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)

Kabakov affirms the epistemological value of doubt in the possibility of Everything’s being realized in fact, just as Novikov affirms its irrefutability, not only in his critical statements, but diagrammatically as well. If Novikov’s landscape is harmoniously “bifulcral,” Kabakov’s landscape is ambivalent and bereft of a focal point. The suggestive power of Novikov’s semiotic perspective lies in the fact that the artist constructs his world lucidly. He clearly delineates the horizon and separates the heavens from the earth—just as the darkness and the light were divided, and day emerged from night, during the seven days of creation; just as life itself is based on mutual complementarity. Kabakov’s Berdyansk Spit (1970) is, on the contrary, a manifestation of emptiness. An uneven, lonely line intrudes from the edge of the picture. Like a fading heartbeat, the line is extinguished by its own indecisiveness. It is sadly unable to reach the picture’s center. It is unable to survive long enough to satisfy the viewer’s expectations.[34]

Almostly literally reiterating one of the poet Alexander Blok’s final statements (“Russia has eaten me up like a stupid sow her piglet”), Kabakov finds salvation from the horror and chaos of Russia—from “nasal-voiced Mother Russia”—in the west, where history, the individual, and, finally, culture itself are firmly grounded and centered. In the west, Kabakov affirmed the status of “state artist” that had been conferred on him in Moscow. In the eyes of western critics, he became one of the leading artists in the world. He accomplished this rise to fame by supplying the western demand for representations of Sovietness (Russianness) as a threatening world of chaos.[35] His installation Toilet is a metaphor for the Soviet world.[36] Hidden in a standard-issue Soviet public toilet, the installation’s humble but comfy apartment turns the theme of outer space and the fourth dimension inside out, insinuating that the hole of the toilet is the only way out for inhabitants of the Soviet dead end. Nothing, first represented by Kabakov in the form of a hole in the ceiling, now finds its reverse-perspective counterpart in the hole of the public toilet. Once again fusing the vocations of artist and janitor, Kabakov provides ample scope for psychoanalytic and Bakhtinian critiques of his work.

Kabakov’s problematic—the putrefaction of the saint, of the sacred—amounts to the repeated invocation of the impossibility of art (that is, of beauty) in today’s world of evil and violence.

Of all the great artists of the modern age, Tolstoy was probably the most fanatical adept of this ethical maxim. Other insurgents in the struggle against beauty and for the “whole, ugly truth” were less fanatical than Tolstoy. For these artists (the nineteenth-century Wanderers, for example) “culture” meant a middle-class lifestyle made possible by regular exhibitions and profitable sales of works. Kabakov’s ethical position—his insistent reproduction of the horrors of Soviet life—is worthy of our attention. It would appear that contemporary Russian society really does not want to delve into its past. While this remains the case, then, The Red Wagon retains its relevance.

It is also the case, however, that the entire democratic struggle against beauty has led to an ecological catastrophe within European culture. The art of the classical age has only two things to say to the contemporary viewer. Pillars remind him of the totalitarian period. (For example, in the Russian context, the Moscow Manege does not invoke associations with the Parthenon, but with the famous quarrel between Nikita Khrushchev and sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, at the landmark 1962 exhibition of young Soviet modernists.) Classical mythology calls to mind stock phrases like “Oedipus complex.” Kabakov shares with many artists of his circle this conscious rejection of the foundations of western civilization. In his text, the myth of Kronos devouring his child is mentioned (via the conjunction or) along with the sow who eats her piglets. Consciously or not, then, we deny myth a place in the future of our culture. Zeus, Apollo, and the rest of the ancient world are abandoned in the ghetto of the past, while the “discourse of the piglets” destroys the world of the ideal in embryo. (Anyone who needs verification of this state of affairs should read the novella Mitya’s Love, by Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, the last Russian writer who was consistent in his defense of the idea of beauty.)

