These Three Authors…

Küpper, Stephan. Autorstrategien im Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Il’ja Kabakov, Lev Rubinshtejn, Dmitrij A. Prigov (Berliner Slawistische Arbeiten 11). Frankfurt a.M. e.a., 207 p. 

Stephan Küpper (Berlin) examines the problems of authorship using the examples of three contemporary Moscow concept artists: the image and text artist Kabakov, and the two text artists Rubinshtein and Prigov.

As befits a work on authorship, the book itself is a reflection on the mechanisms of one’s own dominance of a presented text. Thus, the problems of authorship are reflected on one hand formally: the table of contents does without numeration and thus hierarchization of the parts of the text; hierarchization would be seen as dominating authorship.

The theses on the three heroes in the respective chapter headings are in Russian, though they appear in a German-language publication. They are quotations of the authors concerned; Küpper has to underline the quotational character of Prigov’s “I ub’yu vas vsekh, gady, po odnomu” [“And I will kill you all, vermin, one by one”] using quotation marks, while the formulations of Kabakov and Rubinshtein already carry the form of a formula of the theory of literature in themselves: “Chelovek, opisyvayushchii sebya cherez drugikh personazhei” [“A person describing himself through other personages”] (Kabakov) and “Moshchnyi ritmeobrazuyushchii factor” [“A mighty rhythm-creating factor”] (Rubinshtein), which Küpper appropriates, thereby deleting the quotational character of these formulations.

However, this procedure can be used the other way around: the succinctness and consequent memorability of theses which can be summed up in one sentence permit the identification: “Küpper maintains…” In this instance, as well as in the study on the whole, no deconstructive écriture is pursued. Thus, Küpper concludes from the acknowledgements “how little [one] is author of one’s own texts”, but “takes full responsibility” for all that is said (8).

As far as computer printout is concerned, this final responsibility seems to have been wrested out of Küpper’s hands: the finished computer file was apparently transferred to another computer, which led – the problem is well known – to the mutation of some diacritics to “?”.

The presentation of the formal side of Küpper’s authorship or not-quite-authorship is as ambivalent as his review of the history of the discussion of literary authorship in the introduction. He shares Foucault’s protest against inflationary talk of the “death of the author” as diagnosed by Barthes, and takes up Foucault’s challenge to work out the functioning of authorship from the “lacunae”.

Thus, he sees textual madeness in the “obraz avtora” [“the image of the author”] (14), more so than in the “implied author”.

By this textual madeness it is possible to build a bridge to Butler’s concept of performative identity. Küpper suggests the use of the term “auctorial strategies”, by which “authorship […] is re-defined again and again in an attempt to come to terms with the context”.

Küpper does not go along with Butler’s conscious disregard of the question about the Outside (30); having established that the author acts at one and the same time as an authority both “internal to the text, signified” and “external, signifying” (20), he then goes on to again separate both dimensions heuristically (50).

As he quotes the chalcedonian formula of “separation and union” without using quotation marks, he obviously imagines these two dimensions to be two distinguishable “natures” of one person. The ligature “avtor-personazh” [“author-personage”], as commonly applied in studies (Gundlach et alia), is – for the time being – broken down into its components Author and Personage. This becomes obvious when the three body chapters begin quite conventionally with a brief outline of the artists’ biographies.

In the introduction, Küpper moreover draws attention to the special situation of authorship under Soviet conditions: the diktat of official real socialist aesthetics condemns “to failure any attempt to occupy an authorial position that is independent of state power” (27). Thus, because of the subjugation to power the author can only act as “subject” in the sense of Foucault’s “sub-icere”. This, however, was turned into a strategy of concept art by the Moscow artists – according to Groys’ definition of 1979- that participates in staging its context (24 footnote 57).

Küpper includes a very reduced overview of the history of authorial concepts in Russia: he assigns an expression to every epoch, this expression is moreover “final” (35). At this point a linear model shines through, which operates with “no-more”-formulations.

Küpper does not allow the same complexity for older literature that he proves for his three authors and their managing of ever-new authorial strategies, which are moreover repeatedly changed within their work. “Romantic authorship”, which is perhaps not such a uniform concept either, takes the position of a negative distorted image vis-à-vis the conceptualist practices.

Moreover, Küpper dismisses the issue of gender much too quickly, by a short reference to Nancy K. Miller (16f) and by the claim that the oeuvre of Tolstaya, Petrushevskaya and Ulitskaya proves that “the author in Russia is masculine” (11).

At this point, one would have liked to see a reference that the natural sex does not have to be mirrored in the possible gender allocation of an écriture (Lachmann) or that anti-feminist statements of Russian female writers can perfectly well be deconstructed and read against the grain (thus Parnell on Ulitskaya).

