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Curator's text


The Neverending Story

Vladimir Levashov

The contemporary Russian art emerged and evolved in a situation of double cultural isolation: in a country insulated from the outside world and as an underground artistic activity languishing in the backyard of the official art scene. This topology determined the uniqueness of its structure, its strategies and its morphogenesis, which was not at all peculiar to the period before the disintegration of the USSR in 1991. Even after it ceased to be informal, this art retained within its nature that global impulse engendered by the Soviet universe which hardly lends itself to verbaliz ation. The universe exploded but didn’t completely disappear. Its matter, be it in form of corporeal fragments or relict radiation, is still having its impact on the post-Soviet space and bringing about aesthetic phenomena that can’t be comprehended without taking into account that “pre-catastrophic” past. In other words, the history goes on – not only as a historical evolution, but, primarily, as a narra tive, a story in images.

Its most apparent, external layer is the thematic one, the layer that could be called, with a bit of simplification, the “Soviet story”, and that translates various pictures from the past into our present. It is, so to speak, social ethno graphy, the skin of the past life, the semantic decor still employed, despite the disappearance of the object that it used to camouflage. And, while all these things are, in effect, nothing but domestic garbage, their fragments still possess the power of magic objects or spells invoking forces that lay in the foundation of the Soviet universe. These “furnishings” consist of symbolic objects of verbal and visual origin: simple ideological formulas and slogans, pictograms (like the five-pointed star or the sickle and hammer) and the normative images of official visual art. Once the social themes attract the interest of unofficial artists, all these elements become artists’ material for con structing the above-mentioned “Soviet story”. It happens at the very beginning of the 1970s, when the “social art”, highly heterogeneous in its composition, comes into being. Having infected the art underground with ideological themes, some of the adherents of the “social art” emigrate to the United States, where, by the late 1980s, this art, thanks to the efforts of curators and art theorists Margarita and Victor Tupitsyn, is already firmly associated with the so called “Sots Art.” At virtually the same time Sots Art lives its heyday in the USSR that enters the era of Gorbachev’s perestroika, destined to become a deconstruction of the communist system. As a result, the “social art” goes through a phase of active expansion: it merges into the amorphous conglomerate of the “art ofperestroika”, which vigorously exploits the deconstructed Soviet themes. It is at this time that the general public becomes aware of the Sots Art phenomenon and Sots Art is exported to the West on a mass scale. Its images borrowed by the pop culture and the media quickly lose their radicalism. Sots Art mutates, absorbing diverse reactions to the new Russian capitalism and transforming itself into one of the versions of political art, still, the Soviet themes remain a permanent back drop of contemporary Russian art through out the 1990s–2000s.

One should also bear in mind that the Sots Art of the 1970s–1980s covers but one narrow, ideological sector within the range of the Soviet subjects. It is a rather late phenomenon in the context of the unofficial art that onlyemerges after the specific behavioral format of this circle of artists, the language and the special type of the narrative of their art, and most importantly, its self-awareness, are fully formed.

The 1960s

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the first individual alternatives to the total dominance of the socialist realism in the Soviet art make their appearance. They are practically indiscernible against the general backdrop of the official artistic life. Yet, the official life itself undergoes changes, very slow and inconsistent, but real. Their important drivers were further reinforced by breaches of the information isolation in the period of the Khrushchev’s “thaw” at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. It is the time when Moscow hosts the 6th International Festival of Youth and Students (with an inter national art exhibition as part of its program), American and French exhibitions (with representative art sections) and Pablo Picasso’s retrospective. These events make an upheaval in the minds of the new generation. They demonstrate to artists seeking alternative paths in art a whole range of models of creative visual activity. Other sources of change include publications becoming accessible in some central Moscow libraries, albums infiltrated from the West, Soviet publications of some isolated works of foreign writers breaking the ideological monopoly1. One specific source of information about the world’s contemporary art were also the writings of Soviet culturol ogists criticizing bourgeois aesthetics and culture. Finally, some artists used personal connections to find their way to the vaults of museums and private collections, where they could see works of Russian and Western modernism of the early 20th century.

However, this thaw in arts comes to an end after the rout of the exhibition of young avant-garde artists (arranged during the jubilee exhibition entitled 30 Years of the Moscow Section of the RSFSR Union Of Artists held at the Manege State Exhibition Hall) by Nikita Khrushchev on December 1, 1962. From that moment on, any public attempts to cross the borders of the socialist realism are severely repressed, and the art of any different orienta tion is pushed out into cultural non-existence, thus getting the title of underground art. It is only by the middle of the next decade, with some easing of censorship, that another, related term of unofficial art acquires an ever-increasing prevalence.

The underground artists of the 1960s work in the vein of modernistic traditions, from ab stract art to surrealism. Their aesthetic views are highly bizarre, representing an eclectic mix of their own ideas and experiences with some fantastic interpretations of facts from the recent history of Euro-American art accessible to them. In a situation of an effective cultural vacuum, artists of the 1960s invent their own art from scratch (thus, reliving in their own way the experience of modernistic utopias of the first half of the 20th century), which is why it is experienced by them as an existential revelation. The aesthetic pursuits go along with the spiritual quest, with the art becoming something of a quasi-religious activity, a form of practical metaphysics. Its range is quite wide, from an ascetic religion of art (as found in the oeuvre of Anatoly Zverev, Vladimir Yakovlev or Vladimir Yankilevsky) and scientistic life-structuring practices (the Dvizheniye (Movement) group), to surrealistic metaphysics of Ülo Sooster, the theurgism of Mikhail Shvartsman (whose system, under the title of hieratism took its final form only in the 1970s) and the Christian Orthodox suprematism of Eduard Steinberg (which also gradually formed itself by the 1970). This amalgam of spiritual and artistic practices continues to play an important role in the unofficial art throughout the 1970s as well.