During the nineties, Novikov was as tendentious an artist as was Kabakov. His tendentiousness, however, worked in a direction that was the exact opposite of Kabakov’s, although it shocked many people as much as the latter’s Toilet did. In 1988, Novikov announced the next stage in his art-ecological revolution—a crusade against modernism and postmodernism in the name of beauty and “new Russian classicism.”[37] Initially announced as the appearance of “tidy tendencies within the work of the New Artists,” the emergence of so-called neoacademism was at first glance something that could not have been predicted. Accustomed to neo-expressionist paintings and the new-wave, punk, and folk music of the Leningrad Rock Club (where New Artists pop band Kino began their rise to Soviet stardom), the fans of the New Artists were treated, at the first neoacademist exhibition Youth and Beauty in Art (1990), to an enlarged photographic portrait of Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas (which Novikov improved by making Wilde slimmer and decking Bosie’s clothes in gold trim) and a concert by a soloist from London’s Royal Opera, then on tour at the Mariinsky Theater. Rave parties gave way to poetry evenings in the Summer Garden and concerts in the palace at Pavlovsk, such as the 1997 neoacademist festival at which Brian Eno’s Tintoretto was performed. Careful readers of Novikov’s theoretical essays would not have been surprised by the sea change, however. They would have seen Novikov’s New Artists and Novikov’s neoacademists as successive stages in the quest for a universally comprehensible artistic idiom. Just as the solar symbols, in Novikov’s earlier textile collages, had been self-evident in their meaning, so too the idea of using an artistic lexicon polished by the centuries and distributed over the entire space of the European oikoumene was meant to seem natural. And it was also supposed to be “anonymous,” just as strength, goodness, and joy had belonged to no one in the popular and nonconformist cultures of the Brezhnev era. Neoacademism was conceived, from the outset, not as an archaeological reconstruction of the classical age or as the implantation of a classical chip into the body of contemporary culture, but as a gesture towards the ownerless heavens—towards the essential anthropomorphism of our striving towards the ideal, even when the embodiment of that ideal is utopia. During his New Artists period Novikov had also been a utopian thinker. Except then he had gestured towards the only possible harmony of a world constructed around minimal human needs: the clear light of the sun, the freedom to travel, and a place to call home.

In the first manifesto of neoacademism (July 1991), Novikov asks a rhetorical question: “Can we substitute Esperanto for Attic Greek?” He also criticizes the “salvage-yard antiquarianism” of the museum, which equates a Rembrandt, a Byzantine icon, and the fragment of a comb. This remark returns us to the concept of everythingism, which Novikov had borrowed from Larionov and revived in the eighties. In reality, just like the textile collages of the earlier period, the neoacademism of the nineties relied on the devices of everythingism. Velvet, Gobelins, and luxuriant fabrics embroidered with imitation gems are employed in combination with postcards, reproductions, photographs, and playbills. The move from new-wave collages to neoacademist tapestries can be seen as an evolution from landscape to symbolic portraiture. The reproduction or postcard substitutes for the portrait itself, while the entire gigantic gold-embroidered, radiant panel of cloth acts as the portrait’s frame, or rather, as its oklad (icon framework). One of Kabakov’s Ten Characters, the Collector, glues his postcards onto the page in such a way that the beauty of ballet, flowers, and the façade of the Tretyakov Gallery seems suspect to the attentive eye (if only because the images overlap).[38] In Novikov’s neoacademic works these very same dirt-cheap postcards achieve, on the contrary, the status of self-sufficient icons in a resplendent riza (metal icon cover).

For Novikov, it was always the ecological-aesthetic note that counted. Mass-produced beauty could be turned into unique works of art, into singular events of being. All that was needed was to give this beauty the right proportions, correct its “harmonies,” and, thus, alter its destiny. Whereas Kabakov represents the déclassé objects of the beauty cult as banal and vulgar, as tokens of devaluation, Novikov performed a gesture of aesthetic sacralization whose objects can only be things that already aspire towards the ideal, like “swan painting.”[39] Novikov did not deify art as such, but he did believe in the real power of images. The kinship between a painting in the Hermitage and its postcard reproduction is thus secured by the fact that both pictures produce their effects by gesturing towards the sublime: the more perfect the picture, the stronger the imagined perfection of the ideal. The act of returning authenticity to a mechanically reproduced image fortifies the entire realm of the beautiful in all its visible and hidden aspects.

