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)

In the mid-eighties Novikov demonstrated his new, revolutionary art by producing a symbolic picture of his personal universe.

Novikov created a new kind of landscape: a free panel of cloth on which he drew or stitched an image of the sun. After the primordial Zero Object, the symbol of the sun—which, unlike the moon, is beyond our reach even as it is suffuses everything on earth with its warmth—is Novikov’s next approximation of art’s essence. The Black Square first appears in 1913, on a curtain designed by Malevich as part of the stage set for the futurist play Victory over the Sun. Novikov reverses the effects of the Black Square, returning to the solar symbol its primeval clarity. Although it was only ever the sunset that he saw over the Gulf of Finland (to the west of Leningrad/Petersburg), it was precisely the sunrise that Novikov preferred to represent. He depicted in it such a way that the sun’s rays emerge from behind an invisible horizon and fuse with the golden emptiness of the radiant material.


This primary sign is sometimes amplified by supplementary symbols of freedom: the silhouette of a ship—the revolutionary battleship Aurora (its name borrowed from a goddess), or the schooner with red sails (from Alexander Grin’s fairytale novella Red Sails). In the seventies, both ships symbolized Leningrad, the polis of artists that numbered Novikov among its citizens. This transformation of the city’s image—from that of imperial capital and “cradle of three revolutions” to a polis of the arts—is captured by the wordplay of the New Artists. As Oleg Kotelnikov so aptly put it, Leningrad/Petersburg is the “the city of Peter, Ilyich, and Tchaikovsky” (that is, of Peter the Great, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Pyotr/Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky). In 1999, Novikov docked the Aurora in its symbolic homeport, making it a cousin of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.[22]


Kabakov also immortalized his own circle of friends and followers. First, just as Novikov had, Kabakov has engaged in biography and portraiture. In the eighties, he wrote three memoirs, which were published in 1999, along with an appendix, as 60-e–70-e . . . Zapiski o neofitsial’noi zhizni v Moskve (The 60s and 70s: Notes on Unofficial Life in Moscow). Second, Kabakov immortalized his friends by installing them in the museum. In 1993, he built a mausoleum for them in NOMA, an installation in the rotunda of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Each of the protagonists of the Moscow conceptualist movement was represented by an empty bed and bedside table as well as by the texts of their anamneses. A soft radiant light—metaphysical white on white—flowed onto this silent scene of gravestone-like beds through a circular aperture in a ceiling suspended above the installation. Kabakov thus opened to his followers the “flinty road” into eternity, like the eternity whence  the Master (in Mikhail Bulgakov’s cult novel The Master and Margarita) departs tragic Soviet Moscow via the light of the moon. The builders of communism fly away from everyday life through a black hole, while Soviet nonconformists attain eternal peace. It has to be said, however, that in NOMA’s mausoleum (as in Bulgakov’s novel) the word “peace” (pokoi) also invokes associations with the wards (pokoi) of hospitals and mental asylums.[23]


Kabakov and Novikov, then, both associated the Russian avant-garde with an image of Sovietness, an image that both artists sought to deconstruct. While Novikov, however, enacted an ecological procedure, excising the putrid mechanism of ideological repression from the avant-garde’s legacy and thus leaving its aesthetic aspects purified, Kabakov deconstructs Sovietness by exhibiting it as a chamber of horrors, as a collection of instruments of torture, including torture by art.[24] Thus, in his painting Red Square (Krasnaia Ploshchad’, 1986), Novikov turns Malevich’s painting and the building blocks of the Kremlin’s towers into elements of a pretty folk pattern that would not be out of place on a peasant tablecloth that has been symbolically “sown” from such quadrangles. In the mid-eighties, the principal technique of the New Artists was stencil painting à la the artists of ROSTA (the Russian Telegraph Agency), avant-gardists who were active during the twenties. In the fabric collage Tractors in a Wheatfield (1988), two tractors, each of them stenciled in a slightly different manner, plow a red-and-white striped field against the backdrop of a golden sunrise. Novikov applies to his fabric backdrop a Soviet “activist” design of the sort favored by Rodchenko and Stepanova. He uses this technique in an unobtrusive way, however, marking the space with this industrial sign only in one spot so that the cloth itself is not transmogrified into an aggressive piece of agit-prop. Rather, Novikov emphasizes the fabric’s original quality as a broad panel, an open field over which the sun always rises.


