Kabakov with
his Belt Ripped

llya & Emilia Kabakov: The Dream City
Power Station of Art, Shanghai
08.08.15 – 06.12.15

Joint Second Prize
Entry in Chinese

Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho

When Americans embrace Solzhenitsyn, they have to cover their ears to his ruthless vilification of the United States. Likewise, Kabakov is a weird character who has been misread endlessly by contemporary art history. Certainly, what is different here is that the nationalism Kabakov manifests is slyer and more profound than that of Solzhenitsyn. The tinges of idealism and transcendentalism that jump out of his works defy simplistic ideological categorization, making an American-style categorically politicized [ fanzhengzhi-hua 泛政治化 ] reading onto it even more difficult. Thus, critics and curators are intent on ripping apart Kabakov’s belt – forcing the presentation of those issues the artist never intended to address in front of the viewers’ eyes, and misleading the audience’s understanding of the great ideas that Kabakov conveys.

It is high time to discard the ideological dummy we have been sucking on for years; how to go beyond the simplistic and antithetical clichés while continuing the artistic tradition of Chinese socialism has become a pressing issue. This Kabakov exhibition at PSA lays the groundwork for our reexamination of the differences between Marx’s Communism and Lenin’s Socialism with regard to art history, and offers the possibility of responding to a deeper understanding of the birth of conceptual art in the 20th century.

Two Kabakovs

In the contemporary art world’s interpretation of Kabakov, there are two images of the Kabakovs – one Kabakov being an ‘exile’ of Soviet socialism who endeavours to disclose the abominations of the former Soviet Union and the hideousness of Bolshevism, and the other Kabakov being ‘the pioneering maestro in contemporary installation art’ who constantly explores the forms of art and presents multiple ideal homelands and utopias filled with sensibility and imagination. Thus, between these two mixed interpretations, critics have been entertaining permutation and combination – that Bolshevism’s hideousness gave rise to Kabakov’s pure utopianism, or that his study of utopian forms hastened his escape from the abominable Soviet.

Correspondingly, Kabakov’s works have also been split in two – one, represented by The Man who Flew into Space from His Apartment, is perceived as the expression of the artist’s escape from the former Soviet Union; the other,represented by The Ideal City featured at this exhibition, is viewed as his yearning for utopia.

Both these two interpretations are absurd. Emilia Kabakov has clearly opposed such misinterpretations: ‘Upon hearing the name Kabakov, people will think of The Toilet or Commune Dormitories… which they assume are all associated with Soviet Russia. Actually they are not;culture, philosophy, literature, art history, all these are also an integral part.’ Therefore, misinterpretations derive not from the Kabakovs’ works of art, but from those who look at ‘Utopia’ and the Kabakovs’ work through ideologically-tinged spectacles. The writing of art history since Modernism, which is steeped in the norms of American ideology, has from the onset emphasized ‘free creation’ as the characteristic of art; the problem is that the ‘freedomof creation’ inherent in art is reduced to the ‘individual freedom’ of artists in this logic of art history. This distortion and misreading of the concept of freedom has led to a new type of unfreedom – a ‘predicament within the freedom of thought’ as hijacked by political correctness.

In Kabakov’s own interpretation of his work The Man who Flew into Space from His Apartment, he mentioned he was at one time disturbed by his dream, when he had always dreamed of himself flying alone towards the sky. He was determined to try every possible means to realize this dream, a grand project of his. As envisioned by the dweller of this room, the universe is filled with various upward-moving streams of energy. His plan is to capture these streams of energy in order to fly out.

Therefore, this grand project is in fact an ‘Icarian’ feat that resorts to wings glued together with wax. This plan can be traced back to the artist’s profession as an illustrator of children’s books in the former Soviet Union, but more than that it is an expression of his dream of human beings flying towards the sky and towards the universe. Its delicacy lies in the fact that he did not rely on what is external to his life to help him transcend humanity’s confinement, which made him even more heroic, and also doomed him to an eventual fall to Earth, like Icarus did.

The Ideal City is in fact not a utopia that designs its inner world through artistic means, but rather a post-utopian exploration of humanity’s destiny. But, due to the ‘predicament within the freedom of thought’ in the field of contemporary art, the ideological distortion of utopia itself not only exacerbates the weakening of the artwork’s original impact, but also conversely aggrandises the kind of simplistic and antithetical judgment of the ‘politics of right and wrong’ [ i.e. a black and white dichotomous logic ] – once aligned with the correct camp, the works of art seem to immediately take on certain values. Hence the criteria for evaluating art slide from the hipbone down to the knee, which one barely has the will to look straight at.

Utopian Kabakov

Of course, if we insist on believing that Kabakov has never explored Soviet daily life, it would be a most idiotic statement. Concerning this, Kabakov’s own response is that he is creating art based on reality: mundane reality, our partial reality, Soviet reality. If some people think he creates art based on reality through which he still conveys reality, then they merely regard Kabakov as a Soviet documentary filmmaker. Ideological simplification forces us to be properly aligned in politically correct positions while chanting slogans of freedom. There is nothing wrong to be politically correct; yet it is precisely the cowardly act of curling up, especially forcing others to curl up in an ideological safety net, that causes us to miss out on the most wonderful parts of everyday life.

The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away actually points to a crystal-clear theme – the relationship between human survival and objects. This theme is one of the key considerations of Marxism, that is, the possibility for humanity to utterly lose the possibility for self-existence after being dissociated with objects – upon Engels also constructed a set of grand historical materialistic theories of historical evolution. The concept of the proletarian movement was precisely the response to such an awkward situation – the production of materials is a struggle concerning human essence; material expansion and dispersal is the philosophy concerning human extension in the world.This is the source of the logic for all communist movements, and is also the origin of the Chinese socialist revolution.

