NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey—Thinking Pictures at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University presents a broad selection of Moscow Conceptualist artworks from the famous Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of the Soviet Nonconformist Art. The generous, tightly packed show curated by Jane A. Sharp features artworks by more than 40 individual artists and artist collectives; most of these works date from the 1960s through the ‘80s. The long-overdue exhibition is the first major presentation of Moscow Conceptualism in the United States since the influential traveling exhibition Perspectives of Conceptualism which introduced Soviet Nonconformist art to American audiences in 1991. The 25 years separating the two exhibitions have brought about drastic political, social, and technological changes: from the official dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Putin’s authoritarian rule in post-Soviet Russia, to the rise of the internet and social media, the escalation of international terrorism, and the recent upsurge of populism in Europe and the United States. The political and cultural lethargy of the late Soviet Union, which generated the small underground art movement of Moscow Conceptualism, has little in common with the troubled condition of today’s America. But, surprisingly, many of the works in Thinking Pictures seem to resonate with our present-day reality, and some of them appear to have acquired new meanings, offering unexpected insights for our tempestuous times.

The entrance to the exhibition includes an odd assortment of objects, which, playing into Moscow Conceptualism’s general concern with language, communication, and the construction of meaning, function as a puzzle waiting to be deciphered. Indeed, all the artworks point to the ways in which human perception and beliefs are shaped by social, cultural, and ideological norms. Works by Leonid Sokolov, like a pair of wooden glasses with five-pointed stars cut into their “lenses” (“Project to Construct Glasses for Every Soviet Citizen,” 1976), allude to the powerful influences of the Communist and Modernist ideologies. A small painting by Komar and Melamid showing a man’s feet illuminated by the rising sun (“Forward to the Sun,” 1972) is a blunt exposition of visual and linguistic formulas of the Soviet ideological discourse, which included expressions such as “the sun of Communism.” A 1975 piece by Alexander Kosolapov adopts the standard iconography of agitprop signs, which crowded the public spaces of the Soviet Union with ritualistic appeals, orders, and exhortations; he subverts this ideological tool with a seditiously innocuous message: “Sashok! Would you like some tea?” And Yuri Albert’s 1989 painting, covered with Braille code and titled “Visual Culture Number 2: There is nothing to see in my works but my love for art,” is a self-conscious and playful commentary on the accessibility of contemporary art.

Finally, the recent reconstruction of the 1978 piece “Apparatus for Understanding” by Victor Skersis is a bizarre mechanical device consisting of a small wooden platform with a hammer poised on one end and a square block on another. The interactive piece offers a brief moment of enlightenment to any viewer who would risk placing her chin on the block while simultaneously tagging on the pink ribbon tied to the hammer’s handle. According to the artist, the loud knock produced by the hammer falling within inches from the viewer’s face will result in a momentary flash of absolute understanding illuminating her mind.

Together, these six works illustrate the most important features of Moscow Conceptualist movement: its obsession with the relationships between verbal and visual codes of representation, characteristic attitudes of detachment and irony, often paradoxically combined with the personal or emotional appeal to the viewer, self-deprecating humor, and the unwavering idealistic faith in the transformative power of art.

But the strongest gravitational centers of the sprawling exhibition are the works by Ilya Kabakov, Irina Nakhova, the artist duo Komar and Melamid, and the group Collective Actions. Kabakov’s installation “The Great Axis” (1984) includes a monumental painting showing a narrow feathery band of green along the bottom and a similar band of blue along the top, with a flat expanse of white paint in between; a thin black line runs diagonally across it, its opposing ends marked with the words “sky” and “earth.” A text panel explains that “The Great Axis” links the sky with the earth; if one fastens the end of the axis on earth, he’ll be able to move the sky, and vice versa. Nearby, Kabakov’s drawings feature short fragments of text rendered in watercolor and ink; reading them is like listening to a discordant chorus of many voices forming the imaginary audience of “The Great Axis.” Some sound curious, others perplexed or hostile, yet others completely indifferent: “Why do they need the labels? It’s all clear as it is”; “The diagram could be quite small, there was no need to waste such large wooden panels on it”; “Instead of moving the sky, he had better learn how to draw grass”; “This is baloney, some kind of scholasticism …”; “I’m not going anywhere else today, I’ll just stop at a store and go right home …”; “That couple, a husband and wife, I think I know them …”

Unlike Kabakov’s discursive installation crowded with dozens of imaginary voices, “The “Room No. 3” by Irina Nakhova swaddles the viewer in darkness and solitude. A small room of roughly 13 by 13 by 8 feet contains a single window, a balcony door, an easel, and a desk; every object and surface in it is painted dark gray, and the only light source is a desk lamp, which throws a narrow cone of light on the blind window. The piece is one in a series of installations created by Nakhova in her Moscow apartment between 1983 and 1987; each of these works transport the viewer from the dreariness of the Soviet standardized, collectivized existence into a private, dreamlike world.