In Novikov’s hands, inexpensive, mass-produced Soviet fabric takes on a symbolic dimension: it is transformed into the picture plane. Novikov thus restores the natural link between high culture and everyday life that was destroyed during the twentieth century. His fabric collages are conceived as elements of interior decoration, whether the interior they grace is that of an art museum or a bedroom. The staple cloth used in the manufacture of robes becomes the sunlit horizon, while the acetate silk used for cheap ball dresses serves as the field in the foreground. The viewer of this typically Soviet subject is a heavenly being; he is suspended above the earth in an aerial mandorla. Novikov’s “semiotic perspective”[25] opens to the spectator a bird’s-eye view on the whole world and on the living, moving signs that make up the peaceable human kingdom—the broad plains and the bright sun, the wide fields and plowing tractors.[26]


In his autobiography, Novikov writes of the happy synthesis of two childhood dreams—to be an artist and to be a pilot. “When I’d finished kindergarten and was already of school age I began to think of myself as an artist. From that point on I never had any doubts about my vocation. There was, of course, a time around the age of thirteen when I also imagined that I was an aviator. But when I imagined that I was an aviator, I was as it were an artist-aviator, just as Saint-Exupery was a writer-aviator.”[27]


Kabakov’s characters also fly—or rather, they fly away, and this event is always represented as an extreme circumstance. It stands for either death or exodus, as on one of the pages in his albums, where the entire sky over Moscow is filled with flocks of people flying away into the distance. In this instance, flight means deliverance from Sovietness. In Kabakov’s world there is nothing but Sovietness, but this is a consequence of hopelessness. Sovietness is capable of crushing everything around it even as it is itself in its death throes, even when it is imagined as a “fire-breathing garbage heap.” According to Kabakov, the Soviet Union “had become a place where everything living perished.” This Chaadaev-like warning is the fundamental message of the artist’s so-called total installations. In 1990­–1991, Kabakov created his installation The Red Wagon, a commentary to all of Soviet history. The installation consists of three symbolic sections: a constructivist-style entrance stairway that leads upwards into “outer space”; the red wagon itself, adorned with socialist realist landscape paintings (that is, with tokens of art qua deceit); and a half-ruined porch exit that deposits the viewer in the trash heap where the wagon has become “stuck.”


Kabakov’s warning sign is a variation on the memento mori. In most of his installations Kabakov develops the everythingism of the homeless and the abject as a form of memorial. When it was presented at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Room was exhibited along with The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away (The Garbage Man). The Pliushkinesque collection of this latter character consisted of tiny fragments of things hanging in the air from strings as well as unattractive everyday items mounted on brown-painted boards attached to the walls. The function of these pictures was to elevate the domestic absurdity of the communal kitchen into a higher space—the space of the museum or the artist’s studio—and thus to “enstrange” the soiled Soviet conception of the artistic. Kabakov’s museification of nails, mugs, etc., is the second such attempt in the history of Russian art, after the avant-garde’s heroic object-based works (e.g., Ivan Puni’s spatial reliefs). The thing as an object of aesthetic praise had already been admitted to the museum, presented (as in Kabakov’s installation) on a painted-board backdrop. Kabakov’s Questions and Answers (1976) performs a geological probe of the art of the thing. Almost-invisible precious things disappear into the depths. Closer to the surface, there are barely visible avant-grade cult objects; for example, a hammer mounted on a board. On the surface, we encounter crippled things from a communal kitchen.


Kabakov’s things are surrounded by meaningless fragments of phrases, by corrupted everyday speech. Kabakov presents these sighs and whispers as something akin to funeral rites. His “conversations” are the “hushed” sounds of voices. In the second of his dialogues with Boris Groys, Kabakov comments on the meaning of voices in his work:


      As soon as I see something, it immediately begins to resound within me. A rebirth of sound from the dead thing happens . . . . I want to place voices inside a sort of refrigerator in the hope that someone will later open this refrigerator and all these objects will once again suddenly cry out in the same voice. . . . There is something Egyptian in this, a kind of mummification. And there’s the terror that if you’re alone you won’t be resurrected, while if there are lots of other people with you, then you’ll be resurrected. This is connected to the crazy desire I’d had to reflect the entire life of our Soviet society, to not let even one scrap of paper slip away, because I had the hope that we all would be resurrected together.”[28]