Art that could be referred to as metaphysical (be it the depiction of “objectified ’metaphysical’ universes” or “exalted narrativity”2 avoids any forms of direct realism. Rather than the visual reality, it relates itself to the realm of signs and their referential concepts or be hav ioral forms. “Any language of art (…) revealed itself at that time as a kind of knowledge per sonally conquered by at artist and only owned by him. (…) Style was not pursued, it emerged, reflecting life of an individual mind in the realm of ideas and forms.”3. Each of these artists follows his or her own path, sees his or her oeuvre as exceptionally original, without any essential counterparts. Overall, the metaphysical art evolves as a peculiar narrative following individual threads, where the visual output illustrates conceptual ideas, while the latter operate as a direct motivation for visual expression, and where a particular human personality acts as a pivot assembling the nar rative elements, a guarantor of integrity of the artistic universe.

It is true, in the context of the same under ground artistic activity there was certain alternative to things we are designating here with an umbrella term of “metaphysical art”. This alternative is represented by Mikhail Roginsky and, to some extent, also by Boris Turetsky and Mikhail Chernyshov, whose works display fragments of mundane figural environ ment or show individual objects, the depiction of which is not only devoid of any metaphysical support, but also has all the characteristics of an authentic “Soviet form.” It is no coincidence therefore that these artists are sometimes seen as pioneers of the “Russian Pop Art” which eventually didn’t come about.

Ilya Kabakov, in reference to himself and his colleagues, the artists of the 1960s, cites an extract from a text by German psychologist Ernst Kretschmer describing the schizoid tem perament: “Many schizoids resemble un decorated Roman houses or villas whose shutters are closed to stop bright sun from getting in; and yet, there are feasts going on in the shade of their inner chamber.”4 This quotation is not just a clinical or metaphorical definition of the cultural situation of the period: it refers to a time when a whole range of spiritual and aesthetic experiments is syn thesized into the so-called “schizoid culture”. This culture, according to art historian N. Tamruchi, “took deep root in the Moscow underground, touching upon many, if not all, its aspects, although in its pure form it didn’t survive till the 1980s.” Pivotal figure of the schizoids’ circle was Yuri Mamleev, a writer whose salon in Yuzhinsky Pereulok was their principal meeting point. “Schizoids” cultivated a method of wilful madness and are credited with enriching the weltanschauung of the artists of the 1960s “with three main dis co veries. The first discovery: any existing object, any concept, any category are absolutely different from what they try to pass themselves for… The second discovery: every object exists quite separately and independently of the whole, and our reality is a multitude of uni verses without any points of contact between them… Things are not determined by any other things, and, therefore, no thing has any advantage before any other thing… The third discovery was the idea of the non-existent other. (…) Since all the existence can be destroyed, and, therefore, is nothing but an elementary illusion that shouldn’t be reckoned with, the only reality is something that doesn’t exist… There is another, or fantastic, being “above” the God, which, while it doesn’t exist, is the only reality that should be reckoned with and seen as the only redemptive reference point.”5

Yuri Mamleev refers to “our state of the time as “bathing in Nothingness”6. These words give an accurate description of both the condition and the state of mind of the under ground culture. On the one hand, its members lacked any social status and were turned into sheer marginals; on the other hand, they perceived themselves as an elite, a pivotal element of the whole situation, which, in itself, looked like a cultural schizophrenia. Besides, the very works of the members of the marginal elite showed the same duality. They were a kind of “everything and nothing”, something like illustrations of non-corporeal ideas or derivative specimens of classical modernism bearing no relation to the Soviet reality of the time. Could there, indeed, be something bearing any relation to what is depicted as an absolute Nothingness?

Ilya Kabakov and the Art Underground of the 1960s

The history showed that there were two pos sible ways out of this impasse. One was suggested by Mikhail Roginsky, a maverick artist who described his own art with the term “documentalism”. The other one, a solution that found much wider resonance with the underground milieu, initiating in it the most powerful tradition in the Soviet unofficial art, was suggested by Ilya Kabakov.

In 1965, Roginsky produces the most “Pop Artish” works of his, The Floor. Clay Tiles and The Door, in which he crosses the vigor of a visual image with the sheer certainty of a real object and presents “the painting as portrayal and continuation of life.” This approach also meant integration of the artist himself into the world (along with the “flux of painting”). Kabakov would not settle for this. He perceived the meaning of his art quite differently, spe cifically, as a separation, a “generation of the “clear-cut” instead of the tangled and of the “manifest” and “obvious” instead of the “implicit” and “unclear” (…) for the sake of greater objectivization and a thoroughness bordering on a meticulousness of a bookkeeper.”7 In 1965-66, Kabakov produces his “paintings-objects” Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly; Sofa-Painting; Hand and Reysdal’s Painting; Machine-Gun and Chicks. As the artist ob serves, “at the time it was called ’absurdism’, but in the 1970s, when they were seen by Dina Vierny, they came to be referred to as ’Russian Pop Art’”8. Being at once images and three-dimensional objects, these “split stories” of Kabakov’s works find themselves in the weirdest position possible, in the emptiness of Nothing: “an object, a made thing with no relation to the things from the actual reality or the “otherworldly” reality alike, literally finds itself hanging up in the air as a piece of absolute nonsense, a failed, humorless joke. (…) But this was exactly how I felt about those fabricated objects of mine. They only had to exist through their interpretation. And every time explanations only provided an inadequate explication of the “thing” in just one aspect, without accounting for, or excusing, its naked absurdity.” (…) Everything was rammed into this universe, as a suitcase that wouldn’t close, only by half. Everything is a question addressed to an unknow recipient…”9.

