Moscow Сonceptual Art

Moscow Conceptual Art.  An Exposée of Artistic Strategies.

While the analytical artist describes and demonstrates (often as individual works) his professional set of tools, the conceptualist is involved in artistic anthropology. He analyzes society, culture, the art world, the artist, and if possible all the rocks in his head and subconscious. The special aspect of Moscow Conceptualism in its original form, proposed by Ilya Kabakov, as compared to analogous movements in the West, is that it is biographical. And very partisan. It is “anthropology engaged,” to use Joseph Kosuth’s term. There is little scholarly equilibrium, a lot of irony, playfulness, and daring. The conceptualists performed their anthropological strivings on the material of the historical past and present of Moscow art and also in their own work and destiny.  One shouldn’t take this research for historical works and check the accuracy of fact and the truthfulness of confessions, but they always deal with the characters of the Moscow art scene, sometimes composite, but more often concrete.

Thus, in honor of his triumphant return to Moscow in 2008, Ilya Kabakov created a grand installation exhibition with hundreds of paintings under the general title “Alternative History of Art.” It was presented in the form of a saga about three Moscow painters, representatives of three generations, three artistic eras, whose life and work were totally invented by Kabakov. In the works ascribed to these characters, Kabakov gathered all the typical and easily recognizable methods, stereotypes, and clichés used by the “Moscow school of painting,” the official production of the Union of Artists USSR. Kabakov diligently imitated the characteristic qualities of the artists of this school—their aesthetic and thematic incoherence, the hackwork execution, the thematic inarticulateness, and the sloppy drawing. He put an active mirror to the Union of Artists that revealed the flaws on its collective face. But at the same time he signed the installation with his own name and used his own hands. Many people came to see Kabakov and seeing this pathetic painting were terribly disappointed. The Conceptualist Kabakov contradicted the artist Kabakov. The latter was sacrificed for the demonstration of the error of the main road of Moscow official art. Kabakov thus demonstrated not only the lack of strategy of his opponents but also the sacrificial, self-discrediting strategy of the conceptualist.

Victor Pivovarov, an early member of the conceptualist clan, devoted many graphic cycles and books to the artists and poets of the nonconformist culture. He presents this culture as a big family where everyone is valued independently of his career and social successes. He is drawn to the “depths of culture,” the life and experience of the marginalized, forgotten artists hiding behind the baseboards, whose work never ends up in institutions, exhibitions, or auctions. Such is the character “Yevgeny Leonidovich Kropivnitsky,” often described by Pivovarov and Kabakov. (His protoimage was the artist and founder of the Lianozovo Group.)

“He was like a man living alone, rolled up into a ball in a corner. […] You couldn’t get at him there, because he was no longer a visible figure. And nevertheless, you could hear a human voice coming from there, human activity was going on there, absolutely unnoticed, pure, with a quiet and clear sound” (Kabakov). Kabakov’s installation “Children’s Corner” is lapidary. A cot stands in the turn of a corridor of some apartment, an old mattress probably hauled in from a dump. It’s a cozy, inhabited space.  It may be about a boy whose parents moved him out into the hallway temporarily so that he doesn’t spoil the good furniture with his paints. Or maybe about a cat. But it looks as if the author is showing us the residence and simultaneously the studio of the same character, Yevgeny Leonidovich Kropivnitsky.

Here he is in Dmitri Prigov’s drawing, staring at the hole in the wall made by a huge drill. Through its thick wall you can see the pure blue sky. Without a doubt, Prigov is depicting Bulatov’s familiar “tunnel,” the passage to the world of freedom. But the artist transferred the image from painting illusion to architectural fantasy and then even materialized it in the installation “Sky.” There the hole into the sky of freedom is presented as a hatch leading to the attic. From there a hawser is lowered to the floor and just so that no one mistakes where you can climb to, the end forms the word “Sky” on the floor.  “You want freedom? Climb!” The artist seems to be acting in accordance with the principles of nonconformist culture. He was taught this: art must lead to heaven and save people. No less, no more. However, in recreating this rule, he does something improper, even unacceptable from the nonconformist point of view. He crosses the line of illusion. He breaks open the plane of the painting. He liquidates the separation of Bulatov’s image, painterly by nature, from the real space of life.

Ilya Kabakov acted more crudely and simply. One of his most famous installations, “The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment,” imitates the room of some hapless fellow obsessed with flight, who used an unpretentious catapult to execute his dream. He flew up, tearing a huge hole in the ceiling. Pieces of ragged wallpaper dangle from the edges of the hole.

Victor Pivovarov also could not remain within the boundaries of the illusion of “breaking through to freedom” and made a real hole in the paper. “Torn paper,” he wrote, “represented a crevice, passageway, breakthrough. A conscious and unconscious idea of escape, breaking out, a spatial hole infinitely beckoning white, hung in the air. Bulatov’s ‘Coming!’, Kabakov’s flown-away characters, Volodya Yankilevsky’s breaks and tears, Gorokhovsky’s vanishing figures, and so on, and so on.”  Pivovarov lists them all without differentiation, yet some artists believed in that flight and others also believed but at the same time defended it and treated it as a conditional linguistic construction, a façon de parler, or a block of thought. Recognizing it, pulling it out like a tick from their consciousness, they laughed merrily. Ironic laughter is the distinguishing mark of the conceptual activity of all the new avant-gardists who appeared on the eve of the 1970s. They were essentially resolving the same issue of freeing people from social clichés and mental coercion as Bulatov, without chancing the ideological model but by making their convictions relative. Their method was creating slightly distorted self-descriptions, deformed by irony. The method resembles looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror which sometimes gives you an adequate reflection and sometimes turns you into a caricature.

