Human Condition
Session V: Teleology of the Human. Biography, Destiny, Hope, Faith.
Biography: a Model Kit exhibition
Anri Sala, Intervista (Finding the Words), 1998. Single-channel video and stereo sound, duration: 26 min.
Olga Chernysheva, Chandeliers in the Forest, installation view, Secession 2017. Photo: Jorit Aust.
Pawel Althamer. Jacek Taszakowski. Mezalia. 2010. Video
Marko Mäetamm. Power Games. 2010. Print on ceramic plates.
Max Sher. A Remote Barely Audible Evening Waltz. 2013 – 2019. Found slides and letters, photographs and a text by the artist.
Date: November, 13th — February, 2nd
Venue: 10, Gogolevsky boulevard

Curators: Viktor Misiano, Anna Zhurba

The Moscow Museum of Modern Art, the National Centre for Contemporary art and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center present the 5th session of the large-scale interdisciplinary project Human Condition, which has spanned a period of seven years and unfolded at the most important Moscow museum venues. It is now the second time that the MMOMA houses this interinstitutional project. In 2016 the Museum displayed the second session of the Human Condition that explored a person within the system of different affective connections, such as love, friendship, suspicion, disgust. Now it’s the phenomenon of biography, its role and meaning in contemporary culture, that has been set as food for thought. The exhibition, being part of the present session, is entitled Biography: the Model Kit and features video art, installations, photos, objects and sculptures by 14 artists from all over the globe. Some of the artworks have been created specifically for the show.

The exhibition, whose title is borrowed from Julio Cortázar’s biographical novel, seeks to show quite a range of basic paradoxes that taken together make the essence of biography as a phenomenon. The display is structured in such a way that each of the artists has a whole gallery allotted for them, so that they should create a hermetic statement, even while the project as a whole could be divided into several chapters. Biography as the product of individualistic society suggests inescapable Narcissism of the study where the object coincide with the subject, whereas this very Narcissism, in its turn, suggests the flight of the artist’s imagination about themselves. Thus, the display features the projects by Pawel Althamer and Peter Friedl, who have been making up their own biographies in their still unrealized finality. What the Model Kit also does is illustrating the dichotomy of the final and static character of a biographic narrative that usually ends with death (for instance, Maxim Sher’s project, where the only thing changing is the perspective and not the story traced in itself) and its dynamic nature as a process that can change every single moment (Anri Sala’s project on the way biography is never equal to itself in its different observation points). Biography presumes a certain grandeur. Still, the tone of the show is far from being always so serious — Sergey Bratkov tells his life story through his attempts to give up smoking, while Marko Mäetamm documents the scenes and amusing incidents of his everyday family routine. The exhibition develops some kind of vocabulary of a biography genre: autobiographical nature (projects by Nedko Solakov, Zhanna Gladko and Babi Badalov), constructed biographies and identities (Roee Rosen’s project), biography as part of macrohistory (works by Amalia Ulman and Daniela Comani) and as a family history/ group history (Vorobyev and Vorobyeva’s project). Biography is undoubtedly a sort of construct (the fact alluded by both the exhibition title and its final oeuvre — Olga Chernysheva’s project). Yet, reality can be constructed according to a range of different scenarios — from sheer fiction to a kind of archeological research, from a purely formal life story to a very personal first-person narrative.

Participating artists: Nedko Solakov, Babi Badalov, Sergey Bratkov, Peter Friedl, Daniela Comani, Anri Sala, Amalia Ulman, Olga Chernysheva, Roee Rosen, Viktor Vorobyev and Yelena Vorobyeva, Marko Mäetamm, Zhanna Gladko, Pawel Althamer, Maxim Sher.

About «The Human Condition» project

Conceived by the three leading Moscow institutions — the National Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA), the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center — the interdisciplinary project comprises seven thematic sessions unfolding across time and including exhibitions, symposiums, lectures and workshops.