The most obvious illustration of the pair “avtor-personazh” [“author-personage”] is Kabakov’s early work, such as “10 personazhei” [“10 Personages”] (1972-75), in which conflicting perspectives and internal commentaries stage a polyphony à la Bakhtin (65f) and with which Küpper begins his readings.

However, the framing of Kabakov’s works with commentaries refuses to go along with an “authoritative viewpoint beyond and above the perspective of the figures”. The multiple framings cross out an author’s voice at the place of framing (63).

In “V nashem Zheke” [“In Our Housing Office”] (1982), this polyphony is distributed over three, actually four parts of the book. The first part simulates the propaganda activity of a housing office (ZhEK), in the second several fictive personages appear as authors of one and the same drawing, and in the third other concept artists reflect, along with Kabakov himself, on Moscow underground art, which reflections in their own turn are prefaced by an introduction by a fictive ZhEK-artist (75).

The phase of creation of the installations from 1983 contributes contexts to texts as well (79). The “totalising attempt at integrating everything in one’s oeuvre” now also includes the comments of persons looking at the installations along with dialogues by Kabakov and Groys about the installations (90).

This can be read both as polyphony and as a desire to achieve “sovereignty over the frames”. At the end of this chapter, Küpper poses the question whether Kabakov’s strategy is at present changing under the influence of commercial success in the West; supposedly, Kabakov is lately publishing works without controlling their setting up in museums (95).

As far as Rubinshtein and Prigov are concerned, the question is rather more one of series: with Rubinshtein, it is a question of index cards, with Prigov, of alphabets. Rubinshtein created from 1975 to 1995 almost nothing but index cards as mouthpieces for various voices, which always reflect on literature as well. Although, according to Küpper, one can differentiate a de-humanising from a re-humanising phase (102, 113), would the latter already restore emphatic authorship? Certainly not.

Zorin believes he can localise remnants of authorship in the gaps left by the turning of the pages, by which the unspeakable stays beyond the index cards; Küpper holds the rhythm of cadence and anti-cadence against this (116, 120): authorship as intonation, which however is more convincing in Prigov’s case (171).

Rubinshtein’s last index card text is called “Eto ya” [“This is me”], in which “text-object” and “author-personage” become identical. I is the text – significantly, at this point Küpper again brings into play Butler’s “identity fabrication” out of texts (128).

If it was possible for Küpper to examine coherent phases of Kabakov’s and Rubinshtein’s work, Prigov’s deliberately inflationary and heterogeneous output of poetry robs him of this possibility (129).

The hypertrophic authorial image that always wants to be addressed by its full name: Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov (131), is the counterpart to this inhabitation of all sorts of styles of writing and the usurpation of countless names from the history of culture by the respective intra-textual I (“partial-images”, 132).

In Russia, the primers have always allocated a special position to the “I”: from the pre-revolutionary initial “az” [Slavonic name of the letter “a”] to the post-revolutionary final “ya” [the last letter of the Russian alphabet, and the word “I”] that Prigov stresses in his “Azbuki” [“Primers”] in ever new “auctorial power fantasies” (155).

There are however so many fillings that Foucault’s term “ego plurality” acts as an understatement; the “ya” [the last letter of the Russian alphabet, and the word “I”] becomes an “empty place holder” (173).

If Küpper concludes in the end that Prigov’s intra-textual subject remains completely heteronomous, while the extra-textual auctorial authority is assured autonomy (178), then at this point Küpper’s heuristic separation of intra-textual personage and extra-textual author is justified. One can then agree with him that the performativity of the textual construction of identity exceeds the text.

In the chapter on Kabakov, Küpper examined Kabakov’s striving for “sovereignty over the frames”. Moscow conceptualism on the whole created early on a dispositive in the form of the culture of the circles in order to be in control of its own frame(work).

Little by little, foreign, especially German academics were included, whose disciples continue to carry the torch. Küpper, as well as the present reviewer, is one of these disciples.

Maybe Küpper’s book does not contain an index for good reason, as this would have shown just how narrow the circle of relevant contributors to authorial theory in connection with Moscow conceptualism is, whereby the German academics-witnesses (such as Witte) eventually both appear in the Russian texts and have taken part in looking after the work under review, so that even a quotation of Rubinshtein can turn into a homage to a German academic (125).

The fact that Rubinshtein was Küpper’s best man completes the circle-character of the collective authorship of Russian literati and German Slavonic scholars, whereby the former sometimes act as the latter (Groys) or the latter as the former (Hänsgen). Moscow conceptualism is a total performative text – but by now far from being a purely Moscow one.