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Section: Reader, Artist

 

Kenny McBride. October 2009

 

Eastern European Time-Based Art Practices Contextualised Within the Communist Project of Emergence and Post-Communist Disintegration and Transition.


Chapter 1: The Communist Simulacrum as a Readymade

Artists: Komar and Melamid (Soviet Union/USA), Ilya Kabakov (Soviet Union/USA)

When Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959 it is said that high on his list of priorities was a visit to Disneyland. Russian theorist Mikhail Epstein speculates whether this was fuelled by a desire to see whether “Americans had succeeded in creating as perfect a simulation of reality as the Soviet model” (Epstein, 1995) since, quite clearly, the ability to produce a model of reality made them masters of simulacrum.

While Khrushchev was denied his wish on security grounds much of the simulacrum that he controlled would become appropriated by a number of Russian artists, most notably by Sots Art and later the Moscow Conceptualist movement.

As we have seen, heteroglossia is indexically linked to the dominant discourse and thus any art produced within it also bears the ‘language’ of that discourse. While 1970s western Pop Art emerged as a critique of the over-production of consumer culture, in Russia the pioneering artist duo Komar and Melamid formed the Sots Art movement, an appropriation of the art of Socialist Realism (1) that was “concerned with the over-production of ideology” (Komar & Melamid, 1978, p. 2). And like their Pop Art contemporaries, the practice of Komar and Melamid incorporates a wide range of disciplines including painting, objects, text, and performance, as well as a declared fondness for all things conceptual,

"The West still accepts the idea of the artist as an individual. We work together as a unit and express no personal cause of our own, but a social tendency" (Komar and Melamid, cited in Miller-Keller, 1978, p. 2).

"Even if only one of us creates some of the projects and works, we usually sign them together. We are not just an artist, we are a movement" (Komar & Melamid, 2009).

Their détournement of the symbols of the Soviet’s “huge promotion campaign” (Groys, 2004) took the symbolic language of totalitarian power, subjected it to an antagonistic critique, and re-presented it using the same stylistic language associated with Socialist Realism. They shared with American Pop Art the fundamental purpose of revealing an “understanding of modern life and the products of mass civilization” (Komar & Melamid, 1978).

Sots Art, then, was a unique blend of Dada, Socialist Realism, and mass culture, and where the mass culture was the Soviet simulacrum. The appeal of Sots Art lay in its strong sense of irony and the ability to make official Socialist Realism a “phenomena of opposition” (Titu, 2003). Their antagonistic heteroglossia produced the likeness of a “'real' social realist artist who, owing to absolute imbecility, just brought all the ideological directives to a logical end” (Kovalev, 2002).

In 1972 they were expelled form the powerful Union of Graphic Artists, Youth Division, for “distortion of Soviet reality and nonconformity with the principles of Socialist Realism” (Komar & Melamid, cited in Miller-Keller, 1978, p. 4). As a result they were subject to State surveillance, denied employment opportunities, studio space, and could only purchase poor quality materials (Matrix, 1978, p. 2).

While it is one thing to détourne two-dimensional images into new images that critique the discourse of the original, it is an altogether different thing to perform antagonism in a live sense. In their 1974 performance, Hamburgers Made Out of the Newspaper Pravda, presented in a Moscow apartment, Komar and Melamid make an ironic play on the title of the Russian newspaper Pravda (Truth) by approaching it from a literal point [Fig. 2].

 

 
[Fig. 2] Komar & Melamid.
(1974) Hamburgers Made
Out of the Newspaper
‘Pravda’
. [Moscow, private
apartment]. Photo:
Valentin Serov.


Identifying truth as having a nourishing quality while the newspaper is, paradoxically, an organ of the State, they demonstrated to their audience how to prepare ‘hamburgers’ made from copies of Pravda. Taking the State’s claim that ideology was food for the people Komar and Melamid, quite literally, set about meeting the reasonable demands of the audience: citizens want to be fed. They ground up copies of the newspaper in a meat grinder and fed them to the audience (Dyogot, 2000).

In his analysis of Rabelais, Mikhail Bakhtin distinguishes the grotesque body as one that is incomplete and in contrast to the completed classical body that is an entity separate from all other bodies. While the classical body of high antiquity is thus disconnected to the world at large, the grotesque body is wholly alive in the emergence of the world, it is a “body in the act of becoming” (ed. Morris, 1994, p. 233).

