Dossier | Explosive Works: A conversation with Ilya Kabakov

Explosive Works : A conversation with Ilya Kabakov
By Victor Tupitsyn & Margarita Tupitsyn

In Explosive Works, Kabakov's opening statement is based upon the assumption that the “autonomous” art is an endangered species, for it is permanently under attack. In this sense, this trialogue is a form of sabotage, an attempt to derail “enemy’s plots and efforts.” The point of departure of the trialogue was Damien Hirst’s exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, New York City, in fall 2000.

ILYA KABAKOV: The peculiarity of the present moment is that one feels a desire to remember the earlier blows of fate. One of those was the birth of pop art and the emergence of Andy Warhol on the horizon. Today, the blows dealt in art ignore the zone of art itself. This, it seems to me, is a very significant difference. The blow of pop art was dealt from within. Pop art was a nuclear explosion limited to a single apartment: a couch exploded and a pillar of dust went up, but the building sustained no damage. What is the primary characteristic of today’s strategy of the blow? The blow is dealt in such a way that it touches on entirely different spheres that are not described by the art world. This is like a carpet-bombing strategy where you count on the fact that if you cover (i.e. bomb) the entire city, our enemy’s house will be destroyed too. In order to understand the technology of such carpet apocalypse, one has to give proper credit to the spreading of unconscious fears as well as reflections on how “culture is dying.”

VICTOR TUPITSYN: This “culture of dying” is yet another technology, or onto-technology. The mnemonic functions we perform in museums help us believe that we are exactly who we pretend to be. In such places, reflection about the past is replaced with something else, objectified. In other words, this is not memory but the industry of memory.

I. K.: Yes, and besides, the museum functions today as a church which until recently held a monopoly on all things “high” — that is, was in charge of the spheres of metaphysics and mysticism.

MARGARITA TUPITSYN: It’s a kind of multicultural church, where entrance is open to anyone regardless of the aesthetic beliefs they profess. In earlier times — in the 1970s, for instance — museums were associated with the work of the curators. The function of the museum director was similar to the role of a “father” who had to do everything he could so that his “children,” the curators, could carry out their scholarly projects. Today, the curators simply fulfil the global fantasies of the director and of other individuals afflicted with the same megalomania. These authority-makers “throw down” ideas from the height of their positions, as it were, while the curators (especially women) “come running and carry them out.” Here, I am basically quoting the words of a certain corrupt Soviet functionary who described in just this way (back in 1991) the realization of the “Great Utopia” exhibition, which I co-curated. As the artist Viktor Pivovarov noted very accurately, “With the opening of Russia, the West went to the crooks.” In 1971 the Hans Haacke exhibition at the Guggenheim created quite a stir but never actually opened. Speaking of Haacke, I will note that his “exposés” of unattractive situations unfolding behind the scenes of the art world made him a hero to radical critics and curators. Once upon a time they were called “grouches,” because they got on many people’s nerves and did not allow the kinds of situations I’m talking about to become routine. Now they’ve gotten older and have become professors. But new “grouches,” alas, have not emerged.

I. K.: Yes, but what about a new viewer? After all, today the independence of the viewer’s path is totally under control. A visit to the museum is no longer the visitor’s private affair. Yet, visitors understand that what dooms them is not the fact that this is museum policy, but the fact that the people enforcing it are basically not part of the art world — they are politicians, entrepreneurs, illusionists, medical experimenters. We don’t believe that Larry Gagosian is merely a representative of the art world. We don’t believe that Damien Hirst is only an artist. They are some sort of mysterious international businessmen who are in cahoots with the museums, the auctions, and a whole range of mechanisms that we know well from our own experience. But the people we’re talking about right now are elevating it to...

M. T.: ... the rank of art?

I. K.: Yes, and doing it quite candidly, too. Nothing is as frightening as the cynical transparency of deception written all over the faces of the critics and artists who encounter this situation. Any one of them could expose it, but they’re trained not to notice what’s going on. This moment of bourgeois hypocrisy allows us to understand what the politics of art is all about today. It’s about a complete penetration into the economic spheres in relation to which the zone of art is either a superficial layer or an insignificant part of a larger structure. Today, anyone within this structure who fixates on the zone of art is doomed to extinction. In other words, this is complete and unconditional surrender: everyone puts their hands up, with varying degrees of resentment. But if you still somehow manage to muster the courage to squawk something about this, you will at once be declared a retrograde, a conservative, an idiot. People will say that you’re not looking ahead, that you don’t believe in the history of art, and that you’re just jealous and a loser or something like that, anyway. We admire only the heroes.

