Boris Groys: Kabakov as Illustrator

A lecture given on October 12, 2002 on the occasion of Ilya Kabakov’s exhibition Children’s Books and Related Drawings, 1956–1987 at the Chinati Foundation.

It’s a great pleasure and honor for me to be here, and to be able to speak at Chinati. Ilya Kabakov is mostly known in the West as an artist of large-scale installations. These installations have some specific qualities that make them immediately recognizable and identifiable: they are narrative; they are full of text, object, and drawing; and their authorship is almost always ascribed to an imaginary person or institution. Now, it seems to me that it is difficult to understand and rightly appreciate the specific qualities of Kabakov’s installations without being informed about his long experience as a children’s book illustrator in the Soviet Union, and, actually, a very successful and well-known children’s book illustrator. He illustrated about 150 books that were widely distributed in the country. That is why the small exhibition of Kabakov’s children’s books from the Soviet time that you can see now in Marfa seems to me to be so important: it shows the culture and professional background of Kabakov’s later, much better known work, and it helps to understand his work better. I think it is really a wonderful initiative by Marianne Stockebrand to break the silence for the first time in an exhibition of his early work right here.

First of all, it shows the origin of Kabakov’s main concern as an artist. Indeed, one can safely say that the whole birth of Kabakov is informed by this concern. The central problem of Kabakov’s art can be formulated in the following way: How does the coordination between image and text work? This question has, obviously, two sides: Firstly, what does it mean to illustrate a fairy-tale, a story, and, generally, a text? And secondly, what does it mean to tell, to explain, to interpret a picture? An illustrator is a mediator between image and text. By illustrating a text he or she has to make a lot of choices relating to what is especially important in the text, what should be stressed by an illustration, and what can be neglected? On the other hand, what is possibly missing in the text and what should be additionally explained, commented on, compensated by the image? This kind of reflection immediately brings one to the conclusion that there is a fundamental gap, a fundamental discrepancy between text and image—a gap that actually cannot be bridged. Every image can be explained in a thousand different ways, and every text can be illustrated in a thousand different ways. Of course, this gap between image and text is not news. Philosophers, as well as art and literary critics, have written about this gap extensively, at least since the Greek antiquities. The general insight of the discrepancies is one thing; a completely separate thing is the rich experience of these discrepancies that an illustrator accumulates during years of practice as Kabakov did during his Soviet years. This experience afforded him the possibility not only to identify or to deplore this gap between text and image, but to work with this gap productively, analyzing and demonstrating again and again how an artist makes choices, how he or she tries again and again to bridge the gap, to coordinate between image and text, even if, at last, the artist has to admit that every such coordination remains a temporary compromise. In a certain sense, the whole work of Kabakov can be interpreted as a catalogue of all the misunderstandings, failures, and absurdities that emerge out of the attempt to coordinate image and text; also as a catalogue of all the artistic devices that one applies in an attempt to achieve such a coordination: selecting, combining, reducing, shifting, simplifying, creating, and placing into the context. In the Kabakov installation, this unending interplay between image and text is immediately found, but, sadly, the artist does not believe that this interplay can be unpleasantly interrupted by possible success. The unofficial analytical, ironic, and critical adult works of Kabakov somehow keep the atmosphere of story-telling, even if a fairytale—the pleasure of playing with the nonsensical, absurd, and infinite. That is the real pleasure which can be felt in the works of Kabakov. He really enjoyed repeating the interplay, the absurd, nonsensical interplay in the discrepancies between image and text.

The actual discovery of his own artistic problem is quite dramatic. It came to Kabakov at the beginning of the 1970s, with a series of albums entitled 10 Characters, which he created between 1971 and 1976. Three of these albums are also shown as a complement to the present exhibition; so we can compare his children’s books and the way he uses the illustrations of his children’s books to do something completely different. Each of these ten albums looks like a book with loose pages which tells in words and images the history of an artist who lives on the margins of society, and whose work is neither understood nor recognized nor fully preserved. The images in the albums are to be understood as inner-visions or artworks of the artist’s heroes. All these images have captions in which friends and relatives of the artist comment on the work. The whole album tells a story, a life story, of the respective heroes. The final image in each album is a white page which announces the death of the hero. They have been called the biography of this unknown, fictional hero. Each album concludes with a general commentary on all the works of the artist. The commentaries are written from the perspective of fictitious commentators who, one should assume, represent the opinions of the educated class that has posthumous control of the artist’s work and definitively evaluates it. It’s also irony directed towards art historians and critics and philosophers of art like myself. The private visions with which the heroes of the albums are obsessed refer in many cases to the glorious history of modern art in this century. But the artistic execution of the albums themselves refers, in contrast, to the particular aesthetic of the production of the Soviet children’s book illustrations that Kabakov practiced in his official role as a book illustrator. The avant–garde or modernist visions of the heroes are subverted by the trivial visual language in which they are manifested. The history of modern art is told here as a kind of fairytale for children. Modern art famously protested against the story, against the narrative, against the telling of a story, the telling of history. But the understanding of modern art is very dependent on the knowledge of the history of modern art and of the biographies of its main protagonists. If you don’t know its biographies and history it is difficult to understand what is going on. So we have here the same problem—the poor coordination between image and text, between actual artistic production and historical, as well as theoretical, explanation. Kabakov uses in his albums all the skills that he has developed as a book illustrator to initiate a fascinating and mostly absurd play between modernist image and its scientific or historical textual interpretation.