The problem faced by Kabakov, treading in the footsteps of the schizoids, was not only an artistic, but also a psychological and an exis tential one. The attitude to the object in this aspect was becoming an attitude of the subject of art to the actual external things, to the Soviet reality. Ultimately, it appeared as an image representing the situation of the entire underground art of the time. And this is why Kabakov’s role in the history of the contemporary Russian art is so crucial: he put himself above this situation, being the first one to suggest a formula of a subject’s attitude to the “Soviet universe” (which was, indeed, for mu lated in the fullest possible way). It was first implemented in his ten-album series Ten Characters (1972–75).

Each of the albums encapsulates a “storyparable” of one of those characters. It is a “perfectly literary character seized by a theme-state and living this theme-state from the beginning to the end, as the only content of his life (…) the character becomes obsessed with his ’idea’, reaches at some moment an acme of his life and a point of maximum exertion of his powers and after a certain while (…) dies, having been destroyed from within by this disease of an idea.”10. The last piece in each album is a blank sheet of paper record ing a white nothing, that luminous emptiness, into which (or out of which) the character disappears. The emptiness is the only thing that has an inviolable permanence in the artist oeuvre. Being unbroken light, it is filled with all the imaginable opportunities, and “all these objects, their images, exist in this white space as temporary influxes coming in a sort of a lateral motion rather than from within its depth, coming from the side and floating away sidewise, too”11.

An empty sheet for Kabakov, who spent about thirty years of his life illustrating children’s books, is both a material basis of the artistic work (that is, its primary object) and its fundamental visual image. By its sheer presence, this sheet provides to the artist a guarantee of the resolution of all the problems arising from the ambiguity of the subject matter and the image, of art and life. It exists even before any artistic work starts, and, on the other hand, transcends and encapsulates any image, pushing the artist out into a metaposition, making his work as optional as the existence of all the objects-images on its surface. All of them, as it was mentioned before, are temporary, they emerge and dis appear. And the only method of artistic work is just as temporary – that is, a temporal (timebound) – story, a pictured narrative so natural with an illustration artist. “There simultaneously appeared, as it were, two sequences, the visual sequence and another one within me, one that is parallel to the first and associated with it, is derived from it but also subsequently supports or even engenders it – a second, ver bal sequence discussing the first one, com ment ing on it and laminating its meanings.”12

Characteristically, it is the verbal sequence that is referred to by Kabakov as his inner, own sequence. It is this sequence that envelopes the visual sequence, both giving birth to it and being born by it. The verbal narrative comprises not only the story of each of the ten charac ters, but also the comments of secondary characters of each parable with respect to him. Thus, the narrative ceases to be a monologue. Since the main characters of the albums, much like the things in earlier paintings-objects, exist, according to the author’s ob servation, only “through their interpretation”, the author can’t put up with the words providing “an inadequate explication of the “thing” in just one aspect”. For a thing or a character to be able to hold itself up in the void, they need a polyphony, a chorus of comments. Once such chorus of comments is produced, even the visual presence of the object may become dispensable, as Kabakov shows in his other works. The author’s pres ence is dispensable as well, so he is pushed out to a metaposition, leaving a group of characters-commentators in his lieu.

Who are they, though, those ten album char acters? On the one hand, they are inhabitants of congested communal apartments, where nobody can ever stay alone, and where there isn’t a single voice outside a chorus of other voices. And where “the author is the eleventh character obsessed with passion of telling autobiographical stories, while the other ten are the artist’s imaginary neighbors living in the communal apartment of his memory and fantasies.”13 On the other hand, typical modernists are associated with underground artists of the 1960s, who, when placed in the communal apartment setting, are not anymore those proud architects of metaphysical universes, but common people of the street burdened with schizoid manias. In this way, Kabakov brings in his figure of the “artistcharacter” that will later become so famous, including the “author-character”, his own alter ego that he “plants” as an agent into the space of artistic fiction.

Invention of an Infinite Narrative. The Metaphysical and Social Elements of Conceptualism

At the beginning of the 1970s, a conceptual movement evolves in the underground Moscow art. Ilya Kabakov, who comes up in his ten-album series Ten Characters with the formula of “Metaphysical Conceptualism”, emerges as the most conspicuous figure of this movement. He capitalizes on the entire experience of the artistic underground of the 1960s, in particular, the strategy of the “schizoid culture.” Transformed by Kabakov, this strategy becomes an important method with the artists of the evolving conceptual school, and in the late 1980s is already as sociated with “schizoanalysis” of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari14. Kabakov’s Metaphysical Conceptualism, much like the Western versions of conceptual practice, represents an analysis of art from a meta-artistic position, which, however, is performed in a form disguised as a traditionally artistic one. Despite the stated pursuit of clarity and objectivization, Kabakov creates a system based on an intricate interplay of its individual elements. He identifies the subject matter of his analysis (specifically, Russian underground art) as a form of quasi-religious practice and a morbid mania at once, the artists, as madmen from communal apart ments, and the viewers, as their apartment neighbors. The author himself seemingly dis tances himself from the narrative matter, and his metaposition is associated with the white emptiness (which becomes radically mystified). At that time, this emptiness is represented by a white sheet of paper, i.e. a demystified material object that exists in the worldly reality with all its physical and social characteristics. Indeed, Kabakov’s graphical style is nothing but the conventional language of his book illustrations which he sees merely as a means of earning his living, rather than any part of his artistic output proper. This language also belongs to the area of social conventionality.

