Yury Kharchenko, What Is Art?
Key Images and Cycles on Fundamental Questions of Life
Ten years ago, Yury Kharchenko would have answered the question as to what art is with great certainty with: ‘life, art is life’. And: ‘My life is art.’ Today, in contrast, he states that art is that which is experienced, sensed, felt, and foreseen in inner images. Art is nothing other than the reflection of life. In this respect, for him, all art is biographical. This is one of the reasons why he shares Andrei Tarkovsky’s answer to the same question and yet distances himself from it again.
Like Kharchenko, Tarkovsky first refers to life and only then speaks of art: ‘Before defining art – or any concept – we must answer a far broader question: what’s the meaning of man’s life on Earth? Maybe we are here to enhance ourselves spiritually. If our life tends to this spiritual enrichment, then art is a means to get there. This, of course, in accordance with my definition of life. Art should help man in this process.’ But even this life-prioritising idea goes one step too far for Kharchenko. Not only does he know that his direct ancestors only narrowly escaped the Holocaust and that the industrial killing by the Nazis destroyed six million Jews, he also knows that the best intentions can end up leading to the opposite. Thus, nothing in life can be anticipated in the proper sense, not even in its intentions. And this is precisely why he is aware that his existence as an artist would presumably have been different if he had not been born into a secular Jewish family in Moscow in 1986.
One of his great-grandfathers was shot dead under Stalin; two of his grandfathers fought against the Germans in Stalingrad, Kursk, Minsk, Warsaw, Berlin, and Frankfurt am Main. In 1946, after their demobilisation, both learned that their families had been murdered, all their belongings expropriated, and their houses destroyed. One of his grandfather’s sisters was shot on the way home from school; the older sister, the mother, the aunt, the uncle, and their children were killed in mass executions. In the family as a whole, more than eighty people were killed by the Nazis, including new-borns, infants, girls, boys, and old people. It is therefore more than understandable that, in 1997, the grandfather refused to come to Germany with the grandson and his mother as ‘quota refugees’. He did not want, as he repeatedly stated, to ‘go to the land of murderers’.
Everything could have turned out differently if Yury Kharchenko had not attended art school in Moscow at the age of six, if he had not studied art in Düsseldorf, and if he had not gotten to know the Jewish world, its customs, and its roots at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Berlin between 2009 and 2011. And his life would have taken a different course if he had not dealt with Friedrich Nietzsche’s positive affirmation of life, his transvaluation of values, and, at the University of Potsdam, with poststructuralism, Jacques Derrida, and the dissolution of all apparent certainties. Then, as a schoolboy in Moscow, he would not have been exposed to the teasing about his being Jewish and would not have become familiar with the full extent of the Holocaust only during his time in Germany. His painting professor would have spared him his view that cultural history had no place in painting, as well as his remark that he should go ‘to his fucking Jewish mother’. He would not have been accosted and beaten up for his ‘Jewish money’ in Düsseldorf. And he would not have had to feel that he was living in the wrong country as a Jew. But that is how his life played out, and that is how his painting became what it is: highly professional; painted with a light hand, despite its thematic heaviness; in all its depth, at times on the borderline of elegance, but never really beautiful; in the distribution of the surfaces and in the colouring, always harmonious, highly aesthetic, without comparison in the art system and therefore recognisable in all its variety of themes and forms even without a consistent trademark – that is to say, biographical. One could also say: existential. According to Kharchenko, good art is created when one can let go of oneself and at the same time visualise what one feels inside.
In the beginning, there is his cycle of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, painted with solid and flowing oil paints, as well as his houses, which creatively take up, interpret, develop, and transform American Abstract Expressionism into a form that is valid for Kharchenko. Their primary theme is the longing for a home. Kharchenko’s houses resonate with his search for the lost earthly and not yet found transcendent home, which even Nietzsche’s Zarathustra cannot take away from him: ‘I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.’
His key paintings – Herschel Grynszpan in Concentration Camp Dress (2016, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 100 x 80 cm) and How Long Will I Hide my Identity? Me as Herschel Grynszpan (2017, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 80 cm) – commemorate his grandfather, who changed his name from Grynszpan to Kharchenko after Herschel Grynszpan’s assassination of the German embassy counsellor Ernst vom Rath and who may have been related to the assassin. If Yury Kharchenko had been called Grynszpan, he would never have been able to hide his Jewish identity, nor would he have had to hide it. In addition to the question of his own identity, the works therefore also address the ‘différance’ between naming and the named and the ‘différance’ between the appearance present in the work of art and the real person who cannot be caught up by any ‘trace’ (Jacques Derrida), image, word, or sign. The fact that Yury Kharchenko also wants to know who he is, and not only who he was and who he could have been, remains unaffected.