Kabakov’s critics have paid close attention to his progression from the Pliushkinesque formlessness of garbage (the detailed clutter of his depictions of everyday life) to the so-called nousphere of Russian “cosmist” thinker Vladimir Vernadsky (the empty space of the blank page or the lonely object mounted on a board). On this basis they have produced a schema for Kabakov’s creative evolution: from everything to a Nothing that is the equivalent of Everything. Margarita Tupitsyn has pointed out that the “multifaceted fabric of Soviet daily life,” the representational hypostasis of Kabakov’s albums, is opposed to abstraction understood as pure idea or absolute existence, in whose ontological space each of the Ten Characters performs the act of dying. Kabakov registers the convergence with this unutterable, inexpressible space/event of death via an empty white page, which symbolizes the stream of eternal light. Free from the noise of ideological space, this is the space where the soul encounters itself.[29] Ekaterina Bobrinskaya has analyzed in detail how Moscow conceptualism performs the essential supersession of visual representation, the deliverance from the body of the image. According to her, the nullity of the visual element leads to the banal “little picture” sliding off the surface of the work. As a result, the viewer’s perceptual field is wholly filled up by meditative emptiness. Two elements of the picture, however, do not disappear at all: the material base and (where the work in question is a chart or an album) the depicted frame. “When a frame is drawn around it, emptiness shifts our focus not to the fragmentation of whatever is captured inside the frame, but to the act of framing itself as a means of discovering and delineating a complete space where it will be possible to see something and where meaning might emerge.”[30]


However, this process—framing and simultaneously focusing on the framed empty space in expectation of an event that might take place within it; a conceptualist panorama-creation in which ordinary things, fragments of speech, tiny figures, or the emptiness of the page in its drawn frame are presented to the spectator as if she were viewing them from above, from somewhere in outer space—inevitably leads to the spectator’s experience of frustration. Submitting to the artist’s gaze (whose effect is like the emptiness that compels one to make haste along a frightening, deserted road), the Kabakovian spectator literally gets stuck in the depicted frame, in the rough, uneven texture of the paper or, more often, the plywood panel. Kabakov does not achieve catharsis through his art. Rather, he tests the viewer’s faith in art as a means of experiencing catharsis. He indicates to the artistic voyager the excruciating equilibrium between faith and unfaith that Dostoevsky portrayed so convincingly.


In his consideration of Dostoevsky’s works, Andrei Bely saw the danger of falling into this kind of “air pocket” as the essential problem of Russian artistic genius and the reason for Russian history’s viscous ambivalence:


      Dostoevsky himself appears in our midst as a symbol of the decisive tragedy that creative genius itself undergoes in general. In Dostoevsky, the Pythianism, the shamanism of all creative work that has not yet been captured by artistic form collides with the prophetic mission of work that has already been liberated from form. Supreme formlessness encounters the most miserable formlessness in a distinctive form that manifests itself as dramatic dialogue, or as prophecy, or as dull editorializing, or as the transcript of a conversation in an insane asylum, in a tavern, or with a common idler over a cup of tea.”[31]

Bely continues:

      Let’s recall [Dostoevsky’s] horrifying story “Bobok”: “I am beginning to see and hear strange things, not voices exactly, but as though someone beside me were muttering, ‘bobok, bobok, bobok!’ What’s the meaning of this bobok? I must divert my mind. I went out in search of diversion, I hit upon a funeral. . . . To begin with the smell (dukh). There were fifteen hearses, with palls varying in expensiveness. . . . But the smell, the smell. I should not like to be one of the clergy (dukhovnoe litso) here. . . I looked into the graves—and it was horrible.” What manner of horror is this? What unbounded cynicism: the play on the word dukh (in the sense of “foul smell” [and of “spirit(ual)”]). Just as, in another passage, there is mockery of the phrase “Holy Spirit” (Sviatoi Dukh), which is contrasted with the sectarian “Ho’spirit” (Sviatodukh).[32]

Whereas the first passage from Bely’s essay is applicable to the full spectrum of the devices Kabakov employs in his endless progression from garbage to nousphere, the second passage can be related to the unsealing of Kabakov’s “refrigerator,” his gloomy repository of frozen voices. Kabakov saves his voices by euthanizing them. He is open to the scientific, cognitive salvation found in the practices of dismemberment and partial identification—in the death of living things in herbariums, formaldehyde solutions, and taxidermy, in all the practical means of simulating life-in-death:

