Published  08/11/2016

Thinking Pictures: Moscow Conceptual Art in the Dodge Collection

Thinking Pictures: Moscow Conceptual Art in the Dodge Collection

As viewers, we witness Moscow conceptualism caught in a perpetual bind between the Romantic obscurity of the “inside” and the unattainable transparency of the “outside.” For us, then, Moscow conceptualism remains incurably Romantic

Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick
6 September 2016 – 31 December 2016

The term “Moscow conceptualism” may not strike a familiar note with most English-speakers, but it may become more commonplace if this exhibition at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University receives the attention it deserves. Organised by Jane Sharp, associate professor of art history at Rutgers University and research curator of the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at Zimmerli Art Museum, the installation includes nearly 200 works by about 50 artists and several artist groups, drawn mostly from the aforementioned collection. The exhibition is the first comprehensive overview in the US of a major unofficial art movement in the postwar Soviet Union.

What is Moscow conceptual art, how is it different from western-style conceptualism, and why is it important, or even interesting? The value of this exhibition lies not only in the possibility that it may provide answers to these questions – it is a fertile ground for mining theoretical depths of cultural studies and comparative aesthetics – but also in the very act of posing them. Thanks to the incomparable efforts of the late Norton Dodge, who assembled the largest collection of Soviet non-conformist art outside the former Soviet Union and donated it to Zimmerli, the museum is perhaps the only place apart from Russia where such a show could take place with minimal contributions from other sources. Accompanied by an informative catalogue, the exhibition presents a chance to gain an insight into the world of ideological dissidence populating the Soviet and post-Soviet intellectual space and to learn about various phases of aesthetic resistance to the officially sanctioned mythology, and its relation to art outside its confines.

The title of the show serves as an enticing introduction to the challenges of coming to grips with an art movement – making clear that it can be compared to a well-known global aesthetic phenomenon while, at the same time, emphasising that it is distinct from it by virtue of its geographical locale, the capital of a country whose population has long been considered different from the west in its beliefs and culture.

The unwinding of the title requires some attention, as it allows us to discover the show’s logic. First, in 1979, art critic Boris Groys published an essay entitled Moscow Romantic Conceptualism, coining the name of the movement in the process. At the beginning of the essay, he acknowledged a certain “monstrosity” of his verbal creation, but defended it by accounting for the fact that, in Moscow, artists reached the stage of making conceptual art, both visual and verbal, by incorporating critiques of their works’ conditions of possibility into their form. As a result, the new art became transparent for comprehension, but it was still tied to Russia’s “collective unconscious”, which lent it a certain “mystical”, “religious”, and “Romantic” quality. The combination of conceptuality and romanticism led Groys to introduce the label by which the movement was known for several years. By the beginning of 2000s, as the Russian collective unconscious was slowly disintegrating in the arts, and migrating to the domain of the state-supported church and religion, the second stage in conceptualising the movement was reached. The epithet “romantic” disappeared from references to it, attested by the title Moscow Conceptualism in Context, a pioneering book on the subject published in English by Alla Rosenfeld, an art historian and former curator of Russian and Soviet non-conformist Art at Zimmerli.

Thinking Pictures is the third and final loop in the development of the spiral of signification, focusing our attention, once again, on conceptuality in visual representation – what Groys called its uslovnost’, or “conditional character”. In this final twist of the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis model, uslovnost’ transformed from conditionality to convention, bringing the movement to its logical conclusion. It is remarkable that this evolutionary spiral of conceptualisation unfolded not so much in art itself, but in its reception. Keeping this thought in mind, the exhibition unfolds a detailed overview of the history of the movement, which gives the viewer a good sense of its key figures, development and dynamics.

The majority of the works on view date from 1970s and the 80s, framed by a few pieces from the 60s authored by the “first generation” of artists, born mostly in the 30s and 40s, such as Vagrich Bakhchanyan, Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid at one end, and the “second generation,” born in the 50s and 60s, on the other. Irina Nakhova’s Architectural Model of Room #2 from the late 90s is one of the most recently made works in the show. According to art historian Innessa Levkova-Lamm, the difference between the “older” and “younger” generations can be defined by a “degree of proximity” to the viewer: whereas the work of the first-generation artists tends to have an immediate impact on the viewer, the younger ones created for an “elite, refined consciousness”.1

The exhibition is divided into two parts, roughly corresponding to this generational gap. The first section focuses on the relationship between text and image and follows a clear logical sequence, beginning with the works of the founding fathers of the movement, such as Komar and Melamid, Kabakov, Bakhchanyan, Viktor Pivovarov, and Ivan Chuikov, and moving on to younger artists, such as Nikita Alekseev, Nakhova, Georgy Kiesewalter, Yuri Albert and others.