In his fictitious portraits Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller from 12 November 2016 (graphite and spray paint on canvas, 190 x 200 cm) and Imperial Bishop Ludwig Müller from 2016 (graphite and spray paint on canvas, 260 x 200 cm), Kharchenko deals with the racist, ethnic, and anti-Semitic ideas of German Christians, the elevation of the swastika as a sign of salvation, the co-responsibility of Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller for the spread of anti-Semitic ideology, and the more than reserved role of Pope Pius XII. His paintings in bright red tones – Touch from 12 August 2019 (oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm), ‘All Profoundly Original Art Looks Ugly at First.’ Who was Clement Greenberg? from 19 August 2019 (oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm), and Tolstoi from 19 August 2019 (oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm) – deal with the intertwining of love and hate seen worldwide in the colour red, love-hate, and the abysses that can arise when love loses itself. Finally, Kharchenko began to realize that his fantasies, his inner images of suffering and hope, could be his real enemies. The work Tom and Jerry in Depression (acrylic on canvas, 140 x 120 cm), created nearly one year later on 26 March 2020, varies the theme against the backdrop of the animated film Blue Cat Blues (1956). In the film, Tom the cat loses his love of life after losing his girlfriend. He sits down with Jerry the mouse between railroad tracks and waits for a train to arrive. In the film, it remains open whether the two survive the suicide attempt.
The large-format works House of Hope 1–3, created on 21, 22, and 23 September 2019 (all oil on canvas), suggest that Kharchenko was in the process of integrating hope and suffering into his own personal frame of mind and that he knew that it is above all up to him what he makes of it. His artist friend Andy Hope advised him to leave the houses and their flowing structures for a while and go back to paintings like the Grynszpan portraits, that is to say to acrylic paintings, and to paint more in this way in order to become more two-dimensional in his painting. And thus, after the key oil painting Joker from 27 October 2019 (70 x 40 cm), he painted Batman in acrylic. Joker is elaborately framed. The figure is based on the US-American comic adaptation from 2019, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the leading role. His arch-rival Batman stands in front of the gates of Auschwitz, like the previously painted Beavis and Butthead.
But neither Batman nor Superman nor any of the other superheroes which Kharchenko positions at the gates of Auschwitz rescued the inmates from the gas and freed them: The rich American Uncle Scrooge did not, and neither did Spiderman, nor the silly Goofy, who usually always wins in the end; the most pompous of all superheroes, Darkwing Duck, a parody of Batman, did not, and neither did Sonic, Captain America, Darth Vader, nor, of course, Bugs Bunny, who has sex with a female rabbit outside the gates of Auschwitz.
The superheroes adapted by Kharchenko stand, if you will, for the monstrosity that most people went about their usual business between 1941 and the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army soldiers, and that the world continued to turn despite Auschwitz. But they also possibly stand for the artist himself: He grew up with the comic figures and identified with them. One wonders whether, after 1941, someone like the biblical Joshua should not have stood up again, stopped the world, and said, ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon’ (Joshua 10:12)? And one asks oneself further, why the human rights that have been held high in the West since the Enlightenment did not prevent the Holocaust. And when one thinks about whether Kharchenko will be attacked by the advocates of incomparability and incomprehensibility, because he stretches his narrative of Auschwitz to the limits of comparability and comprehension, one only wonders when this will happen and how fierce the attacks will be.
