The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes
Third Text, Vol. 25, Issue 2, Routledge, London, April 2011
English-language writing about Soviet conceptualism has ping-ponged between journalistic efforts and charismatic offerings by insider theorists for some time. The shortcomings of these polar modes are keenly felt by the reader in different ways, but both issue from methodological oversight on the part of writers. The first group – to say the least – do not engage with theory or philosophical questions, while the latter do so with much flair but pay only cursory attention to Western academic approaches to art historical methodology/historiography. Boris Groys’s Total Art of Stalinism is a high-water mark in the latter respect, while Victor Tupitsyn’s The Museological Unconscious also delights in verbal pyrotechnics and counter-intuitive analyses. Neither effort is anything less than highly engaging, but their carnivalesque polemics can leave readers with the distinct feeling that they are studying the writer and not the artist(s) addressed.

This situation is understandable given the fact that the authors have been – and remain – close friends with the figures that they write about. More specifically, they are collaborators; part of a unique generation and quasi-salon culture of the late Soviet period; an intense discursive community whose ‘study-group’ atmosphere was predisposed to hermeneutic somersaults. This is to say, both Groys and Tupitsyn are better described as artist-poets, not art-historians. 1 Notwithstanding this state of play, those anxious to know more about Russian art have been awaiting a return of the academic repressed. Now, two years after Ilya Kabakov’s receipt of the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award for Sculpture, the most comprehensive treatment of the most distinguished living post-Soviet artist has arrived. Should we be surprised that it is by an American?

Kabakov was one of the last Moscow Conceptualists to emigrate from the Soviet Union – in 1988 – following Komar and Melamid, Rimma Gerlovina and Valeriy Gerlovin and others. However, in terms of both Western and Russian institutional recognition, he is the most celebrated. In both art and life, he advances by seeming retreat. Through his emphasis on the insignificant ‘little man’ as a social type, on disappointment, diminution and resignation, he has grown enormous and successful. By conceptual retreat into garbage – The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away (1988); The Collector (1988) – and general identification with the seemingly unimportant he has emerged as the most treasured living Russian artist. Through narrative and architectural installations that are attributed to absent characters – such as The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment (1985) – Kabakov’s authorial status has acquired hundreds of modifications or alter-egos. In this spectral character, the character of a void, of nothingness – the not-he to whom the work is attributed – he has become a ‘total’ sign for an art-historical movement. That, at any rate, is the way in which he is employed by Matthew Jesse Jackson – as a prism through which to view all Soviet alternative art and, in particular, Moscow Conceptualism. This is to say, with The Experimental Group Kabakov’s peers are art-historically rendered unto his oeuvre – transfigured as characters in his biographical architecture. This procedure finds its precedent in the artist’s installation NOMA or The Moscow Conceptual Circle (1993).2

In The Experimental Group’s introduction Jackson distances his scholarly project from the ‘dominant’ approach to Soviet unofficial art: the ‘politics-and-heroes’ model. 3 Rejecting this reductive Cold War framework is most appropriate, yet the reader is given the misleading impression that his is a first attempt at such a definitive critical ‘break’. 4 Notwithstanding this exaggeration, the subsequent examination of works ‘within the broader field of late Soviet culture’, as ‘indices of the constraints and possibilities encoded in the “real spaces” of their production’, is nuanced and informative.

Attention to the relevance of Kabakov’s work as an illustrator for the Znanie (Knowledge) publishing house in the early 1960s, and the corresponding influence that its output had upon his intellectual formation, is particularly illuminating. 5 This involves a discussion of the engagement of nascent Soviet cybernetic theory with linguistics – in the writings of Vyacheslav Ivanov and Boris Uspensky, amongst others – and its reception on the alternative art scene. We learn that Kabakov was not the only artist to be exposed to such developments. The painter Erik Bulatov – his close friend – apparently illustrated several spreads for a ‘Department of Cybernetics’ in the journal Znaniesila (Knowledge is Power). So too, Aleksandr Kondratov’s article ‘Bits, Letters, Poetry’, which suggested that future poets might one day employ computers to replicate the human creative process before picking a ‘best variant’ from the resulting selection of machine-generated templates. 6 Jackson is justified in his suggestion that a similar appropriative operation became manifest in Kabakov’s practice around the time of his exposure to such material.