Many of the works in the first two rooms are text-based, such as Bakhchanyan’s prints Dream and Queue, both from 1974, Kabakov’s drawing Sunday-Fly (1970), in which he charts a fly’s environs on a sheet of graph paper, or his album Where Are They? (1979), composed of mostly blank sheets with a question or two repeated in every upper left corner: “Where is …” followed by individuals’ names. In the bottom left corner, there is the inevitable answer: “They are not here”, replaced in one instance with: “They are long gone.” The humour of the work is apparent, but it is difficult for someone not familiar with the late-Soviet context to understand the morbid connotations of these questions and answers that accompanied the emptiness of the everyday existence of a Soviet citizen. In this sense of the importance of grasping the context, Komar and Melamid’s brilliant impersonation of a mythical artist, Apelles Ziablov, is also a textual work, although on the surface it does not contain a single visible word. After all, the Apelles Ziablov series implies a story of a mythical 18th-century painter. To grasp the irony of the message, the viewer needs to understand this implication.

Among the textual works in the albums’ section, Pivovarov’s The Projects for a Lonely Man (1975) marks another extraordinary series that comments on the lack of initiative and drive in the life of a Soviet citizen. The work is composed of six large-scale paintings of identical size, resembling pages of a giant book in their simplified, illustrational style and the combination of text and image. It tells the story of a lonely man’s environment, showing us his apartment, everyday objects, the sky, his daily schedule, and even his dreams. The series culminates with a full-scale narrative presenting the lonely man’s biography, from which we learn the details of his monotonous existence. On the opposite wall, Alekseev’s project Stones on My Head (1982) features a series of hand-coloured black-and white photographs of the artist holding differently coloured stones on his head. According to the information in the image and the accompanying handwritten text, the colour of the stones changed the colour of the artist’s eyes in each photograph, and, depending on the combination and the colour of the stones, endowed him with supernatural powers to deflect bullets, exude irresistible sex appeal, or become an instant authority in any branch of knowledge, among other extraordinary capacities. A representative of the second generation here, Alekseev borrows from Kabakov and Pivovarov the serial form of images, but proposes more complex and esoteric descriptions of the author’s inner experiences.

Further on in the display, we encounter other artists’ creations explicitly concerned with textuality, poetry in particular. Here, we see works by Dmitri Prigov, Natalia Stolpovskaya, Lev Rubinstein and Andrei Monastyrsky. Among the works of this group, Stolpovskaya’s A Poem by Pasternak (1980) stands out because of its ingenious combination of sculptural and poetic forms. The poem, written on diaphanous paper, can fit in an envelope. In an unfolded state, as the object is presented in the exhibition, the paper on which the poem is written takes the shapes of a large air-filled three-dimensional volume, weightlessly resting on a support inside a display case. The object was conceived to be unfolded in the process of reading, synthesising the reader/viewer’s sensory and intellectual experiences. Rimma Gerlovina’s series of Cube-Poems from the mid-70s is also aimed at evoking a sensorial and intellectual synthesis by inviting the viewer to ponder on such mysterious phrases as “I Think Someone is Looking at Us from Behind. I Feel That, Too” written on the cube.

Apart from paintings, drawings, albums, charts and sculptural poems, Moscow conceptualists’ (con)textual visuality has led them to create entire spatial environments, usually within the confines of one room or apartment. Zimmerli recreated three of them, two by Kabakov and one by Nakhova, handling this task with impressive quality and precision of detail. Kabakov’s The Short Man (The Bookbinder), from the early and mid-80s, is a collection of his early albums in a small rectangular room with walls painted in shades of dark green and brown, a dreadful combination, reminiscent of the colours of a Soviet communal apartment. A wide-open dilapidated wooden door from this room is another detail that strikes an authentic note in the otherwise neat and bare decor.