In the painting titled Mortal Kombat from 29 April 2020 (acrylic on canvas, 150 x 120 cm), the final battle between good and evil is shifted to the beginning and, simultaneously, to the end of time and thus to the supertemporal and mythical. The figuration is reminiscent of the mirrored head and neck of Gustave Doré’s engraving The Destruction of Leviathan. Doré refers here to the Babylonian-Canaanite myth of the saltwater goddess Tiamat, according to which Leviathan and Tiamat embody a horned serpent and the sea respectively. According to the Babylonian creation myth Enûma eliš, the young gods awaken the snake with their noise. This results in a quarrel. The young god Marduk defeats Tiamat and splits her body. He creates the sky from one half and sets the constellations. From the other half, he creates the mountains, the Euphrates, the Tigris, and the rest of the earth. After that, men shall be created of blood, that they may bear the toil of the gods, and the gods shall have their rest again. In the Torah, Tiamat becomes Leviathan. God formed Leviathan to play with him (see: Psalm 104:26). According to the chapter ‘Avoda’ of the Babylonian Talmud, God did this in the last three hours of the day, after he had judged and nourished the world. According to the Torah, the god of the Hebrews thus stands far above the Babylonian gods. The Ashkenazic Jews recite the hymn ‘Akdamut’ during the Feast of Weeks, after which, after the Battle of Armageddon, there is a battle between the monsters Leviathan and Behemoth at the end of time. Both will ultimately be slain by God, and their flesh will be distributed to the righteous. In the biblical Apocrypha, according to 1 Enoch 57:7ff., Leviathan and Behemoth are sent to man for castigation. According to the Apocalypse of John, before the end of time, a red dragon will appear in the sky, having seven heads, each with ten horns, and wearing seven crowns (Revelation 12:3). ‘And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth’ (Revelation 12:4). In the Christian Middle Ages, Leviathan became the devil, but also an allegory for chaos, disorder, remoteness from God, and the sinfulness of humankind. For Thomas Hobbes, ‘Leviathan’ stands for the omnipotence and invincibility of the state, for Botho Strauß for the digitalisation of our days: Although, he wishes to ‘firmly believe that, one day, pan-media rule will collapse like all excessive rule before it. But doubts are hot on the heels of faith: How, if this present had made the breakthrough into the beyond of change, into the never ending? One will submit to a digital monster of spirit, a hypostasis of omnipotent communication, a tyrant without origins, an emergent phenomenon, a beast created by all. […] The Leviathan of our days would be the totalitarian unconcealment that dominates and binds everything, makes it acceptable, and adaptable, consumes and exhausts it. Keeps nothing with itself, learns nothing, and never regrets whatever deformations and destructions it brings with it’.
In Yury Kharchenko’s painting Mortal Kombat, Leviathan becomes the fire-breathing snake of the end of time; it symbolises the struggle for the fate of the earth and forms the leitmotif of the eponymous action and fantasy film from 1995. In the ‘Mortal Kombat’ which takes place every 500 years, the fate of Earth is decided in the battle between the realms of Earth and Outworld. If Outworld wins ten consecutive tournaments, its emperor can invade and assimilate Earth. Outworld has already won nine battles. In the tenth, however, the Shaolin monk Liu Kang, who lives in the United States, defeats the sorcerer Shang Tsung. He frees the souls captured by Shang Tsun and becomes the new champion of Mortal Kombat. The euphoric mood in the Shaolin temple collapses when the emperor appears, destroys the temple, and announces that he will once again steal the souls of the fighters. The fighters then prepare for the next battle. How this battle will end is written in the stars.
Anyone who has Kharchenko’s Mortal Kombat and the story narrated in the film in mind will – with his large-format painting David Star (oil on canvas, 300 x 200 cm), created a good two months later on 4 July 2020 and signed ‘Grynszpan’, the work Jews Are Like Falling Snow Flakes from 10 Million Galaxies (acrylic on canvas, 100 x 80 cm), and comparable paintings such as Look at the Sky, Mary Jane, Let Me Be Your Rising Star (28 February 2020, acrylic on canvas, 170 x 130 cm) and David Stern in Gray (12 March 2020, acrylic on canvas, 170 x 130 cm) – recall the saying ‘it’s written in the stars’ and come back to the Babylonian creation myth: The phrase can be traced back to Babylonian astrology, which was derived from the systematic observation of the heavens from stepped ziggurats located directly next to the temples. The stargazers played important roles in both religion and politics. They were priests, scholars, interpreters of signs, and doctors and were responsible for rituals, incantations, and the art of divination. It is astonishing that even the philosopher, organiser, and co-author of the Encyclopédie Denis Diderot is said to have stated that ‘everything which happens to us on this earth, both good and evil, is written up above’, i.e. in the stars.