As a result, Kabakov’s author is omnipresent: as an eleventh character within his own narra tive; in the image of the emptiness that serves as the narrative’s transcendental backdrop; in a role of a typical Soviet illustrator. His figure joins together the layers of the art of meta physics and the art of the mundane reality, whereby Kabakov is eventually able to be telling a split (schizoid) visual-cum-literary tale, which can’t fundamentally be described in objective terms: any attempt at a description inevitably joins the comments which are already part of the narrative. While Joseph Kosuth in his work One and Three Chairs equalized the rights of the text, the image and the object, Kabakov adds to the object and the text-image fused into one, some meta physical signs. In Kabakov’s oeuvre, there also emerges a triad, but an even more all-embrac ing one, in which the boundaries between life, culture and “the other world” are completely transcended. Kabakov’s practice advances from albums to paintings, and, since the late 1980s, to “total installations”, in which his characters find themselves in the same space with the audience in a sense which is anything but metaphorical. Thus, Metaphysical Conceptualism created by the artist acquires a total quality, transforming itself in the process of its expansionary growth into an infinite narrative.

Ivan Chuikov, another pioneer of conceptu alism, also relates himself to the metaphysical art. We see in his oeuvre another possible arrangement of some elements of Kabakov’s “complete sequence”. The artist’s predominant theme is “the relativity and conventionality of any image. There is something else hiding beyond the outer shell of the external world and its images, something we don’t know nor can name. I marvel at the very possibility of depicting something while being aware all along that the image is inadequate. There is some mystery beyond the things we see, a something whose nature doesn’t lend itself to depiction.”15. This critique of the image is con ducted by Chuikov in the name of outlining the contours of the metaphysical “mystery” which is rather similar to Kabakov’s “empti ness”.

To Erik Bulatov, on the other hand, this kind of mystery appears in the image of light, whose source is “beyond our world and (…) is greater than this world.” The art contacts it “only through the surface (…) through specific social reality”16. This is a reality conceptualized and structured in Bulatov’s painting which gives it a potential opportunity for the presence of the ideal light. It is at the same time a spatial path to this light and an aggregate of planes interfering with it. In Bulatov’s oeuvre, one specific and most obvious layer of such obstacles are the absolutely flat surfaces of ideological signs, from prohibitive inscriptions to portraits of political leaders, to the Soviet state emblem. Their sequence starts with the red decoration ribbon masking the contact line between the sea and the sky in Bulatov’s 1971 masterpiece Horizon.

The conceptualists’ nearly decade-long quest is summarized by the theorist of art Boris Groys. In his 1979 article he coins the term “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism”, concluding his text with the following program statement: “The Russian art, from church icons to our time, wants to speak of the other world. […] The language of art is different in that it speaks of the other world one world that can only be spoken of in this language. […] What is this other world, then? It is the world revealed to us by religion. It is also the world revealed to us only through the art. And it is also the world lying at the crossing point of these two worlds. […] in any case, art is […] an intrusion of the other world into our world, […] into our History […] we can say that the other world is not some other world, but our own historicity revealed to us here and now.”17

Boris Groys’ formula differs very little from the “metaphysical” ideology of the art under ground of the 1960s. The only element added to it is the “historicity revealed to us here and now”, in other words, the Soviet contemporary reality. Indeed, it is the art that offers a means of adapting this contemporary reality to the metaphysical eternity. Boris Groys’ formula shows quite clearly that the universalist aspiration of Kabakov’s conceptual program of the 1970s remained unsurpassed. Nor was it surpassed, by and large, at any point in the future, throughout the entire history of this movement. Kabakov’s program was only “adjusted”, accentuated and modified – and quite considerably at that – in some of its components by other artists. Indeed, it had never been formulated in any verbal form, but only existed implicitly, within Kabakov’s literary texts and visual images. The precedent of coinage of the Groys’ term seems to show that nobody even suspected of the existence of such program, however paradoxical it may seem. Not even its creator himself, which is proven by an extract from his own memoirs, where he writes that “the air of the 1970s (…) had two phases, two states, (…) that I might call, the one, “metaphysical” and the other, “social”18. Indeed, the latter one came “literally like a bolt from the blue (…) in most horrible ideological forms, taken ’as such’, just as they existed ’in their own environment’, in so to speak, artistically unprocessed form – that is, in the streets, on houses, in institutions, news papers, etc.”19.

What this extract refers to is the shock experi enced by the “metaphysicians” at the appear ance of the Sots Art – an art based on a direct, cynical and ironizing employment of com munist symbols and ideologems, unlike the metaphysicians’ images of “kitchen-sink sociality” having to do with the weltanschau ung of the Soviet “small man” or apolitical Bohemians. “Metaphysicians” depicted the Soviet situation as a particular case of an existential and metaphysical situation, into which the lives of private people were thrown by some universal force. Sots Art, on the other hand, brought into the artistic practice, in a Dada-like rude style, a stratum of unique and distinctively local characteristics: not only the atmosphere of the communal-apartment existence, but the explicit Soviet theme, with its “horrible” and outrageously “anti-art” nature. Sots Art’s brutality and ludicrous superficiality were, probably, the main reason why it was never absorbed by the Metaphysical Conceptualism as an authentic project (despite their structural and semantic affinity), but accelerated the latter’s departure from the traditional aesthetic norms.

