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Nina Pancheva-Kirkova

Socialist Utopian Ideas Through The Art of the Underground Artist Ilya Kabakov, part 2

The second interpration of the Ilya Kabakov - The Toilets: Obsene Homes classification is the Kabakov’s work as an attempt for a creation of a communist collective. As S. Boym claims, through his installations, signed as they were made by different people “he turns himself into a kind of ideal communist collective, made up of his own embarrassed alter-egos - the characters from whose points of view he tells his many stories and to whom he ascribes their authorship. Among them are untalented artists, amateur collectors, and the “little men” of nineteenth-century Russian literature, Gogolian characters with a Kafkaesque shadow.” I think that Kabakov’s work is not about the creation of a collective, through his many characters he questions the problem of art as a self-expression. Every of his ‘authors’ presents his/her own point of view through his/her personal memory and imagination rather than a common opinion. They do not create a collective but a complex narrative of viewpoints. The next intepretation presents the artworks of Ilya Kabakov in relation to the Soviet system as a myth. He chose to depict the Soviet Union as one utopian project rather than portraying it as a destroyed Socialism project. His art is an Disenchantment of the Socialist myths. He rationalises their mysticism through the personal narratives of anonymous authors, and allow us to become aware of the small details that creates the reality in a tangible way. There is no place of mysticism in the living space in the Soviet era. It consists of tangible experiences shifting from obscene to spiritual. Kabakov is interested in the relations between the Socialist realism and the Russian avant-garde. The two styles are interpreted not only aesthetical doctrines but also ideological structures which try to construct new rules in the society. The exhibition An Alternative History of Art was dedicated to these connections. It introduced three artists: Charles Rosenthal, Ilya Kabakov and Igor Spivak. Presented as real persons with their real biographies they all were actually fictitious persons, invented by Ilya Kabakov himself. The included paintings were part of an alternative result of the Soviet history, artworks which embrace the populist spirit of the Socialist realism and Utopian ideas of abstraction.

The exhibition constructed new history of the Russian and Soviet art of the 20 th century. Charles Rosenthal - paintings from the exhibition An Alternative History of Art Through this show Ilya Kabakov connects the history of the Soviet Union to the history of the Modernism. He explained in an interview that the emergence of the Soviet avant-fgarde as Modernism created utopian range of possibilities. It demanded the removing of the border between art and life. Its artistic activity moved into practical fields, such as architecture, design, and organization of mass events. These actions were part of the ‘buliding life’ programme, whose aims were to transform artists into key figures of redesign of the society. Aesthetic and political events were merged. Mass festivals dedicated to political events were used as recovery of archaic rites, “whereby the return of an original mythical event was conjured up in a magical way” (Hänsgen 2005).

The artists accepted Modernism as a new language, which opened enormous number of ways of representing and constructing the reality. Similarly, the Soviet Union promised to materialize the utopia of new society in the form of Socialism. Both histories were unreal, the Modernism failed to create new language, as well as the Soviet Union didn’t succeed in creation of the new social order and didn’t make people happy. The exhibition An Alternative History is divided to three parts and each one of them represents different period from the history of the Russia and the Soviet Union. The beginning of the century, a period characterized both by catastrophes and concentration of hope for bright future, was interpreted by the paintings, drawings and sketches of the ‘famous’ artist Charles Rosenthal. Passing through the rooms, viewer can observe the development of his creativity. It includes even artist’s ‘diary’, as well as biographical facts and notes. As Kabakov explaines “Rosenthal was selected by me with the goal of positing for discussion – on the visual and other levels – the problem of a person who has been deprived of any sort of magical circle delineated by mythology, and who is not capable of generating it.” (Kabakov 2002) In the beginning his paintings are mostly dedicated to the faith for the better future. The large-scale canvases represent realistic depiction of reality - idealistic and idyllic landscapes are combined with abstract white space. They reflected the relations between the utopianism of the Socialist realism and the Russian avant-garde. In the next stage of his art we can notice how his work changed – the emptiness seemes to confront with realism and to cover almost the whole space of the canvasses. The realistic elements become small parts included in abstract compositions. This ‘dialogue’ reflects the ideas of an artist, who has accepted the formal ideas of the suprematism and has connected them to the Socialist realism. Gradually we reache room N 5, where the canvasses are completely white. When we go closer, we are able to see that they are actually filled out with pencil drawings. The same idealistic compositions of happy people emerge here, but they are almost invisible. The utopian ideas has changed.

