Actions 1978–2015 – an Attempt at a Typology

Vadim Zakharov
Yuri Albert; Sabine Hänsgen; Yuri Leidermann; Andrei Monastyrski; Nicholas Nitschke; Victor Skersis; Vadim Zakharov; Apt-Art en Plein Air; Zond-works; Moscow Conceptualism; ObamainBerlin; Stimulation Body Act; Cologne Collective Flights; SZ group; Capiton; zalety; actions; performance; activity; adventures; visitation; Russia; Moscow.
SZ group, Logical Organisation of the Urination of Dogs, 1980.

The art historical genre terms Action, Performance, Happening are currently in need of thorough reappraisal and analysis. And the contemporary activity of artists in those genres must also be looked at anew. For art historians, gallerists, museum and archive workers, it is understandably easier to have one set of standardised terms but it is impossible to use something that has already lost its inner meaning. As an artist, I feel a lack of contemporary analysis of the processes that are taking place in contemporary art. I don’t have the words, the terminology to describe what it is that I do, so naturally, I’m forced to come up with new ones that are as yet unknown, that sound strange, and are therefore treated as the quirks of an artist who is deliberately moving away from classical designations. The methods of working employed by contemporary artists are changing very quickly, but art historical theories continue to use old schematics. It seems to me that we need to start addressing this, and not only because new forms of activity have appeared (for example, the flashmob), but also because there ARE things in the past worth looking at again in relation to this question. To my horror and surprise, I suddenly found that much of what I had done over 38 years in the action genre does not entirely fit with what we understand by this term,

I think that out of the dozens of actions I have conceived, either by myself or as a co-author, only one could be considered a ‘classical’ action; namely, the very first one, from 1978, when I was nineteen years old. It was called “An Exchange of Information with the Sun” – I made a print with my thumb on a pocket mirror and angled the reflection towards the sun. It was photographed by my friend, the artist Yuri Albert.

From 1978 to 1980, I worked with Igor Lutz. We began to develop a theme which we called ‘functioning in culture’. This idea encompassed many aspects, one of which was the almost unnoticeable parody of the social system, but most importantly, also of the Sots-art style, which the artists Komar and Melamid had invented in 1972. As Sots-art adopted an ironic attitude both in relation to Soviet Socialist Reality and simultaneously towards American Pop Art, you might rather describe our undertakings as a parody of irony. Also, I can call them ‘invisible political action’.

SZ group, Self Defense Against Things, 1981–1982.

From 1980 to 1984, I worked together with Victor Skersis and our co-authorship was called the SZ group. We continued working on the idea of ‘functioning in culture’ and developed new ideas: “Filling the Voids”, “Simulations in Culture”, “Phantoms”, “Symbiosis”, “Co-authorships” and “Bypassing”. These directions themselves became important terms for the group, but could all be united under the word Activity. For example, the SZ work Logical Organisation of the Urination of Dogs (Fig. 1), falls better under the term Activity than action because it indicates a longer duration. We hung up old cloths that had been urinated on by Fedya the dog, corresponding to the constellation Canis Major. The same applies to another sizable series, Self Defense Against Things (Fig. 2), 1981–1982.

SZ group, Lieblich, 1983.

This involved, for example, absurdities such as scaring a chair or a toilet bowl. You have to understand that you are threatened with danger by the things that surround you. Our task was to prevent a conspiracy between the table, the toilet, the door and the wardrobe. To achieve this, we held “Courses of self-defence against things” in the woods, with Victor Skersis as the instructor. This is Activity, and not Actions. And the same applies to the rest of SZ’s works. Even the repetition of the action Lieblich (Fig. 3) by the Collective Actions (Kollektivnye deistviya), which we undertook as part of the unofficial exhibition “Apt-Art en Plein Air” in 1983 is better described as Activity (it was, incidentally, the first re-enactment of a contemporary artwork in Russia).

Vadim Zakharov, Stimulation, 1980.