Rimma and Valery Gerlovin, artists who played an important role in the early Moscow con ceptualism, wrote as early as 1972: “In our opinion, the particular attention to the con ceptual side of the art work, which is a characteristic trend of contemporary art, has always been one of the principal tendencies in Russian art, prevailing over other tasks, including the aesthetic ones […] creative effort of most Russian artists is based on their aspiration to use their philosophical views as a basis […] for addressing ethical, religious and social prob lems. Also, one peculiar feature of this aspiration is a certain degree of indifference to the formal perfection of the artwork. All the above factors lead us to a conclusion that the conceptualism finds the most favorable ground in Russia and is the most relevant and vital stage in the evolution of the Russian art.”20 An art throwing off the burden of aesthetics and formal perfection for the sake of the direct illustration of ideas is a definition of conceptualism. And such conceptualism emerges as an ideal intermediary between the metaphysics and the sociality. In the course of evolution, the images and formal values of the art of the old give their place to something that came to be referred in the latter-day conceptualism as “thought-forms” and became embodied in texts, actions in physical space, ready-made objects and other similar artefacts.

This broad trend in the evolution of Metaphysi cal Conceptualism found its realization in the practices of the Collective Actions Group established in 1976 and its leader, poet and artist Andrey Monastyrsky. The actions of the group that involved nearly all the unofficial art community, were always organized accord ing to the same pattern. An author of an action was supposed to think up the entire program, following which the participants performed a series of activities without having any idea of their purpose. Then the action participants, to gether with the audience and the author himself, subjected their activities to a collective discussion, whereby they acquired meaning, emerging as thought-forms. Later, in the practices of Inspection Medical Hermeneutics, the last group of some importance in the Moscow conceptualism (the group was set up in 1987), even this kind of artificially designed behavior was abandoned, with its participants mostly producing texts and objects interpreting the external reality, the psychedelic pheno m ena generated by it, all sorts of concepts and, in general, everything lending itself to some interpretation. In other words, the “physics” and the “metaphysics” merged into a single space, in which acts, objects and texts acquired equal rights.

Before its eventual explosion, the Soviet universe reflected itself in the mirror designed by the Russian conceptualism. It turned history into geography; it produced a map that was elaborated to minutest details and encom passed everything, from earth to heaven; it integrated the Soviet civilization into the traditions of both the national and the global culture. By the late 1980s, the Soviet space, once only seen in terms of the void and absence, seemed to be filled to the brim. This new congestion presented itself as a new existential obstacle waiting to be overcome once again. This dramatic feeling is described by Andrey Monastyrsky in his 1986 text char acteristically entitled VDNHk, the Capital of the World21: “Maybe, through a single aperture at least of the gnoseological lattice of the “knowledge” that kills all the living things, one could find a loophole for a free view, be it even a “special” free view (like a view from the ancient Chinese towers of contemplation), specifically framed, and yet a view with “empty”, desacralized center, which in fact always conceals the most precious thing that we have, the returned uncertainty.”22

Sots Art: an Ideological Parody as an Expressive Form

It was this rejection of the empty space and ambition to fill the “gnoseological lattice” that distinguished conceptualism of the Sots Art type from the conceptualism of the metaphysical vein. Sots Art countered the aesthetics of the communal-apartment absurdity with its anti-aesthetics of parody and caricature. The very term “Sots Art” was invented in 1972 by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, to refer to their own collaborative output. At about the same time they wrote a manifest of the new movement, in the context of which they intended to hybridize the SOTS (Realism) and the (Pop) art, that is, the super-styles associated with the communist USSR (producing ideology in abundance) and the capitalist USA (a society of overproduction of things). However, Komar and Melamid were not the only ones whose work evolved in this direction, and so the term they produced came to be used, sooner or later, to refer to artistic experiments of Alexander Kosolapov, Leonid Sokov, Boris Orlov, Rostislav Lebedev, Dmitry Prigov, Vagrich Bakhchanyan and other authors.

As we mentioned above, the underground art of the 1960s-early 1970s featured some works that could be seen as isolated precedents of the local Pop Art. In one case, they were produced by the very logic of development of the Russian art itself, as a form of early social reflection, in another, a result of direct influ ence of American fashion and attempts of its adaptation to local material. Some of the pioneers of Sots Art also experienced the influence of Pop Art. However, Pop Art had no chance of becoming a considerable artistic movement in the USSR. Pop Art, as well as its European counterparts, such as nouveau réalisme and arte povera, emerged in a mature consumer society where the saturated environ ment of merchandise objects and advertising signs created an effect of wealth as a natural state. USSR, on the other hand, was a country where the private property was under a pro hibition, and the material basis was too meager to cover even the elementary lack of consumer goods, let alone establish an affluent society.

The abundance of material things, never ex perienced by the real socialism, still remained a fundamental attribute of communism, the ideal society of the future. The horizon of the social utopianism was simultaneously the horizon of the producing capacity of the society. There, on the line of maximum chronological distancing, the ideological formula became indistinguishable from its own content, the “real content”, according to the phrase of the time. Moreover, this formula-Word, due to its supreme reality, was also an Object, more real than any ordinary thing.