Until now, there has been no English-language account of how the Moscow artistic scene was affected by this confluence of cybernetic theory, structuralist linguistics and discussions of conventionality in art in the 1960s. By providing one, the book proffers a genealogy of Soviet conceptualism’s defining interest in text and practices of appropriation. Along with considered investigation of archives and oral history, this contribution enriches our historical picture of the movement.

A signal benefit of Jackson’s non-insider status is his unwillingness to collaborate with Kabakov in the production of a biographical narrative. For example, although the latter claims to have known nothing of the Russian avant-garde until he was forty years old, Jackson dismisses this assertion as a ‘relic from a time when he sought to avoid being pigeonholed as an epigone’. 7 In Chapter Two, attention to this cultural patrimony is neither hurried nor dismissed. He relates how Moscow artists were exposed to key modernist developments in a series of two- or three-day exhibitions held at the State Mayakovsky Museum – which was across the road from Kabakov’s studio – between 1960 and 1968. 8 Later, he goes on to outline the lesson that Kabakov took from visits to the apartment of George Costakis – a Greek employee of the Canadian Embassy who had amassed a formidable collection of Futurist, Suprematist and Constructivist masterpieces. The experience, we are told, taught him that art ‘rarely transcends its surroundings; more often the context defines the art’. 9 As Jackson insightfully relates:

The image of Rodchenko’s Hanging Construction swaying gently over the Costakises’ coffee table… points to Kabakov’s later domestication of the utopian imagination in his installation art, environments in which the viewer contemplates Tatlin set loose in the bedroom. 10

Likewise, Jackson breaks with another useful myth: ‘in general’, he observes, unofficial artists ‘knew a good deal more about Western art than they later admitted’. 11 Contradicting Kabakov again – namely, his 1995 claim that he ‘never saw’ Western art in the Soviet Union – the historian cites the availability of foreign publications in Moscow’s public libraries as early as 1959. These included Art d’aujourd hui, Art News, L’Oeil and Skira books. Moreover, his research has uncovered numerous references to the writings of Clement Greenberg, Suzanne K Langer, Herbert Read and various essays from Western magazines in the official – antimodernist – journal Iskusstvo (Art) in the early 1960s. 12 Jackson is also correct to discern the influence of Pop and Arte Povera in Kabakov’s paintings of the 1960s.

The author’s facility with Russian has also allowed him to bring critical terms into the anglosphere. Specifically, mertsanie (flickering) and mertsatel’nost’ (flickeringness). Coined by the poet and artist Dmitrii Prigov, they help one to understand the ambivalent nature of Kabakov’s acts of cultural and symbolic appropriation/presentation. More generally, they are an apposite characterisation of Moscow Conceptualist practice – notably, its avoidance of unequivocal statements. Jackson points out that the terms:

… describe a bifurcated vision that allowed an object to exist at once both as an expression of culture and as a piece of junk. At this precise Archimedian juncture between significance and nullity, ‘flickeringness’ kicked in – and only then, according to Kabakov, could ‘conceptualism’ appear. Only when an object simultaneously radiated hieratic possibility and antimetaphorical mereness could it ‘flicker’ in the eye and consciousness. 13

It is flickering which allowed Kabakov to address the decrepitude of art in the Soviet Union and which, we may surmise, also powered Komar and Melamid’s treatment of mass cultural symbols both prior to and following their emigration to the United States.

