At Paris Internationale 2022 Temnikova & Kasela gallery is proud to present a solo project by Tommy Cash, the contemporary Estonian polymath with a global outreach. Cash is known for his depiction of contemporary life through a lens of a generation born in the transitional period between the collapse of the USSR and its imaginary and the global triumph of neoliberal capitalism. As a creative of transdisciplinary nature, he operates on the broad horizon of visual culture - which covers art, design and fashion. In the context of the geopolitical crisis caused by Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine, Cash’s outlook on “the Global East” mutated cultural landscape turns out to be prophetic. The combination of the subjects of transcultural materialism, symbology and political crisis reflects in bold physical and digital objects.
We live in a world in which the risk of the deployment of nuclear weapons (not only in the course of hostilities, but simply by mistake) has long since ceased to be a zero possibility – and we have done, in fact, since their very invention. Such is the reality we have been living in since 1945. The threat of nuclear escalation has the whole world living in constant tension and a sense of its own helplessness (if not doom) in the face of the political games and whims of individual decision makers. It seems that nuclear war (especially given its climatic consequences) is a catastrophe so immense in scale that it is impossible to prepare for in any meaningful way. In that sense, all speculations on the threat and consequences of nuclear war are lacking in practical value, and only serve to normalise the use of these terrifying weapons, therefore increasing the risk of nuclear war in their own right, and so the only thing that makes sense is a drive towards a total ban on nuclear weapons. Nervous laughter is turning into the most popular defensive reaction to the struggle that is solastalgia – a planetary anxiety disorder associated with climate change and the complex problems of a planet beyond our control – and which is fast becoming the only thing binding the whole world together. The feeling of inability to change the situation on a personal level collides with a longing for the cosy and comfortable world of the past, with which we are connected to by our childhood memories.
Driven by these feelings and inspired by a cute fictional Soviet cartoon character (created by the Soviet writer Eduard Uspensky in his 1965 children's book Gena the Crocodile and His Friends, on which entire generations of people grew up), Estonian musician and multidisciplinary artist Tommy Cash has bred a new hero for this frightening modern world – the Nuclear Cheburashka or Nukerashka, a mutated radioactive nuke-powered monster, terrifying and sweet at the same time. The character's name Nukerashka is made up of two words: “nuke” and “rashka” (Russ(ia)ka), one of the prevalent denominators of contemporary Russia, circulating predominantly in youth culture. Cheburashka had also been recently used by Russian state propaganda to promote the Sochi Winter Olympic games. The childish naivety of the clumsy original character, an animal unknown to science with large monkey-like ears and a body resembling that of a bear cub, who lived in a tropical forest and became one of the iconic characters of Soviet culture, much like Mickey Mouse in the United States, all this is juxtaposed in Tommy Cash’s 3D-rendered Frankenstein with a certain toxicity and unpredictability of behaviour. The original Cheburashka was male, had a bear-like body approaching the height of a 5-year-old child, and entertained a thoroughly optimistic worldview, seeing only the best in people and remaining chirpy and upbeat in even the gloomiest of situations. Sergei Kapkov, animation historian and managing editor of the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio, has described Cheburashka as “absolutely useless and hopeless. He’s like a stranger who doesn’t understand a thing but just has one global idea, and that is to make friends and have others [...] make friends with each other”.
