Ekaterina Andreeva

Timur Novikov and Ilya Kabakov: Everything and Nothing

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Ekaterina Andreeva

Timur Novikov and Ilya Kabakov: Everything and Nothing

from Everything and Nothing: Symbolic Figures in Post-War Twentieth-Century Art / Все и Ничто. Символические фигуры в искусстве второй половины XX века (Saint Petersburg: Ivan Limbakh, 2004, revised edition 2011, in Russian)

Before Timur Novikov’s exploit, only Kazimir Malevich had journeyed into the fourth dimension through the Zero Object. Or rather, only these two artists had declared that they had crossed this metaphysical frontier in just this way.[12] It is important to recall that, unlike his contemporaries in the western European avant-garde, Malevich saw the fourth dimension as a symbol of immortality. The psychedelia of the 1970s and 1980s was grounded in the notion that “everything’s connected,” a notion also common to narcotic philosophers. It is thus also worth recalling that the fourth dimension’s interest for the avant-garde of the sixties was provoked not only by space flights, but also by the practice of LSD therapy. Acid trips were seen as equivalent to episodes of clinic death, which were interpreted as evidence of the soul’s immortality. In the folklore of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, the motif of immortality is not revealed in some final representation, like the Black Square, but, on the contrary, through an endless series of mutually interchangeable words, images, and concepts.


In the chronicle of the Zero Object, there is an entry (entitled Mitavsk’s Lapse and dated October 20, 1982) that is reminiscent of the later texts of the Medical Hermeneuticists Sergei Anufriev and Pavel Pepperstein. The TEII had pasted a notice next to the Zero Object informing viewers that “[this] hole is not a work of art; during the mounting of the exhibition it was jokingly dubbed Mitavsky’s lapse [proval],” after the name of the artist whose paintings hung next to it.[13] In Mitavsk’s Lapse, Novikov and Sotnikov construct a complicated play on the word proval that draws on a definition found in Vladimir Dahl’s classic 19th-century dictionary of Russian (“proval: in the theatre, a cellar or porthole through which actors enter and exit”) and on the verb provaliatsia (as in the phrase “He doesn’t do a thing: he just spent all day lying around [provalialsia].”[14] The Zero Object was thus also imagined by Novikov and Sotnikov as a gateway to idleness, which is one of the traditional properties of paradise or nirvana. Here, the creators of the Zero Object once again turned the prophetic zeal of the Russian avant-garde a notch down without suspecting that Malevich himself had seen his own Black Square as a symbol of incompleteness and anti-work, of life in eternity.[15]


Kabakov’s Man Who Flew into Space also alludes to Kharms. Through this allusion to Kharms we can read Malevich’s influence on Kabakov as well. We should immediately point out, however, the essential difference between these two installations of holes. The Zero Object is a natural formation: it exists as it were in a parallel dimension without disturbing anything else. (In this regard, it is symptomatic that Novikov preferred the term “parallel” art to “nonconformist” or “unofficial” art.) Kabakov’s work is catastrophic, however: the exit into the fourth dimension reveals that the other three dimensions are nothing but a chaotic mess. The flight of Kabakov’s hero into outer space leaves a giant hole in the ceiling, which resembles the atmosphere after a spaceship has torn through it. The room thus presents us with the spectacle of daily life as something pitiful and unsightly. The room’s walls are plastered with political posters, as in typical forms of Soviet temporary housing (such as on-site mobile homes for workers or country shacks). Instead of a bed we find a cot; a board serves as a makeshift table; and the whole setting is covered generously with broken plaster. One involuntarily recalls an utterance by Malevich that the Leningrad art historian Yevgeny Kovtun loved to cite: “The earth is abandoned like a house devastated by wood lice.” The missing inhabitant of this house is not imagined as Malevich’s “earthling,” who has moved to a new planet, but as a Kharmsian character who has failed to “put himself on a firm footing” and has finally fled this earthly vale. Just such a character is the imagined first-person author of OBERIU writer Nikolai Oleinikov’s epistolary poem “On Zeroes.” He asks:


      And when I die, please don’t lay
      Please don’t buy me a wreath.
      Just place a tiny zero
      On my sad little mound.