      In our case, existence, in its desire to know, itself tosses out self-descriptions, self-judgments, with some kind of horrible intensity. Not satisfied with anything, however, it again devours all these projects, opinions, and hypotheses in order to replace them with new ones. . . . The process is constant, excruciating, hopeless—for the INDIVISIBLE WHOLE is the primordial and final authority that controls this entire process from beginning to end. By virtue of this, nothing is capable of altering this whole. As a result, everything remains where it was, everything once again proves to be equivalent to itself. The bearers, the inventors of all these ideas and words, the hatchers of projects are wearily and steadily consumed by this eyeless nothing, although they have been dispatched by this very nothing in order to “find out.” Even after their “dispatch” they are once again plunged into this something, only to be consumed, destroyed without a trace. The imagination gives rise to a picture of Kronos consuming his children, or of an enormous sow who will happily eat her own piglets unless they are taken away from her in time. The intense desire to know EVERYTHING, COMPLETELY, ONCE AND FOR ALL constitutes the peculiarity of our intellection. It is in this primordial totalism of ours that our mistrust and dissatisfaction with all cognitive methods is concealed. We are thus susceptible to revelation and to the belief that knowledge might appear here and now.[33]

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[22] The cultural event of 1999, in Petersburg, was the premiere of Sleeping Beauty, as restored by Sergei Vikharev. Novikov, who was already blind at this time, proved to be the only genuine historiographer among those who commented publicly on the production. With a few phrases he determined the ballet’s importance as a public event. He also reconstructed its historical background on the basis of several details that other reviewers considered insignificant and thus ignored. “It all began this way: in 1888, Russia improved its relations with France. The Tsarist government received a big loan [from the French government], and Ivan Vsevolozhky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, asked Marius Petipa and Pyotr Tchaikovsky to create a Franco-Russian ballet in honor of Louis XIV. . . . In Russia, social realism reigned in the arts, and the ballet was seen as a radical gesture on the part of the advocates of pure art. The premiere was received quite coldly by the critics, but in 1903, during the reign of Nicholas II, a new light cruiser was christened the Aurora to mark the ballet’s one-hundredth production and to honor its heroine, a role which had been performed the past ten years by [Nicholas’s one-time lover] Mathilde Kschessinska.” Timur Novikov, “Probuzhdenie printsessy Avrory,” Argumenty i fakty–Sankt-Peterburg 17 (April 1999).


[23] Kabakov’s installation is linked to Bulgakov’s novel by the passionate desire for personal immortality. This desire is complicated by a tragic sense of life’s meaninglessness and by a suspicion towards any manifestation of faith other than an assurance of existence’s absurdity. Anyone who is inclined to ascribe a Christian viewpoint to The Master and Margarita should be dissuaded by the mocking inclusion of the writer Johann from Kronstadt, seen dancing at Griboedov’s Restaurant in the novel’s fifth chapter. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London, 1997), 80.


[24] In Kabakov’s works there is an element of torture/martyrdom that relates to art qua therapy. Viewing his installations is always a torturous experience, like a visit to a psychoanalyst: one has to stand in place for minutes on end perusing tiny pictures and inscriptions. His installation Healing with Paintings, in the permanent collection of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, consists of two unprepossessing Soviet hospital cubicles on whose walls hang crudely painted “beautiful” pictures—something like “swan painting” as performed by a hack disciple of Pyotr Konchalovsky (the famous painter-grandfather of the contemporary Russian film directors Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovsky). In his memoirs, Kabakov mentions that, in the late fifties, “life drawing” and “masterpieces” were as tormenting to him “as splinters.” Kabakov, 60-e–70-e, 10. Novikov, on the contrary, was famous in his youth for his fondness for life drawing. He might show up at a friend’s house for tea and produce twenty or so “masterpiece” pencil portraits during the course of the evening. In his first exegesis of his own works Novikov writes: “One of the main principles of my creative work is affection for the viewer. . . . My works are simple: they aren’t overloaded with information. What I try to give the viewer is relaxation. . . .The desire to do something nice for the viewer is what impels me to return again and again to landscapes, especially seascapes. When I’m at work I always test what I’m doing against the space above my bed: is this something I’d like to see hanging there every day?” Timur Novikov, Gorizonty (Saint Petersburg, 2000), 16–7.


