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Nina Pancheva-Kirkova

Socialist Utopian Ideas Through The Art of the Underground Artist Ilya Kabakov, part 1

The art of Ilya Kabakov is really complex and multilayered, consisted of wide range forms and materials, which vary from drawings to installations. Until 1988 he worked in the Soviet Union and was one of the most important members of the unofficial art. After the collapse of communism his works have been exhibited in galleries and museums all over the USA and Europe. The artist has participated in many important group surveys including Documenta IX (in 1992) and the Venice Biennale (in 1993). What is the relation between Kabakov’s work and Socialist utopian ideas?

Four approaches for interpretation of the this question are discussed:
Kabakov’s art as a nostalgia, as a collective, as an idelogical language, and as creativity that ruins utopian myths. Several of the Kabakov’s works are used ss evidences and illustrations.
Utopia – literally “nowheresville” – was the name of an imaginary republic represented by Thomas More. In this fictive state all social conflict and distress has been overcome. Utopian ideas have changed throughout history but they were all similar to some extent. “The utopian ideas entails two related but contradictory elements: the aspiration to a better world, and the acknowledgment that its form may only ever live in our imaginations” (Noble 2009). Marx and Engels described their Socialism in relation to utopian Socialism of Fourier and Owen. Thorugh Socialism they tried to apply utopian ideas to the real life, and to describe how people would live according to the Socialist ethic; Socialism inspires the working class to struggle until everybody in the society becomes equal. Socialist ideology is not guided by existing conditions; it imposes already made rules and aims but it does not concern how they could be achieved. Claude Levi-Strauss finds functional resemblance between ancient myths and present political ideologies. Myths required to be understood as a nature, not cultural creation. Myths are anti-historical.
Socialist ideas claim to be anti-historical, to create world which will last forever.
Socialist Realism embodies the ideas of the Utopian Socialism. It was proclaimed as the fundamental style in Soviet art after 1930. “In 1932 all artistic groupings were disbanded in accordance with the decree of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, ‘On the Restructuring of Literary and Artistic Organizations’” (Petrukhin 2011). According to Dobrenko, soc-realism in the Soviet Union was not just an aesthetic doctrine, it represented a relation between language and power, i. e. a metaphor of the power. Its aesthetical values reflected “life in its revolutionary development”. They were evocations of the coming Communist utopia. The artists had to produce idealized images of the triumphant construction of Socialism or heroic figures of the revolutionary past. Paintings like ‘’Collective Farmers Greeting a Tank’’ by Yekaterina Zernova (1937), or ‘’An Unforgettable Encounter’’ by Vasilii Efanov, in which Stalin, surrounded by party leaders, accepts a bouquet of flowers from a young woman, embodied the rules of the official art.