Kabakov, however, interrupts Russian literature’s sentimental tale of the “little man” and his soul. Kabakov’s house has in fact been devastated by “wood lice,” and the age of mass graves has made the “sad little mounds” obsolete. The skepticism of a devastated faith thus goes hand in glove with a desperate dream of salvation. Kabakov does without the liturgical regime of Malevich’s black figures of immortality, without Oleinikov’s little zeroes. Instead, he presents to our view a gaping hole, a stunningly spotlighted white on white. The hole’s black humor gestures toward the mystery of the Ascension, while its ragged edges also remind us of the crater left in the ceiling by the Ministry of Information SWAT team when it raids an innocent citizen’s apartment, in the opening scene of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Kabakov returns to art the existential image of classical Russian literature: total melancholy. His melancholy is no longer directed towards the desert that hearkens to God (as in Mikhail Lermontov’s famous poem), however, but rather to the materialized emptiness of the hole in the ceiling, or to the blank page where each of Kabakov’s Ten Characters disappears from our field of vision. Like insects, they vanish ignominiously and without a trace: “Ivan Ivanovich drowned in this whiteness like a fly in milk.”[16]


Kharms’s “How One Man Fell Apart,” itself inspired by the atmosphere of the Soviet 1930s, can be seen as prelude to this form of disappearance, this passage into abject nothingness. Having confessed his love of bosomy women, the protagonist of this story explodes. He “fell apart into a thousand little balls. Panteleimon the janitor swept up these balls into the dustpan he used to pick up horse manure and took them to the back courtyard. But the sun went on shining, and elegant ladies went on smelling wonderful.”


In the early eighties Kabakov adopts the guise of a Soviet housing authority (ZhEK) artist who leaves nothing to posterity except the picture Schedule for Taking Out the Trash. To be more precise, he leaves behind Nothing. “One didn’t need to make up anything—neither appearance nor form—everything was already there. Everything was familiar, even tiresome, to the ‘nobody’ I had become (or rather, like any inhabitant of our country, the nobody I’d been for a long time, from the day I was born). As such, since birth I’d seen these things, produced by ‘nobody’ and ‘for nobody’ and gazing at every local inhabitant with ‘nobody’s’ eyes from every corner.”[17] This very sense of the “already-thereness” of things is no doubt an index of an artist who has been chosen by Nothing, an artist who has become the interpreter of the anonymous gaze of things. Kabakov’s function as a psychagogue is thus to embody the nobody artist who takes real (not false) responsibility for himself and for his mass Soviet flock, which has been betrayed by the official servants of socialist realism. Venedikt Erofeev’s epic prose-poem Moscow to the End of the Line, written in 1969 (during breaks from the author’s “real” job as an electric cable installer), is another such “zero” project that aims to deconstruct the façade of the Soviet paradise.[18]


Novikov’s photographic record of the Zero Object attests to Nothing’s elevated, positive potential in his aesthetic biography, in which his zero project occupies the central place.

Once again, however, Novikov’s mission is different from Kabakov’s. Novikov didn’t shy from heroism or messianism, from a strictly personal (albeit sufficiently ironic) point of view. In the photographs, the Zero Object is not an empty hole, a testimony to someone’s disappearance. On the contrary, it is the scene of the the appearance of the heroes. It serves as their ironically framed portrait. Through the window of the Zero Object we see its creators, Ivan Sotnikov and Timur Novikov—young conquerors, their gaze filled with a merry sense of purpose; the artists as works of art. It is thus life itself that bursts through this aperture situated below two sleepy, decadent landscape paintings. At the turn of the century, the brave band of avant-gardists burst onto the bourgeois Russian art scene in similar fashion. Nothing was always necessarily Everything for them as well. Moreover, as was the case for Mikhail Larionov, the man who launched the Russian avant-garde, Novikov’s Everything aspires to its own energetic realization, to the fullness, joy, and vigor of the world. In affirmation of this stance, Novikov often quoted an “everythingist” couplet from Oleg Grigoriev’s long poem “Football”: “To say it all and all at once/I raise my fist and bang my tub.”[19]


Kabakov and Novikov were both founders of schools or movements, and both men were always generous to their comrades in these movements. Novikov endowed his friends with heroic, romantic images. In his 1985 article “New Trends in the Contemporary Painting of the News” (written under the pseudonym Igor Potapov) he describes every artist in his movement as “quite gifted” and “a vivid figure on the contemporary art scene.” He identifies the youngest of the New Artists, Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev (then only nineteen), as a “certified genius” and “one of the great figures of late twentieth-century culture.”[20]


Among other keywords and concepts in Novikov’s quasi-manifesto “The Process of Perestroika in the Work of the News” (1985), we encounter the word “temper” (nakal), which refers us to the historical avant-garde’s images of bright sunlight and life-and-death struggle. “The extreme temperature of the environment, the possibility of the artist’s death in the struggle for the new produces titans of the spirit. The artist’s work turns into a powerful amulet.”[21] It was at this time, in the early eighties, that Novikov began to produce his own magical “amulets” and collect the works of his young “certified geniuses.” He predicted that within a few years they would be exhibited in Leningrad’s State Russian Museum. This is exactly what happened (in 1989).