Bakhtin wrote at length on the intention of the official body to destroy the individual body and in so doing drew attention to the Russian context of the body as a terrorized body, an “object of violence” (Backshtein, cited in (ed.) Badovinac, 1999, p. 145). Through the act of laughter and eating the incomplete grotesque body can overcome forces of oppression (ed. Morris, 1994, p. 195). By incorporating external material structures, and through joining with others, the grotesque body transgresses its own limits and makes the world whole. The “triumphal banquet” (ed. Morris, 1994, p. 229) of the newspaper Pravda is served as a metaphor of ideological oppression to the assembled crowd that the incomplete body can devour.

"The encounter of man with the world, which takes place inside the open, biting, rending, chewing mouth... Here man tastes the world, introduces it into his body, makes it part of himself" (ed. Morris, 1994, p. 228).

And, since “no meal can be sad... [the feast] is equivalent to “conception and birth” (ed. Morris, 1994, p. 230). The social body breaks from the boundaries set by the body of the State; it takes the organ of the State into itself and devours it. It is a transgressive act that it is unique to the heteroglot since the State cannot likewise adopt the concerns of those it considers to be dissenting of its discourse. Dyogot (2000) shows that through this theatrical setting they “demonstrate their subversive identification with the authorities… to represent the Soviet citizen's banal daily fare” (Dyogot, 2000).

In the same year they made the performance Art Belongs to the People, again in a private apartment [Fig.3].



[Fig. 3] Komar &
Melamid. (1974) Art
Belongs to the People
.
[Moscow, private
apartment]. Photo:
The artists.

 

Set against a background of nationalist music, Komar and Melamid mimicked the Soviet police and shouted orders into microphones to four “artistically untrained people to create huge patriotic canvases” (Komar, 2009). The police had caught wind of the performance and burst into the apartment,

"They asked us about anti-Soviet pagan rituals. Luckily, Alex [Melamid], as the owner of the apartment, was not detained in the Moscow police office. It was the first time in my life that I spent the night under arrest. In the morning, without any explanation, we were all freed" (Komar, 2009).

In 1976, after a number of their works had been smuggled out of Russia by visiting western critics, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York hosted their first American show. The Soviet authorities, however, had refused them travel permits to personally attend. In a defiant response Komar and Melamid played an original musical composition, Passport from Codes, in a Moscow apartment [Fig. 4].

 

 
[Fig. 4] Komar &
Melamid with Charlotte
Moorman. (1976)
Passport: Codes
.
[Moscow, and world].
Photo: Peggy Kaplan.

 

They had formulated a unique coding system that they applied to the visa restrictions printed within a Russian passport and thereby arrived at the notation (Miller-Keller, 1978, p.3). Simultaneously, in fifteen countries around the world friends and followers played the same composition (Komar and Melamid, 2009).

The theatricality in Komar and Melamid’s performances is made even more festive since they took place within private apartments. If we step back a few years we will understand why the work was located within the domestic realm and not in an official institution.

Although Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his personality cult at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 he still retained the machinery of the secret service and the familiar language of ideology. Nonetheless, a moderate thaw in relations between artists and the State occurred and, at Khrushchev’s behest, in 1962 Alexander Solzhenitsyn published his (at the time) groundbreaking novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a record of one day in the life of one man in one of Stalin’s Gulag’s.

A number of artists responded to the favorable change in conditions and were confident enough to emerge publically as a dissident art movement, whereas previously, under Stalin, they would simply have been exiled, imprisoned, or disappeared. Khrushchev had worked to improve the neglect in housing conditions and a consequence of this was that artists began to get their own studios, or shared spaces, with colleagues where they would practice and show their work to one another.

At this time outdoor exhibitions and samizdat’s (dissident publications of prohibited literature and poetry) were the primary means of artists showing work to one another. It was also, at the same time, a period when dissent activity could transgress into the realm of conformity with the state principles of the State (Kagarlitsky, 2002). It would turn out to be a short-lived romance.

On December 1st 1962, Khrushchev attended the outdoor opening of the 30th anniversary exhibition of the Moscow Union of Artists. On show were abstract works by the artists of the Left whose individualistic expressionism represented the liberalism of the ‘thaw’. Khrushchev was in a difficult position: should he support what had come to be seen as products of a progressive society, or should he criticize them as decadent manifestations influenced by exterior forces.

