Victor Tupitsyn, “The Museological Unconscious. Communal (Post)Modernism in Russia” (Book Review)

Victor Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconscious. Communal (Post)Modernism in Russia, Cambridge/Mass. (MIT Press, 2009), 339 pp.

Victor Tupitsyn’s new book, The Museological Unconscious. Communal (Post)Modernism in Russia, is a sweeping, expert treatment of Russian art from the late 1950s to the present day. Like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, which Tupitsyn cites in one of his chapter headings, the author himself is a kind of hybrid being who is both inside and outside the Russian art scene he describes. Originally a critic closely involved in the unofficial Russian art scene, he left the Soviet Union shortly after the infamous Bulldozer Exhibition in 1974 and played an instrumental role in familiarizing Western audiences with contemporary Russian art. In the process, he appropriated a wide range of Western criticism (ranging from Adorno to Žižek) with particular emphasis on Lacan, whom he reworks to describe what he calls the Russian “communal unconscious,” of which he still feels himself a part.  However, like the pushmi-pullyu, Tupitsyn’s discourse isn’t easy to get a handle on: he moves freely between Western academic theories and Russian conceptualist programs, and it is sometimes hard to tell which end is which.

This is already evident in the title of the book, which seems to be serving as bait for Western readers expecting a Russian version of Jameson’s The Political Unconscious. In fact, the topic of the “museological unconscious” doesn’t even crop up until Chapter 10 and is not developed in an especially compelling way. Tupitsyn, for examples, posits the existence of a “museological function” that “generates the illusion […] that every creative act is common property”; he locates the origins of this function in a murky, ahistorical realm that predates the institutional realm of the museum itself and suggests that critical artists devote themselves to its “renewal, upgrading, and re-creation.” (230)  In truth, it would seem that the “insider” Tupitsyn is simply projecting Russian conceptualist practice back onto culture as a whole.  By “egocentrically” turning their drab, everyday experience into art, the Russian conceptualists created a visual language expressing things that official institutional culture could not. Because there was never any danger of the official culture co-opting the unofficial one, Russian artists were able to maintain a kind of autonomy vis-à-vis official institutions that was not possible in the West. Indeed, as Tupitsyn himself points out elsewhere in the book, there is nothing that the Western “culture industry” cannot appropriate, not even a complete lack of individual creativity. (241-242) Here as elsewhere we encounter a typical lack of reciprocity between Russian and Western cultural experience that Russians gladly use to aggrandize their own ideological interests. As Boris Groys has pointed out, the result is that Russia takes the structural position of the unconscious in relation to the West; it is hence in an ideal position to articulate the shortcomings of the West while remaining essentially inscrutable itself. Tupitsyn is sophisticated enough not to fall into this trap, but his pushmi-pullyu status causes him to oscillate between these two positions in a way that is not always obvious.

Tupitsyn is at his best when he is explicating what he calls the Russian “communal unconscious.” By this he means the repressed quotidian experience of Soviet life unknown to the West and taboo for official Soviet culture; it was this cramped, squalid realm of the real that eventually became the stuff of Russian unofficial, postmodern art. Combining Ilja Kabakov’s conceptualist insights into the kommunalka, or communal apartment, and Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Tupitsyn shows how Russian unofficial artists represent this collective unconscious by articulating the infantile, egocentric structure of the communal unconscious,  by visualizing the officially non-existent realm of the real (the body, sexuality, the kommunalka, etc.), by appropriatingthe iconography of official culture, and by acting out communal patterns of repression in “collective actions” (to name the most important strategies).  Tupitsyn’s analysis also places this unofficial art in a historical dimension, tracing its rise from the late 1950s to the present day, and in general he does an excellent job of clarifying the communal mindset and its artistic representation for the Western reader.

It is ironic (and perhaps fitting) that Tupitsyn, who makes heavy use of psychoanalytical categories, himself rather crudely falls prey to what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence. This is evident in Tupitsyn’s treatment—or, more precisely, repression—of Boris Groys, the émigré art critic who is Tupitsyn’s almost exact doppelganger. Both Groys and Tupitsyn were art critics intimately involved in the underground art movement until their emigration (in 1981 and 1975, respectively), both have been instrumental in acquainting Western audiences with Russian conceptualist art, and both mix Western theory with peculiarly Russian modes of thought. While one need not expect that Tupitsyn roll out the red carpet for Groys, there is really no excuse for the way in which he buries him under the rug.  Groys is mentioned only three times and his controversial—and seminal—work The Total Art of Stalinism is dismissed as a “spectacularist project” (326) and as a “fiction” (316). Considering that Groys wrote the first conceptualist manifesto (in the journal A-Ja  in 1979) and that his Total Art single-handedly restarted Russian cultural history, these snubs seems neither fair nor even true to the record.  This review is not the place for a detailed comparison of Tupitsyn’s and Groys’s positions on archives, museums and the unconscious (a dandy topic for some future doctoral thesis).  However, the fact that Tupitsyn deals with Groys by effectively shouldering him out of Russian art history suggests that we are dealing here less with an academic difference of opinion than with inner tensions in the kommunalka of Russian art criticism, which is apparently too small to hold two like-minded critics.

Although it is probably not intended as such, Tupitsyn’s book is the closest thing we now have to a comprehensive history of unofficial Russian art. At the same time, it manages to directly convey some of the ludic spirit of its subject matter through anecdotes, a rich supply of the author’s own photographic material, self-irony and a dazzling use of what Tupitsyn himself admits are “too many references, too many theories.” (4) The flip side of this approach is that not all ideas are developed as compellingly as one might like, and Tupitsyn is prone to generalizations and gnomic formulations. Also, readers unfamiliar with Lacan may find the main line of argumentation difficult to follow. All in all, though, Tupitsyn has written an important, lively book that will shape our image of postmodern Russian art for some time to come.

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