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)

I should also mention the place where, in Novikov’s imagination, this spectral, spiritual host gathered in council—Novikov’s second apartment at 60 Liteiny Prospect, where he lived his entire life. Novikov enjoyed recounting the revolutionary history of his home. In the upper-class part of the building, facing the street, the famous satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin had his apartment, while in the second courtyard, in the very stairwell where Novikov himself lived, “the Bolsheviks did something or other with [their newspaper] Iskra.” As was the rule in other such dissident apartments, in apartment no. 33 it was the kitchen where guests were entertained. In 1988, after minor renovations, Novikov extended a mysterious invitation to acquaintances: “Come over—there’s a fresco on the ceiling now!” Indeed, chunks of oil paint that had peeled off and were hanging from the ceiling had been tidily painted black (like the entire square of the ceiling), and from behind these exfoliations the half-concealed portraits of two pensive, dreamy-faced angels (as in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna) had emerged. The mural was painted by New Academy student Dima Iudov from a design by Novikov, who was then already blind. Novikov changed the age of the angels, from that of Octobrists (five–six years) to that of Young Pioneers (eight and up), the age when notions of art, self-sacrifice, and immortality first awaken in human beings. In Novikov’s pantheon, the Pioneer was the deity of youthful creativity, the spiritual force that reveals the mysteries of the world and the infinite to children. Holding the model of an airship in his upraised left hand, the Pioneer gazes from the luxuriant field of gold- and silver-embroidered ornament in which he stands towards the black velvet of the heavens (Cosmos, 1992).

The story of Novikov’s kitchen fresco[42] is an example of a living classic (Novikov) bringing the classics (Raphael) to life.[43] In Novikov’s conception, neoacademism was precisely this kind of living, non-museum culture—a culture that one could cultivate in one’s home, or wherever one was able to find a free patch of soil. As Novikov understood it, classical culture imparts meaning to life by uniting the private and personal with the eternal, by uncovering the individual element within the world of the collective, of the folk. In this counterflow, the classical artist turns historical time into something personal. In this personal appropriation, time is joined to history.

All things grow, die, and are reborn. In a word, they change, eluding fixed forms and definitions while preserving the fundamental outlines of their construction. Realizing the need for change, Novikov decisively altered the superficial aspects of his art three times during his career. Kabakov is also a living classic, as Novikov was during his lifetime. Like Novikov, he has attempted to escape the fixed boundaries of the territory where his installations have their legal residence.

In his discussion of this aspect of Kabakov’s practice and thought, Pavel Pepperstein focuses on the differences between two of Kabakov’s installations—Toilet, first constructed at Documenta, and Toilet on the Hill, which exists only on paper. The second installation

      need not be constructed if only because it has already been constructed a priori. Kabakov describes a cliff or precipice high above a long, broad river. It is intuitively clear that this is somewhere in the boundless expanses of the CIS: in the Urals, on the Volga or the Dnieper. A wooden outhouse has been placed on the very edge of the cliff. This outhouse is a three-walled hut made of planks. The side facing the river is open, there is no wall there. The person sitting in the toilet faces the landscape. From this viewpoint “everything unfolds” before him, the boundless expanses . . . This is a genuine “accession to the throne.” The euphoria of flight reigns here. It is no accident that in Kabakov’s drawing the person sitting in the toilet is depicted, as it were, from the viewpoint of a bird flying past. . . . Toilet on the Hill is a departure from the installation genre that is reminiscent of the light at the end of the tunnel. It is a realization of the desires that accompany our defecations and our souls as they depart from us. Since this is the MAIN THING, what is needed is a voluminous construction that would divert attention to itself, that would allow “the main thing” to slip away. The Kassel installation is just such a construction. I have no idea whether Kabakov was counting on this effect, but I would like to ascribe to him the following design. In some sense Toilet on the Hill is a mockery of the western viewers (and Kabakov designs his installations precisely for them) who visited the Kassel installation. These viewers relish the horror of it all (“What a hell they lived in! What a nightmare they live in!”) and imagine that in their heavenly space a metaphorical reconstruction of this “hell” and “nightmare” has been erected for their edification in the most artistically brilliant manner. Meanwhile, an anonymous man in a cloth cap sits above them in a toilet on a hill, in this most paradisiacal, euphoric spot on earth, and defecates on these viewers. (This man is part Kabakov himself, part Soviet everyman, who could care less about contemporary art.) He defecates an invisible, metaphysical shit. He shits not only on the viewers, but on Everything altogether, while at the same time his “hawk-like” gaze caresses this Everything from on high. Two Russian idioms are fused in this image: “a cock on a hill” (someone unknown, anonymous) and “to take a shit on everything from the highest belfry” (to demonstrate one’s total indifference). Man is a defecating (that is, royal) point suspended between Earth and Heaven.[44]