M. T.: There were periods in the history of art when radicalism and transgression did not seem to be merely empty words. Without them, the history of art could have moved ahead only chronologically, if at all. There’s nothing radical about what’s being done now.

I. K.: I’ve already argued that Damien Hirst, with all of his stunts, fits 100% into the historical paradigm of modernism. It’s a clever move, since the references to tradition are reassuring and disarming. After all, the first thing to catch our eye at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea (2000) (1) is Sol LeWitt’s cubes, which he closed with glass and filled with water. But the filling hasn’t changed anything of substance — it’s still the same formalism and geometrism. As a result, the reference to the sources of modernist trends in art is observed, and quite rigidly too.

V. T.: The striking thing about Hirst’s career is how precisely it coincides with certain hackneyed psychopathological clichés. Even in his early conceptual works, he displayed an interest in the tools used during autopsies. It’s possible that the unconscious self-identification with the pathologist (developed at the time) was later transferred to animals. I refer to his period of dissecting sheep or sharks as a time when he assumed an imaginary identity, which could be described as a relapse into the “mirror stage.” At this stage the child’s inner experience of the body is not yet integrated and is compensated by an external mirror image — an identity no longer lacking totality or wholeness. As we get older, the stigma of partiality experienced in early childhood returns at different levels, with different problems and in different symbolic contexts. (2)

In Hirst’s work, the longing for totality, unattainable in the mirror stage, turns into the totality of death — the death of art, the end of the autonomous. Its autopsy is not only carried out but aestheticized, thereby contributing to what narcissistic ego contemplates in death — the “completeness of the image” as a compensation for its unattainability by other means. As we know, the goal of the artist who thinks critically is to prevent or delay the transformation of “autonomous” art into culture industry. By now, Adorno’s arguments expressed in “Aesthetic Theory” still retain its appeal but has largely lost its effectiveness. The cause of this is the expansion of the culture industry into the sphere of the optical unconscious, as well as the instantaneous mimetic exchange between them, inspired by new technologies and so on. That which Adorno considered non-identical to the culture industry turns out to be contaminated by it even before the moment of reification. Thanks to the media, and to the phenomenon of instantaneous reciprocation, the temporary gap between autonomous art and its Other has ceased to exist. Accordingly, the death of art is no longer its Other. Damien Hirst’s installation in the Gagosian gallery is the best confirmation of that. Art is dead, it is no more, but this very subject becomes art.

I. K.: But can’t we say that the dynamic of the art process is also based on politics?

M. T.: It is based mostly on conservative politics, linked to banks, corporations, and wealthy art patrons who always “know” exactly what art should and shouldn’t be. It’s precisely because the connection between art and radical politics has been lost that it has become harder for us to endow a work of art with any functions other than aesthetic ones.

I. K.: Yes. It’s a sphere of interests that also embraces, in a broader sense, both NATO and American politics.

V. T.: Politics in the old sense of the word... Now, this concept has lost its familiar contours. In all probability, not only external but internal connections have been severed as well. Politics has ceased to be identical to itself, to its structures and definitions, to its teleology. Just as we don’t know whether art remains an artistic phenomenon, we also no longer know whether politics remains a political phenomenon. And it’s not because today political reality appears to us in a non-political guise. Today, politics is practically everything, to say nothing of the relativity of the concept of political radicalism. The “political epoché” has lost its meaning, and we are all the losers for it. Even though the triangulation of politics has become an ambiguous venture, we would like to believe in the existence of something politically visible, something with clear conceptual contours, weight, and span. For the French, for instance, the last time the nature of radical politics was absolutely clear was in 1968. In Iran, it was in the 1980s; as for Russia, the radical restoration of capitalism took place in the early 1990s. On the one hand, political acts — institutional or contractual, public or private — cannot be separated from non-political ones. On the other hand, despite the hopelessness of this enterprise, we continue to put the world through the sieve of political reduction.

I. K.: Both positions, the revolutionary and the conservative, are equally linked to the past. The peculiarity of the new time lies in the fact that the principle of memory and the presence of the past are completely taken out of circulation.

M. T.: It’s amnesia. When a person wakes up after a car crash and doesn’t know who his mommy and daddy are.

I. K.: Yes. But what happens then is a very interesting way of working with time. If there is no past, then, of course, there is no future either. Then what is there? There is a very narrow slit between this morning and this evening. I discover this world, as it were, when I wake up in the morning. And then I act with the energy that this situation requires — the spatial situation of today.