In the end he found a third way: he judged them to be “private psycho-pathological distortions of the public conscience” (Erofeev, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 42). The authorities had stopped applying the clinical terminology that Stalin had favoured when judging ‘individualistic’ art but they hadn’t given up trying to heal the social body (Erofeev, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 42).

At that point it became apparent that any hope of a sustained liberalization of cultural practices had been shortly lived and, in the ensuing re-regulation of culture by the State, artists now found themselves once more increasingly isolated and unable to exhibit their works through the official channels.

They responded to this exclusion from official culture by creating a ‘second culture’ that acted counter to the official realm but not in the sense of an opposition. We will later understand how this ‘second culture’ would be theorized and applied effectively in Czechoslovakia following the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring.

The 1962 exhibition became the accepted date when ‘non-official art’ was born. And, while no explicit order was given, the message that resonated throughout the entire Communist region was that artists were expected to create works that would promote the Communist project. And, since individualist expression was the antithesis of the Communist project, artists who chose to pursue an individualist path outwith this standard were roundly cut off from any institutional support whatsoever, and remained so until the system collapsed almost thirty years later (2) (Erofeev, 2002).

While Scammell notes that an “informal movement” (Scammell, cited in (eds.) Rosenfeld & Dodge, 1995, p. 49) had existed from 1956 until about 1986, this thesis considers Erofeev’s (2002) description of Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’ period, that saw many artists frequently cross the lines of official and non-official practice, and its ending with Khrushchev’s denouncement of the 1962 exhibition, as the most authoritative origin of non-official art.



[Fig. 5] Bulldozer exhibition, Moscow, 1974.
Photo: New York Times.

 

By the mid-1970s the movement had attracted widespread attention internationally, not least because of the success of Komar and Melamid, whose works had been smuggled out of Russia to the United States, and who had been kept abreast of developments in the west by the artist and Newsweek critic Douglas Davies (Miller-Keller, 1978, p. 2) in his frequent visits to Moscow.

The authorities bent to this increasing cultural pressure and worked to find a rational relationship with non-official artists. What triggered this unprecedented climb-down was the destruction of a non-official art exhibition that had been set up on waste ground in the Beliaevo suburb of Moscow in September 1974 [Fig. 5]. Western critics, who had been attending, condemned it for its savagery: bulldozers were driven through the exhibition and the remains set on fire.



[Fig. 6] Komar & Melamid.
(1974) Double Self Portrait.
[Moscow, private apartment].
Photo: The artists.

 

Amongst the works had been the painting Double Self Portrait by Komar and Melamid in which they were portrayed as Lenin and Stalin in the style of Socialist Realism [Fig. 6]. Somewhat ironically it was the KGB who were given the task of managing this new relationship with the non-official realm (Erofeev, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 42). Following the attack artists withdrew and regrouped once more to the domestic realm since,

"No matter what the forms and situations in which non-official art made its appearance in artistic life, a room in the communal flat remained, as of old, its habitual abode" (Erofeev, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 42).

Families and strangers shared facilities within these communal apartments in line with the ideological aim of creating a distinct model of collective living. Occasionally it happened that a group of artists managed to share such a place and would refer to it as their ‘barracks’, as in the case of the Sretensky Boulevard Group whose members included Ilya Kabakov, Eduard Shteinberg, Vladimir Yankilevsky, and Viktor Pivovarov. Kabakov and Bulatov would later become key figures in the Moscow Conceptualist movement (Kharitonova, 2007).

Alongside the domesticity of everyday family life these apartments became distinguished by a specific cultural representation that was forged from its total context, in the dialogic relations of multiple realities. While artists in the west theorized the blurring of boundaries between art and everyday life, non-official artists in the Soviet Union simply lived it, attempting to carve out a space within this communal living where they could produce art. Their art, therefore, was not found in intellectualizing reality but in manipulating it towards artistic survival. Ilya Kabakov recalls these almost futile attempts,

"For God's sake, move away a little! Don't you see I'm working! Why must you put the soup right here, Mom?" (Kabakov, 1987, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 43).

Erofeev illustrates further that, amidst the blurring of artist clutter and domestic utensils, “there was no distance, not even a symbolic one” (Erofeev, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 43). The context proved key to the character of nonofficial art having an “intentionally pitiful form” (Erofeev, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 43).