They has became more unreal, far from real life. The main series of large-scale paintings by I. Kabakov, included in the exhibition, date to 1971-1972 was produced as ‘paraphrase’ of the Rosenthal’s works. The white background of the ‘bright future’ from 1930 has disappeared. Since Kabakov was a part of the generation that grows up after the failure of the utopian ideas in the Soviet reality, he replaced the bright colours with by dark, gloomy background. These backgrounds changed the canvasses completely as they created an apparent tension between the visible reality and the abstract space behind the paintings. It seems as if the ‘ideal’ world tries to hide an infinite threatening chaos. In the next rooms of the exhibition viewer could see the balance between these two ‘realities’. Kabakov’s art is a part of the Russian tradition, but at the same time it is also interpreted as strongly influenced by the Western practice. After his emigration to USA in 1988 he created completely new art concepts and developes large projects, including exhibitions and spaces as installations. Before 1988 Kabakov’s works were mostly fragmented, made by founded Soviet objects and drawings. During the 1970s his main output consisted of albums which presented of 30 to 100 drawings and texts, collected in ‘books’. He has created a total of fifty albums. The first ten, are produced under the titleTen Characters. They were the first artworks of this kind. Each album presents Ilya Kabakov - Ten Characters one person’s view on the Soviet life through pencil drawings and offset prints. Probably Kabakov chose the form of the album because of the opportunity of including the “fourth dimension” - time - into his work. The viewer was to turn the pages one by one, an action that, was to result in an experience comparable to that of watching a theatrical performance. At the same time, the album creates an intimate space, it seems as you look at somebody’s diary, where he/she describes his/her world. Ilya Kabakov - a sheet from the album Where Are They? Another work of this kind is the 1979 sequence Where Are They? It includes the combination of word and image; it consists of pencil drawings made as questionnaire, each one signed by different person. The phrase “Where is…?” is written next to the drawing, followed by a person’s name, and always the answer: “They do not exist”. Constantly repeating picture represents a fly, an image which Kabakov describes as “a metaphor of the human soul”. On the one hand, Where Are They? has close relations to the Soviet life; real people were literally erased from history, on the other hand work represents a fictional world, full of unreal characters almost as if was a part of a novel. The structures and the complex narratives of the Kabakov’s work are closely connected to the tradition of Russian epic novel from 19 th century. “We find the familiar Kabakovian attributes in abundance: the wry absurdist literary ambition, linked to the great Russian tradition; the melancholic and humanely nostalgic recall of Soviet life, mingled with dreams for escape - art based on political opposition manifested as a kind of Proustian fantasy.” (Kimmelman 2000) Installations in Russia do not imply the same history of the Western traditions. Their meanings are created from the context, from their subject and from their relations to other spheres of the society, such as politics and economics. Exploring the conflict between public symbolism and private realities, post-Soviet art reveals the dual nature of the ideological sign, a kind of optical illusion where background and foreground shift, where the material becomes the sign itself and Soviet ideology is experienced through the senses rather than purely discursively (Efimova 1999). Once having moved to USA, Kabakov started to work together with his wife and became well known mostly because of his ‘total installations’. The total installation was not just an aesthetics idea. It had literary, musical, and dramatic elements. In it Kabakov documents a lot of objects and ideas - from the household fly to the ordinary survivor in the Soviet Union, from lost civilizations to modern utopias. What make the installation ‘total’ is not only the wide range of possible interpretations, but also its connection to the environement. The artist places objects in certain kind of space, and thereby creates a context for their meanings rather than to be a part of the space in a gallery. He interpreted the installation as a three-dimensional invention, which maintains totality because of its connection to certain models in world that do not exist anymore. And because of these claims Kabakov associated installation with an epic novel. Installation creates space which “encompass all the levels of the world all of its corners, to describe everything that happens in it...” (Kabakov 1999). “The total installation is constructed as to draw upon all different levels of the viewer’s memory, to elicit all kinds of associations in people’s minds” (Kabakov 1999). It is a place which helps people to free their associations; they could understand it as a cultural construct or as a funny object.

