Kabakov is an irresistible character despite his invisibility. He creates imaginary characters and narrates whimsical tales. For example, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1985) refers to a hero who plans a mission to catapult himself into outer space. The imaginary dreamer builds a makeshift slingshot and hurls himself into deep space through a hole in the roof. The cosmonaut floats entranced through the universe never to return.
The winter Olympics open in Sochi this week in what will likely be a proud moment for the Russian Federation. The pageantry should evoke a splendid vision of Russian history. Kabakov’s art is relevant to this history. The cosmonaut’s aspirations are an individualized version of the Soviet Union’s fierce desire to be the first to send a man into outer space. In recent exhibitions, he has asked tough questions about how to construct an honest account of historical events.
Looking forward to Sochi, I am aware of old biases aimed at the “evil empire” of my youth. The Cold War prism is clouded and caked with dirt. The old tension between the two nations is palpable. Once again, I’m suspicious of the insidious Russian propaganda machine.
This is not new. Kabakov was conflicted about his experience with the authoritarian regime though for different reasons. He had not wanted to leave his country, but he needed to exhibit his art. It was an exasperating proposition under a repressive state. When the artist left, he exhibited his work on the world’s stage and was soon recognized as a superstar within the international art world.
Let us reconsider The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment for a moment. If it reflects the artist’s disarming imagination, it also speaks of his turmoil. Kabakov first created the installation in the studio of his Moscow apartment. Later it was recreated for European and American audiences. In either instance, bright posters of happy Soviets plastered on the walls of makeshift studios clash with the dreary atmosphere of the communal apartment. The slingshot is shabby. The displaced inhabitant blasts himself through a hole in the roof. This is bitter commentary.
Did Kabakov dream of a personal utopia? Or, of escaping Soviet dystopia? Furthermore, why does he speak in the third person?
In an article in the January edition of Art in America entitled “Becoming Kabakov,” Margarita Tupitsyn explores the artist’s identity as he slides from one imaginary character to another. Remarkably, she points to personal authorship in recent work. In 2013, the artist returned to Russia to exhibit his own art.
“Utopia and Reality?” is critical of state controlled art establishments that tell their artists what to make. While The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment addressed political repression, in recent installations, Kabakov has rejected authoritarian government control as well as collective authorship. He has done so in the first person.
Furthermore, the question mark in the title points to unresolved problems. Should Social Realism be included in textbooks? What is the appropriate response to blatant propaganda and bad art? What about Stalin? Should Russia memorialize evil men?
Kabakov seems unsure of the answers. There is a sense of longing in his commentary for a stable, coherent art establishment, for scholarship that critically analyzes Russian art. But Russia is presently dizzy with revision. It is still projecting an image of itself that is not true to life. It is a period of assessment and time is needed before some of the answers to these daunting questions fall into place.
I suspect that the events in Sochi will be moving at the same time that I am suspicious of Russia. The Edward Snowden incident highlights the current tension that exists between the two nations. Snowden has compromised the security of the United States. The Russian Federation has offered asylum to an enemy within.
Then again, Snowden has exposed the United States as a super snoop. The United States apparently has been keeping an eye on all of us as well as the rest of the world. While we are suspicious of others, they too are suspicious of us. It seems that while we strive to invent our own utopia, we experience dystopia in our everyday existence. This binary is riddled with tension. Nevertheless, Kabakov has navigated this tension and seems to suggest that truth to life clarifies history.