Indeed, not only did the context make it impossible to apply sophisticated methods to their artistic productions but also it would have been considered “absurd to hold forth in a high style at home, in one’s family” (Erofeev, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 43). Instead they fashioned their art more from the collective downbeat realism of everyday life.

They took inspiration from the insignificant and monotonous routines of everyday Soviet life that were “made taboo not because of their potential political explosiveness, but because of their sheer ordinariness, their all-too-human scale” (Boym, 1999). In other words, it would be ridiculous to create magnificent objects and abstract worlds from within an intergenerational environment where people were washing, cooking, minding babies, seeing children off to school, the artist minding to turn the cooker off in ten minutes irrespective of what they were doing, clearing a space amongst their work for the family dinner and, somehow, managing the relationship between a chaotically domestic realm and the simulacrum of the State.

Instead, artists avoided making any grandiose or pompous gesture. This everyday material base is exemplified in Kabakov’s 1980 time-based painting Schedule of Slop Pail Dumping [Fig. 7] in which the ritualistic emptying of the communal slops over a six-year period is documented.

Similarly, the non-existence of any art market dictated to some extent a rejection of object-based work since there was no buyer and no place to store them. In the 1980s this would create a movement called Aptart (literally, art in apartments) in which artists from a range of disciplines and styles were united under a common investigation into the relations between art and reality.

 


[Fig. 7] Ilya Kabakov. (1980) Schedule of
Slop Pail Dumping
. [Moscow, private
apartment]. Photo: Barbara Gladstone
Gallery, New York.

 

Often working collaboratively it was a device that allowed them to “dethrone the myth of the artist as a demiurge, an enigmatic lone genius” (Abalakova & Zhigalov, 1982). Truth, and the act of being honest with oneself and one’s context, was the prerequisite requirement from which to create: art became a form of existence and a reflection of that existence, a pursuit of reality then, rather than a mastering of technique.

Erofeev contrasts the “intentionally pitiful form” (Erofeev, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 43) of nonofficial art produced in the communal apartment environment with the productive spaces of the West,

"It bears little resemblance to any form of well-adjusted commodity production, a manufacture whereby the market is regularly supplied with standard-quality goods. This creativity was rather like playing music at home: it may be very skillful, and the musician may be talented, but it still does not go beyond being a mixture of a divertissement and an emotional confession; it is always improvisation, a hint at the possibility of a high-standard performance, which is out of place in the privacy of the home" (Erofeev, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl,, 2002, p. 43).

Paradoxically, the very fact that artists drew almost exclusively on these experiences meant that, over time, they fashioned an intensely vibrant artistic movement that, retrospectively, would be seen to have authored a comprehensive non-official narrative of Soviet ideology. If Lenin was “our landscape, and we painted it” (Melamid, cited in, Paperny, 2000) then the entire Communist project was one gigantic readymade that awaited the artist’s signature.

When we consider how this non-official narrative came into being we are reminded of Baudrillard’s definition of postmodernism as a simulacrum where representation precedes and determines the real so that, “never again will the real have the chance to produce itself” (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 2).

Epstein locates two waves of postmodernism that he distinguishes as unique to the Soviet context. While Socialist Realism lacked the “ironic self-consciousness of mature postmodernism” (Epstein, 1995) and thus cannot strictly be categorized as such, it can neither be considered unconnected from it since it attempted to create a hyperreality which is “neither truthful nor false but consists of ideas which become reality for millions of people” (Epstein, 1995).

A second wave of Modernism arrived in the 1960s that bore nostalgia for the futurism and surrealism of the early 20th century. Artistic movements in the 1970-80s, such as Sots Art and the Moscow Conceptualists, were largely unaware of Modernism whose legacy had eluded them due to Stalin’s rejection of it in favor of Socialist Realism.

Instead, and “in opposition to the "neo-modernist" generation of the sixties” (Epstein, 1995), they aired their own nostalgia for the Soviet lifestyle as depicted in Socialist Realism, and “which provides them with congenial ideological material for their conceptual works” (Epstein, 1995). They considered Socialist Realism to be similar to the historical avant-garde through a preponderance of “highly conventional semiotic devices, sets of clichés and idioms that are devoid of any personal emphasis or intentional self-expression” (Epstein, 1995).

Beginning with the early 20th century Russian avant-garde generation the construction of such a world was “completed by the government itself” (Dyogot, 2000). Thus, this second wave of postmodernism, that included artists and critics such as Ilya Kabakov, Komar and Melamid, and Boris Groys, pitted the ‘non-existence’ of the individual body against the nostalgia and glory radiating from the propaganda materials that promoted a collective body and a Utopian future.

