Through 2 December, an exhibition entitled “Monument to a Lost Civilisation” by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov is running at the new Red October Gallery, the one on the premises of the former Krasny Oktyabr chocolate factory in Moscow. The show is hosted by said Red October Gallery and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA). The exhibition serves as a good excuse to indulge in some reflection as to why it is that today, on the eve of the 80th birthday of Russia’s internationally best-known contemporary artist, the Moscow Conceptualist style represented by him still remains practically the only trend in Russian art relevant both worldwide and in its own neck of woods.
The exhibition currently on view at the Red October Gallery was shown at the Arsenale 2012 First Kiev Biennale of Contemporary Art; “Monument to a Lost Civilisation” premiered in 1999 in Palermo. The show constitutes a sort of an ultimate archive of biographies, objects and institutions dealing with art life in a country that no longer exists: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The thirty-seven stands comprising the exhibition capture installations created by the Kabakov duo on the subject of the artified image of a country sunk into oblivion. The stands fit perfectly with the venue, a huge former factory workshop. Hung on the red and grey walls, they are simultaneously reminiscent of the “red corners”, “honours boards’ and wall-newspapers of the 1960s–1980s in their design. The centre of the hall is occupied by a smallish wooden podium displaying scale models of the actual monument to the lost civilisation. It is made up of a green overground kurgan integrated into the territory of a public park complete with benches and lawns, and an underground museum in which a separate room has been allocated to each of the installations. The underground museum is something like a burial beneath the kurgan. Thus the inevitable subject of cultural archaeology, a theme very consistent with Conceptualism, is introduced here.
Exhibition “Monument to a Lost Civilisation”. Underground museum
The stands display scale models and materials flanked by old Soviet photographs which create the “din of time”. Since most of the materials and extended concept descriptions pertaining to them are previously known, the “wholeness” of the show seems to assemble itself in the mind quite easily, inevitably projecting itself onto the personality of Mr Kabakov himself as well as his mythical doppelganger. The “Man Who Collected the Opinions of Others” becomes a visitor to the “Empty Museum”. The human souls living under the ceiling from the “Communal Kitchen” anticipate the hole made in the ceiling by the “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment”. The “Collector” is busy creating the kunstkammer of his own memory and is sure to include all the artefacts relating to the “Civilisation of Flies”. The “Boat” of his life is passing right under the “Bridge”, likewise spanning his life. The “Untalented Artist” is examining with considerable interest the through-the-looking-glass image of the “Man Who Flew into His Picture”. The “Short Man” is truly able to appreciate the “Concentration in the Closet”...
All the stories come together to intertwine into a wonderful autobiographical fabric. A string of keynotes can be distinguished in Kabakov’s mythical autobiography. The first one among them is probably the consciousness of one’s own insignificance, good-for-nothingness, redundancy, all the things obviously associated with the “little people” of the Russian culture which prompted Boris Groys to refer to Russian Conceptualism as “romantic”. Perhaps the second keynote could be considered as resulting from the first one: it is a desire to run away, hide, disappear and become, as the Russian saying goes, “stiller than water, lower than grass”. A desire to escape. The third keynote: compiling an archive of all sorts of odds and ends and other “stuff” (like flies), shabby in their vulgar banality, dullness and squalor. Said odds and ends with their general-use Sovietism are as unoriginal as the words on the filing cards of the poet Lev Rubinstein, another classical representative of the Moscow Conceptualism. The fourth one deals with the mapping of the small Soviet world (and it is small). This is what the subject of travels featuring boats, labyrinths and bridges alludes to. The fifth keynote is possibly the play on scale going on in the world of the Kabakov couple’s protagonist where the small and puny is still holding on to memories of something Sublime and Eternal in its subconscious, or the measly and insignificant (the tiny white men) can herald something unthinkably great.
Exhibition “Monument to a Lost Civilisation”
What makes the world of the Kabakovs interesting is the fact that, essentially, it does not focus exclusively on the problems of a creative soul living in the stale little Soviet world. Centred on the inevitable existential trauma experienced by man in general, his psychological complexes, his frustration caused by communication problems with the society (any society), it is universal.The existential trauma should be approached extremely gently – as gently as anything to do with the subject of an injured psyche. And it is exactly in keeping with this principle of gentle and thoughtful approach that the exhibition has been set up.
And yet, considered in the context of a certain fad for conceptualism that has been dominating the Moscow art scene, the show risks being subjected to other, considerably less effort- and compassion-consuming yet extremely in-demand interpretations. They offer a completely different image: that of a village idiot exposed to public humiliation at the local fair freak show.
The way in which the legacy of the Kabakovs or, more generally, the whole movement of Romantic Russian Conceptualism, is dealt with by the authorities, managers, institutions, mass media and art dealers worldwide and locally, suggests that the image of the village idiot actually suits them down to the ground. It sells well and somehow turns out to be the “correct” trend of Russian conceptual art. “Correct” as far the country’s authoritarian regime is concerned, that is: Oh look at him, it’s one of the little people, looking ever so harmless and pathetic – let him be. Let’s support him. Also “correct” for the famed “Western world”: That’s what we thought – personal freedom in Russia is being thwarted by all sorts of putins and medvedevs! Let’s buy his art. “Correct” for Russian institutions: there is no money to speak of, no base for producing new art and new meanings. Let’s teach artists to imitate the methods and style of Kabakov, tried by time and approved by the authorities. Let’s send hosts of “Children of Lieutenant Schmidt” into the world wheedling grants. And finally, “correct” for Russian art galleries: after all, there is an economic crisis going on. It would be unreasonable to invest in anything new: the whole shebang is on its last legs as it is. So this is what we do: let’s persuade clients to buy stuff considered “correct” by everyone else.
And thus a circle of conceptual “correctness” in nature is created.