The title of this project refers to the homonymous book by Hannah Arendt, whose philosophical thought attempted to answer the key question of the past century — how to be and stay Human in the face of the drama of History? The idea of this project, realized by the three museums, springs from the assumption that the Human today has once again become a central cultural issue. Artists and thinkers are revisiting the themes of memory and trauma, origins and homelessness, biography and destiny, hope and love, faith and fidelity. Contemporary reality cannot be reduced to simple definitions and exhaustive interpretations, and this is why the human and his experience become the starting and the ending points of the current state of the world.
«The Human Condition» encompasses an array of activities including research projects, exhibitions and discussions, draws on current worldview issues, showcases current social sciences achievements and brings world leading intellectuals into the discussion. It aims not to offer outcomes, but to reflect the agility and multifacetedness of contemporary thought and perception of the world. «The Human Condition» is intended to serve as a platform for intellectual and artistic reflection on topical issues of contemporaneity and challenges of these tumultuous times.

The project will conclude with an extensive exhibition and publication of the collection of articles based on the symposium materials.


Biography was brought to life by Modernity. It emerged with the decline of traditional society and the emergence of an autonomous subject that henceforth would be able to master his / her own destiny. Consequently, biography suggests variability: each stage and twist in it is a consequence of individual decisions and choices among the possible alternatives.

Hence stems the first of numerous paradoxes of biography phenomenon. On one side, it is historical, as it presents a subject in its development; on the other, it assumes that a subject possesses a certain purely individual totality, which unfolds in the subject’s becoming. This paradox leads us to another equally self-contradictory feature of biographical narrative. Biography is a vivid process of living one’s life through creatively, so that each new turn could bring about a dramatic transformation. That is exactly the reason why biography is indissoluble from death: its essential meaning becomes evident only when life comes to an end and the potential for development is no more there. Therefore biographies are usually compiled posthumously.

Even more so — and here is a new paradox: autobiography is also associated with death, as it has an inherent suicidal note. Existence of a living person is always open, while incomplete narration, one without both beginning and end, is impossible. Anyway, there is yet another way to describe the paradox of autobiography. The very possibility of first-person narrative about oneself implies seeing oneself as if through another’s eyes. To write an autobiographical account a person should imagine being someone else or see oneself with the eyes of the Other. Still, the reverse perspective is also true: any biography is also autobiography, since any biography comprises autobiography of the author.

Biographical narrative is believed to be justified by the fact that it presents a unique personal story. At the same time, biography possesses a certain transpersonal quality, as, being a literary genre, it is based on established genre topoi and conventions that provide an indispensable frame for unique individual experience. Therefore, so far as it is impossible to extract the reality of a life lived from a biographic narrative, i.e. to make it a fact of pure imagination, biography is a genre artistically inconsistent, always on the verge of fiasco. However, all at the same time, as biography is a literary genre, it is often considered to be lacking objectivity. A biography, even most thorough and based on most authenticated evidence, is not a historical record per se but a work of art.

It is not only cultural theory but also social philosophy that denies objectivity in biographical narratives. It has equally been argued that biographical narration tends to romanticize its subject, overstate his/her autonomy: shaping his/her own destiny, the subject proceeds from the opportunities and circumstances rooted in his/her social environment, that is to say, the choices of a person are largely predetermined both socially and culturally. Others point out that any story of life lived, especially a story of one’s own life, is inherently motivated. Consciously or unconsciously the narrative tends to give biographical facts a predefined and subjective or even ideological interpretation.

Nevertheless, this view has its counterpart in a polemical and once again pretty paradoxical reaction. Since biography is far from being an objective fact and appears more as a fictional construct, let us at least partially turn it back to objective reality by pointedly deconstructing its artistic conventionality. To evoke the title of a remarkable biographical novel of the past century (that by Julio Cortàzar), we may portray biography, of self or of another, individual or collective, as a ‘model kit’. Still, another, even more radical reaction showed up. If biographies are biased by the very fact that their compilation has somehow been motivated, why not to perceive the very author’s motivation and correspondent personal experience as objective entities?

Such is now the position of those who hail the end of ideologies and their ‘great narratives’, wherein individual lives tended either to utterly disappear behind the whole or to turn into personalised metaphors of large-scale social processes and events. The end of ‘great narratives’ essentially starts the ‘era of biographies’, with mind gravitating from heroic mythologised biographies to life stories of real people.

Finally, the phenomenon of biography suggests yet another existential paradox. People tell stories of their own or other’s life so as to draw a lesson for their future existence. «One can say, paradoxically,» wrote Zygmunt Bauman, «that the stories told of lives interfere with the lives lived before the lives have been lived to be told».

Viktor Misiano, Anna Zhurba


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