Sots Art was that art movement that imple mented the objective of merging the word and the object implicitly present in the Soviet ideol ogy in the form of art that launched its own production of “ideological objects”. And, since the only producer of ideology in a totalitarian state was the state authority, it appeared that these artists acted as its self-proclaimed spokespersons. They did it by parodying the production of ideology and creating its cari ca ture image, without possessing any right thereto and by appropriating such right, by building their own metaposition23, and de stroying it at the same time (in the same paradoxical way as it was done by Ilya Kaba kov, starting from his first albums). Sots Art (as, in effect, all the unofficial art of the USSR) was not an art of political dissidents or an activity based on any kind of anti-Soviet pro gram. Its strategy was relativistic. It involved moving away from the Soviet universe through a demonstrative, grotesque and comical merger into it. The Komar and Melamid’s mani fest states: “Sots Art is a denial of the notion that the spiritual life is individual. It is a state and social property.”24 Therefore, in imple menting their own thesis, the artists create for themselves one character for two, Komar and Melamid, and operate as an indivisible cluster and collaborative micro-unit. As far as the aesthetics are concerned, the manifest proclaims that Sots Art “is a rebirth of the style and methods of classical socialist realism on avant-garde principles”25. Classical socialist realism is a unity of ideological content and its botchy visual execution, or, to use the professional jargon, oformilovka26, a skill perfectly mastered by these artists from the years of their professional schooling. Oformilovka is an aesthetically-neutral position bordering on a complete insensibility to the aesthetic side. Which leads directly to a conclusion that “Sots Art has nothing to do with the notions of beauty and aesthetic experience. […] Sots Art is a triumph over the frank pledge of the fear of anti-aesthetic.”27 “Anti-aesthetic” is a fundamental characteristic of the Soviet reality, drained by ideology of the sensual temptation, the taste for physical reality and its plastic values to the last drop. The acceptance of the Soviet universe means at the same time an intrepid acceptance of its anti-aesthetic nature, dissolution of the hack-work of art in the botchy reality. This avant-garde performance reproduces the impersonal and academic figure of a heroic act in a caricature form.

Crossing the Border. The Potential of Bilingua

Sots Art’s “heroic hack-work” copies the stand ard of hypocrisy and doublethink that became a norm of public life in the stagnation period of socialism. Sots Art discovers in this double think an appropriate linguistic formatting mechanism, a multipurpose method of substitution of signifiers that did its job at the time of perestroika, the time when Sots Art was actively engaged in the dismantling of the Soviet ideology. However, this mechanism was first tried out as early as the 1970s, during the emigration wave, when many Sots Artists moved to America.

Sots Art is, essentially, a border phenomenon: it brings together the opposites of the “sots” and the “pop”, taking for its material the upper, finishing layer of the Soviet narrative, its ideological semantics. In this sense, Sots Art plays the role of an epilogue to the story of the Soviet universe, exhausting the resources of its upper, ideological layer and “reaching the firmament”, as it were. For it, no “further”, metaphysical space exists, where one could escape from the leak-proof capsule of the communist universe. Instead, rather than going up in vertical direction, there is a chance to escape in a horizontal, sideways direction, to substitute one space with another, neighboring one – in geographical, historical, cultural terms – and start writing the next volume of the novel, keeping the continuity of the story. To this end, Sots Art only has to flip the positions of the Soviet and the American element in its bilingua, to shift the accent from “sots” to “pop”. So, we see Alexander Kosolapov, by that time in the US, borrowing the stylistics of American advertising, coupling Lenin’s image with the Coca-Cola slogan and rendering the name of Malevich, Russian avant-garde artist, in the graphic style of Marlboro. Leonid Sokov “arranges a meeting” of Marilyn Monroe with Stalin and brings Lenin and Alberto Giacometti’s character into the same sculptural group. But, having once started, this mutation has no chance to stop anywhere. The bilingua evolves into a multi-linguistic approach, where the Soviet content is blended with Russian or religious one, and where Kosolapov makes Jesus advertize Coca-Cola instead of Lenin and Sokov replaces Stalin with the Russian bear.

Unsurprisingly, the true potential of the multilinguistic approach is only revealed when it is taken beyond the confines of Sots Art’s rigid scheme, when the unofficial art transforms itself into just a contemporary art, when the reality itself gets a “restart” and when in Russia itself, after it tears down the iron curtain, the problems centering on the Soviet power give way to economic, national and religious issues. At that time the Soviet universe is replaced by a “multi-verse” and the single space splinters into the local zones of contemporary art, national culture, religion, mythology, economy, politics, etc. The manipulation of languages and the montage of meanings become a relevant strategy for many Russian artists of the 1990s – 2000s, from Oleg Kulik and Vladimir Dubossarsky with Alexander Vinogradov to Olga Chernysheva and Anatoly Osmolovsky. Indeed, in the 2000s the latter, having gone through his phase of left art activism of the 1990s, paradoxically revives the semantic problems of the conceptualism of the 1970s, exploring the possibilities for a synthesis of the abstract form and the “readymade”.