The introverted character of Nakhova’s work contrasts strongly with the tongue-in-cheek projects by the artist duo Komar and Melamid. Seven paintings in highly ornate gilded frames are displayed underneath a wall text that reads, “The World’s First Abstract Art: Paintings From the 18th Century by the Serf Artist Apelles Ziablov, Discovered by Komar & Melamid in 1973 in Moscow.” The canvases painted with the traditional palette of browns, grays, and muddy reds show vague shapes emerging from indistinct or chaotic backgrounds; they resemble unfinished or ruined academic works. Their purported creator, Apelles Ziablov, was a visionary artist and the property of landowner Nikolay Struisky; he committed suicide after the Russian Academy of Art condemned his experiments in abstraction and forced him to copy plaster casts of classical works. The installation includes a small collection of texts documenting the story, such as the Academy’s official censure of Ziablov, letters between him and his master, and an art historical essay analyzing the significance of the artist’s work. The fictional narrative composed by Komar and Melamid calls attention to issues such as the ideological status of abstraction in the Soviet Union and the United States, the serf-like dependence of Soviet artists on state institutions, the hypocritical style of the official Soviet art history, and the question of historical truth in Russia. The work’s ironic but poignant reconstruction of Ziablov’s fate is a powerful commentary on the peculiar condition of art and artists in the society.

A questioning of the nature and status of art was also behind the activities of Collective Actions, a loose association of artists with fluctuating membership first brought together by Andrey Monastyrsky in 1976. The group organized so-called “trips out of town,” in which selected artists, often accompanied by friends or spouses, would meet in the fields outside Moscow to collectively carry out or witness absurd or enigmatic actions. For example, “Ten Appearances” that took place on February 1, 1981, involved 10 participants, who were instructed to assemble in a field and then separate, wading through the snow toward the forest and pulling a string behind them until it ran out and the field was no longer visible. The performances were extensively documented, discussed, and collectively interpreted by the members of the group. The clandestine, apparently meaningless actions subverted the official Soviet ideology of pragmatic labor and universal liability, bonding the members of Collective Actions into an alternative community with its own private rules, rituals, and philosophy.

Although works presented in Thinking Pictures are deeply rooted in the realities of the Soviet life during the 1960–80s, many of them display a peculiarly contemporary sensibility, characterized by the distrust of official ideologies and institutions, and the recognition of the constructed and contextual nature of linguistic and visual signs. In fact, theorists such as Mikhail Epstein and Alexei Yurchak have argued that the late Soviet Union was “a perfect postmodern society,” in which it was no longer possible to distinguish between the factual and the imagined, the reality and the “simulacra.” This came about because the only available representation of reality in the Soviet Union was the official Soviet discourse, which could not be verified or challenged. A similar ungrounding of reality may be happening in this country today. The reasons for the “postmodern” shift in the US are different from those in the Soviet Union, but its effects are the same: the growing skepticism toward the previously established cultural and political norms, the general distrust of the media, institutions, and authorities, and the difficulty of distinguishing between the real and the fake.

Moscow Conceptualist art, which may have previously appeared hopelessly arcane or exotic for American viewers, can now be translated into the familiar terms of our everyday reality. Kabakov’s “The Great Axis,” which in 1984 reflected the polyphonic voice of the Soviet collectivity internalized by the artist, is made disturbingly relevant today by the unstoppable chatter of Facebook, Twitter, online blogs, web forums and other media creating the constant verbal noise of our lives. The subtle play between fact and fiction in Komar and Melamid’s “Appeles Ziablov” brings to mind fictitious narratives with real-life consequences circulating in this country, from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, to the child sex ring run by the Democratic Party out of a pizza parlor. Even the ritualistic performances by Collective Actions have had a recent echo in the “Holiday Hole” organized by Cards Against Humanity last November, which collected over $100,000 of public donations to dig a giant, pointless hole in the ground at an undisclosed location. Thinking Pictures is therefore more than a glimpse into the art of a distant land from a distant time — it is a mirror reflecting and magnifying the peculiarities of the postmodern condition in America. It may help us better understand our cultural and political situation, and may even offer some hints at how to survive or overcome it.

Thinking Pictures continues at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University (71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey) through December 31. 

Tatiana Istomina is a multimedia artist and writer living in New York. Her projects have been featured in exhibitions and screenings across the US and abroad; venues include Moscow Museum of Modern Art,...