The commentaries on the visions of heroes bear witness to all possible misunderstandings that artists can expose. And for example, very long remarks about the style of this painting is combined with sentences like, “enough of this stupid stuff, lets go to see a movie.” There are all kinds of reactions that are included, possible reactions of the audience placing them on the same level, intellectual and interpretative, as the images themselves. At the same time, these albums are wonderfully poetic, and full of earnest artistic pathos. The minute and precise execution of the illustrations is impressive; one immediately feels that Kabakov deeply identified with his heroes, while at the same time, he identified himself with their claim to be exclusive and immortal. In this way, the albums visualize the limitations and failures of the heroes, so that their stories acquire a seductive aura. It is an apt and fascinating, as well as ironic, depiction of the unofficial Moscow art scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Kabakov created an imaginary audience for his artist-heroes through the accompanying commentary. This imaginary audience compensated him for the absence of the real audience for unofficial Russian art. Of course, unofficial Russian art could survive under the sort of regime of that time, but it was almost completely excluded from the general public attention.

These albums also bear witness to a difficult situation for Kabakov and for his art as it was situated in Moscow during the era of late communism. As a book illustrator, Kabakov was a part of an official Soviet art and culture industry of that time; but at the same time, he was also deeply engaged in the activities of the unofficial, alternative Moscow art scene. It was a kind of schizophrenic position in which he was situated. His art at that time can be read not only as an attempt to bridge the gap between text and image, but as an attempt to bridge a more dangerous gap between official and unofficial art practices of that time, between official cultural context and oppositional context which was a much more serious problem, it was a life problem. As a book illustrator, Kabakov operated less in the context of so called high Soviet art, but more in the context of the Soviet mass culture. I think that this mass cultural aspect of his work is often overlooked in the West because the West is not acquainted with the Soviet mass culture of the time. When speaking about mass culture, we mostly mean the American and Americanized mass culture which today dominates the global mass media. Not accidentally, people in Europe and even Russia are speaking about the mass culture—as if mass culture is something unique and homogeneous. But the mass culture of the Soviet time was very unlike American mass culture. Today, we have, for example, Indian mass culture, not only Hollywood, but so called Bollywood, and Islamic mass culture. We know many mass cultures. A Russian spectator can immediately recognize this Soviet mass culture quality in the work of Ilya Kabakov. The aesthetics of the book illustrations to which he is referring in his work has little to do with the aesthetics of Disney’s comics and movies which are associated in the West with the birth of a child’s imagination. It does display the same degree of neutrality and impersonality as the language of Disney movies and comics, and even inflicts a little bit of satire. Soviet book illustration at that time was very much based on the book illustrations popularized in the first half of the 19th century. It has also developed this simplified and very flexible visual language which is distinctive and quite different from the traditional 19th century illustration. It is a very specific kind of visual language. Kabakov takes a very specific place inside the Russian unofficial neo-modernist art scene of the 1960s and ’70s precisely because of the experience he accumulated by working in the context of the Soviet mass culture—the experience of art-making as an anonymous, standardized practice, though a practice that, at the same time, takes the audience seriously, that tries to make itself accessible and understandable, that seeks and finds an immediate response for all kinds of possible spectators. It’s a strange comparison, but it seems to me that there has always been a certain affinity between Kabakov and people like, let’s say, Andy Warhol, using mass cultural images in the context of high art, even if they did it in an absolutely different way.

