IN 1975, THE MOSCOW duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid collaborated on the performance Where Is the Line Between Us? with the American conceptual artist and critic Douglas Davis. In a documentary montage, the Russian pair and Davis (photographed in their respective countries) stand divided by a thick black line, holding two square black planks inscribed with the question “where is the line between us?” in English (on Komar and Melamid’s) and Russian (on Davis’s). Created in the year of the U.S.-Soviet linkup
in space, this collaborative project implied that nonconformist artists of the 1970s generation believed in the translatability of their concepts and were seeking an active dialogue with Western colleagues.
Since then, members of the Moscow conceptual circle have been regularly exhibited abroad and discussed in the Western press, prompting Peter Schjeldahl to assert in a 1981 Village Voice article that “the mysterious Russian genius is marshaling its forces, and may stun the world again.” In 1988, during perestroika, Ilya Kabakov, another key Moscow conceptualist, “stunned” the New York art world with the installation Ten Characters, in which, covering the walls and surfaces of Ronald Feldman’s gallery with fictional texts, he evoked the inhab- itants of a kommunalka (communal apartment). Kabakov insisted that even in the prison house of a shared residence the voices and agendas of the inhabitants were polyphonic and differentiated.
In the West, Moscow conceptu- alists reached the apogee of their popularity in the 1990s, when several of them were included in the exhibi- tion “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980,” organized by an international team of 11 curators for the Queens Museum of Art, New York, in 1999. This popularity began to wane shortly afterwards. The release of Matthew Jesse Jackson’s The Experimental Group: Ilya
Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes and Boris Groys’s History Becomes Form: Moscow Conceptualism promises to reverse this trend.
The books’ differences in historical methodology and writing style reflect the authors’ cultural backgrounds. Jackson, an American art historian on the faculty of the University of Chicago, based his six-chapter study on his PhD dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley. Groys is a cultural critic who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1981 and currently teaches in the department of Russian and Slavic studies at New York University. His book consists of 14 essays written between 1979 and 2008, two of which were published while he still lived in Moscow.
Jackson follows the standard genealogy of post-Stalin nonconformist art. This includes the experimental practices of several generations of Moscow artists (Kabakov, Andrei Monastyrsky and Pavel Pepperstein among them), who in the 1970s and 1980s promoted collective esthetic practices, eschewing the production of commodifiable art objects in a country lacking an art market. Members of this self-named Moscow Conceptual School (MoKSh) worked outside a conventional institutional framework of public display and critical response until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Jackson demonstrates a persuasive command of the Russian language and a deep familiarity with the era’s artistic milieu. At times, however, this knowledge works against him, and he comes across as a specialist in a local context—a role that distracts him from build- ing comparisons between Western artists and MoKSh’s members, or discussing the muscovites’ activities in the West before and during perestroika. Indeed, he truncates his narrative, ending just at the dawn of Russia’s reopening. Consequently, although Jackson aims at evaluating the three-decade history of Soviet countercultural art, his book ends up being primarily a monograph on Kabakov. To be sure, art movements are sometimes heavily associated with one name (Pointillism with Seurat, for instance). But rarely does a historian interpret an entire period through the prism of a single artist’s biography, achievements and recollections. This approach was probably prompted by Jackson’s numerous conversations with Kabakov—stretching, he writes, over “the better part of a decade.” Even Kabakov’s tendency to rely on literary allusions and metaphors is reflected in Jackson’s chapter titles (e.g., “Dead Souls,” echoing Gogol) and heavy use of epigraphs.
Like many nonconformist artists of his generation, Kabakov feels historically slighted by his native country, since Russia has so far declined to assess and institutionally integrate the figures of his milieu. So whenever a new history gets written, the wound is reopened. As a result, Jackson’s reliance on the remembrances of Kabakov and his fellow artists (many of whom have lived abroad for decades) yields a manipulated history, for their view of events is now much too corrupted by the passage of time and the influence of the capitalist culture industry. This harks back to a frustration that Camilla Grey expressed in her 1962 volume The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863-1922. In order to piece together that vital period of Russian art history, she had to draw on “recollections of those artists still living—often so contradictory.” Jackson gives a tribute to Grey’s famous book in his introduction, and plays off its title. But he does not acknowledge the fact that he encoun- tered a similar historiographic problem.
GROYS, COVERING THE same period and discussing many of the same artists and groups, includes four separate articles on Kabakov and two on the collective Medical Hermeneutics. Structurally, it would have made sense to combine these essays into two longer ones. Nevertheless, Groys’s sections on individual artists are exceptionally keen. The subjects, misleadingly all male, include the photographer Boris Mikhailov and Sots (Soviet Pop) artist Alexander Kosolapov. Even the group Collective Actions, which has several female members, is presented through the proper name of its leading male theoretician in the chapter “Andrei Monastyrsky: Living in Art.” Groys is not alone in this critical shortcoming. Jackson similarly forgets to include women in his history, neglecting, for example, to mention two female participants in the 1974 “Bulldozer Show” (an outdoor exhibition notoriously destroyed by Soviet authorities), which changed the course of Soviet counterculture.