In contrast to this simplicity, Kabakov’s Great Axis (1984) exemplifies a complex poetics of textual and spatial synthesis, mounted to “explore the sense of place in the present”, according to the label. The installation contains three large paintings and several album pages. The combination of text and drawing ironically suggests a schematic space-centred universe, in which it is possible to “fix” the axis – a line connecting the top and bottom of a painting – to either the earth or the sky, and “move” either one, depending on the point of leverage. The absurdity of this thought may seem disturbing, but the work makes it appear amusing.

A reconstruction of Room #3 by Nakhova, one of the most visible representatives of the younger generation, is a conversion of her Moscow apartment into a “painting”, replicating it in all essential detail, but painted in various shades of black. The work is striking in in its capacity to provoke a strong effect, in particular that of an overbearing sense of gravity, claustrophobia and sadness. The artist designed five such “painted spaces”, several of which are documented in photographs included in the exhibition, and one is represented by the aforementioned Architectural Model of Room #2, which can be viewed through a peephole, similar to Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés. According to Sharp, Nakhova explicitly acknowledged Kabakov and Pivovarov as her influences, as she was concerned with defining a certain space and with the feelings and thoughts a person may develop in this space.2

The thematic of space and its perception is also developed in the work of Collective Actions, a group founded by Monastyrsky in 1976, which initially included Alekseev, Kiesewalter and Nikolai Panitkov. Until 1989, the group staged actions in the fields and forests outside Moscow. At some point, it included such artists as Elena Elagina, Igor Makarevich and Sabine Hänsgen. At first glance at some of these artists’ works, it is difficult to understand why they were drawn to performance in plein air. Makarevich, for example, made rectangular gridded sculptures and boxes encasing replicas of parts of bodies – the face, torso, fingerprints. His works convey the sense of extreme confinement. However, his works also confront the issue of space, but from a different angle. Instead of expanding the space of an artwork into an open-ended “nature”, Makarevich shrinks it to the confines of a cellular unit or box. Adrian Barr, in an article concerning “the spatial dialectics of Moscow conceptualism”, wrote that this artist’s gridded and boxed objects, “engage themes of spatial confinement or enclosure” to “communicate a heightened experience of isolation and segregation”.3 Regardless of the mode of address, spatial concerns remained central to the aesthetic concerns of Moscow conceptualism, bridging the gap between the old and the new generations.

Collective Actions opens the second part of the exhibition, which takes place in the Lower Dodge Wing of the museum. The activities of the group are presented by artists’ publications, photographs and films, most memorably in Hänsgen’s video Russian World (1985), documenting the group’s 33rd performance in a snowy field outside Moscow. The content of the action recorded by Hänsgen included manipulation of various objects, such as a large hare made of plywood, a glove, a walking stick and a doll’s head. In the course of the action, the smaller objects were placed in boxes, stacked on a fallen hare and set on fire. To an unprepared viewer, the meaning of these manipulations remains obscure. According to Yelena Kalinsky, who studied the group extensively, in their performances, Collective Actions’ participants were attempting to define “the boundary between the aesthetics and the everyday”.4

Apart from Collective Actions, the second part of the display holds a section dedicated to Sots Art, with works by such recognised artists of the older generation as Erik Bulatov, Leonid Sokov, Alexander Kosolapov, Grisha Bruskin and Leonid Lamm, and a cohort of the younger artists, who combined their efforts by forming groups, such as Detskii sad (Kindergarten), Gnezdo (Nest), SZ, Pertsy (the Peppers), Mukhomor (Toadstool) and Inspection Medical Hermeneutics.

While Bulatov’s memorable paintings of surreal Soviet spaces with slogans fading into the horizon in perfectly constructed geometric perspective or Sokov’s comic and obscene objects mocking the naive worldview of the Soviet populace have either become iconic or communicate their message to the viewer with unabashed immediacy, the works of the younger generation, Elagina, Viktor Skersis, Vadim Zakharov or Sergei Anufriev, imply a variety of references and codes, which may not be readily available to the viewer.