The unofficial art scene in the Soviet Union formed as early as the mid-1950s, almost immediately following the death of Stalin in 1953, and, from then on, developed a parallel to the official culture industry. The artists belonging to that scene turned away from the official art of socialist realism, attempting to link-up with different traditions of Western and Russian modernism. No longer as ruthlessly oppressed as they had been under Stalin, these artists were assured of both physical survival and the possibility of continuing to pursue artistic work; yet they were almost completely cut-off from the official art system: the official museum, exhibition, and publication system, as well as the possibility of traveling abroad and establishing connections with Western art institutions. As a result, the unofficial artists built their own scene in major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad, existing in semi-legality at the margins of Soviet normality. They could earn a living by turning to applied art, as Kabakov did, by taking up another profession, or by selling their works to a handful of private collectors. Due to the precariousness of their social status, they felt their health and security were threatened, but alongside this anxiety, their social isolation also generated a kind of euphoria: they could practice a relatively independent and often extremely bohemian lifestyle in a country where such a thing was unimaginable for most of the population. Despite lack of official recognition, their lifestyle was secretly envied, and during the three decades of the unofficial art scene’s existence, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, from the mid-1950s until the opening of the Soviet system in the mid-1980s many people in Moscow and Leningrad thought it a great and exciting adventure to have an unofficial artist as a friend. The word didn’t exist at that time, but to be an unofficial artist was cool, and very obviously so. I am told it was a very privileged situation because Soviet life was kind of gray, or was experienced as something gray and boring and monotonous. Inside this life were small circles where some lived differently: a completely different lifestyle that was attractive to people’s imagination, not necessarily because of their art, but because of the different social role they represented in society.

Unofficial artistic circles also included independent authors, poets, and musicians who had even less opportunity than visual artists to survive on the margins of the Soviet system. Small exhibitions, poetry readings, and concerts were held regularly in artists’ studios in an informal, closely-knit, social environment, mainly, as we were doing it in the West. During the years that Ilya Kabakov was living in Moscow, more or less, regular discussions, lectures, and poetic readings took place in his studio. It is interesting that Kabakov’s studio is still now such a place even after his emigration. A small center of contemporary art was organized there that is now supported by the city of Moscow and also by the Soros foundation. The constant fear of possible repression forged solidarity among artists following very different and even opposing artistic programs. And, indeed, the unofficial art scene of the 1950s and 1960s was pluralistic and heterogeneous, reflecting the plurality of the styles being oppressed by the officially dominating social realism. The unofficial artists adapted and brought into the Russian cultural context all kinds of artistic practices which were excluded by Soviet censorship. So we can find in the Muscovite unofficial art everything from icon painting to cubism, as well as expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, folk art, minimalism, conceptual art—everything that was more or less represented internationally was represented on a small scale. It was a circus. Behind the plurality of styles and techniques was a shared understanding of the role of the artist in society: to manifest his or her individual truth in the midst of the official, public lie. Most unofficial artists at this time saw their art in terms of a higher mission, a way of bringing important truths and deep insights into the profane Soviet world that surrounded them. They tried to exhume the radical claims of modernist art in a culture which had forgotten them. The single utopia of Communism was suddenly replaced by a myriad of private, individual utopias, each of which became thoroughly intolerant of all the others, even if the artists themselves remained on friendly terms. It was a very strange situation. Everybody was friends even if they were working in completely different ways. The situation at that time for unofficial art circles in Moscow was actually very much enjoyed, analyzed, and ironically commented on in Kabakov’s albums.

This claim to the individual truth, advanced by most of the Russian unofficial artists at the time, appears to be somewhat problematic retrospectively. Their almost complete isolation from the international art scene meant that they could not produce an innovative art that would give an objective art-historical credibility to their claims of genuine individuality and authenticity. After the Soviet system had opened itself in the 1980s to the outside world; most of these artists had to learn that if the artwork does not appear innovative or original in the international art context, it cannot be regarded as being developed out of an authentic inner impulse. This discovery was a painful realization for many of the unofficial artists, who had tended to appropriate, and rather naively invest in, the radically individualist rhetoric of modernism, and above all, in its radically oppositional posture in its contempt for all manifestations of contemporary mass culture. They believed that the authenticity of their art was enough to make them great artists, but, of course, what was lacking was the comparison with the art of the West a comparison that was impossible at that time.