As a witness to some of the events described in Jackson’s study, Groys assumes the authority to dub his essays “authentic documents of the recent past” and hence minimizes his references to a mere 20 footnotes (in comparison to Jackson’s 54 pages of citations). With the exception of “Sots-Art: Eastern Prophecies,” all Groys’s essays were translated from the Russian or German, and thus originally addressed readers who possess a much better knowledge of Russian history and culture than most Americans. However, no adjustment has been made for his U.S. audience, except in the introduction, which summarizes Groys’s view on official culture, Moscow Conceptualism and his own career as a Russian critic.
That occupation began with his essay “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” (1979), published in Paris in the émigré magazine A-YA. Reprinted in this collection, the piece follows the tradition of cultural discourse that insists on a separation of Russian and Western esthetic positions. Groys packages the aspirations of very different Moscow artists (Francisco Infante, Ivan Chuikov and Monastyrsky) into a framework of mysticism whose prime concern is not “the other” but “the other world.”
He drastically departs from this approach in the works that launched his writing career in the West in the early 1980s. His referent is no longer Russian religious philosophy (the topic of his dissertation in Germany) but Guy Debord’s critique of the “society of the spectacle.” Armed with this theory, Groys chooses Stalinist “theatrical” culture as his main topic of discussion, and turns his own style of writing into a crude spectacle. He reads all periods of post-Revolutionary Soviet art through the lens of the Soviet culture industry.
The quintessence of this take is found in the chapter “Communist Conceptual Art.” With a predilection for generalizations, Groys claims:
The main modus operandi of Moscow conceptualism was to exploit, vary, and analyze . . . official discourse privately, ironically, and profanely. In that sense, the Moscow conceptualists were practicing a kind of enlightenment—specifically, total enlightenment [i.e., the triumph of reason advocated by Hegel].
There are major flaws in this account. First, is it legitimate for a critic to label this movement’s production “Communist,” when the artists steadfastly refused to be associated with that particular doctrine? Second, Groys’s treatment confines MoKSh’s activities inside the referential limits of “official discourse.” In fact, the theoretical writings and works that MoKSh’s members have produced since the early 1970s demonstrate that their main goal was not, as Groys claims, “to save for a future . . . the utopian energy of Soviet culture” but to escape and deconstruct that culture, and thus elude the specter of totality. They coded this pursuit in the titles of the major works of the Moscow period and revealed it formally through a penchant for discontinuities of time and space, along with an adherence to fractured iconography. These characteristics can be found not only in Where Is the Line Between Us? but in many other key works such as Kabakov’s installation The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment, 1985 (illustrated in Jackson’s book), and Collective Actions’s performances, united under the title “Trips Out of Town” (discussed by both authors).
Unfortunately, Jackson shares Groys’s failure to properly discern MoKSh’s discursive position and the true status of nonconformist culture. For example, quoting a remark from a 2002 Groys lecture, “in a certain sense, we can say that the whole USSR was like an art-work,” he goes on to contend (carelessly for a scholar) that the outputs of Kabakov and painter Erik Bulatov suggest “every work of art made within the Soviet Union should be considered, first and fore- most, a work of art made by the Soviet Union.” Jackson thereby permanently ties MoKSh’s creative premise to its ideological counterpart. He later concludes that, within this paradigm, “One could only perform the role of ‘artist’” and so “could not produce art, only ‘art.’” The scare quotes do not stand for a Duchampian anti-art agenda or postmodern anti-esthetic practices. Rather, they imply that the project of creating an autonomous postwar culture, unauthorized by the state, could not be realized.
In his introduction Jackson issues a judgment on the subject of his analysis: “Moscow Conceptualism,” he writes, “owes its place in the history of twentieth-century art neither to its originality nor to its influence but rather to the questions it posed about the bonds between art, culture, and society.” Needless to say, all art reveals this bond, and it is not something that deserves attention, unless the work does so originally. As Jackson describes and interprets Kabakov’s pre-installation oeuvre (albums and two-dimensional works), Bulatov’s metaphysically charged Sots canvases, and Komar and Melamid’s multimedia critiques of the Soviet Union’s power interests, he disproves his own verdict. Such efforts are, in fact, formally and thematically inventive to an exceptional degree. Both books ignore the Moscow concep- tualists’ broader international role. That assessment is yet to be made by future art historians of Soviet counterculture, who will clear away any lingering suspicion that the work of the postwar vanguard was contaminated by the Soviet culture industry.