Even Russian Conceptualism had “dutifully reflected the Soviet art by acknowledging and examining its decisions, particularly its decision to favor total figurative representation” (Dyogot, 2000) and, when the system collapsed in the early 1990s, Russia was able at last to enter a third phase of postmodernism.

This phase would reveal the precedence of the simulacrum, that is, the real of the Soviet era would be seen to have already existed in what had been banned while foreign activity came to be introduced to a wide audience. While the death of Stalin weakened the status of Socialist Realism, not least because much of it had included Stalin himself, and artists questioned the role of art in the service the State, it underwent what amounted to a revival in the early 1960s that was linked to advances in technology.

Possibly the most spectacular event of the Khrushchev era was that he presided over the world’s first manned space flight in 1961. Two years after Yuri Gagarin’s tremendous feat Valentina Tereshkova followed as the first woman in space. Gagarin’s achievement has become one of the most enduring images of Russia, after Lenin, and Stalin. The iconic images of the smiling, heroic cosmonaut and his rocket propelled the ordinary Soviet citizen to dream of new worlds.

Of course, distraction of the masses from their “dreary and banal” (Dyogot, 2000) everyday life was a partly intended aim of the propaganda, but the images also spoke as never before of the Communist Utopian ambition. Ilya Kabakov would most critically appropriate this imagery of the fantastic voyage in his installation The Man Who Flew into Space From His Apartment, 1968-1988 [Fig. 8].

The installation tells the story of a lonely dreamer who, clearly inspired by the goals of the Soviet space programme, was not willing to wait for a future Utopia to arrive. But first, however, it is necessary for us to understand the relation of the Soviet space programme to the Communist project, so we can properly analyse Kabakov’s installation.


 
[Fig. 8] Ilya Kabakov. (1968-1988) The
Man Who Flew Into Space From His
Apartment [
Moscow private apartment
and Robert Feldman Gallery New York].
Photo: Centre Georges Pompidou,
Musée d´ Art Moderne, Paris

 

The Soviet space programme emerged from both a desire to understand the “role and impact of modernization within traditional religion and culture” (Scharff & Dusek, 2003, pp. 551-552) and as a critique of the Communist project, that many saw as potentially flawed. Among those who sought answers were Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and it was to the 19th century theorist, physician, and founding member of the mystic occult group, The Russian Cosmists, Nikolai Fyodorovic Fyodorov (1828-1903) that they looked for answers. (3)

In his seminal tract, Philosophy of the Common Task, Fedorov, theorized that there were two causes for death. First, there is the internal incapacity of the human organism for infinite self-renewal and, second, there is the destructive character of the external environment. A regulation therefore was required to bring a “transformation of the blind course of nature into one that is rational” (Fedorov, cited in, Semenova and Gachev, 2006)

He urged Russia to harness instead its military and national powers towards conquering nature since, if that could be achieved, weather could be controlled and harvests and solar energy would be in bountiful supply. He further proposed that if man could harness electromagnetic energy and use that energy to regulate earth’s motion in space then the world could be used as a launch pad towards other planets (Bartos & Boym, 2001).

Overpopulation problems could then be solved through colonizing other worlds.

"The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever!" (Tsiolkovsky, cited in Bartos & Boym, 2001, p. 85).

Fedorov was a morally driven visionary without precedent. Essentially altruistic in his quest he sought ways not to conquer out of violence, prestige, or material wealth but out of provision for the people.

He had been inspired by Christ’s resurrection and considered that the ‘common task’ of humankind was to protect those who ultimately could not protect themselves – the dead,

"Christianity has not fully saved the world, because it has not been fully assimilated. [Christianity] is not simply a doctrine of redemption, but the very task of redemption" (Fedorov, cited in Perry, 2005).

Fedorov theorized that, not only would deep space travel assist in the locating of remaining particles of the dead that still float in the universe, but that it would also hold the key to a scientific reconstituting, or resurrection, of human beings (Bartos & Boym, 2001). Nowadays Fedorov’s theories are seen in relation to cloning, and the idea that space travel might be part of a larger transhuman evolution.