With regard to the star paintings, one could also think of the Three Wise Men and the birth of Jesus, who, according to Christian tradition, was born as the son of a Jewish mother and thus as a Jew, as well as of the consequence of chapter 34 in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. According to Matthew 2, the wise men from the Orient saw a star that led them to the stable in Bethlehem. According to Kant: ‘Two things overwhelm the mind with constantly new and increasing admiration and awe the more frequently and intently they are reflected upon: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. […] I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.’ For Schleiermacher, religion is neither morality nor metaphysics, but ‘a sensibility and taste for the infinite and a feeling of absolute dependence’. Thus, for him, religion is no longer something derived, but rather an independent entity. Finally, one could also refer to Stephen Hawking’s advice that one should look up to the stars and not down at one’s feet.
With regard to Kharchenko’s David Star cycle, however, it seems more reasonable to think first of Abraham and the son promised to him in old age and then of the Star of David. The Star of David (Hebrew: ‘Magen David’; German: ‘Schild Davids’) presumably goes back to a guild sign on a medieval red banner from the City of Prague and can also be found in the great coat of arms of the City of Prague. According to Genesis 15:5f., God had Abram (later known as Abraham), the founding father of the Abrahamic religions, step out under the starry sky and say: ‘“Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be!” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.’ In a dream, God announced that his descendants would be strangers in a land that is not theirs, that they would be oppressed and forced to serve for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13). According to Genesis 22, God later tempted Abraham and commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountain in the region of Moriah. When he was finally ready to do so and prepared to perform the burnt offering, he saw a ram with its horns caught in the undergrowth and sacrificed it on the command of the angel of the Lord instead of his son. Then the angel of the Lord called down to Abraham from Heaven and said: ‘I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me’ (Genesis 22, 16–18).
Like the hexagram, the Star of David consists of two blue, interwoven equilateral triangles. It forms a regular hexagon. Its twelve corners are interpreted as the twelve tribes of Israel, the six small triangles as the six days of creation, and the seventh inner triangle as the seventh day, the Sabbath. Over time, the medieval guild sign became a symbol of faith and a symbol of Judaism, and in Zionism a more secular political symbol. The flag with David’s shield, designed by David Wolffsohn on the occasion of the Zionist World Congress in Basel in 1897, became the national flag after the founding of Israel in 1948.
Kharchenko does not want the Stars of David in his star paintings and comic figures to be understood politically, but rather as a continuation of his narrative of Auschwitz and as an expression of the merging of good and evil and the coexistence of despair, reconciliation, and redemption. When painting the stars, the ‘Magen David’ proved to him to be authentic, genuine, and negotiable into a simple form and, in doing so, he forgot about his personal situation. His painting the stars became a kind of incantation, a banishment of negation, and a liberating experience. He understood that his provocative narrative of the Holocaust and his conciliatory narrative of the starry sky can also contribute to a better understanding of what is happening in the world and in the cosmos. In retrospect, he realised that the relief he experienced while painting has to do with the sensuality of his Auschwitz and star paintings. This repeats what Nietzsche and his friend Erwin Rhode described as the aesthetic justification of the world despite its evils, that is to say as cosmodicy.
Balance, equilibrium, and the harmonious interplay of colour and form also play a central role in the Pyramids cycle, which was created after the star paintings. They varied the theme of the house and, with their isosceles triangles, also play with the ‘dalet’, the first and last Hebrew letter of the name David. They recall the ancient Egyptian cult of the dead, the court of the dead, the confession of sins to be made there, and, of course, the notion of the continued existence of the deceased in the afterlife. The protestations of innocence of the dead ‘are canonically defined and have been handed down in large numbers’: ‘I have done no wrong to my fellow men. I have not harassed any group of people. I have done nothing crooked in the place of the ma’at. I know nothing of sins. I have done no evil. I have not blasphemed. I was not weak. […] I have not spoken ill of a servant in front of his superior. I have not hit anyone.’ ‘While the deceased makes this statement, his heart is placed on a scale. In the other weighing pan, an ostrich feather serves as a counterweight. It symbolises basic values such as truth, justice, and the right world order (Egyptian: ma’at). Among the witnesses of the weighing are divinities such as Anubis and the falcon-headed Horus. A baboon monitors the plumb line of the scales, which is literally decisive for the further course of the ritual. The result is recorded by the ibis-headed Thot, who acts as a court clerk.’ With this, the continued existence of the deceased is at stake and, as at the beginning, questions are raised as to what valid images there are for shelter, what is life, and what is art.
Helmut A. Müller, 19 September 2020
(translated into English by Gerard Goodrow)