[25] In the eighties Novikov developed semiotic perspective as a universal system of adapting the three-dimensional world to a flat surface. It is based on the depiction of a two-dimensional plane that is spatially activated by semiotic pictograms. The pictograms thus turn parts of the composition into the elemental realms of sky, water or earth. Any viewer instantly comprehends semiotic perspective and, due to the arbitrary color schemes of the planes themselves, the artist acquires greater freedom in manipulating the pictorial canons. Semiotic perspective combines the principles of computerized space, icon painting, machine civilization, and traditional symbolism (see Gorizonty, 18, 23).  We see a near-analogue to semiotic perspective in Malevich’s painting Red Cavalry. In this painting, however, movement takes place along the horizon line. The upper and lower fields of the composition are rendered passive, and the horizon turns into a caterpillar or snake, thus creating an impression of disharmony. Erik Bulatov thematizes this disharmony in his famous painting Horizon. Novikov’s semiotic perspective, on the contrary, generates a free and lucid horizon that restores a sense of peace to the world.


[26] Kabakov had already hit upon the idea of using fabric in his work in the seventies, and for precisely the same ideological reasons that motivated Novikov: the “domestic normalization” of high art. According to Pavel Pepperstein, “[The performance group] Collective Actions followed the lead of Kabakov, who likewise used such ‘petit bourgeois’ material in designing the covers of his albums. Thus, in the praxis of Collective Actions, the notion of ‘culture’ underwent a healthy, normalizing downturn, from so-called spiritual culture to the culture of everyday life . . . only to subsequently undergo a quick ascent towards the ‘culture of experiences’” (Pavel Pepperstein, “Tsvety v rame,” in Sergei Anufriev and Pavel Pepperstein, Devianostye gody (Moscow, 1999), 160. In Kabakov’s work, however, ordinary fabric acquires no surplus value via its temporary status as art. In Novikov’s work it does undergo a fantastic transformation, from a mass-manufactured item into a unique picture. Novikov’s works have endured reverse transformations as well. I recall meeting Timur’s mother Galina, a rather eccentric woman, walking down Liteiny Prospect in pink sunglasses, a pink raincoat, and a long blue sarafan. The sarafan had a boat embroidered on it: she had scrapped one of Novikov’s works without her son’s permission and used the material to make a sarafan. After Galina Novikova died, Timur turned this piece of homemade clothing back into a work of art.


[27] Timur Novikov: Retrospektiva, 7.


[28] Kabakov and Groys, Dialogi, 45.


[29] Margarita Tupitsyn, Margins of Soviet Art: Socialist Realism to the Present (Milan, 1989), 45–6.


[30] Ekaterina A. Bobrinskaya, Kontseptualizm (Moscow, 1994), 22. In this sense, the Zero Object is a particularly felicitious specimen of conceptualist framing. It is a simultaneously closed and open contour, a contour that both produces a picture and allows the picture to freely exit the frame.


[31] Andrei Bely, “Tragediia tvorchestva: Dostoevskii i Tolstoi,” O Dostoevskom. Tvorchestvo Dostoevskogo v russkoi mysli 1881–1931 godov, ed. B. M. Borisov and A. B. Roginskii (Moscow, 1990), 156.


[32] Bely, op. cit., 153; translation of Dostoevsky quotation by Constance Garnett; viewed at http://www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/3166. Pavel Pepperstein continues the wordplay of “Bobok” in his text “Exultation, Pretty Little Face, Larva” (“Likovanie, lichiko, lichinka”). The title of the text is a corruption of Pavel Florensky’s trichotomy eidos–face–mask (liklitsolichina), as discussed in his book Iconostasis. Like dukh (spirit) and dobro (good), this triad has been warped in the most destructive way through “the facial fission of the spiritual portrait” (Pepperstein). Pepperstein substitutes “larva” (lichinka) for Florensky’s diabolical “mask” (lichina). He  compares it with the world: “[The world] is rather a larva, a chrysalis, which successfully hides its pretty little face (lichiko) from itself.” Pavel Pepperstein, “Likovanie, lichiko, lichinka,” in: Devianostye gody, 179.


[33] Kabakov, Tri installatsii, 207–8.



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