Following the death of Stalin the interest in space flight that he had suppressed was revived, so that when it finally arrived in 1957, “Sputnik was not a shock to Soviet citizens but instead the realization of an old idea” (Elhefnawy, 2007). It had been a former student of Fedorov, the Russian physicist and father of human spaceflight Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) and founder of the Biocosmists, who was installed as head of the Soviet space programme.

Influenced by his mentor Fedorov, and supported by his Biocosmist-Immoralist friends, Tsiolkovsky became convinced that Communism would utterly fail if science continued to allow primitive death. He believed that only through scientific progress would human beings achieve immortality and, since Communism was a future project, it was obvious that without a concerted effort to achieve scientific resurrection Communist society would fail those who had given their lives to its construction.

The Biocosmists certainly believed this and published a manifesto declaring that,

"We view as essential and real human rights man’s right to existence (immortality, resurrection, rejuvenation) and to freedom of movement in the cosmic realms (as opposed to the supposed rights proclaimed in the declaration of the bourgeois revolution of 1789)" (Biocosmists, cited in, Groys, 2006, p. 18).

Therefore, only when all the peoples who had contributed in past times to the building of the Communist Utopia were resurrected into a “true social solidarity” (Groys, 2006, p. 18) would the system be able to realise its commitments to society and thus unleash its true potential. Tsiolkovsky’s main interest was “for humanity to become a space civilization” (Tsiolkovsky, cited in, Informatics, 2009).

The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment was first shown in Moscow in 1968 in Kabakov’s rooftop studio, and many years later transported to the Robert Feldman Gallery in New York.

"I built the installation The Man Who Flew into Space in the corner. I glued Soviet posters from inside of it and I would take it down after each showing for fear that they would drop in, understand, and that would be "the end of everything”" (Kabakov, 1995, p. 162).

It consists of a 1:1 scale model of a typical room in a Socialist housing blok. On the walls are posters and slogans that narrate the Soviet space programme – the hero-cosmonauts, the rockets that would reach into far-off worlds, and the texts of a revolutionary society, “For Soviet Science - Glory!" (GlobalSecurity.org, 2001) [Fig. 9]. A small single bed lies disheveled and empty, dust and debris fallen upon it. To the side of the bed, a small cabinet on which a diorama shows us where this apartment building is located in relation to the many similar others in the neighborhood.

 

 
[Fig. 9] Soviet
Agitprop poster.
(1961). Photo:
Rebecca Weiss

 

There are lines carefully drawn against the sky that amass around this one particular apartment. A piece of wire shoots beyond the sky and directs our gaze to an apparatus that is suspended from the ceiling. Made of springs and belts and something that resembles a harness we views it as some type of catapult and, above it, a hole in the ceiling.

Below, the floor is littered with wreckage from the ceiling and explains the rubble on the bed. And, although there is no one here now, no physically present character, we are faced with a corporeal absence that privileges human consciousness over the human body. Our absent character has disappeared through the hole by a great force and into the cosmos.

Or at least, that seems to have been his intention. We do not know if he was successful or not in his quest or whether he has simply crashed to earth; there is nothing that informs us of this. Groys (2006) proposes that our character’s faith lay in mapping enormous currents of natural energy, strong enough to thrust him far into space, and for which he has so obviously and painstakingly studied and whose arrival he has wearily awaited.

We know that the universe operates in this manner and so we understand that the lines on the diorama represent energy currents that have been precisely charted by our character and who has intended to capitalize them as his trajectory to the cosmos. We don’t know how long he waited for this time or what his thoughts were because he has left no note. We cannot enter the room. An official text informs us that the authorities have boarded up the room; it has become a ‘crime’ scene. Notes from his neighbors inform us that he was a quiet man. Only the iconography on the walls directs us to his intense engagement with space.

Has our character then, quite literally flown to the cosmos? And if so, why?

Boris Groys, who has written at length on Kabakov’s works, emphasizes the artist’s role as being akin to that of a detective who turns “his attention to the material traces of the man’s disappearance in order to discover what has happened” (Groys, 2006, p. 19). He further observes that, characteristically, both Kabakov the artist and the characters of his installations, while exclusively distinct from each other nevertheless are linked to one another by their similar experience of living in an ideological system.