By the end of the 1960s/ beginning of the ’70s, several unofficial Russian artists had already begun to engage critically and ironically with characteristically Soviet mass culture. They tried to subvert the clear-cut opposition between official and unofficial, Soviet and anti-Soviet, high culture and mass culture. These artists tried to describe the specific Soviet ideological and visual context as neutrally and objectively as possible. They began to arrange into themes the Soviet cultural codes and visual clichés which were completely ignored by most of the unofficial Russian artists who were searching for a reality hidden behind them. This attempt to stop looking behind the façade of official Soviet culture and to open the people’s eyes to the structure of the façade itself was undertaken by a small group of artists that became known as Moscow conceptualists. Ilya Kabakov participated in this circle and was actually its leading figure.

The artistic practice of Moscow conceptualism was strongly influenced by the various trends in western art at that time, from minimalism to conceptual art to pop art, which dealt in diverse ways with the cultural codes and visual clichés of Western commercialized mass culture. But highly idealized Soviet mass culture was extremely idiosyncratic. Selling ideology is different than selling Coca-Cola, even if there are some obvious similarities. The western artistic experience in dealing with mass culture could not simply be transposed onto the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Artists had to develop new means to deal with a Soviet culture which was based more on narrative than on image. Soviet ideology was a narrative. It was a narrative about self-liberation, about controlling the society, about the emerging of the new man. It was a story. It was a history. It was a vision of the future which could be only told; it could not be represented as an object, as commercialized Western objective art does in relation to consumers of western culture. So the reflection of this narrative ideology also could only take a form a storytelling of a certain kind.

Kabakov began as a specific storyteller of 10 Characters, in which he tried to deal precisely with the idea of a new man, of somebody emerging out of the grayness of Soviet life and trying to formulate a greater plan. At the same time, he felt himself very isolated from the outer world. I would like to quote a passage from Kabakov’s text, written as a preface to a book of memories by Paul Jolles about his Moscow experiences:

For almost thirty years the life of an unofficial artist was spent inside a locked and sealed world. All this time unofficial artists and authors were barred by strict political, ideological, and aesthetic censorship from exhibiting or publishing their work. Caught in this virtually ‘cosmic’ isolation, artists in these circles had to be entirely self-reliant and dependant upon one another to perform the roles that others should have played: viewers, critics, experts, historians, and even collectors. It was inevitable that such a situation would lead to a deformation of the criteria defining the quality of a work. What did these pictures or concepts signify to the disinterested world outside; what did they signify to artists and inventors, but also to other people? This agonizing question hung like the Sword of Damocles over all those who for years had worked in the absence of objective criticism or, perhaps worse, encountered nothing but the well-meaning approval of friends and family.

It is interesting that, for Kabakov, approval of friends and family is something terrible, something he was to escape from, to go outside his small circle of friends and family, beyond the borders that are drawn by the system he was living in and this kind of ambivalence regarding his own situation between the official Soviet culture and the unofficial circle, between his being enclosed in the Soviet Union and the vision of the world. He renders that very aptly, I believe, in his installations that are presented as a communal apartment. Even his 10 Characters described in the albums were living in a communal apartment. The communal apartment is for Ilya Kabakov a kind of fundamental dimension of human existence which has only become obvious, become demonstrated, by the state communist order. Because the communal apartment was an apartment where different families were living at the same time, they shared communal spaces like the kitchen or the toilet, but every family was given their own room. Living with foreign people, living with others in the same intimate space, is meant to be an art because it meant to be exclusive of the gaze of the others. This is something which is described by Ilya Kabakov again and again. If you are living in a system, a totalitarian system of surveillance like the Soviet Union was, not only a total system of surveillance on a state level, but a total system of surveillance on the level of the communal existence, you are all the time exposed to the gaze of the other. This is something which only artists are characterized by because an artist is somebody who in a very manipulated, maybe strategic, way escapes and renounces his or her privacy which is a basic norm of human existence. In a certain sense, we can say that the whole Soviet Union at every level of its existence was an art institution, and maybe an art installation. Everybody was a picture, everybody was an image, everybody was looked at, everybody was commented on, everybody was interpreted, maybe by party, maybe by KGB, maybe by a friend. It is very interesting now after this dissolution of the state art-worker, state as art-worker, artwork as state, what people are actually lacking most is this keen interest that was invested in them and their work as an artist. Everybody was an artist indeed in the Soviet time. Now they are left alone. They are not watched at home any more; they are not interesting for anyone; they are not interesting for their neighbors; they are not interesting for the state; nobody is interested in them.

It reminds me of Nietzsche. Nietzsche remarked in one of his writings about what the death of God meant. It means, first of all, that after the death of God the individual feels himself without an observer that would be able to observe his soul, so that he wastes his thought if only he thinks them. If he doesn’t write them down they are just wasted. The death of God is the death of an observer who is interested in your soul, who is interested in your thoughts. As artistic as it was, the artists of the state actually filled the role of the divine observer, and the absence of this divine observer is very much innerly deplored by the individual who became fundamentally uninterested for his own state and for the rest as well.