As the creator of “shitting man,” a crippled version of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque homo ludens, Kabakov continues and completes the avant-garde tradition of Duchamp and Manzoni. He finds such an expressive metaphor for this tradition that the hermetic meaning of contemporary art widens to include all of humankind.

Novikov rendered his verdict on this tradition with the exhibition Nudity and Modernism, which he co-curated with Andrei Khlobystin in May 1995. The walls of the exhibition space at Pushkinskaya-10 were covered with black-and-white photocopies depicting artists engaged in endless acts of shitting, vomiting, and copulation in the midst of a mud pit or garbage dump. After the initial animating shock of these images had worn off, their silent monotony elicited boredom. In the same text on Kabakov’s “toilets” that I have just quoted, above, Pavel Pepperstein discusses the departure of the Moscow conceptualist school (the so-called NOMA) from the tolerable but tiresome situation of contemporary art.[45]

This theme is, in fact, the central one in Pepperstein’s essay, which was written for the 1995 Prague exhibition Flight, Departure, Disappearance. In terms of its roster of participants, the quality of the works exhibited, and the theme, this exhibition should be considered the final Moscow conceptualist show. The departure of the conceptualists from the scene also included a name change. Instead of the Egyptian noma, Pepperstein proposed an abbreviation coined by Andrei Monastyrsky—MOKSHA.[46] In 1995, then, the generation of Kabakov’s immediate followers transformed the Egyptian mummification of Everything into a Buddhist Nothingness. They thus cancelled the bitter experience of saving (and being saved from) Sovietness that we find in Kabakov’s works. They effaced the last scars on the body of art, which had been subjected to several surgeries during the past hundred years. They purged it of crippled sense organs, handicapped objects, and traumatized images.

In Novikov’s work, the traumatic experience of life, both historical and personal, is transfigured in such a way that there is nothing, it would seem, to remind the viewer of this experience.[47] This sort of transformation—evil into good, ugliness into beauty—happens only in fairytales with happy endings. Storytellers (who, it goes without saying, are always good) are even rarer in human history than saints. Since the end of the age of knights, Don Quixotes, and local wonderworkers, they are the only “good” champions of the soul, unlike its “bad” champions—the psychoanalysts, who subject the soul to a taxidermic procedure before they effect their cure, cleaning out its entrails and dressing its fur. Both storytellers and psychoanalysts belong to the discourse of childhood, which had such a significant influence on both Kabakov and Novikov. If the entire Kabakov corpus is connected to the painful horror of Soviet children’s books and cartoons from the late forties and early fifties (with their bureaucratic color-schemes and undeviating moralism, these books were heavyhanded, absurd repetitions of the adult world), then Novikov belongs to the happy generation of Soviet children who shared in the second most positive event of the 1960s (after Gagarin’s space flight)—the release of the film Aibolit-66.[48]