The ideologeme of “flight to freedom” was be no means the only directing concept that the new artists found, then pinned to a board, and like entomologists, exhibited for observation. Thus, Prigov devoted a few projects to the “black square” syndrome that developed with the fashion for Malevich that captivated the whole world in the 1970s. Some artists wrote letters to Malevich or communicated with him telepathically. They saw squares in everything and everywhere. The first collectors demanded them as a Russian sign and the “Russian view.” In Prigov’s object “The Window,” the frame is wide open, which allows the gaze to plunge into the nocturnal darkness or else to see in its place the square, which is cut by the window space to the exact measurements of Malevich’s painting. Another “block of consciousness” that was very popular was “venerating icons.” This block does not allow the development in the individual and public mind of the institution of criticism, of an expert evaluation. It “spreadeagles” the viewer before the image or text of any authority, be it politician, cultural hero, or church leader. Prigov demonstrates that kind of bowed piety in his “Installation for the Poor Cleaning Woman.” For a number of reasons, the “icon” becomes desacralized before the viewer’s eyes and all the piety is transformed in a trice into its opposite, iconoclasm.

The attitude of the uncomplaining obeisance is intertwined with the practice of vandalism. That is the subject of one of Ilya Kabakov’s most unexpected installations, “Incident at the Exhibition,” which is hard to discern as an art project and probably should be called a staging,

You enter a room and come across an unusual situation. A scandal must have erupted here just before. People crowd around hastily erected barriers setting off part of the room and the walls with rather unattractive realistic paintings hanging on them. All the glass on them is broken and the canvases are chopped by an ax, which is lying of the floor. Like a weapon after a murder, dropped by the vandal at the scene of the crime. The floor is covered with glass shards. Ilya Kabakov has directed a situation, which over the last decades occurs ever more frequently at art exhibitions. Visitors subject works of art to physical violence in order to express their views on sex, politics, or religion. Vandalism gets top billing in media ratings. The public is avidly interested and therefore the events get front-page coverage. The legal consequences are minimal. It turns to be the most effective and economic way of being heard around the world. It is understandable why artists themselves are using this method for self-promotion.  Desecrating another artist’s message serves as the ideal way to get their own message into the media. For example, Alexander Brener drew a dollar sign on an original Malevich “Black Square” in Amsterdam and immediately found his way into performance anthologies. From the start of the twentieth century, the artist in public opinion is conflated with hooligan, therefore vandalism is expected behavior. Consequently, for media-savvy authors, this is a conscious strategy which they cannot admit, for vandalism is forgivable when committed in a clinical state of affect or creative protest, but not in a calculated way with a cool head.

Showing vandalism to be a secret and effective strategy in current art was one of the goals of Kabakov’s installation concept. But there is also auto-vandalism. There are quite a few instances in modern art (for example, Marcel Broodthaers) where artists made their name through a clever and timely destruction of their own works. Before the violence, these works were of no interest to anyone, but once they became a ruin, a fragment, made defective and surrounded by a sad legend, they elicit a lot of interest. To a great extent Kabakov’s installation, which the author destroys in part for the sake of a greater goal, belongs to this category of auto-vandalism.

Kabakov does not need to expand his fame, he is known throughout the art world. But in the last few decades the sharp contrast between conceptual installations critically analyzing the creative process and the traditional forms of “positive” contemporary art has smoothed out. Conceptualism is accepted, understood, and put in its place among others. It has merged with other forms of art and has even been partially taken over by decorative and applied crafts. I would assume that this does not suit Kabakov at all. He wants to exacerbate and raise the bar. For after all, like his friend Bulatov, he comes out of nonconformism, and art for him is the salvation and liberation of the human spirit and not the Sunday entertainment of the empty public. So he juxtaposes himself harshly to the exhibit and knocks the viewer off stride. The viewer feverishly rushes from the label to the broken paintings. “Did Kabakov smash these himself or was it his character or does this have nothing to do with him at all?” The effect is achieved, conceptualism once again slips out of the circle of understandable aesthetic practices and becomes non-obvious. For the viewer who appreciates Kabakov’s theatrics as auto-vandalism, the rest of the exhibits in the show will seem like staffage and stage props. He will be carried away by the search for the author’s meanings. What is freedom, actually? Being able to grab an ax and destroy everything around you? Or being able to see the deeply traditional avant-garde behavior in this gesture? Or that today art is not paintings but an event in the social field? Or that “so-called” performance at the opening is boorishness and disrespect for the other participants in the exhibition? One thing is sure—the character of the work, flickering with meanings that cannot be captured by a definition or determined to be an undoubted art object, is Kabakov’s program aesthetic principle.

Andrey Erofeev