In other words, Kabakov the artist seeks to speak from outside the narrative while in fact being firmly inside it since, after all, there is no other way to “tell the story of personal liberation other than those which the collective Utopian narrative has always had to offer” (Groys, 2006, p. 22). Thus, to speak of Utopia within any context means to indexically reference it and therefore to become a part of that narrative: only those promoting the Utopian narrative and those protesting or criticizing it understand it because they are the ones who are in it. (4)

"Describing or documenting a Utopia means creating that Utopia. And anyone who embarks on a Utopian narrative cannot help but feel that they are heir to all the Utopian projects and narratives of the past" (Groys, 2002, p. 21).

Our character would surely not have gone to all this trouble if he had not been enchanted in the first place by the Soviet space narrative, which is, in fact, the narrative of Communist Utopia.

For him, the narrative had become too enchanting and too powerful to remain simply as a narrative of emergence: he simply could not wait any longer for Utopia, for its intense beauty has dimmed even further the sense of despair and isolation that imbues its parallel earth bound narrative that he has experienced.

We can return to our earlier observation that Communism was not designed for leaving, but for arrival. Our character has quite clearly defied this aspect of the Communist project and decided that, in fact, he must leave in order to arrive. In so doing he has managed to do what the Communist project failed to do and Kabakov, the artist, has preceded any requirement for Communism’s ultimate manifestation since it had already become real “for millions of people” (Epstein, 1995).

Somewhat mirroring the remarkable flight of our character, Groys (2002) remarks on how Kabakov’s installation reflects on the transportation of the installation from Moscow to New York. Kabakov himself has said that,

"For the first time I had brought the atmosphere of our world to another world, it's the first (successful) experiment with the ‘total’ installation” (Kabakov, 1995, p. 162).

While we don’t know if our character has been successful we do know the fate of the Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev (5). Rocketed to the space station Mir under the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, Krikalev was still up there and largely forgotten when Boris Yeltsin took control of the crumbling Soviet Empire.

In December 1991, however, when the Soviet Union was dissolved into a galaxy of independent states news was relayed to Krikalev that maps have been altered, “the Baltic States have changed color” (Soviet Mission Control, cited in Horton, 1999). When he finally returned to earth in March 1992 after more than 300 days orbiting the earth, the Soviet Union had collapsed. The media dubbed Krikalev “the last Soviet citizen” (Copp, 2002).

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References

1. Despite Stalin’s penchant for ascribing all matters Soviet to himself the term ‘Socialist Realism’ is widely attributed to Maxim Gorky who in 1934, largely as a reaction to the greater restrictions of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers group who wrote about industrial or agricultural workers, set out four key principles that would define Socialist Realism and allow them to write about things other than industry and labour. These were that it must verify reality, must promote collectivism as the central unifying feature of man, be optimistic, and educational. See, Sruve.G. ‘Russian Literature under Lenin and Stalin: 1917-1953’ (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). [back]
2. While there were marked differences in the application of this rule between the different bloc countries it was, nevertheless, adopted overall. [back]
3. Fedorov was the illegitimate son of Prince Pavel Ivanovich Gagarin and Elisaveta Ivanova, a woman of lower-class nobility. He was a deeply spiritual man and gave away all that he had so he would not be distracted from his work. He is credited with incorporating feminist concerns into his theories, such as the emancipation of women from the domestic realm and being able to enjoy social life, and its sexual choices, on an equal basis with men. [back]
4. Emerging from people’s frustrations with the ideology and conditions in the east, dreams of flying and departing the communist ‘cradle’ were not solely confined to rocketry and distant planets but were manifest also in the skylines over Berlin. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families of East Germany, inspired by a television programme on hot air ballooning, established an escape plan based on the principles established by France's pioneering Montgolfier brothers in the 1780s. [IMAGE] Their contraption consisted of a cast-iron platform with posts at the corners for handholds and rope anchors with four propane gas cylinders secured in the center. Their wives stitched a 72ft diameter envelope made out of 60 different pieces of curtains, bed sheets, and random scraps. In spring 1979 the four traveled to a field 25 miles beyond Berlin, boarded the craft and soared to 8,000ft, crossed the border at 6,000ft, and dropped from 100ft to the ground in West Germany. The two families became instant heroes in the west (as did all escapees) where they were offered food, clothing, jobs and housing. Museums vied to exhibit their homemade craft. [back]
5. Continuing the theme of the Soviet space programme the East German television programme Unser Sandmännchen (Little Sandman) lulled the nation’s children to sleep every night amidst an array of futuristic vehicles, flying machines, and communist propaganda that “showed the future optimism, technical development and solidarity” (See, Jacobsen, 2005). [back]

 

 


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