Among my solo actions from the beginning of the 80s, there are two major series. The first is Stimulation (Fig. 4), 1980, where I provoked others to carry out particular movements. For example, by laying out little paths of five-kopeck coins first thing in the morning along or across the street, I stimulated morning exercise and the strengthening of people’s back muscles. By issuing an announcement in the volumes of the Moscow Archive of New Art (MANI) folders that I was willing to pay people to spend hours pulling on their ears, nose and lips, I planned to change the faces of artists using the hands of the artists themselves. The first stimulation was aimed at casual passers-by, whilst the second was aimed at a group of artists who are now considered classic figures in Russian art. The group of artists completely ignored my proposal, which is a shame, because otherwise today we would be see Kabakov, for example, with a huge ear, Monastyrsky with a fat lip, and Albert with a finger sucked to a point like a lollipop. I wouldn’t call such works actions. A more accurate name is Stimulation Body Act.

Vadim Zakharov, Little Elephants, 1982.

The second and most famous of my series from the 1980s falls under the strange designation Zond-Works. Despite this fact, in all the catalogues these works are included in the Actions section. Some of them – Little Elephants (Fig. 5), I Have Acquired Enemies – were done in the apartment of the aforementioned Yuri Albert, who also photographed it. In other words, no actual Action took place at all. I knelt on all fours and threw marble elephants onto myself, for the photograph. The two or three people who were present were helpers rather than viewers. Yes, and the goal of these works was the ensuing reaction of the Moscow conceptualist artists, they were not conceived for an immediate reaction. For me, what was important in these works was the sounding out (zondirovanie) of the professional reaction towards something strange, which up until that point had not existed in the Muscovite discourse. The work I Have Acquired Enemies was also of a provocative character. It sounded out the adequacy of the reaction of the elder generation towards new developments. Not all of them passed the test – and some took offence.

Vadim Zakharov, Papuans, 1982.

The works Papuans (Fig. 6) and Well were made in Crimea, in Novyi Svit. And again, these were, if I can use the term, Staged Actions. Friends helped paint me as a Papuan, and then to secure the text on the ground. Then they watched as I clambered around a tree. Before being photographed in the “Well” along with a text about a boy who doesn’t know if he will be able to climb out or not, I first climbed into one pit, placing the text there, and then climbed into the pit next to it, depicting loneliness and helplessness. After the photographs were taken, I climbed out without any major difficulties. Thus, these actions are also in fact Staged Actions.

Vadim Zakharov, The Flight of Zechariah, 1992.

Next: 1992. Austria. Schlosspark Eybesfeld. As part of the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz, my action The Flight of Zechariah (Fig. 7) takes place. It is an enormous project, in which the Action plays the most important role, but without the particular overall idea the Action simply would not work. In a special place on the colossal territory of the castle, we buried 101 computer disks carrying fragments from the biblical book of the Prophet Zechariah (you have almost a prophet before you). The invited audience – 101 people – were positioned on the spots where the disks were buried. Then I flew over them in a two-seater airplane with an elderly Austrian pilot at the controls. So – what was that? Perhaps we could call it an Archive Land Event, or an Event to summon the spirit of the prophet Zechariah?

Vadim Zakharov, Murder of the Madeleine Cake. First Correction to Marcel Proust, 1997.

In 1997, as part of the same festival, I created a kind of event that I called Murder of the Madeleine Cake. First Correction to Marcel Proust (Fig. 8). In the corner of one of the exhibition rooms, I placed a madeleine cake on a lacy paper napkin. Opposite this, I placed a huge table with three chairs. In short, I created the Kafkaesque horror of a trial against the little cake. Then, after long diplomatic negotiations with the Graz police, a wonderfully equipped policeman with a sniper’s rifle came to visit us. And from the attic, through the glass ceiling of the room (having first removed a single pane in preparation) he shot at the poor cake, enacting the given sentence. The Madeleine Cake was killed on 27 September 1997 by an Austrian policeman. Interestingly, all this took place one day before the opening. The viewers were, for the most part, technicians, and the curator Werner Fenz. So, this work, which everywhere was called an action, was… well, let’s say the Premiere of the “Murder of the Madeleine cake” for the working staff of a museum in Graz. At the opening itself, a film played, which I had shot and edited overnight. The curator of this project was Claudia Jolles.

Vadim Zakharov, The Funny and Sad Adventures of a Foolish Pastor, 1996–98.

A year before that, for the project The Funny and Sad Adventures of a Foolish Pastor (1996–98, Fig. 9), I had moved away from the term action from the very beginning, by calling my travels through countries dressed in pastor’s clothing Adventures. For example, I battled with the windmill in Campa de Criptana in the Spanish province of La Mancha, I spent a night on an uninhabited island in Japan, I held theological discussions with a sumo wrestler, I visited the grave of Christ in the village of Shingo in the north of Japan, and many other things. All of this falls under the category of Adventure as a genre. It’s perfectly clear.