At root, flickering was inspired by ‘the contortions of Soviet life’. If Kabakov has become the most celebrated artist of his generation, it is perhaps because he embraced the contortions in the most comprehensive fashion – re-presenting his professional labour as a book illustrator, inventing a ‘language of anti-ideology deep inside the ideological’, and dramatising the performative negotiation with the Other’s gaze in his work. 14 In a close reading of the Ten Characters album series (1972–1975) Jackson outlines how the artist’s concern with such themes, as well as the myths of the avant-garde and the pretensions of unofficial (Soviet) modernism, was pursued through the mobilisation of text, spoken word and pictorial effects; and how the apparent will towards a Gesamtkunstwerk manifest in this approach would find its most comprehensive expression in the installation format – inspired by Komar and Melamid’s Paradise-Pantheon of 1977.

It is to the credit of The Experimental Group that Kabakov’s practice is constantly set within the context of his peers – to a degree unmatched in other publications. This is most informative in relation to the activities of the Collective Actions group, of which Kabakov was a part, led by the librarian-mystic Andrei Monastyrsky – perhaps the most intriguing and understudied of all Kabakov’s associates. ‘[A]ny artwork capable of confronting such a dispiriting monolith’ as the Soviet Union, we are told, ‘would have to assume a similarly totalizing, alienating aspect’. 15 Thus, we learn how Kabakov’s On Gray Paper (1977–1980) shared something with Collective Actions’ trips to the countryside – both furnished ‘total nonexperiences’. 16

For Kabakov – Jackson maintains – ‘art objects’ were not the key products of Conceptualism. Instead, complex verbal practices constituted its ‘institution’: a ‘multigenerational conversation’ whose ideal was a ‘nearly infinite discussion’ that would encompass the depth and breadth of Soviet civilisation and the history of art, all ‘within the four walls of Kabakov’s studio’ – their regular meeting place. 17 By the early 1980s, the group had established what Jackson characterises as a ‘virtual research laboratory’ in which artistic positions were performed, discussed and documented by a range of artists and writers. 18 The misappropriation of any given hermeneutic approach was of paramount concern, testament to a ‘vibrant local postructuralism’. 19 Two decades have passed since Kabakov left this Moscow ‘institution’ behind for a new life in the United States, but his interest in commentary, and commentaries about commentary, persists. The recent catalogue raisonné of his installations contains commentaries on each work by himself, Josef Bakstein and others. This fact is indicative of another salient fact: even today, his art contributes to the epic Conceptualist – Soviet – conversation.

While Jackson’s book pays no attention to his post-emigration oeuvre, the intellectual ground is laid for understanding his monumental representations of a ‘lost civilisation’ which have occupied museums and biennales around the world from New York to Australia. The Experimental Group is a rich account of the social conditions of the Moscow Conceptualist Circle and a rigorous analysis of their intellectual concerns, beautifully illustrated and convincingly outlined through reference to Kabakov’s biography and pre-emigration oeuvre. 20 In this respect it is a significant contribution to our understanding of both late Soviet culture and its most important artist.

1. Thus, we must welcome their mystifying emphases on the unique nature of Soviet conceptualism – whose literary charms are not subordinate to sustained historical description of how it came to be so unique: Boris Groys has called Moscow Conceptualism ‘a quasi-institutional organization with its own ideology’, but has not outlined the constitution of this symbolic economy as lived by conceptualists – basic things, like what books were they reading, when they read them, etc.
2. The work names Kabakov’s peers in its title, and the installation contrives a series of physical office spaces that belong to them.
3. Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2010, p 1
4. As we have already mentioned, there are other pioneers
5. Jesse Jackson, op cit, pp 34–37
6. Ibid, p 43
7. Ibid, p 59
8. Showcasing Pavel Filonov, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Mikhail Larionov, Goncharova, the poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov and others, ibid, p 55
9. Ibid, p 58
10. Ibid, p 59
11. Ibid, p 67
12. Ibid, p 67
13. Ibid, p 74
14. Be it the ‘political gaze of the State, the pedagogical gaze of the Instructor, the professional gaze of the Editor, or the evaluative gaze of the Collector’. Ibid, p 97
15. Ibid, p 167
16. Ibid, p 167
17. Ibid, p 171
18. Ibid, p 179
19. Ibid, p 17
20. Ibid, p 2
Illya Kabakov, The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, 1988