The last interpretation presents Kabakov’s art between the Socialist ideology and reality. His work does not use direct criticism; it creates an enormous amount of narratives which we observe and experience, finding ourselves in a new world, created by fragments from the past. It leaves the viewer at the crossroads of conflicting interpretations. In my opinion, his work creates pluralism of possible explanations and therefore it destroys the monological voice of the Socialism. Socialist ideology is possible in an environment where there is only one point of view. In other words, through creation of quite number characters reflecting different interpretations of the Soviet life, he actually forms a democratic environment which deconstructs the monologism. He produces art which implies not only an alternative of the Socialist realism as an aesthetics, bur also as an alternative interpretation of art itself. Through including a lot of fictious artists as authors, Kabakov challenges the status of the artist in the tradition of Modernism. His art does not include the figure of the artist as a genius, and an unique person; his work prominences the role of art in the structure of the artistic life and in relation to the dominant ideology. This essay explored the different interpretations of the question what is the relation between the art of Ilya Kabakov and the fundamental in the USSR ideology of the utopian Socialism. Several viewpoints were examined. It was argued that Kabakov’s art does not represent a nostalgia. The artist creativity was interpreted as an ideoligical language, which destroyes the monologism of the Soviet Socialism. In my view, the work of the underground artist Ilya Kabakov and its relations to the political ideologies of his time are important not only because of its specific formal value. It is not only the details of the past and the lost homeland that matter, but also Kabakov’s incredible abilities to create alternatives of the utopian ideas, to embodies them into forms, which question the boundaries of art and the status of the artist, and to present them in Western context, thus bringing aesthetical and ideological problems of the Soviet Union into international discourse.

References • Ed. by Noble, R. (2009) Utopias, Cambridge: The MIT Press • Andreyeva, Y. (2011) Sots art, Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online,, [Accessed 11 May 2011] • Wurm, B. (2007), A Past without a Present: Utopia and the Post-Communist- Hype, html, [Accessed February 2007] • Kimmelman, M. (2000), Ilya and Emilia Kabakov ‘The Palace of Projects’, kabakov-the-palace-of-projects.html?src=pm , [Accessed 23 June 2000] • Glueck, G. (1997) Monument to the Lost Glove, Art in Review, http://www. , [Accessed 28 March 1997] • Solomon, A. (1992) Artist Of The Soviet Wreckage, New York Times, html?src=pm , [Accessed 20 September 1992] • Boym, S. (1999) Ilya Kabakov: The Soviet Toilet and the Palace of Utopias. soviet-toilet-and-the-palace-of-utopias [Accessed 30 December 1999] • Woods, F. (2008) Ilya Kabakov And the Shadows of Modernism. ARTEFACT, Journal of the Irish Association of Art Historians, Winter 2008 • Kabakov, I. (1999) Main (Installation) Page Text, Art Journal 58, no. 4 (Winter 1999) • Dobrenko, E. (1993) Metaphor of the power [in Russian], Moscow • Kabakov, I. (2005) An Alternative History of Art, New York: D. A. P. Art Publishers Groys, B. (1992) • The Total Art of Stalinism, Oxford: Princeton University Press • Petrukhin, V. (2011) Russia: Painting, Graphic Arts and Sculpture, Oxford Art Online, T074586pg4, [Accessed 11 April 2011] • Baigell, R. and Baigell, M. (1995) Soviet Dissident Artists: Interviews After Perestroika, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press • Hänsgen, S. (2005), Collective Actions: Event and Documentation in the Aesthetics of Moscow Conceptualism, Haensgen-Collective-Actions-Event-and-Documentation-Aesthetics-Moscow- Conceptualism.htm [Accessed April 2006] • Engels, F. (1970) Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, in Selected Works, Volume 3, Berlin: Progress Publishers • Lander, M. (2003) Socialist Realism Broke the Promises, but There’s the Art, New York Times, broke-the-promises-but-there-s-the-art.html?src=pm [Accessed 4 November 2003] Polit, P. (1999) • Ilya Kabakov and the Corridor of Two Banalities, [Accessed 27 March 1999]

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