That is why Novikov, a thoroughgoing democrat and consistent advocate of alternative culture, did not share the democratic aesthetic of the Wanderers. His everythingism is not a direct outcome of this aesthetic. Not every object in the life-world can be transplanted into the realm of art—only those things that were originally intended as art, that were engendered by the impulse to decorate and beautify the world. One of Novikov’s favorite stories was about how Oleg Grigoriev had given up the visual arts and become a poet. Grigoriev dropped out of the Academy of Fine Art’s high school after he refused to paint a meaningless (Soviet) still life—a birch broom standing in a bucket. This legend re-imagines, as it were, the story of the “rebellion of the Fourteen [original Wanderers, who refused to paint on the Academy’s required graduation theme],” just as Novikov’s Sunrise (1991) re-imagines Victory over the Sun.

In 1991, Novikov performed his second symbolic correction of suprematism’s ill effects—in this case, its usurpation of supreme geometrical form, which had been the province of classical antiquity. Novikov turned the Black Square and the Red Square into pedestals for two Apollos, and he placed Michelangelo’s David on the Red Square. Ideal geometry thus was made to support, literally, the divine patron of the arts and the beautiful young Old Testament hero who conquered brute, formless power. These attempts at the aesthetic taming of suprematism have many parallels in the art of the Moscow conceptualists—most recently, for example, in Kabakov’s The Life and Work of Charles Rosenthal (1898–1933) (2000). Such conceptualist projects are always linked, however, to an exclusively domestic or private interpretation of the avant-garde, to a restoration of the everyday. The ordinary pushes its way up from under the squares like grass growing through cracks in the sidewalk. As in the works of the fictional Charles Rosenthal, the commonplace swallows up Malevich’s geometry.[40]

Novikov, however, adhered to the notion of art as a project for creating paradise on earth and transfiguring the realm of the everyday. This does not mean that he tried to conceal the all-too-humble tools he used to construct this paradise. To those who denounced beauty as a repressive, even fascist, ideology that was foisted upon on an endlessly “diverse” humankind, Novikov responded with the common-sense idea that everyone wants his own everyday world to be beautiful—not ugly—in a way that makes sense to him alone. He argued that nature is (at least superficially) beautiful, and that the beauty of the heavens is there for absolutely everyone to see, even those who fear its grandeur. Novikov’s everythingism serves to calm this quite widespread fear of “indifferent nature.” Decorated with postcard Apollos, emperors, and saints, his homespun banners open a direct line of communication between the déclassé beauty of ordinary life and the sublime.

In the nineties, Kabakov and Novikov were both cult figures on the contemporary Russian art scene. Kabakov’s cult was nourished by his absence from Moscow. During a period when the frontier between Russia and the west had become porous, and Russians had regularly begun to travel back and forth between east and west, only Kabakov left Russia forever. This gesture strengthened the ritual force of “the other world,” which had been on the point of diminishing. As he explained it to Groys, “I haven’t left my country at all, but have been suspended above it, as it were, in an alien space that I understand as a beautiful, radiant world.”

Novikov painstakingly created the cult of neoacademism in his capacity as its high priest. He outfitted the new cult with the hagiographies of three servants and martyrs of the beautiful: Oscar Wilde, Wilhelm von Gloeden, and Ludwig of Bavaria. These men were aristocrats and engineers of utopias whose non-standard aestheticism society was unable to forgive, even as it forgave thieves and murderers. The emblems on neoacademist works, many of which resemble flags, support the view that Novikov had organized something like a knightly order with himself as its leader.[41] It is thus no coincidence that during the last period of his career (1998–2001) Novikov held a number of exhibitions in the suburban palace in Pavlovsk and at the Mikhailovsky Castle, where the Russian emperor Paul I had lived and celebrated his own cult. The penultimate European knight-monarch (Ludwig was the last), Paul advocated the utopian idea of solving geopolitical crises by forcing leaders to fight duels. He also dreamt of building a giant crystal dome over the European continent.