Ivan Sotnikov (a student of the same school of thought as Novikov) explains the difference between these two paradisiacal, euphoric states, nirvana and grace, in the laconic manner peculiar to “zero philosophy.” He relates nirvana to the establishment of a fundamental physical law (Everything = Nothing), but identifies grace with the desire to overcome this law, which is operative within us whether we like it or not.[49] Nirvana is the liberatory recognition of the identity of Everything and Nothing. Grace is a free gift, the event of Nothing’s transfiguration into Everything. Like any form of activity, art is extinguished in nirvana. Art, however, is also one of the fantastic birthplaces of grace. Liberating art from old forms, from a compromised and impracticable view of art, Novikov did not create symbols of life-as-death, as Malevich or Kabakov did, but symbols of endless life—a life that fills the emptiness of nonexistence and triumphs over death in a manner that “science is powerless to explain.” This is precisely how art perpetuates itself—by going through or beyond the painting. It returns in Novikov’s unbearably light golden banners with their images of the sun. “These pictures have already shed a significant number of the qualities traditionally associated with the painting—the frame, the painted surface. Incorporeality is the consequence of death. Art’s immortal soul becomes ever more naked. The fig leaf, ever smaller.”[50]

The sublimated eroticism of these reflections on art—written by Timur Novikov in 2000, when his blindness had radically altered his access to the world’s corporeal forms—is stunning. After the death of its body, the soul of art really is laid bare. But it is not naked in the same way as the souls depicted on icons, as Adam and Eve in their expulsion from Paradise. It can be completely naked, unadorned by fig leaves and bereft of humiliating shame, as only the beautiful gods of antiquity allowed themselves to be naked. Psyche was one such naked goddess. She dwelt simultaneously in the ideal world and the real world. She thus witnessed to the fact that the first world is possible and that the second world (of primordial beauty) is worthy of our love, our active sympathy, and our participation.


Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas Campbell

Ekaterina Andreeva is a curator and critic writing on contemporary art. She works at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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[42] This fresco was far from the first of its kind among the members of Novikov’s circle. Many of them covered the walls of their communal apartments with frescoes. The most famous such works were the murals (no longer extant) in the kitchen of Oleg Kotelnikov’s flat.


[43] Another work by Novikov’s mother Galina bears mention in this connection: her Hellenistic decoration of the graves of her oldest daughter and her grandson (Timur’s cousin), who drowned at the age of sixteen. Alongside the standard-issue cross on the fence encircling the grave plot, Galina Novikova fastened a large, glass-encased photograph that is the size of a modest Attic stele. Dumbstruck visitors to the lumpenproletariat Krasnenkoe Cemetery will see on this photograph a handsome, nearly naked young swimmer (Galina’s grandson) standing on the shore of a peaceful lake surrounded by hills.


[44] Pepperstein, Devianostye gody, 80–1.


[45] Novikov was the first (in his 1991 neoacademist manifesto) to express this disenchantment with the project of contemporary art, the sense of its insufficiency and lack of a future. He was seconded, in the mid-nineties, by Sergei Anufriev and Pavel Pepperstein. Later, Yuri Leiderman (“Uorkhol i pustota” [Warhol and Emptiness], Isskustvo kino 6 (1998): 115–119) and Kabakov (vicariously, via Victor Tupitsyn’s essay “Postavtonomnoe iskusstvo,” Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal 39 (2001): 47–51), joined the first three artists in expressing misgivings about the work of the most prominent western artists, museums, and curators during the nineties.


[46] That is, MOskovskaia Kontseptualnaia SHkolA. Moksha was the ancient Indian goddess of birth and death. The word also means “nirvana.”


[47] Thus, in the eighties, Novikov created a fairtyale about life above the Arctic Circle for his friends, and since that time the fauna of the snowbound wastes—penguins and polar bears—have populated the works of New Artists Oleg Kotelnikov and Andrei Medvedev. In 1997, when I was tape-recording Novikov’s biography for a retrospective catalogue, I asked Novikov whether he had seen polar bears as a child. He replied that he had seen them, but that he did not want to tell anyone about this because the bears he’d seen were dead—yellowed carcasses that soldiers had dumped on the street of his settlement.


[48] Based on poems by Kornei Chukovsky, the Soviet Dr. Seuss, the film was directed by the beloved character actor Rolan Bykov, known to western audiences for his role as the jester in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev.


[49] From a private conversation with Ivan Sotnikov at Timur Novikov’s wake. May 26, 2002, D-137 Gallery, Saint Petersburg.


[50] Novikov, Gorizonty, 17.

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