In many of his works, Kabakov explicitly engages the vanquished dreams of socialism and coarsely summarized the breeched transition between construction and decline, the moment between genesis out of garbage—historical garbage—and the dissolution into garbage. Civilization as such reveals itself to be a ruin: the transition between one kind of garbage and another as a temporary installation which doesn’t guarantee longevity and can vanish without a trace at any moment. All of Kabakov’s installations are based on this insecurity, ambiguity, about the status of the exhibit of work as if it were something in construction. This ambivalence is very much an ambivalence of the figurative transition between socialist Soviet state and its resolution in the 1980’s. The Soviet civilization is the first thoroughly modern civilization which died before our eyes. All other famous dead civilizations were pre-modern. The Soviet Union dissolved so completely it landed on the garbage heap of history so irretrievably, because it left behind no unmistakable monuments comparable to Egyptian pyramids or Greek temples. This civilization simply fell apart and became the same modern garbage out of which it, like any modern readymade civilizations, was made. It is very interesting that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union you cannot find anything from it now. What is from it? Marxism? Marxism is Western idea. Industrialization? Industrialization doesn’t work. The only thing that brought all the things together and organized them artistically was an installation, an assemblage of different elements that existed as a whole. It made a very interesting and unusual impression. But after this installation dissolved and all the people, all the things, went back to their native place, there was nothing left beyond them. There is only a void. It is as if you took a Coca-Cola bottle from Warhol and put it back in the supermarket; you wouldn’t recognize it as a work of art. If you put all these elements back in their place, the whole just disappears. Again and again, Kabakov stages the dissolution of the Soviet civilization into historical garbage. Again and again, he shapes this sight as painful, cheap, repulsive, and at the same time, sublime. The more radical and inexorable this decline is, the more exalted the image of this decline appears to be. The communist utopia announced at its beginning the highest possible historical claims, it undertook the greatest possible exertion in order to save humanity from its historical needs, only to collapse in poverty, squalor and chaos. Its history offers the most extreme case of historical defeat; therefore, it may also offer an exalted historical image.

Decay, destruction, and dissolution are thereby given their own special signature and assume authorial status. They are also involved by Kabakov in his theatre of authorship as his installation School No. 6. demonstrates. This installation is actually a very good contrast to the exhibition of Kabakov’s children’s books. School No. 6 has also the Soviet childhood as its main topic. The visual material that Kabakov uses in his installation is fundamentally of the same type and of the same style as his own children’s books. The images are positive, optimistic, joyous; but this optimistic Soviet childhood is now deserted and their images are in decay. The installation evokes the paradise lost. Of course, childhood is often seen retrospectively as a paradise. But the Soviet childhood was a very specific kind of paradise. It was maybe shabby and lacking in consumer goods but it was designed in an extremely optimistic and idealized way—even in a more optimistic and idealized way than in the West. It is enough to say that the Soviet childhood was still a childhood before Freud. It was not supposed to be a time of sexual anxiety. It was not even recognized as a specific period of the development of an individual human being—maybe that is why it was so paradisiacal. The Soviet childhood was collective. A child was seen by the Soviet ideology as a member of the future, better communist society. The Soviet childhood was experienced as a happy childhood because the children were supposed to live in a better communist society than their parents. The Soviet childhood was not so much a paradise, but a utopia. It was futuristic. Not accidentally, the writers and artists who were working for the children were allowed to have more artistic freedoms than the majority of Russian artists of the time. The second generation of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s—poets like Charms or Vvedensky—were writing poems and stories—very absurd ones—for children. If you look at the Malevich books currently exhibited at Chinati, the style only survived through the children’s books of the second generation Russian avant-garde. There is a kind of continuity between 1920s and ’60s. In the ’60s and ’70s some new avant-garde writers made their living by writing children’s books in cooperation with the artists. Kabakov participated in the designing of this idealized image of the childhood at the same time he created the most striking images of its destruction. The project to build a better society was abandoned by the Soviets of the time, and the Soviet school was deserted by teachers and students. So now we look at this abandoned School No. 6 and at the children’s books that the children of our own time would not read anymore with nostalgia that is related not only to the childhood as an individual past, but to the childhood as a Utopian, Futurist, Modernists project—although we actually don’t know if we have become so much grown-up, so much adult after we have left this project behind us.