Books

Ilya Kabakov Harnesses His Inner Misanthrope to Maintain Artistic Independence

Ilya Kabakov’s essays allow for a close look at the artist’s nonconformist path as an artist in the USSR and the USA.

On Art (2018), cover image, (all images courtesy Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and the University of Chicago Press)

On Art, a new collection of essays by Ilya Kabakov, recently translated and edited into English by Matthew Jesse Jackson, begs a closer look at the life of an artist in permanent flux.

One reason Ilya Kabakov’s decades-long career is so interesting is that it maps with cartographic intensity life under a broken Soviet system, later transformed by acceptance in the market-driven west. At 85, he is still active and interested in the contradictions of the human experience, it’s vicissitudes. Unbound to any particular geography or ideology, artistic style or medium, Kabakov remains today, as he has for decades, a cultural enigma, straddled between worlds, if not directly plugged into the Higgs Boson of the cosmos itself.

On earth, Kabakov was born in 1933 in Dnipropetrovsk, in what was then the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union. Kabakov’s rise to celebrated international artist followed a winding, unlikely path. Born to a working class, Jewish family, he attended what was then — in 1945 — the most prestigious art academy in the USSR: the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow. Shortly thereafter, Kabakov began working as an official artist — an illustrator of children’s books (over 150 in total) — which earned him a decent salary and a studio in Moscow to work in. This, it turned out, was both a gift and a curse. Being an official artist meant that Kabakov only had to work 3-6 months per year, giving him ample time to focus on his “unofficial” art practice, which, it so turns out, brought Kabakov a host of entirely different problems, particularly with state authorities keen on controlling all aspects of culture, both within the Soviet Union, and outside it.

Accordingly, we learn from the book that Kabakov led a kind of dual life. He describes life as an “official” artist, comparing it to that of a “trained rabbit,” “blind” and “helpless.” But in 1965, his “breakthrough” moment arrives.

Ilya Kabakov, “The Shower” (1974), colored pencil and ink on paper

This marks the moment Kabakov developed the Shower series (1965), a work he refers to as critical in breaking free from his life as an “official” artist. The series of 20 colored pencil drawings on paper are of man in different poses standing in a shower. The tone they convey is angst-ridden and cynical. The simple linear drawings reveal a figure standing underneath a shower waiting for water that never arrives. In some, water just dissipates around the figure’s cold, coiling, naked body. In others, no water comes out of the shower at all. After lending the work in 1965 to an exhibition of unofficial Soviet artists in Italy, critics read it as signifying a lack of material reward and an absence of spiritual fulfillment under Soviet communism. The press lost Kabakov his employment as an official artist for four years, which he was only able to resume after developing an alter-ego, a leitmotif he would later employ in some of his other “unofficial” art projects.

For unofficial artists, life during the so-called Khrushchev-thaw and later during the Brezhnev eras bore little actual freedom for artists. Censorship remained rampant, the state controlled all aspects of culture, and those that didn’t conform to state-sponsored Socialist Realism in the visual arts were at risk. Even if times were not as brutal and violent as the purges that occurred previously under Stalin, life during the 1960s and 70s as an unofficial artist came with tacit understanding that, at any moment, one could be arrested, sent to a gulag, or worse. According to Kabakov:

A description of the atmosphere of the 1960s would not only be incomplete it would lack its main pulse if I did not discuss the fear, the unconquerable, all-pervasive Fear with a capital F. Everyone understood that our lives could be erased, literally from the face of the earth—not just one’s work but the person himself […] Everything you [sic] say, do, paint, create—it is all an obvious crime. There are no extenuating circumstances that the prosecutor will accept: a priori, guilt is proven. You recognize it yourself—an almost Kafkaesque situation

One criticism of the book is that much of Kabakov’s writing prior to 1988 is not really intended for a wide audience. Those without at least some familiarity with late twentieth-century Russian art history will find many of these early passages a bit pedantic. Nevertheless, this period of Kabakov’s writing conveys mostly idiosyncratic themes addressed to an inner circle of friends, mostly members of the Sretensky Boulevard Group, the Lianozovo Group, and Moscow Conceptual School, and readers with an interest in these groups will find Kabakov’s writing extremely valuable here.

Insights into Russian literature and writing are usually difficult to access without fluency, because the language is nuanced and referential, yet the way Jackson translates Kabakov’s writing does it justice by allowing readers in. Most of all, the book illuminates the late Soviet period and the cultures and artists that came from it. It reads like a taxonomy of names, places, and ideas that float from then into today. It is a book to be enjoyed with friends, served with a hot pot of borscht and pelmeni. The more vodka you spill on the book reciting it together, the better.

Returning to matters of art, we learn from Kabakov that art contains equal doses of profundity and philosophy. In one of my favorite essays, entitled “Dust, Dirt, and Garbage (Dust as an Object of Contemplation” (1982), Kabakov waxes on about the inherent qualities of a masterpiece as a “library of associations,” located, at least for him, in the “pail labeled: for garbage […] This is the role played by dust and, more generally, garbage, dirt, and trash,” Kabakov says in the essay. “Dust” contains a “universal significance,” he says, something that is capable of “changing under various kinds of illumination, from bright in some places to colorless and dead in others, [dust] participates in aesthetic transmutations in a special fairy-tale way.” On the so-called ‘value’ of art, he goes on:

The valuable object, like any ancient thing, is disintegrating, turning into dust […] A kind of magma filled with the transmutations of decomposition, some sort of liquid pus […] The transformation of complex organic matter from one state to another.

