Triennial in 2016.
As Chukhrov explained in an interview that Marijeta Bozovic, Stephanie Sandler, and I conducted with her in 2015, her transition to dramatic form was driven by dissatisfaction with other available genres and institutions: contemporary art is too constrained by the gallery and by fixation on the art object, [End Page 127] lyric poetry is too focused on the experience of the individual, and neither is an effective means for moving people to...