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Ilya Kabakov: 'Answers of an Experimental Group.'

It was in the mid '70s, shortly after I moved from Leningrad to Moscow, that I met Ilya Kabakov and first saw his work. In those days Kabakov belonged to the "unofficial" Moscow art scene, and the work of "unofficial" artists could only be viewed by people who knew them personally and were invited to their studios. Back in Leningrad, I had already written about Western Conceptual art in an article about Jorge Luis Borges for an underground magazine; a number of Moscow artists had read and liked this essay, and it gained me entree to their studios

Much of what I saw impressed me deeply, but it was the visits with Kabakov that influenced my relationship to art, and to my own writing. His work had an instant effect on me, like a dropkick. The painting Answers of an Experimental Group was only one of the works I saw at the time, but it well illustrates the artist's gesture, which affected me so profoundly.

In the '60s and '70s I moved exclusively in the circles of the unofficial Russian culture. And like a traditional avant-gardist, I automatically rejected everything approved and offered up by the state; art was legitimate for me only if it transgressed social taboos and refused ideological controls. At the time, the unofficial artists of the Soviet Union were actively persecuted, and suffered greatly for their art. This only cemented a view of them as the embodiments of inner freedom.

Despite such clear demonstrations of authentic commitment on the part of these artists, which naturally compelled solidarity, I often felt uneasy about their work. For I noticed that while they did in fact violate the sanctions of the Soviet censors, their transgression of local taboos seemed almost inevitably to conform to Western artistic protocols. What in the Soviet context appeared as monstrosity came off in the Western context as banal. It was my own conviction that artists who wanted to transgress taboos really had to defy them all.

This will to the radical New increasingly paralyzed my own writing, however. First, as Western taboos were foreign to me, desire to violate them had little real urgency. Second, besides having a certain sympathy for Western art, I knew that to challenge its conventions would be to align myself, at least indirectly with the West's primary opponent, i.e., with Soviet totalitarianism. In no way did I want to do that. The cold war, it seemed, was the perfect machine for rendering all possible avant-gardes banal: transgression no longer meant leapin into the unknown but merely switching one's allegiance to the ideological opponent lurking on the other side of the border. That was as true in the West as it was in the East: for the first time in history one knew unequivocally tha the border only separated one banality from another.

And now on to Answers of an Experimental Group. The right-hand half of the painting contains a Dada-istic type of composition of the kind that would once have expressed the absurdity of life and of the world. At the top, there is a clothes hanger. The left-hand half shows rows of verbal observations on this composition, mimicking almost exactly the voices one heard in the Soviet realit of the time--from the simple ("I will hang my new coat here") to the ambitious ("I don't believe a sign system without plastic quality can produce a picture") Common to all these reactions, however, is their lack of perplexity or confusion. Whether vernacular or intellectual, these remarks suggest that the viewers behind them think they understand what they see. Kabakov has discovered something here that is even more absurd than the Absurd itself: the Absurd isn' recognized as absurd. Taboos are violated, boundaries transgressed, risks taken--and no one notices. The painting wants to provoke through its striking meaninglessness, but everyone finds some meaning in it.

The provocation fails, but not because provocativeness has become the rule in our culture (as a widespread post-Modern reading would have it). Rather, it fails because everything we do that breaks our rules can be suspected of being rule, a banality, for someone else. And we never know whether other people doin the same thing are following their own rules or breaking them. To know that, we would have to possess an intuitive understanding of all the different systems o rules around us--and who can pretend to such an understanding? The more the public diversifies, the more private its traditions and taboos become. Each individual today has his or her own taboos, and can share the joy of breaking them with almost no one. An exciting discovery for one person is familiar or irrelevant to others. The transgression of boundaries has become a lonely occupation, appearing to onlookers simply as the passage from one banality into another.

Neither images nor the interpretation of them can escape this predisposition to the banal. Whatever I might say or write about Answers of an Experimental Group could easily find a place on the painting's left-hand side, among the other phrases, and next to the clothes hanger itself. Every border within this painting is a border between visual and discursive banalities. And banalities occupy the entire space--a map of the cold war of all against all.

The map may seem frustrating, but actually I find it relieving, even liberating Since seeing Answers of an Experimental Group, I still write to break my own private taboos, but my heart no longer aches when I hear that other people are completely in agreement with what I write, and somehow have always already thought the same thing themselves.
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Author:Groys, Boris
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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