More Human than Human: The Somatic Link between zaumniki and telesniki

Peter G. DeMartino, University of Chicago

While Oleg Kulik’s works could be paralleled to the iconoclastic assemblages of the British artist Damien Hirst, I propose that Kulik, instead, sounds a recitative of the historical avant-garde in Russia. The performance work of the so-called “telesniki” gestures to a self-sufficient, inexpressible holistic visceral experience that registers in our semantic system as violence. This violence was also present in work of the Russian avant-garde. Primitivism and the search for the organic at the beginning of the twentieth century are linked to the attempts to express an asemantic or somatic. Painting in Russia during the early twentieth century is particularly somatic. I reinterpret a key feature of alogicity in the work of the Russian avant-garde, zaum, or “trans-sense,” in both painting and literature as belonging to a strain of performance resistant to the semanticization associated with artistic endeavors. In zaum’s self-sufficient stance, the deeply hidden physical supports of the somatic are revealed through a thwarting of the semantic. It is the self-sufficient infrastructure of the somatic that releases forces that resonate as violence. A detailed study of the function of the somatic in the 1913 opera Victory over the Sun and key works by Malevich lays the foundation for an exploration of the somatic in the performance practice of Kulik. Beginning with violence as an articulation of the somatic in Victory, I then survey Kulik’s use of violence as a marker of the somatic, particularly, in his broadly conceived collection referred to as Zoophrenia as well as some satellites of this larger project, such as I Bite America and America Bites Me (1997) and Armadillo for your Show (1999). The resulting analysis decisively links the self-referential nature of Kulik’s performance to the practices of the Russian zaumniki and establishes a new interpretation of the work of the telesniki that creates the discursive space in which to truly appreciate the significance of their art.