Between Hope and Fear: Ilya Kabakov: The Sixties – the Seventies… Notes on Inofficial Life in Moscow

II’ya Kabakov: 60-e – 70-e… Zapiski o neoficial’noy zhizni v Moskve. Ed. Wolfgang Weitlaner. Vienna 1999 (Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Sonderband 47)

Ilya Kabakov: The Sixties – the Seventies… Notes on inofficial life in Moscow. Vienna 1999

In the early eighties, with the endless period of stagnation under Brezhnev drawing to an end, conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov wants to come clean with his past. On the eve of Gorbachev’s Perestroika (that would eventually make possible his own emergence onto the international art scene), Kabakov takes stock of the inofficial Russian art scene, as well as his own role in it, as part of his artistic enterprise to testify to life in the Soviet Union. Within an artistic frame, this stock-taking is done in the samizdat book In our ZhEK (V nashem ZhEKe) that presents his selected works of the seventies as the efforts of lay artists sponsored by the local housing committee. The voluminous memoirs The Sixties (1982) and The Seventies (1983) continue this stocktaking on a narrative-descriptive plane. The Wiener Slawistischer Almanach has now published these memoirs in their entirety for the first time, together with the transcription of a monologue on “Personalism during the Sixties” (Apologiya personalizma v iskusstve 60-kh godov, 1986), Kabakov’s short essay “The Author looks at his work twice” (1982), a list of his albums, and some statements on their own art by Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vasilyev, the two artists closest to Kabakov.

Both The Sixties and The Seventies are invaluable documents of the Moscow inofficial art scene in that they combine Kabakov’s own description of his works with his astute and insightful observations of the work of other artists as well as the overall atmosphere of the times. If the several parts are united by a single topic, it is the absence of a “normal”, working art scene with artists, galleries, critics, viewers and buyers, and the various – in Kabakov’s view more or less pathological – reactions that this absence provoked. Thus he gives a sympathetic, albeit critical account of the post-Stalin period where, besides the surviving masters and their immediate pupils, a host of young talent made their mark, each in his own, unique and personal way. Still, while Kabakov names personalism, i.e. an extreme individualistic outlook on art and life, as the only thing to unite the various artists’ idiosyncrasies, he manages to sketch various trends and groups that emerged within the inofficial scene: those who, like Oskar Rabin, adopted a professional work ethos and produced pictures much in the way of any commodity (this in itself being an oppositional act), others – the majority – who would work exclusively for themselves, not concerning themselves with real or hypothetical viewers at all, but painting in spontaneous, energetic outbursts of creativity. A third group would try to connect to those value systems that were absent from Soviet reality – be it the international art scene, be it mystical or occult speculations on the nature of the universe. Kabakov discusses in great detail the various artistic practices resulting from these strategies to survive in a climate that provides no external stimuli at all, commenting on major and minor figures with a mixture of extreme sympathy for their efforts to come to terms with this pathological situation, and critical distance to the inevitably pathological results.

Kabakov’s own work may in this light be regarded as a continuous effort to escape pathology through constant self-analysis and self-abnegation. From the very beginning of his training in art school, he recalls that his work had always been informed by the dualism of the official work done to please others and the inofficial work done just for himself, not with regard to any other viewer. This work for himself would initially result in pencil drawings done almost subconsciously, letting his hand move across the paper, and resulting in something like Abstract expressionism. While these drawings represented the spontaneously creative side of his personality, the other, reflective side would find its creative outlet in endless ruminations in note books. None of this would, however, satisfy him, as the drawings lacked the reflection of the notebooks, and the notebooks lacked the spontaneity and originality of the drawings. It appears that from the very start, Kabakov has never really trusted his own work. Even the abortive attempt to create his “masterpiece” that would reconcile all the opposites that troubled him at this time he describes with gentle self-irony. Kabakov then goes on to describe and categorize his subsequent work: from the early drawings via objects made of deliberately “bad” material to avoid any overt artisticism to his metaphysical drawings and paintings that seek to radiate the light of infinity. There follow the albums, some of which describe ways to enter this transcendent light, while others attempt to put the viewer in a state of trance; finally the “social” period which draws upon the material of everyday Soviet life, propaganda posters, bills, notices and signs. Possibly in an effort to avoid accusations of intellectualism, Kabakov stresses the fact that all the pictures of the various periods came to him naturally, reflecting his various states of mind as well as the overall atmosphere of the Moscow inofficial art scene – metaphysical during the sixties, then turning on the semiotics of Soviet life under the influence of such figures as Aleksandr Komar and Vitaly Melamid. Only then he goes on to discuss his intentions at the time, the effect that the pictures were meant to have on the mind of the viewer, as well as their success or failure. From this description there emerges a highly dialogic strategy that informs the whole of Kabakov’s artistic project. Always reacting to trends around him, his pictures are again meant to provoke a reaction on the viewer’s side, as well as feeding back into their author’s mind to produce explanations, commentaries and new framings.

This leads straight to the core of Kabakov’s whole artistic enterprise: the only person to really see and judge his work was he himself. To arrive at anything remotely resembling quality control, he would have to step back, as it were, from his own work, and regard it through the eyes of an unconcerned viewer. It is the split between the creative and the reflective side of his personality that informs Kabakov’s conceptualism to this day, as neither side is allowed to take the upper hand, but both are constantly played out against each other in order to overcome the shortcomings of either. Kabakov calls the reflexive side of his work a “hiding away” (ukryvatel’stvo) from the immediacy of the image into endless reframings. In fact, his memoirs are by themselves a case in point. In a short foreword, Kabakov cautions the reader against the repetitions and contradictions he or she might encounter when reading texts from different periods in his life, as well as the highly subjective judgements on his fellow artists that say more about their author that about their subject. These repetitions and contradictions are, in fact, highly informative about the way Kabakov constructs his own artistic personality. His “Russian Series”, for instance, is in The Sixties dated 1969 and described as an erratic piece that fell out of his metaphysical aspirations of the period. In The Seventies, the same series is redated 1976 and described as inspired by the 1972 album Agonizing Surikov. This and other details make it clear that Kabakov’s memoirs, far from being and objective account of his oeuvre and the conditions under which it developed, are themselves a part of the reflexive side of the oeuvre itself, meant to enter into dialogue with his other works and commentaries on it and not to be taken at face value too easily. If the book offers insights into Kabakov’s strategies that have nowhere been made so clear, it also brims with anecdotes that alone make it worth reading. Whether he discusses the unorthodox teaching methods of Vasily Sitnikov and Vladimir Raykov or the working conditions for official and inofficial artists alike, from the huge disgusting mushroom in his one-time basement studio to the miraculous account of how he obtained his loft at Sretensky Boulevard, Kabakov captures the atmosphere and the essence of what it meant to be an artist in the late Soviet Union. His rambling style veers between emotionally charged recollections and quasi-scientific classifications, avoiding both a dry retelling of facts and a purely confessional narrative. This is possibly best illustrated by the “Table of Hope and Fear” that graphically depicts the various states the Moscow artists found themselves in as the thaw of the Khrushchev years came to an end with the notorious Manege exhibition, and the attempts at reaching a wider audience were sabotaged by the authorities in the Bulldozer exhibition of 1974, resulting both in the exile of some of the leading figures of inofficial art and in a relative creative freedom for those who remained. The idea alone of quantifying these emotions is symptomatic for Kabakov’s maneuvre between what he regards as the double pitfalls of unmediated personal expression and endless sterile theorizing in an epistomological void.