The artists who chose not to observe these canons were not allowed to exhibit their works. They formed the unofficial Soviet artistic life, which became basically dualistic. Kabakov’s work and life reflect this dualistic nature. Until 1988 he worked as an official illustrator of children’s books. At the same time he created wide range of works, which became important part of the underground art movements in the Soviet Union. Was Kabakov a dissident during the Soviet era? He has participated in underground movements, but he has never been involved in direct confrontation with the authoroties. His creativity is incredibly complex and opened to interpretations. The artist creates wide range of works, from almost realistic paintings to spaces, formed of installations and ready made objects.
A lot of his works are based on his own memories, and dedicated to the life during the Soviet era. They are not political, but represent an alternative of the official art of the Socialist Realism. In this sense, it might be more appropriate to describe Ilya Kabakov as an underground artist. He was a member of an underground movement, the so called Sots art. He worked alongside Erik Bulatov, Vitaly Komar, Aleksandr Melamid, and other non-conformist artists. In this context, his artistic impulses flourished. This movement did not have a leader, it was a group of individuals who shared a common dialogue, and derived from it their sense of identity. As Y. Andreeva claims, the term Sots art is used from 1972 to describe a part of the unofficial art that prospered in the USSR from 1970 to 1988. The artists became known in the 1970s through a series of apartment art exhibits (called aptart), samizdat editions, and unofficial events. “Soviet activist art is very different from Western activist art,” David Ross describes. “Soviet activism is a function of actually living in the context of an underground, in a state of constant psychological siege, and not of adopting a stance, as most Western activist artists do. So for Kabakov, the straightforward representation of everyday life becomes radical.” Sots art takes the style of the Socialist realism as a object of investigation in attempt to deconstruct the ideological system of the communism through its visual language. The artists were interested in philosophical reflections of Socialist Realism, and their relations to the Russian avant-garde and its development in a Post-modernist stage. They used mostly commodities and ordinary objects to create installations, which were “too banal and insignificant to be recorded anywhere else, and made taboo not because of their potential political explosiveness, but because of their sheer ordinariness, their all-too-human scale” (Boym, 1999). Vasilii Efanov - An Unforgettable Encounter Kabakov’s work is closely connected to the creativity of Erik Bulatov, another member of the Sots art movement. Unlike Kabakov, who uses mostly fragments of the intimate spaces within the Soviet Union, Bulatov examined the formal features of propaganda materials of socialism, shifting their political messages to ironic.

“Kabakov works above all with the everyday symbolism of the new Soviet life and its hidden mythology” (Groys 1992). In comparison with his work, Vitalii Komar and Aleksandr Melamid turned in the early 1970s directly to the Stalin myth and the high Soviet classics. “Komar and Melamid’s works come from this fundamental intuition that all art represents power.” (Groys 1992). Their creativity embodies the idea that the myth of the power conquered all world art, including their own. In their painting The Yalta Conference, Komar and Melamid create an icon image of the Stalin, Hitler and E. T. – three new myths from the present. The figures of Stalin and the alien seem to symbolize the utopian spirit of the two places, and the presence of Hitler reveals the unity with the National-Socialist Germany. Their art reflects kinship between the basic ideological myths and the modern world. But their art is quite different from Kabakov’s work not only because of the subjects’ choice.

They do not ‘demythologize’ the myths in their canvasses. They ‘remythologize’ the main figure of the Soviet mythological system – Stalin, and include him in some kind of surrealistic art. In contrast, Kabakov is interested in the opinion of the ‘little man’ from the USSR as an interpreter of the Soviet reality. Kabakov’s works could be classified in several groups based on the interperetaions on their relations to the Soviet utopian ideas. Some of these groups could be: nostalgia, idelogical language, and ruin of utopian myths. I will explain bellow in more details these categories.
Some of the Kabakov’s artworks were interpreted as nostalgic. According to Solomon, through his installations Kabakov described what meant to live in the Soviet society, how ideology that created this environment destroyed the dignity of the daily life. But in the same time his work also indicates how you can survive in this life, how imagination can save you (Solomon 1992). The installation The Toilets: Obscene Homes is a adequate example which presents in details the daily life during the Soviet life. It was introduced at the 1992 Documenta show in Kassel, Germany. The toilets were placed behind the main building of the gallery. Kabakov described them as “sad structures with walls of white lime turned dirty and shabby, covered by obscene graffiti that one cannot look at without being overcome with nausea and despair.” The front of the toilet was turned into Komar and Melamid - The Yalta Conference a living room. Along with dirt viewer can sees signs of a cozy home, it seems as a place where a family lived quietly and a minute ago they left the place – the children’s toys are scattered on the flloor, there is food in the dishes… The Toilets is a part of the half-remembered, half-imaginary space: they picture personal memories from the artist’s childhood but also an unreal place, a metaphor of the Soviet way of life. Kabakov’s work might be a nostalgic in a sense that it represents life that could exist outside ideology. To my mind the space of the installation, which causes the viewer to experience an almost absurd life, is not nostalgic. It shows a small place of humanity in the context of the ‘total’ ideology.

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