In 2002 I realised another series of works, Pilgrimage with a Flying Video-camera (Fig. 10), in Israel. I visited the most touristy places, where there was not a single centimetre that had not been photographed by tourists, took out my video-camera, switched it on and threw it into the air. The camera made the film itself, without an author, as it wished. The role of the author was to throw and catch the camera that filmed the documentation. It was only that year – a year of intifada, explosions in the cities and the absence of tourists – that I was able to throw the camera three times in the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre, six times in the garden of Gethsemane, two times on the Masada and in other famous places. In this case, the three key words in the title of Pilgrimage with a Flying Video Camera point out that we are dealing with an action.

Vadim Zakharov, Pilgrimage with a Flying Video Camera, 2002.

In 2007, the artists Andrei Monastyrski, Yuri Leiderman and Vadim Zakharov put together the group Capiton. It was a co-authorship, in which actions, objects and so forth became elements of an active discourse. We attempted (all three being perfectly familiar with each other’s work) to surprise one another with new ideas, a new style of works, unusual presentation, and of course attempted to escape “Moscow Conceptualism”. In parts we were successful, in others not. This collaboration requires particular attention. But again, nobody thought of doing Actions, everything was a kind of Activity, aimed to test our professional consciousness: is it still alive, or is it long dead, having long lost its sensitivity?

Our trips around Germany in 2007 as the Germany Group, consisting of Sabine Hänsgen, Yuri Leiderman and Vadim Zakharov, and with the permanent audience member of Yuri Albert, were called the Cologne Collective Flights. From the very beginning, all the participants wanted to move away from the traditional designation of actionism. The Russian word ‘zalety’ [flights] is difficult to translate, but was very fitting for our wandering activities.

A few words about a group with the strange name ObamainBerlin (all one word). It has two participants: Nicholas Nitschke and Vadim Zakharov. For more than six years now we have been systematically trying to escape any designations whatsoever. In order to describe the undertakings that we have realised, we use the words Visitation or Movement, or we use words that have never been considered as terms applicable to contemporary art: Love, Happiness, Unbelievable, Astounding and many others. I don’t think that you could call the three or four utterly different activities that follow on one after the other over the course of the day, actions.

Vadim Zakharov, Film in One Drawing, 2016.

And finally, my series Film in One Drawing (Fig. 11) or Film in One Painting (Fig. 12). It is a three-part project: Action Film Drawing. I attempt to draw over a film, which is projected over paper or canvas, continuously without stopping. The length of the film determines the length of the making of the drawing or painting. Often, I would put on or drape over myself something that was lying around: plastic bottles, a fishing net, polyethylene film, old masks, little ceramic Chinese statues, a white shirt and tie. All this was of utmost importance to me. I made a video recording of the action and used that as material for a film which was an artwork in its own right. The process of drawing was meant to be undertaken by a subject, a figure with whom I, as the author, did not identify. These are personal actions done for myself, where Nobody tries to find himself over a particular period of time.

Vadim Zakharov, Film in One Painting, 2016.

The conclusion that begs to be drawn after considering all of the above is not a reassuring one for art historians: the 38 years of my actionism is not in fact actionism at all. The terms Activity, Zond-works, Stimulation Body Act, Adventures, Visitation and others convey the specific nature of my work, and cannot simply be labelled as Actions or Performances. I am sure that if we were to look again at the work of many artists, then we would be able to find many new interesting nuances and designations. At the same time, the variety of the activities of artists today resurrects the failing drive’ to search for something that it is impossible to understand completely.

Translated from Russian by Elizaveta Butakova

Vadim Zakharov
Artist, editor, archivist, collector


Vadim Zakharov is Archivist of the Moscow conceptual art scene. Published the Pastor magazine and founded the Pastor Zond Edition. Represented Russia at the Venice Biennale in 2013. “Adorno Monument”, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz, Frankfurt am Main 2003, “25 Years on One Page”, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow 2006.

Suggested Citation

Zakharov, Vadim. 2020. “Actions 1978–2015 – an Attempt at a Typology.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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