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 rebeccanemser.com

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