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[12] Cf. Olesya Turkina and Viktor Mazin’s commentary in Timur Novikov (Moscow, 1993), 11–2. Novikov was told about Malevich by his teachers, M.A. Spendiarova and P.V. Kondratiev, contemporaries of Malevich. Kharms scholars Jean-Francois Jacquard and Ilya Levin have noted the influence of Malevich’s writings on such quasi-philosophical texts of Kharms as “Nil and Zero.” Valery Sazhin, the editor of Kharms’s collected works, mentions the presence in Kharms’s notes of an intertext he shared with Malevich—P.D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum. He likewise notes the hypertrophied absurdism peculiar to Kharms, which allowed him to accommodate Malevich, Khlebnikov, Gogol, Bergson, and the nineteenth-century collective literary mystification Kozma Prutkov within a single text. Precisely this new quality makes the psychedelia of Kharms relevant to the present day.


[13] Novye khudozhniki, 70.


[14] Ibid.


[15] Since the days of Marinetti’s “Words in Liberty,” absurdist verbal loop-the-loops have been a favorite technique for spontaneously getting to the “trans-sense” (zaum) of things. Novikov kept faith with the trans-sense writers of the twenties and thirties. For one of their last joint projects, the newsletter Susanin (whose first number was published in 1998), Novikov and the critic-artist Andrei Khlobystin devised the motto Zarazum! In Russian, this nonce-word is an ungrammatical salute to the power of reason as well as an even more ungrammatical evocation of both haste and infection.


[16] Ilya Kabakov and Boris Groys, Dialogi (1990–1994)(Moscow, 1999), 101. It is worth noting that it is precisely the hero of the avant-garde whom Kabakov turns into his “little man.” His character “ascends” on a rising stream of energy whose trajectory he himself calculated, just as Khlebnikov calculated the the coefficient between the earth’s surface and the surface of the erythrocyte. Cf. Ilya Kabakov, Tri installiatsii (Moscow, 2002), 88. Groys compares Malevich to Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich: “[He strives] towards absolute whiteness as if towards an expensive overcoat that is above his station, and perish[es] in the effort.” Boris Groys, Utopiia i obmen (Moscow, 1993), 79.


[17] Ilya Kabakov, 60-e–70-e . . . Zapiski o neofitsial’noi zhizni v Moskve (Vienna, 1999), 114. Like many Soviet citizens, Timur Novikov lived in poverty as a child and young man, and he was surrounded by the “no-things” that Kabakov describes in his own memoirs. Novikov spent his childhood in a small room in a communal apartment. The room had one window and was divided in two by a curtain. Novikov and his mother lived on one side of the curtain, while the family of his older sister lived on the other side. Having grown up in conditions identical to those Kabakov grew up in, Novikov’s New Artists were also interested in grassroots conceptualism and folk art. It was not, however, ZhEK draughtsmen whom they recognized as their spiritual allies (the New Artists didn’t imitate the “works” of such invisible artists but painted over them), but “swan artists.” The artisanal mass production of the swan artists was regarded as a token of their skill. Contemporaneous to carpets decorated with deers and the forerunners of photo-wallpaper, the paintings of these anonymous artists were valued because “they didn’t stand out from [other] objects.” Cf. Father Ioann [Ivan] Sotnikov, Swan Painting (Saint Petersburg, 1998), 2–3. Novikov identified Sotnikov as a “collector of swan painting” in his article “New Trends in the Contemporary Painting of the News.” Novye Khudozhniki, 78.


[18] Cf. Venedikt Erofeev, Moscow to the End of the Line, trans. H. William Tjalsma (Evanston, 1992).


[19] Oleg Grigoriev, Ptisa v kletke (Saint Petersburg, 1997), 240.


