The tendency in Russia to see primitiveness as an ideal dates back to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. From the Populists who tried to ‘go to the people’ to Ballets Russes’ conscious emphasis on its folk roots (think The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and Stravinsky’s music), the simple and primitive life of the peasant has been seen as the root of Russianness, the potential catalyst for spiritual rebirth, and a key element in the invention of Russia’s national identity in the 19th-century.

The Ukranian-born curator-turned-artist Oleg Kulik has taken this obsession with primitiveness to its extreme by literally reverting into the animal state – he ‘transformed’ himself into a dog. The dog is the most in/famous persona (zoosona?) that he has adopted, but in the past he has also turned himself into a bird, cockerel, a bull, and even a disco ball.

several photographs that document the artist’s The Mad Dog performance from 1994, when he went on all fours naked with a collar and a leash around his neck, growling, barking, menacing random passers-by and pouncing on moving cars. A video footage from the same performance is shown in the basement. In a later performance, I Bite America and America Bite Me (1997, of which two photographs are shown in the show), again as a dog he interacts with participants within an enclosed space. Further inside there is the Deep into Russia series (1993), consisting of photographs showing Kulik apparently copulating or performing various kinds of sexual acts with animals.

Some say that his caninisation is a commentary on the animalistic side of all human beings, a concern which grew out of the brutality of post-Soviet Russian society. But while his live performances directed at a viewing public are aggressive and sometimes downright violent, the more record-driven works like Deep into Russia, although no less shocking, seem to embrace primitive instincts and urges. Rather than criticising our latent and inherent animality, the set of photographs are more about searching for a new kind of relationship between man and nature. 

For Kulik, becoming an animal is not a counter-evolutionary regression, it is the next stage of human development. Extreme primitiveness in the form of animal-like behavior is the means to counteract the over-sophistication of contemporary culture. The doggedness with which he pursues this goal of returning to nature adds a spiritual dimension to the project – and zoophrenia (zoophilia + schizophrenia) is the new faith that this high priest strives to promote.