In his last series of works, Palladian Flight, Novikov returned to the motifs of the sky and the heavenly, represented in his sign system by airplanes and angels. In these textile collages, reproduced images of the first primitive airplanes (biplanes) hover over Palladian villas, thus transporting the desire for perfection from the earth into the heavens. In his final interview Novikov mentions, in connection with this series, how once he was astounded by the sight of an enormous number of airplanes at an international airport. He thought that the most beautiful planes at this airport were the Soviet ones. He was later told that Soviet aeronautics engineers allegedly believed that an airplane would not prove flightworthy and maneuverable unless it was beautiful. It follows from this anecdote that for Novikov beauty was no mere matter of form, but also a means of warding off death and disaster, a force of salvation, like a knight in shining armor. Novikov thus reinvested Dostoevsky’s famous dictum—beauty will save the world—with energy and meaning, with a genuine measure of self-sacrifice.

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[34] This mistrust of visual representation is a consequence of Soviet art’s effect on all levels of representation. On the bifurcated picture of the world in socialist realism, see Ekaterina Andreeva, “Spor ob iskusstve,” Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal 6 (1995): 10–2; and Ekaterina Bobrinskaya, “Sushchestvuiushchee nebytie v sovetskom iskusstve,” Mesto pechati 13 (2001): 85–98.


[35] In his analysis of the plans and implementation of Moscow construction projects and their contemporaneous transformations in Kabakov’s work, Andrei Monastyrsky dubs Kabakov a “state artist”—that is, a translator (not a decorator) of deep semiotic processes. See Andrei Monastyrsky, “Zemlianye??ab??y,” Mesto pechati 13 (2001): 110.


[36] Originally exhibited at Documenta IX (Kassel, 1992), Toilet is now in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.), Ghent.


[37] Novikov announced neoacademism’s arrival via a series of “militant” statements and actions. In his introductory text to the exhibition Renaissance and Resistance (The State Russian Museum, 1994) Novikov wrote that neoacademism marched under “green” banners—although he didn’t use the word “ecological.” Later, Novikov would underscore neoacademism’s resemblance to an inquisition. In 1998, Novikov co-founded the militant broadsheets The Artist’s Will (Khudozhestvennaya volya) and Susanin (named in honor of a Russian folk hero who was immortalized in Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar as well as by Daniil Kharms). On May 23, 1998, Novikov organized a ritual burning of “pornography” in memory of Girolamo Savonarola in the “revolutionary” island town of Kronstadt.


[38] Boris Groys has written about the early albums that “Kabakov breaks this myth down into a myriad of intersecting, mutually contradictory, diffuse, trivial stories that offer no criteria for choice. Thus in Primakov Sitting in the Closet, for example (which, incidentally, begins with Malevich’s Black Square as the view presenting itself to a little boy sitting in a closet), the gnostic wandering of the soul among the worlds and ages is equated with both the history of avant-garde art and the family melodrama. [ ] At first glance, Kabakov’s albums and his later larger works elaborating on certain themes from the albums all describe the triumph of the everyday over the avant-garde, which regarded overcoming the everyday as an even more fundamental goal than victory over traditional art. If beyond the external stability or “visible horizon” of everyday life the avant-garde saw the great yawning abyss of Nothing, the absolute black of the universe, Kabakov places this vision in an everyday context. He views everyday life not as a set of stable forms, but as interwoven images, discourses, ideological attitudes, styles, traditions, and revolutions against traditions, all of which eternally comment upon each other and lead to an even deeper opacity and an even more complete absurdity than the blackness and absurdity of the avant-gardist universe, which at least has nothing as a kind of referent.” Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism, trans. Charles Rougle (Princeton, 1992), 85–6.


[39] Like a miner panning for gold, Novikov sought out the nuggets of genuine creativity in all spheres of Soviet life. Evoking both the expressionist primitivism of children and concentration camp tattoes, his solar symbols witness to a quest for art on all levels of its potential emergence.


[40] In another installation, The Collector, Kabakov parodies a man who decorates the notice boards that were found in Soviet bureaucratic establishments. Pasted one on top of another, in “artistic” fashion, this designer’s creations symbolize the utopian Order that the state imposes on the chaos of life. The Collector dreams of order while, on the other side of the wall, his communal apartment neighbors squabble and fight.


[41] In 1998, the New Academy acquired its own banners, which feature images of the Parthenon and Vasnetsov’s Bogatyrs (1898).



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