However, Sots Artists were also the first to implement the principle of a backward movement to the Soviet themes, to stage an experiment in time transgression. In 1981– 83, emigres Komar and Melamid, working in the US, produce a series of paintings entitled Nostalgic Socialist Realism, in which Soviet stories are worked on in the manner of international academic painting. “There (in the USSR – V.L.), Sots Art seemed to be just a joke of the dissident circles, but here it turned out that this sort of perspective is the only way of comprehending the Soviet past (the past that is, of course, dear to us, like everybody else) available to us. (…) We saw the Soviet power from beyond the looking glass, from beyond the iron curtain, we saw it in all its monstrous beauty, as if it was on a scene, and we under stood that the Soviet power is a myth (…) as a mythology, just like the ancient Greek or, say, Egyptian mythology. Not an ideology – I’d like to stress that – but a mythology.”28

After the 1991, all the former citizens of the USSR also found themselves in a position of émigrés. The Soviet ideology became for them a fact of the historical past and began to transform itself into a myth joining all the other myths. The cultural space was vacated and, in the absence of any inspiring utopia, passeism became a new important meaning-formation factor. In the art of the 1990s this nostalgia for the Soviet universe expresses itself in a tran scrip tion of a whole range of Soviet stories into a modern language. And, since the language of the contemporary Russian art is mostly an appropriated one (which is to say, it comes from the past), there emerges a paradoxical effect of simultaneous presence of images from an alternative history, no matter how they differ conceptually or aesthetically. All of them (from Yuri Avvakumov’s constructivist fantasies to Dmitry Gutov’s expressive calligraphic paintings playing on Marxist themes) transport to the empty space of their contemporary time the old “occupation layer”, mythologizing it and inserting their own chapters into the preexisting novel.

Story-telling Artists and Artists-actors

Ilya Kabakov, the story-telling artist, invented the figure of an author-character, bestowing him with an ability of being present at both sides of the dividing line between life and art. Komar and Melamid sent this figure up: duality means duo, one artist but two people at the same time. It proved to be not only funny, but also pragmatic in the “Sots Artistic” sort of way: a schizoid self-look-alike asserted himself in the space of life, turning any act of his into a performance. Thus, an artist became an actor, either changing his personas at whim all the time or sticking to one and the same role specialization.

The first figure to unite in his own face an actor-artist and a narrator-artist was Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov. He realized a life-long strategy of “literary behavior”, turning his own name into a name of his own character, a character that produced an immense amount of verse, prose, drawings and performances, not to mention installations, videos and so forth, because Prigov-the-artist made the quantitative output a criterion of the actual presence of Prigov-the-character.

By the late 1970s, when conceptualism had built up its first experience of character-based behavior, a new generation of artists came on stage, for whom the performance became a predominant type of creative activity. Among them were Vadim Zakharov and Yuri Albert, whose lines of roles represent a pair of op po sites. Zakharov chooses an active, “masculine model” of his character’s behavior. He col laborates with other authors, coins insulting descriptions of protagonists of the unofficial art of the time, creates a row of alternating personas and combines in his practice most diverse types of activity (from art to publishing, collecting and archiving). Yuri Albert, on the other hand, prefers a passively negative, “femi nine model”. At one moment he may, instead of actual works of art, hang up plaques with brief announcements concerning his own artwork and others’ reactions to it; at another, produce pieces replicating images of famous artists with captions stating that he is not any of them, copy Soviet caricatures of “bourgeois art”, replicate samples of sign systems (from shorthand writing to Braille type) superficially similar to works of present-day art, stage performances turning the observation of art into an ordeal, etc.

At the time of perestroika, when artistic life became an illusion of a perpetual festival, the ranks of artists-actors considerably expanded. The 1990s see an emergence of a broad movement of actionism, and a large inter national exhibition entitled Artist Instead of an Art Work, or Jump into the Void held at the Moscow Central House of Artist in 1994 integrates the oeuvre of the key Russian performance artists into the international con text of the day. For some authors who started out in the late 1980s the performance behavior was but one of the stages of their career, for others it became a lifelong occupation. One artist of the former group is Gor Chahal, who at the turn of the 1980s–1990s stylized his own image as a character of Khrushchev’s thaw; while the latter is represented by Vladislav Mamyshev. Mamyshev’s first char ac ter was Marilyn Monroe, whose name was taken up by him as his own pseudonym from the very start of his career. In the subsequent twenty years Vladislav Monroe takes up the guises of numerous historical and cultural characters, from Buddha and Christ to Lenin and Hitler, from Lyubov Orlova, the movie star of the Stalin era, to characters of Russian fairy-tales. One unique example of perform ance art is the oeuvre of Alexander Ponomarev. His romantic role specialization of a seaman-artist evolved from his first profession, and his central project, Utilization of Packs, has been going on since 1996 in the most diverse water bodies of the globe.

Ironically, this generation of post-conceptualist artists-actors who created the Russian version of an international trend, appears in historical retrospective to be a project product of the early 1970s whose authorship belongs to Ilya Kabakov, the father of conceptualism. The only change is that his characters multiplied and changed their habitat, jumping down, along with their manias, from the pages of his albums into the first post-Soviet decade. The performance evolved into a stage version of the narrative, the art objects and installations turned into its illustrations. So, the principle of the illustrated narrative fully retains its relevance, and the figure of a story-telling artist remains as relevant outside the borders of conceptualism as the type of actionist-actor.

One of them Konstantin Zvezdochetov, started out as a member of the actionist Mukhomor Group (1978 – 84) that developed “a punksovieticus style of conduct in culture”29. How ever, his subsequent personal oeuvre is a peculiar epic tale based on Soviet and Russian pop stories and illustrated in a stylistic range of mass visual production, from caricature to kitsch and primitive art. Others, like Leonid Tishkov or Alexander Djikia, work in highly in dividual manner in the field of graphic art. Yet, with both artists, the image is normally accompanied with text and refers to literary and mythological themes. Tishkov made his start in art as a caricaturist and book illus trator, to engage later in a very peculiar mythopoietic process that has given birth to whole universes where vaguely familiar Soviet images merge into depths of Russian archaic themes. Alexander Djikia, on the other hand, gradually drifted from subjects directly related to later-day Soviet life that occupied him in the mid-1990s, to ancient Greek and Biblical topics…