But this work is by no means a simple statement about some socialist slogan. What the bits of paper in the work illustrate are all everyday quarrels and frolics. What they seek to convey is the same as his 1982 painting Nikolai Ivanovich Kovin: The Kettle is All Dirty. Due to cramped living conditions, people have to put labels on their personal belongings to avoid them being misplaced or misused. Anyone who has had experience of Chinese communal dormitories or ‘tube-shaped apartments’ [ tongzilou ] would knowingly smile at such humour. In other words, when objects become important indexes of human extension, the crowdedness between objects becomes the crowdedness between people; the depletion and waste of materials, and the utilisation and abandonment of materials are the manifestation of human survival and abandonment.

There is an ‘intentional misreading’ of Kabakov in the contemporary art world. Since the end of World War II, McCarthyism in the US has been constantly clearing out socialists. This cleansing has coincided with the silencing of European leftist intellectuals and artists in the US, as well as contemporary art forms such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Minimalist art and conceptual art taking shape within the core of the American spirit. The writing of contemporary art history intentionally erases the early socialist inclinations of the Surrealists, the American Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Pollock, and converts them to some ‘internationalist style’ born from the activity of European intellectuals led by an American spirit of freedom.

Therefore, Russian conceptual artists, represented by Kabakov, who entered the  US in the 1980s, are given a dual mandate for interpretations such as this – on the one hand, they are expected to be exiles who oppose Soviet Communist ideology; on the other hand, they are expected to admit that the mantle of US conceptual art falls on them. Regarding the former, apparently Kabakov was a member of the official Soviet artists’ association; as for the latter, Kabakov acknowledges himself to be Malevich’s spiritual heir.

It is exactly under such a thematic context that Kabakov has repeatedly studied the imagery of the gate. The gate, as a symbol of opening and passing through, always leads people from one space to another. But the sacred gate in The Ideal City does not symbolize the ‘gate of freedom’ connecting Russia and the US. It is only the kernel that exists alone in the space. After people pass from one end to the other, nothing changes. The sacredness lies in the act of passing through itself; people are passing thro-ugh in a poetic atmosphere, and are surpassing themselves.

Post-Utopian Kabakov

In one interview in 1987, Kabakov clearly told the interviewer that his work is ‘to reflect the post-utopian humanity, world and state of our inner world – which is our task.’

Post-utopian is not utopia or anti-utopia. It is a temporal reference; it can refer to the state of affairs after utopia, or it can refer to the latter stage in the evolution of utopia. This is a neutral remark. It does not reveal to us the beauty or evil of utopia with sentiment, nor does it unveil to us how utopia forms and organizes itself. What sets post-utopia apart from these notions is that it denotes a certain transcending, which refers to the circumstances that human beings enter into after undergoing various sufferings and ordeals.

In fact, Kabakov’s works have certain theatrical effects – this is directly associated with what he self-defines as ‘Total Art’. As demonstrated in The Boat of My Life, the work first creates a theatre for the viewers. But this theatre is not like his best-known work, The Toilet, where viewers experience the dirty and the filthy. On the contrary, the cramped everyday life is here depicted as a journey, a perpetual journey. People live here, float here, know not what course to take, and never get off the boat.

If The Toilet marks the distortion of the theme of ‘eating and excretion’ that Kabakov discussed in an attack on Soviet politics at the 1992 Kassel ʻdocumentaʼ, then The Boat of My Life is a response to such simplistic and crude interpretations of ideology. When talking about this work, Kabakov stressed that, ‘In essence, this work is to present my life and my story through the means of installation art.’ In this story, the boat does not end up travelling to the gulag archipelago; instead, it tells, reflects, and stages the artist’s life and human lives at large.

Kabakov’s The Ideal City, however, continues his ‘monumental’ exploration of Western art. Although many of his works seem to use the Tower of Babel as the prototype, this design eventually gets verification from The Ideal City: The Empty Museum. The monumental character of museums does not come from within the work, but is brought about by man-made light beams. Perpetuity lies in the space, the colours and the other space created by the halo – this is what the ‘post’ in ‘post-utopian’ connotes.

In other words, this is precisely the signal that what Kabakov claims as total art attempts to convey. What it concerns is not really a cultural relativism contingent upon the specific time and space, but the conditions of survival shared by all of humanity. When the artist fully utilises all media in one specific site and space, and when all media form a theatre, at the moment when many voices break out, what falls is not infatuation or loss but a sigh in the wilderness.

Flying and passing through, commemorating and looking up, discarding and reviving – these few motifs of art, as well as applying design and engineering to the realisation of these motifs, have run through Kabakov’s work. At the same time, these social motifs were also the core ideals of early Soviet socialism and even the world Communist movement – and have eventually become the destiny of the Soviet socialist revolution and even contemporary Russian politics. More importantly, it is these ideals that gave rise to contemporary art. It is only when integrated with the thinking of the Russian philosopher Fyodorov that Kabakov’s works make total sense, of which a glimpse can be gained only in its echo of early socialist ideals.





是时候扔掉我们长年叼着的意识形态奶嘴了—如何超越简单对立的陈词滥调,并接续中国社会主义自己的艺术传统,已经成为一个亟待解决的问题。卡巴科夫在上海艺术博物馆( PSA )的本次展览,正好为我们在艺术史中重新梳理马克思的共产主义与列宁的社会主义之间的差别做出了重要铺垫,也为更深入的理解20世纪观念艺术的诞生史提供了做出回应的可能。