Mikhail Lezin: Extreme Formalism from the Depths of a Concrete City

This text marks the third or fourth time that we've showcased the work of Mikhail Lezin, a musician and artist from the Russian industrial city of Togliatti. More specifically, we've made the following observations in the past: "Mikhail Lezin is a creative individual of considerable productivity. Perhaps as a result of little artistic activity in the [Togliatti] area, Lezin has – over the years – fashioned creative outlets through a number of musical projects. Each of them is dedicated to a different style or genre. Spinning this logic and labor further from anything resembling a one-man band, Lezin also is a prolific painter."

His tight-lipped attitude to the outside world endures, yet it stands in increasingly stark contrast to the backdrop of Lezin's audio- and visual output. We now turn our attention once more to this man - in June, 201o - since a flurry of new releases have appeared. Almost simultaneously, three recordings have been published online, all of which are available for general downloading. En masse they constitute 23 instrumentals and over two hours of free music. The albums are officially titled as "Big Wonderful Surf-Noise," "Packing Paper," and "Formalism."

The exact release dates are not made clear, but they come so close together that it makes more sense, perhaps, to arrange the three albums in terms of theoretical, rather than chronological development. We say so because these new recordings, in essence, map a slow breakdown from lo-fi rock instrumentals to pure electric noise; guitar chords are manipulated to the point where they eventually become long, drone-like textures, bordering on white noise.

Lezin's artwork does a fine job of expressing that interplay of structure and disarray, here in wholly visual terms.

Put differently, there's a joyfully underfunded, almost decadent resonance to Lezin's "surf-noise" that does little to slow its total breakdown into unsynchopated, trash-can distortion. Even the title of the opening track (offered above) prepares us for this growing cacophony: "Noise Feel Fine." On a grander scale, the broad "unpacking" of  generic or structural expectations could not be better expressed by the collection's reference to "packing paper." Layer by layer, it is removed to reveal a loud, lo-fi tumult; the levels of distortion sometimes border on the epic.

From the "structured improvisations" of "Packing Paper," as Lezin calls them, we then tumble into a whirlwind of noise, pure and simple. Here, too, the tracklisting becomes the considered extension of an album's title, in this case "Formalism." Some of the instrumentals on that CD bear names such as "Complex Numbers" or "Manufactured Materials." Together they evoke common concerns in between Lezin's musical and graphic output, together with a few metaphorical nods in the direction of local, heavy industry. Principles of mathematics (as rhythm) and manufacturing (as genre) are discussed - and then deconstructed.

The formally tidy, four-piece arrangement of "Packing Paper's" cover likewise suggests a growing encroachment of clutter and disarray, at least in its upper quadrants.

Current car sales in Russia are going through a slump, no more so than in Togliatti. The aesthetic appeal or functionality of any local industry, therefore, is slowly being divorced from both policy (governments don't care) and profit (nobody's buying new automobiles). Manufacturing and its "materials" become mere formal statements: objects are made, time and time again, yet without any direct use or purpose. Goal-driven activity becomes mere activity. In sonic terms, audible structures (alternating sounds and silences) become sound alone.

Here, too, there are connections with the historical significance of formalism. The term, at least in a Russian context, is often tied to investigations of art's formal qualities, rather than to any kind of content. The word, perhaps not surprisingly, became a catch-all form of abuse in the Soviet Union, since it suggested little - if any - interest in ideologically informed production. "Formalist" art existed for its own (irresponsible!) sake; it was severed from politics in ways that Lezin's sounds are torn from both musical and manufacturing businesses. Both operate on the edge of "pointlessness," since they are/were surrounded by a kind of civic "purpose" that inspires little faith.

For a third and final time, the new artwork underscores that sonic statement visually, in this instance by framing tentative structures with wayward, almost "pointless" movement. The former slowly loses ground to the latter.

Lezin completed his school years within the Soviet Union and therefore had direct experience of its painful exit from "purposeful," civic evolution. He started experimenting with visual forms around 1988, at which point Soviet society was undoubtedly in tatters. Lezin took particular inspiration from the formal, fin de siecle radicalism of poet Kruchenykh and the Revolutionary graphic artist Malevich. He was still a teenager at this time: "I was taking it all in. During those years, however, everything was so chaotic. There was no kind of social structure in Russia that might allow people to create a proper place of higher education in the arts." In short, he taught himself.

I was taking it all in. During those years, however, everything was so chaotic. There was no kind of social structure in Russia that might allow people to create a proper place of higher education in the arts.

At this same time, Lezin took special inspiration from artists such as Il'ia Kabakov, who would come to be seen as a leading light of Russian conceptualism. That late-Soviet movement, once more, investigated the ways in which "meaningless" objects are invested with various conceptual baggage, for example by ideology or commerce. Needless to say, such cynical, deconstructive studies were only possible at the very end of the Soviet period, since they questioned the worth and working of politics per se. The zeal of Soviet enterprise was examined with a cold, skeptical eye: mass production, stripped of its political purpose, became nothing more than "formal" frenzy, the endless production of stuff.

Even now, Lezin has trouble feeling connected to industry's "important growth." "I've always felt a sense of discomfort in life as a whole. I love Togliatti, but I still feel very uneasy here. This city is made of nothing but concrete; there's an awful sense of pressure from all sides. When you go out on the street, it all comes piling down on top of you. I've felt that same way since childhood... there has always been a sense of feeling like an outsider in this town.... Togliatti is the kind of place to which people used to move from all over Russia. They came together at the same time and started living here, too. There's no historical population base; everybody moved here. My own parents came to Togliatti from the Urals."

Once the reason for that move evanesced, in the late 1980s, the significance of Togliatti as a whole faded. It was no longer a center of anything, but simply one point among many others on a national map. The country's formal structure fell apart, merely producing geographical forms in countless, meaningless combinations. Capitals and provinces merged into general disorder.

This was the period when Lezin started his work as a young adult, specifically as a photographer for a local newspaper that specialized in criminal stories. For three years he photographed "corpses, murders, and accidents." Any sense of civic stability and progress would have been erased at once.

Hence the need for Lezin to paint, such that he could "create at least something from the chaos and dirt. I never know whether it'll be beautiful or not. It's more important for me to unify all of these various pieces that are falling apart. Togliatti itself is split into three parts - with a forest in between. The city itself is divided..."

Amid the drone of these albums (yes, they're supposed to sound like this) and the minimal formal cohesion of their graphic work, Lezin has one enduring concern with regard to the various pains of his hometown, either after 1991 or since the recent worldwide recession. "I'd really like to the local population to have faith in something. Without faith it's hard to get anything done. People here just go on living... without any discernible result..." What's needed? "People need first to believe and work for ages, without any discernible pay-off." After which, a widely-shared raison d'etre might emerge.

Ironically, were civic faith reinstated, the "formal" output of Togliatti would regain its sense of being, too, and Lezin's music - especially these three recordings - might well fall silent.

Industrial collapse has its benefits.


Mikhail Lezin – 01 - Structured improvisations
Mikhail Lezin – 02 - Random optics
Mikhail Lezin – 05 - On grey paper
Mikhail Lezin – 07 - Manufactured materials
Mikhail Lezin – Noise Feel Fine
Mikhail Lezin – Official Untitled

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