The neverending story: a brief summary

Having built its own model of the Soviet cosmos, the Russian unofficial art presented it as an obscure object, a system flickering between “everything” and “nothing”. To underground modernists of the 1960s familiar izing themselves with the metaphysical realms, all the things Soviet appeared as Nothing. Ilya Kabakov turned the situation on its head, making the modernist characters themselves (in the guise of the characters of his albums) appear in the very thick of mundane Soviet ex istence that looked as a transient mirage against the backdrop of the white emptiness transcendent to it. As mirage is wont, it lacked any structure, was utterly chaotic and was described by the artist himself as a “construc tion site-cum-scrapyard” (an object that gradually turns into a pile of garbage as it is built). At the same time, Kabakov introduced a figure of the narrating author, which was transcendent to the author-character (actor). Metaphysical Conceptualism, the movement fathered by Kabakov, has been following his system throughout its entire evolution.

Sots Art, on the other hand, focused its at tention on the layer of the communist ideol ogy. It produced a sign map of the Soviet cosmos, its mythology populated with its own gods and heroes. As the ruin of the “real socialism” was coming closer, this mythology was becoming ever more sophisticated and dense. Once the Soviet system collapses (or its geographical boundaries are crossed), it becomes equal in its value and significance with all the other myth systems. The Soviet merges into the American, the Russian, etc. The artists-characters born in the conceptualist space become actors, reaching the culmination point of their activity outside the realm of conceptualism, during the first post-Soviet decade.

In parallel, some story-telling artists indepen dent of the conceptualist tradition also come to the limelight. Their artistic output is rooted in visual and verbal genres of applied graphics, such as illustration and caricature (genres also lying at the roots of Metaphysical Conceptualism and Sots Art). But, while illustration and caricature are related to the present, the narrative of these story-telling artists “nostalgically” faces the past, increasingly wading into the area of myth. Here, the figure of a “visionary artist” (or an “artist-artist”), already familiar to the new Russian art, makes its comeback, and the problems of the revival of full-fledged work of art, the rebirth of form values acquires an ever increasing relevance and, along with them, the art’s properties as a cult (unrelated in terms of its program to existing religious cults).

The closing chapters of the history of the Russian contemporary art are as follows. Oleg Kulik, one of the most active actionist artists of the 1990s, curates a mega exhibition project I Believe! in 2007. Anatoly Osmolovsky switches from his Marxism-inspired art activism to a type of art he refers to as “auratism” (sounding almost like the hieratism of Mikhail Shvartsman, an artist of the 1960s). In the year of 2007 he wins the main nomination in the prestigious domestic Kandinsky Prize. Next year he is succeeded in the same nomination by Alexey Beliayev-Guintovt, honored for his works inspired by the aura of the Soviet im perial myth. The dialectics of history turn into the law of eternal return. The neverending story continues.


1 Such as D’un réalisme sans rivages, the sensational book by French communist culturologist Roger Garaudy that was published in limited edition under the signature stamp “For academic libraries”.
2 Natalia Tamruchi (http://www.vaulin.net/info.htm?id=7&pr=2).
3 Ibid.
4 Ilya Kabakov. 60th-70th. Notes on Unofficial Life in Moscow. Moscow, New Literary Observer, 2008, p. 323.
5 http://www.vaulin.net/info.htm?id=7&pr=3.
6 Sergey Dunaev. The Living Abyss of the Evil. An Interview with Yuri Mamleev. http://kitezh.onego.ru/mamleev.html
7 Ilya Kabakov. 60th-70th. Notes on Unofficial Life in Moscow. Moscow, New Literary Observer, 2008, p. 135.
8 Ibid., p. 28.
9 Ibid., p. 30-31.
10 Ibid., p. 137.
11 Ibid., p. 134.
12 Ibid., p. 135.
13 Victor Tupitsyn. The Communal (Post)Modernism. Moscow, Ad Marginem. 1998, p. 65.
14 Their book Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia was translated into Russian in an abbreviated version in 1987 by philosopher Mikhail Ryklin.
15 Dmitry Barabanov. Interview with Ivan Chuikov. http://azbuka.gif.ru/critics/chuikov/.
16 Erik Bulatov. Surface-Light. From the book: Ilya Kabakov. 60th-70th. Notes on Unofficial Life in Moscow. Moscow, New Literary Observer, 2008, p. 347.
17 Boris Groys. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism. From the A-Ya magazine, No.1, 1979, p. 11.
18 Ilya Kabakov. 60th-70th. Notes on Unofficial Life in Moscow. Moscow, New Literary Observer, 2008, p. 89.
19 Ibid., p. 100.
20 The Other Art. Moscow, 1956-1988. Moscow, National Centre for Contemporary Arts, 2006, p. 181-182.
21 All-Union Exhibition of People Economic Achievements. Established in 1939 in Moscow under the title of All-Union Exhibition Of Agriculture.
22 http://conceptualism.letov.ru/ Andrey-Monastyrsky-VDNH.html.
23 Authorship to this term is claimed by sculptor Boris Orlov.
24 Sots Art Manifest. http://www.aerofeev.ru/content/view/ 25/111/.
25 Ibid.
26 Or executionism (from the Russian word “оформлять”, meaning “to execute”).
27 Sots Art Manifest. http://www.aerofeev.ru/content/view/ 25/111/.
28 Zinovy Zinik. Vitaly Komar – Alexander Melamid. From the A-Ya magazine, 1986, p. 23).
29 http://www.gif.ru/people/muhomor/.

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