In her catalogue article, Kalinsky called the objects produced by these artists “schizoid”, as they “tapped into the material stratum of Soviet life, projecting ready-made things or provisionally made constructions into a semiotic field of the Moscow conceptualist imaginary.”5 By “semiotic field”, Kalinsky meant the legacies of various theoretical currents popular with the Moscow conceptualists, such as cybernetics, Russian formalism, structuralism and post-structuralism. A common characteristic of these objects was appropriation of “the visual signs and symbols of official culture in order to both make visible and destabilise the mythical power embedded in Soviet objects”.6 An example may be Andrei Roiter’s The Detail of Grey (Radio Roiter) (1986-1987), in which a painting replicates a radio, a common object of everyday Soviet life, foregrounding its ugliness and stultifying boredom. At the same time, the artist’s technique reminds us of early American pop artists, such as Jasper Johns, in its thickly layered, crusty coats of paint. Another example of a “schizoid object” that plays with the “excess of signs symbols and codes” of Soviet reality would be a reconstruction of Skersis’s sculpture/installation One and Three Chairs (1979/2016), in which rather unremarkable chairs, that could be found in any Soviet office, are piled up on top of each other to make a sizeable heap. Although in this work Skersis may lampoon the ugliness and ubiquity of a common Soviet object, in the title and the chairs, he also references Joseph Kosuth’s famous One and Three Chairs, openly adjusting the code of American conceptual art to Soviet reality.

This adjustment and scrambling of codes enacted by Moscow conceptualists’ “schizoid objects”, in which separate artworks or entire art movements are appropriated for the purposes of creative expression and resistance to the status quo, are most effective when they are displayed in the context in which they were created. Taken outside the context, they lose some of their subversive power and become partially mute, waiting to be deciphered. At the same time, they are extremely transparent as parodic references to something that may be called “reality” in a world not confined by concerns of physical space.

This ironic splitting between the “inside” and “outside” can be illustrated by Zacharov’s portraits of Yuri Albert and Prigov, in which the two prominent representatives of the movement are caught in mid-sentence, with word-bubbles coming out of their mouths. Even though we can read the sentences they pronounce, we will never understand them, because we are excluded from the context of their utterance.

In opposition to this contextual obscurity, we have the art of Albert, who is intent on creating an absolute sensorial and analytical transparency in every work he makes. For example, in his painting Visual Culture Number 2: There Is Nothing to See in My Works but My Love for Art (1989), Albert demonstrates his intent to make his painting transparent for a blind viewer by inserting tactile markers on the surface of the work, which would enable this sightless person to “read” it. The same logic guides his Tours for the Blindfolded, when visitors to museums are blindfolded and introduced to works of art through speech alone. It is not by chance that Zakharov, on the one hand, and Albert, on the other, exemplify two poles of Moscow conceptualism: Zakharov as its contextual archivist, who created and published the most extensive archives of artists’ activities and exhibitions of the post-perestroika era, and Albert as its curator, international representative and advocate of the translation of its intent into other tongues, who recently organised one of the important exhibitions of the movement in Nizhnii Novgorod and took an active part in the organisation of the present show.7 As viewers, we witness Moscow conceptualism caught in a perpetual bind between the Romantic obscurity of the “inside” reflected in its perpetual search for truth on the one hand, and the unattainable transparency of the “outside” on the other. For us, then, Moscow conceptualism remains incurably Romantic.

1. Shifting from the Center to the Margins: Moscow Conceptualism, 1980s-1990s by Innessa Levkova-Lamm. In: Moscow Conceptualism in Context, edited by Alla Rosenfeld, published by Prestel and Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, 2011, pages 100-135; page 104.
2. Inside a Picture: Installation Art in Three Acts by Jane A Sharp. In: Thinking Pictures: The Visual Field of Moscow Conceptualism, published by Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, 2016, pages 42-57; page 51.
3. In the Ruins of Utopia: The Spatial Dialectics of Moscow Conceptualism by Adrian Barr. In ibid, pages 26-31, page 26.
4. The Schizoid Objects of Moscow Conceptualism by Yelena Kalinsky. In ibid, pages 34-41; page 37.
5. Ibid, page 34.
6. Ibid.
7. Vadim Zakharov made “archive” his artistic enterprise. See his Shiva’s Method: Archive, Collection, Publishing House, Artist, in Moscow Conceptualism in Context (ibid), pages 354-358. As part of this vocation, he collected and published the most complete archive video archive of exhibitions by Moscow artists: Vadim Zakharov: Postscript after RIP – A Video Archive of Moscow Artists’ Exhibitions, 1989-2014 from Moscow: Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, 2016. Albert, Yurii, ed. Moskovskii kontseptualizm: Nachalo. Exh. cat. Nizhnii Novgorod, Russia: Privolzhskii filial GTsSI, 2014.

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