The Kabakov retrospective in Moscow revealed more about contemporary Russia than it did about the artists.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s retrospective was one of the main events of the fall season in Moscow. The artists exhibited six “total” installations in three important venues: the Vinzavod art center, opened three years ago in a disused winery; the venerable Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; and the Garage, the former home of the Bakhmetev bus garage designed by the great Constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov.
The immense garage, which the government turned over to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia to be eventually used in part for a museum of tolerance, was renovated for the Kabakov show at a cost of $3 million. The funds were provided by the billionaire Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea Football Club, whose girlfriend, Darya (Dasha) Zhukova, organized the transformation. The opening was a glitzy party packed with local celebrities, many of whom seemed confused: they knew, of course, who Dasha and Roman were, but they were fuzzy about Ilya and Emilia. The local intelligentsia, on the other hand, knew all about the Kabakovs but enjoyed the opportunity to ogle Dasha and Roman for the first time.
In neocapitalist Russia, people worship rich, successful individuals like Abramovich. Now they have a new hero in Ilya Kabakov, the most expensive Russian artist. The master, whose 1982 painting Beetle sold at Phillips de Pury & Company in London earlier this year for $5.84 million, turned up at the opening wearing a shabby jacket and an old wool hat, looking not like a New Russian but an old one—a pensioner, perhaps, struggling to live on $200 a month. Kabakov, 75, seems to feel uncomfortable in the New Russia; in an interview with critic Ekaterina Dyogot on the eve of the opening, he referred to the crowd as rozovii gnoi, or pink pus.
The Alternative Museum, the colossal installation constructed in the Garage, contained a trap specially designed for the Russian public. The Alternative Museumlooked just like the real thing, with light-filled, spacious galleries, parquet floors, and well-displayed paintings. But visitors thinking only “How much does it cost?” were bound to make fools of themselves, because the paintings were signed not by the brand name “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov” but by three fictitious artists: Charles Rosenthal, Igor Spivak—and Ilya Kabakov, whose paintings, exhibited alongside those of the imaginary Rosenthal and Spivak, implied that he was no more a “real” artist than they.
This alternative history of Russian art has no place for the real avant-garde leader Kazimir Malevich but only for his unsuccessful pupil Rosenthal. And there’s no place for the real Kabakov, with his depressing communal apartments and his metaphysical installation 10 Characters(1988), which launched his career in the West.
A replica of The Red Wagon, one of Kabakov’s best-known installations before he began collaborating with Emilia, was also constructed in the Garage. Shown first in Düsseldorf in 1991, the year the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the installation—a series of platforms and ladders going nowhere, a drab wagon decorated with Socialist Realist paintings, and, inside the wagon, a mural of an ideal Soviet city—was interpreted then as an allegory of the end of utopia. In Moscow in 2008, many perceived just the opposite: one more proof of how idyllic life in the USSR had been.
In Düsseldorf visitors leaving the wagon walked through a pile of garbage; in Moscow they walked through the garbage to enter the wagon. In 1991 authentic Soviet garbage was airlifted to Düsseldorf. In contemporary Moscow it proved to be impossible to find authentic Soviet garbage, so the organizers were obliged to use the “neutral” rubbish that accumulated from setting up the installation.
If the symbolism of The Red Wagon mutated substantially in Moscow 2008, the installation called Life of Flies(1998), reconstructed at Vinzavod, acquired no new meaning. In its original version the project claimed to be a general description of the culture, philosophy, economy, and sociopolitical system of the hermetic civilization of flies. Commenting on the installation, Emilia stressed that the fly civilization is situated directly above Russia. Was that an homage to the Kremlin leadership, which wants to see the Russian Federation as absolutely autonomous and self-sufficient and at the same time able to dictate its wishes to the whole world?
Ilya left Russia in 1988 and didn’t return until the Hermitage Museum organized an exhibition in 2004. He was determined to stay away until his works would be understood in the motherland. Now everyone in Russia understands his works, even the “respected gentlemen” (as they are called here) and their high-maintenance companions, who waited in line to see The Toilet, an installation first shown at Documenta in 1992 and re-created at Vinzavod.
Kabakov built a public toilet with six stalls and crammed into it a bed, a crib, a dresser, a nightstand, and a table half set for dinner. In 1992 this wretched room was taken to express the idea that Russians live in excrement. This time around, nationalistic journalists found a new explanation for it. According to them, The Toiletexpresses the total misanthropy of the creator of total installations.
Andre Kovalev is an art critic and writer in Moscow. Translated by Konstantin Akinsha.