[20] The similarity of the contexts in which Novikov and Kabakov operated and rethought the world is indicated, for example, by the fact that they both imagined the contemporary Russian artist as a reincarnation of Gogol’s character Pliushkin (from Dead Souls), who is a fanatical pack rat. In this same article about new trends in contemporary art, Novikov says of the outsider artist Valery Cherkasov that “[d]uring his short lifetime (1946–1984) he produced a vast number of works (approximately fifteen thousand), recorded several kilometers of music, carried out an enormous scholarly research project, and founded one of the first zero museums—the Pliushkin Museum.” Igor Potapov, “Novye tendentsii v sovremennoi zhivopisi ‘Novykh’,” in: Novye Khudozhniki, 78–9. It is obvious that if Novikov himself had not preserved in his own collection and memory all that Cherkasov left behind (including a soap box containing hundreds of matchbook-sized abstractions), Cherkasov would have been forgotten within a year of his death. Cf. Pervoprokhodets. Pamiati Valeriia Cherkasova (1946–1984) (CD-ROM and booklet), ed. Andrei Khlobystin and Timur Novikov (St. Petersburg, 2003). Around this same time, Kabakov compared the Russian artist (and, presumably, himself) to Pliushkin. Unlike Novikov’s text, however, Kabakov’s language is full of pessimism. He revives the Gogolian motif of the doomed man. Kabakov’s Pliushkin collects all sorts of trash and slowly goes mad (which is what happened to Cherkasov). He is reduced to the condition of the very odds and ends he collects. Ilya Kabakov, “Nozdrev i Pliushkin,” A-Ya 7 (1986): 41–5.


[21] Timur Novikov, “Protsess ‘perestroiki’ v tvorchestve ‘Novykh’,” in Novye khudozhniki, 80. Power and heroism were real qualities in Novikov’s mythological-nostalgic conception of futurism. This fairy-tale heroism may have been conditioned by the fact that Novikov’s introduction to futurism, in the late seventies, was mediated by the last survivors of avant-garde cultural circles, in particular, by Maria Sinyakova-Urechina. In 2000, Novikov curated The Heroes of the Russian Avant-Garde as Seen by Maria Sinyakova-Urechina and Marina Koldobskaya, at the New Academy of Fine Arts. The exhibition presented Sinyakova-Urechina’s lithograph portraits of Khlebnikov, Pasternak, and Mayakovsky alongside needlepoint portraits of Shostakovich, Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, and Malevich by the contemporary artist Koldobskaya. Sinyakova-Urechina’s portrait of Khlebnikov is executed in the best tradition of “swan painting”: shown in profile, the poet is wearing a tuxedo and sits in the company of swans, squirrels, and birds under a pine tree and rowanberry bush. It gives one a sense of Novikov’s conception of heroism, which is affectionate and nostalgic, like Viktor Vasnetsov’s painted fairytale daydreams of the valiant bogatyrs. This is made especially apparent by contrast with Koldobskaya’s Sots art slogans: “With tenderness and envy we gaze at the faces of those we consider our forebears.  . . . The bright images of the avant-garde’s titans have eroded to a stencil-like simplicity. As in an icon, there is no longer anything personal in these images. As in the official potraits of Politburo members, there is no longer anything human in them. . . . Our heroes have been molded in the image and likeness of the powers that be and thus have died twice.” Novikov’s text in the exhibition catalog is a response to Koldobskaya’s interpretation of the avant-garde’s meaning for the  present. “Maria Mikhailovna Sinyakova-Urechina was born in 1898. The futurists came into her life in 1912. Khlebnikov, Alexei Kruchenykh, Nikolai Aseev, and Pasternak visited the village of Krasnaya Polyana, where the Sinyakova sisters lived. The artists dubbed the hospitable Sinyakova household ‘Russian futurism’s homeland.’ . . . The Russian avant-garde artists were Sinyakova-Urechina’s close friends. In the late thirties, when she was at work on a series of illustrations to the poem ‘Mayakovsky Begins,’ some of these friends were already dead, while others were far away. The book came out in 1940. The artist’s portraits were nostalgic, heroic, and deeply personal. When creating these works, Sinyakova-Urechina recalled her modernist youth, a time when (to paraphrase Benedikt Livshitz) all the girls gave up satin stitch and took up futurism. Marina Koldobskaya has an utterly different view of the Russian avant-garde. In the years of Marina’s childhood, the Russian avant-garde was something mysterious, forbidden, and simultaneously revered. Her youth passed under the banners of postmodernism: from the extremes of [neo-]expressionism she retreats to embroidery. Sinyakova-Urechina regards her heroes with tenderness and affection. M[arina] Koldobskaya would tear out the throat of any kind of tenderness, but with ‘tenderness and envy’ she regards these heroes from a future dreamt of by the futurists.” Timur Novikov, Dva vzgliada na geroev russkogo avangarda (Saint Petersburg, 2000).



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