Ilya Kabakov/Soviet Conceptual Art

Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January 1991)

The whole central stairwell of the ICA is filled with a black cage. Inside the cage are pieces of metal, old wine bottles, bicycle wheels and other found objects — all painted black. At at the bottom of the installation is a pool of oil. When you look up, all those fragments seem to be falling through space; they convey a vertiginous sense of entropy, disintegration, and decay. But when you look down, into that black pool of oil, everything is reflected and compressed onto a single shiny surface, and it’s beautiful. All that debris — all that waste and pain — is transformed into art.

Two Soviet architects, Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, created this untitled site-specific installation for the ICA’s new show of new art from the Soviet Union, called Between Spring and Summer. The show was organized by the ICA’s David Ross, with Elizabeth Sussman, art historian Margarita Tupitsyn, and Soviet sociologist and independent curator Joseph Bakshtein.

Most of the artists here communicate their grief and rage at the  repression of expression and belief that characterized Soviet society before glasnost. Andrei Filippov’s The Last Supper is a dinner table covered with a red tablecloth and set with hammers and sickles. His Old Testament is a Bible, completely covered with candlewax.

Elena Elagina‘s Children’s shows a poster advertising a bar of children’s soap, painted in sickly green paint on a decaying wall. Underneath the painting is a dirty, bandaged table. “It’s about our common childhood — our bad, our awful childhood,” explained  curator Bakshtein.

“It’s not a painting — it’s a reflection about painting. It’s  painting and not painting at the same time. It’s an imitation of painting, an idea about painting, a painting with many different levels of interpretation, and commentary, and self-commentary. It’s part of a permanent and endless conversation about painting.”

There were moments in this show when I felt as if I had wandered into Dostoevski‘s novel, The Possessed.

There are many installations here, but it’s important to remember that Soviet installation art began as a necessity, not as a style. Until glasnost, none of the artists in this show were allowed to exhibit their work in the Soviet Union. They created works of art for themselves and for each other, and showed them in secret, in their studios and apartments. Aptart, short for apartment art, often communicates a sense of urgency and authenticity that is so often lacking in American installation art.

The undisputed star of the show is Ilya Kabakov, an artist who is revered in the Soviet Union, but who has never had a show there. Over 20 years ago, Kabakov began to create allegories of contemporary Soviet life in albums combining words and images, based on the lives of 10 imaginary characters living in a communal apartment in Moscow. More recently, he turned those narratives into installations, including The Man Who Flew into Space From His Apartment, and The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, which were exhibited in Europe. For the ICA, Kabakov created Sixteen Strings, an allegory about the communal kitchen, which includes an earlier album entitled Olga Georgievna, Something is Boiling.

Hundreds of scraps of paper and other small found objects dangle from the the ceiling on strings. You hear voices, talking and arguing, but the room is dark and you can only see what’s going on by using flashlights that the ICA provides.

Kabakov told me that this room represents one of the spaces in a confined communal apartment in Moscow. “You can’t wander into the room because it’s already filled — it’s already filled up to the brim with other people’s feelings and other people’s voices. Something is boiling over — a pot is boiling and people’s feelings are boiling, too. It’s not a kitchen — it’s the FEELING of a kitchen as I experienced it and recreated it here.”

Language is an essential part of Kabakov’s art. “The word. The WORD. Here, you don’t believe in words and you don’t pay attention to words, but in the Soviet Union, words have a magic meaning, and people believe that anything you say is going to happen really will happen. That why Russians talk so much and spend so much time in conversations.”

Until glasnost, Kabakov supported himself by working as a children’s book illustrator. He says that his art is a reflection of his time and his place. “During the Stalin era, people were told that they lived in Heaven, and this Heaven existed only in the Soviet Union, and everyone knew they lived in Heaven. Except it was exactly the same — it was just as terrible as life in Hell. Now that Soviet life has ended, we can tell what really happened. In the beginning was the beautiful future. Then, the terrible poverty at the end.”

I asked Kabakov why the room is so dark. The soulful, grey-haired artist shrugged his shoulders and smiled a wry, ironic smile. Waving his hands eloquently and speaking through an interpreter, he answered,

“The light is out and we’re waiting for someone to come and fix it.”

Much of the work here is specifically about the experience of Soviet reality, but psychologically, it touches an American nerve. The Soviet artists’ process of debunking childhood myths, acknowledging deeply rooted anger and pain, and rewriting the history of their own lives is sometimes surprisingly close to the process of self-actualization which is a major theme in American art — and in American self-help books.

Komar and Melamid bring it all back home on a socio-political level, too. They are a team of artists who emigrated to New York in the 70’s. Their earlier work was a subversion and send-up of Socialist Realism, called SOTS art, but recently they have been making art about the Bergen Point Brass Foundry in Bayonne, New Jersey. Shown here are a group of paintings and collages with bits of gold and copper paper, and Bayonne Rock Gardens — three big houseplants in terracotta planters, with big, rusted pieces of metal embedded in the soil.

In Bayonne, Komar and Melamid discovered the same mythology of the heroic worker, the same overemphasis on industrial production at the expense of human and ecological concerns, the same promises and failed promises, and the same sense of disintegration, despair, and decay that they thought they left behind — back in the USSR.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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