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Conceptualism in Russia
October 28, 2013 13:41

Conceptualism was developing in line with postmodernism in the 1960s-1980s.

The intellectual and in many respects ironic art of Conceptualism initially appeared as a counterbalance to commercial art. 
In the 1970s-1980s it was Ilya Kabakov (born in 1933) who was the most considerable conceptual artist and the “guru” of domestic conceptualism in the Soviet Union. He is the author of the statement: “The artist paints not on the canvass, but on the viewer”. The studio of Ilya Kabakov was not only a venue for seeing his art works, but also some kind of a workshop on Russian Conceptualism, which was attended by lots of authors, in particular, the writer Vladimir Sorokin. Ilya Kabakov’s creativity in the 1970s was based on albums and stands made of tables, catalogued photos, scraps of phrases, and peculiar “office primitivism” that the artist identified himself with.
Kabakov's tables with scrupulousness of a scientist sketching butterflies, pinpoint varieties of characters of the Soviet myth, including pioneers, trade-union officials and other workers, etc. Empty cells in those tables implied existence of unaccounted characters or existence of another dimension, where they are totally absent. Other conceptualists resorted to similar tricks – for example, the composer John Cage with a 4 min 26 sec long performance when he appeared on stage and stood silently, without playing for 4 min 26 sec, then bowed down and left the stage.
Ilya Kabakov’s visual vocabulary also includes illustrations to children's books, as well as clichés of Soviet visual propaganda, posters, and wall newspapers. In his compositions they lose their habitual functions, and the viewer is offered to think up other sense – the game is based on the image and name collision – Death of Ali the Doggie (1969), Make a Story on Picture (1977). In the 1980s the artist turned to the genre of “total installations”. Kabakov’s installation Life of a Fly (1984, 1992) includes a big portrait of a fly and texts going up with letters – these are reasonings about the fly by representatives of different sciences, then reasonings on these reasonings, etc. The Common Kitchen installation (1989) investigates the municipal kitchen space not as a place of joint utilitarian use, but as artistic communication object – the space of parallel co-being of people who have to coexist in one communal apartment. The art by Ilya Kabakov, who left the USSR in the late 1980s, drew attention of western artistic circles to Russian postmodernism.

Works by the conceptual artists Eric Bulatov, Victor Pivovarov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid can also be termed as Sots Art, which the Soviet Conceptualism was closely related to. Erik Bulatov’s well-known painting – scarlet letters Glory of CPSU against the blue cloudy sky has two layers: pronouncedly realistic space and socially-hued text crossing it. The Soviet Conceptualism, which appeared as aesthetic reaction to the Socialist Realism of the Stagnation period, presented abroad the art objects recognized there due to their artistic language stemming from “exotic” Soviet clichés.
Whereas the Conceptualism sprang up in the West as a reaction to preponderance of commercial advertizing and mass media, in the Soviet Union it was important to create personal intellectual space that would be free from both ideology and opposition to it. A special branch of Conceptualism stemmed in the Moscow underground culture of art, prose and poetry from the late 1960s. The essence of it was in overlapping of two languages – the jaded Soviet language and the avant-garde meta language describing the former one.
For the first time the term Moscow Conceptualism appeared in 1979 in the title of the B. Groyce’s article published in the Parisian magazine A-Ya. The author characterized Moscow Conceptualism as “romantic, pensive and psychologizing version of the international conceptual art of the 1960s-70s”.

The poet Lev Rubenstein in his turn defined the distinction between the Western and Moscow Conceptualism: “At the heart of the western perspective there is dramatic interaction of different existences of a thing (in its broad meaning, i.e. an object, a phenomenon, an idea, and a vision): existence in the reality and existence in nomination, in description, i.e. in some symbol. … The Russian Conceptualism at once revealed lack of this real thing as initial reality. To be more exact, it revealed the problematical character of its presence. Confidence in real existence of something was almost forced out by nominative existence of these things in our consciousness. The presence of even the simplest objects is quite fictitious: today it is here, and tomorrow it is gone, as if it never existed, having left just words as a keepsake. Such reminders of words become a sort of incantations: instead of confirming the existence of something, they kind of conjure it not to disappear forever. Thus there can be no pure Conceptualism as such on the Russian ground. However, it is here, or there is something under this name”. 
Moscow Conceptualists in many respects turn to be successors of the the OBERIU, by beating absurdity of situations, forms and words, and mythologizing absurd daily routine. In spite of its “kitchen and communal chamber character” due to underground conditions, the Russian Conceptualism contained a powerful charge of ideological and artistic protest of Nonconformity.
Besides the above-mentioned artists, the Moscow Conceptualism included creativity by R. and V. Gerlovins, I.Chuykov, Andrey Monastyrsky’s Collective Actions (CA) group, Pavel Pepperstein’s Medical Hermeneutics (MH), TOTart group of N. Abalakov, A. Zhigalov, and others. 
Projects of the Collective Actions group described and documented in the book Trips to the Country (1998) represent aesthetic journeys. The ritual of such a travel assumes fixing the stages of the covered distance to the scene of action and forms of reporting on it. From 1976 to 2000 the Collective Actions group carried out 77 projects. Some people nowadays see their art projects as the forerunner of the flash mob drive. 
Besides “trips to the country” and carrying out actions like tracing words in squares by putting participants in a certain order, the Moscow Conceptualists sought to develop their own language and terminology, which would help them “mark” the reality existing out of their community for its research and regulation. Thus, the Collective Actions concentrated on development of socially mystical philosophy and notions of the Moscow Conceptualism, as well as a set of language practices. Fruits of their carried-out semantic-linguistic work were reflected in the Dictionary of Terms of the Moscow Conceptual School (1999). It contains the major and additional lists of the developed terms. Among them there is “ideodelic” – a hallucinogenic layer of ideology; “russia” – the area of manifestation of subconscious, destructive aspects of the West; “west” – the superego of Russia; “a lonely dog looking into the eyes” – a split personality where both are observing, but the personality represented as a dog understands something, whereas the human part has not yet experienced or understood anything; “a crying old man” – the same, as: a tumbled-down tree, a sung song, a child who has understood Everything; “whisper of beloved girl”– the process of canonization of immersiveness, etc.
TOT-art group was mostly engaged in performances outdoors or in artists’ studios. For example, Snow: the word “snow” is hand written in snow in order just to take the snow inscription and eat it. Gold Voskresnik (“voskresnik” (from the Russian “Sunday”) – volunteer work Sundays in Soviet times): artists and house dwellers paint fences, benches and litterbins near the house in gold color.

Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Conceptualism Sots Art    

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