But Tommy Cash’s creature, strongly inspired by long-term exploration of the sensibilities of eclectic post-Soviet aesthetics, is more like a desperate animal that has lost all moral guidance and frightens with its unpredictability. With a childish smile, Nukerashka becomes an animalistic epitome of the inkling of a threat looming over the whole contemporary world: a nightmare that has become reality, in which the fate of the entire planet is in the hands of a monster who carelessly toys with the red button, a weapon, a bouquet of camomiles, or whatever else might come to hand. According to the preface of Uspensky’s book Gena the Crocodile and His Friends, “Cheburashka” was the name of a defective toy from the author’s own childhood, taking the form of a rather strange little beast: something between a bear cub and a hare with big ears. But the dysfunctionality of Nukerashka is much stronger and has the potential to infect everything around him with the long-lasting impact of radioactive contamination. His body not only undergoes multiple mutations, gaining the strength of an athlete, or being flipped upside down, it also falls apart and pixelates, decomposes, disintegrates, becomes covered with bullet holes or cigarette burns, and serves as a playground for dangerous experiments with unpredictable body modifications and a canvas for non-obvious and unexpected political statements (painted in the colours of various different national flags). An organic extension of Tommy Cash’s art world, built on the subversion of high and low culture, camp, and free engagement in cultural appropriation, Nukerashka represents a hybrid by-product of individual fantasy, visualising a global social neurosis in anticipation of atomic war.
In a certain sense, Nukerashka’s closest relative is Godzilla, brought to life by Ishiro Honda, director of those first black-and-white kaiju films who dreamed of telling the world not only about his own experience of military service, which left an indelible mark on his psyche, resulting in recurring nightmares, but also about the terrible tragedy that occurred in Japan in 1945, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An ancient lizard living at the bottom of the ocean might otherwise have slept on peacefully for thousands more years, but people made a huge mistake and tested an atomic bomb. Awakened by the explosion, the kaiju, whose skin is covered with bumps and scars like other victims of radiation sickness, rises to the surface and sets about destroying everything in its path. Wherever this monster goes, cities turn into ruins, people die from radiation, and children are left without parents, leaving destruction everywhere in its wake and thus reminding us not only of the tragedies experienced by Japan, but also of the war crimes committed by the director’s compatriots.
Nevertheless, there was no need in a nuclear war to wake up Nukerashka and give him birth. He is obviously a product not so much of the consequences of a nuclear catastrophe as a premonition of the inevitable catastrophe to come (albeit one with a cute and sweet cartoon face), an angel of death who could only appear in a sick mind or in psychedelic hallucination. It is no coincidence that the fly agaric and other poisonous hallucinogenic fungi feature among the toys clutched by Nukerashka, opening the portal to the turmoil of psilocybin delirium. Are all these nuclear visions mere figments of the foggy mind of Nukerashka on acid? Are they visionary predictions? Or they are about to become almost-real? The nuclear mushroom or radioactive cloud that occurs after a nuclear or thermonuclear explosion, and has become a true “special effect of the 20th century”, even replaces the head of the old Cheburashka, whose large ears originally gave it the shape of a nuclear mushroom, its mind now hijacked by thoughts of nuclear war. By continuously bastardising contemporary and historical pop culture and creating a collection of 1,000 mutations of Nukerashka, Tommy Cash has given birth to a set of characters intentionally designed as badges signifying membership in the exclusive club of those willing to get through difficult times with a smile on their face.
The last few years have seen Tommy Cash reach hundreds of millions of people worldwide with his distinctive visual style, absurdist imagery and depraved sense of humour. Still, there’s much more to him than shock, irony and comedy. Addressing the lost generation of the intermission in history, he uncovers and makes visible the aesthetics of ideological hauntology. He fills his work with references to the seemingly dead past, which reappears in the present and significantly influences how we imagine our futures. His methods of arriving at these difficult theoretical questions might seem crude but are undeniably honest and raw. Cash uses his platform to confront uncomfortable prejudices and champion inclusivity, sexual freedom, and body positivity – depriving those issues of the ideological veneer of ownership by particular political groups. His radically democratic and horizontal attitude to processing nowness transgresses national, spatial and temporal borders and categories. Tommy Cash’s joint exhibition with fashion designer Rick Owens “The Pure and The Damned” took place at KUMU Art Museum (2019); he participated in the Performance Night curated by Rick Owens at the Centre Pompidou (2019); he also recently collaborated with Maison Martin Margiela.