V. T.: This is a very interesting phenomenon, since our perception is already programmed in such a way that we react exclusively to fractions of phenomena, events, and experiences. Therefore, when there is an opportunity to take a deeper look at something or to evaluate the true scope of what is happening, we become confused, having gotten used to surrogates and to partiality. We have adjusted to watching the world through a “crack,” and when somebody discovers that an entire world can fit into such a crack, it is stunning. It creates an illusion that if you open up the fractions of seconds to which the mass media have gotten us accustomed, the resulting opening will familiarize us with the totality of the scene in which everything is taken into account, put on record and given a place. This media technique — the technique of manipulating fragments in order to endow them with the false (or exaggerated) sense of universality — is precisely what Hirst’s strategy relies on. The viewer’s willingness to accept it is made possible because, tired of feeding on the fractional and dissatisfied by partiality, we cry out for compensation. Clearly, the notion of political orientation has become extremely muddled. It bears a resemblance to what Jean-François Lyotard defined as the différend — a conflict that does not fit within the framework of existing standards, whether logical, legal, lexical, etc. Apparently, the number of such standards can no longer be counted. Like snow, they envelop social and moral problems and the problems of cultural politics. Such a “snowball effect” makes it difficult to adopt enlightened decisions, and hence engenders cynicism and indifference towards art’s integration into the culture industry — an event that I find reminiscent of a funeral banquet. This funeral wake has already become a “new” style, and can go on forever, generating cycles and repetitions, as well as requiring the creation of suitable props and sets. Such is the soil in which the new aesthetics will bloom, the aesthetics of the funeral, the art of mourning art. This era may turn out to be longer and more “fruitful” than all the preceding periods.

I. K.: But this reflects the position of the defeated. The question arises: should the situation be viewed as hopeless? Another possibility is to ignore the question itself and to go on living as if nothing happened. Or a third option: to mount something in opposition, something no less active. These are the three strategies.

V. T.: If autonomous art becomes a part of the culture industry before it has even had a chance to be born, then the only justification for it is political activism. It’s better to be socially engaged than to saturate the art market with “timeless” artistic treasures while thinking that you are shaking the foundations of the world or fighting for creative freedom. And yet, it would be naive to expect all the artists and critics to quit what they do and join a punitive expedition or crusade against the culture industry. The point, however, is that those who easily submit their minds and souls to the culture industry are not automatically rewarded by it. To corrupt an adversary (not an ally) is global capitalism’s top priority. As a result, some of its fiercest opponents end up being its most celebrated converts. That is why, given the growing incoherence of many opinions (including my own), I try to clarify for myself what political activism and political orientation can mean in this situation. The choice of the so-called “third way” depends on this. But as long as such a way does not exist (or remains unknown), griping against Hirst, or Jeff Koons, is just as senseless as calling a funeral home to protest the existence of death.

I. K.: Should we ignore what’s happening around us and continue to paint “as one should,” or join in the battle and leave art for design under the pretext that today fashion is the cutting edge and art is the province of the elderly?

M. T.: Often, we fail to recognize the importance of the development of a process and react solely to its culmination. Thus, the takeover of art by design and the competition between them is a fairly old story. In New York, this began in the mid-1980s, with the opening of such boutiques as Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. Visiting these boutiques was sometimes more interesting than visiting galleries, and even the well-known architect Peter Eisenman made an installation in Comme des Garçons which was featured in an issue of the journal October. In a sense, he declared this space to be more modern than the traditional premises of an exhibition. Then, many art galleries moved to Chelsea and began to impress not with their art but with their space and design. Curiously, Comme des Garçons is the only boutique that also moved from SoHo to Chelsea. In other words, all this developed over a fairly long period of time. And if we’re going to talk about the historical aspect of the relationship between design and art, one has to remember the Russian avant-garde and Bauhaus. As Jean Baudrillard put it, “The mortal enemy of design is kitsch. Ostensibly destroyed by the Bauhaus, it always rises again from its ashes.” (3)

I. K.: And anyway, it’s hard to say what art is when there is no audience. Everything is based on shock effects. The combination of stupidity and shock is a law of show business. The unfortunate thing is that we allow ourselves to be manipulated.

[Translated from the Russian by Cathy Young]
NOTES
1. The show was titled Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings.
2. The stigma of partiality is experienced in the mirror stage and caused by the infant’s inability to see the “totality” of his or her own body. In early childhood, our self-observation is limited to “part-objects,” such as feet or arms, but not the whole body. The lack of wholeness is compensated, albeit temporarily, through “mirror identification” with parents and other adults.
3. Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Charles Levin (St.Louis, Mo.: Telos Press, 1981), 195.

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