His work, like his life, offer insightful perspectives into the matrixes of political ideologies too, particularly those dominant during the long twentieth century, oscillating between Soviet socialism and Western capitalism, though he himself claimed allegiance to neither. After transitioning to the West, which he did almost reluctantly in 1988, he starts to describe himself as a “culturally relocated person.” He becomes in effect a nomadic flâneur, a saunterer of art the world, a relentless observer, taking on larger-scale art works and projects in bigger institutions.

One feature of the Cold War was the race between America and the Soviet Union to outdo one another in space exploration. The “space race,” as it was then called, had a profound effect on artists in the Soviet Union, including Kabakov.

Ilya Kabakov, “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment” (1985), installation, Moscow, USSR

In his 1988 installation”The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment,” installed initially in Kabakov’s own studio, many of the key themes and ideas that he had so far been developing since the mid 1960s suddenly came to life. The installation remains one of the seminal works of the late Soviet period, a work on which the Russian philosopher and art critic Boris Groys has written an entire book on. It depicts — using cheap everyday materials — a miserable apartment with the roof blown out. There, a gaping hole in the ceiling exposes an anonymous peasant’s shoes strewn on the floor, symbolizing what we are led to believe is a man who has propelled himself into outer space, seeking the perfect socialist utopia. According to Groys, the work reflects “the reality behind the Soviet utopia, where cosmic vision and the political project of the Communist revolution are seen as indissoluble.” The absurdity of the work being that the invisible, fictitious protagonist, unable to access the promised socialist utopia here on earth, flings himself into the ether. The metaphor being that true communism is only accessible in cosmic form.

Ilya Kabakov, “Concept Drawing” (1992), chalk, colored pencil, and ballpoint pen drawing
Ilya Kabakov, “The Toilet” (1992), mixed media installation, Kassel Germany

Another work the book expands on is “The Toilet”(1992), presented first at Documenta IX in Kassel. The installation stands out on account of its sheer, unadulterated cynicism. Platforming a 1:1 scale of a crusty single room flat, the work animates an aesthetic of shit. There, the setting includes two openly visible toilets in a dusty single living room, recalling how the material conditions of life are, in reality, also often in reciprocity with the cosmic qualities of excrement. Life is a landfill, I was reminded when reading this passage of the book. In the final entry of the book, a long interview and conversation with friend and cultural theorist Michael Epstein, Kabakov deplores how critics writing at the time misunderstood his work at Documenta IX. It’s about the fact “that life in general is shit,” Kabakov notes, that shittiness is a kind of social glue, one that exists in every culture and every society — not only in Moscow, but in Kassel, too.

The key to understanding art, Kabakov says, is to look at the world akin to a state of permanently decomposing matter. A landfill of epic proportions, art as the feculence of life itself. Kabakov’s insights into these topics stem from nuancing in metaphorical terms the distance between space, object, and environment — whether it be as garbage, flies, or communal flats, enacting subjects like Russian cosmism and socialism, his installations lay bare the inherent contradictions of object orientated cultures, lubricating, as it were, the art object as ultimately a product of waste, refuse, basically — shit on a stick.

The artist labors over this breathing magma, over its ‘life.’ He pumps his own energy, his own ‘eros,’ into it. He cuts it, fertilizes it, plows it with his brush, plants objects like a seed so that they might germinate and grow.

Numerous times throughout Kabakov’s writing, we see a pattern emerge that combines serious and dense philosophical musings about art, with humor. This is one of the strengths of Kabakov’s writing, meticulously translated and edited by Jackson.

His writing in the 1990s and 2000s slowly and over time becomes more critical of his adopted home in the West. In some of the notable passages from the 1990s on, Kabakov delivers scornful critiques of the “pure visuality” of the “damned West,” which he describes as a different kind of madhouse. What emerges is a portrait of the artist at odds with society, a nomad in the truest sense, averse to the art market, yet accepting of it at the same time, an “official” stooge, an “unofficial” bum, a poignant commentator on social conditions — whether capitalism or communism — while actually ascribing to neither. Begging the question: to whom and where does Kabakov belong?

The book doesn’t answer the question, but for good reason: every good artist is calibrated by nuance. Above all, Kabakov’s incisive commentary reflects on the challenges of art making against the omnipresence of life and the harsh realities it often contains — whether due to extreme social conditions, censorship, or the reality of life in the false-material utopia of the West, Kabakov’s seasoned ability to transcend ideology and maintain a critical line of thought throughout is truly remarkable, to which this book only serves partial justice. The rest is in the cosmos, in the feculence of fecal matter, in the garbage. That is just if you’re willing to see it.

On Art is published by Ilya Kabakov and edited by Matthew Jesse Jackson and is available from the University of Chicago Press.

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