Issue #139 No Order Makes Any Sense: A Conversation on Ilya Kabakov

No Order Makes Any Sense: A Conversation on Ilya Kabakov

Boris Groys and Anton Khitrov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Ship of Tolerance, under sail on a lake in the Siwa Oasis, Egypt, 2005. Courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

Issue #139
October 2023

The artist Ilya Kabakov, a leading light of Moscow conceptualism, died on May 27, 2023. Here the critic Anton Khitrov discusses Kabakov’s legacy with Boris Groys, a friend of Kabakov’s and a scholar of his work.

Anton Khitrov: Someone unfamiliar with Soviet unofficial art would surely be surprised that Kabakov constantly employed masks and alter egos in his work. Apparently, in an unfree country, the underground is the very space where one can be oneself and speak one’s mind. Don’t you see a contradiction here?

Boris Groys: There is no contradiction. When you express yourself, you inevitably do something trivial and indulge in triteness—because people are basically trite. As Malevich said, sincerity is the artist’s principal enemy. Kabakov’s protagonists are simply naive artists who seek to express themselves, each in their own way. Sometimes they also happen to rediscover the history of European modernism. Kabakov acts in this instance not as an artist but as a curator, showing that the sincere works which he allegedly selected are masks as well.

The difference between face and mask is illusory. There is such a thing as facial recognition. The face cannot escape the recognition algorithms: the whole tracking system is based on this. It is enough to look at a deepfake to be convinced that every face can be turned into a mask, and every mask into a face. Kabakov precisely shows this ambivalence between face and mask. On the one hand, his characters are sincere and even perish in the name of their art (the albums always end with the death of the artist). On the other, everything they do can easily be understood as a trivial gesture in the overall context of the culture in which they lived.

If you live in any country, free or unfree, which is dominated by mass culture (as was the Soviet Union in the 1970s), the problem is that the only independent stance available to you is the stance of introspection. It’s not a stance that lends itself to devising new gestures, because they are immediately absorbed by the mass culture. It is so powerful that individuals cannot resist it: everything they do is immediately consumed by it. But introspection and analysis are possible. Why? Because mass culture itself is neither introspective nor analytical. It doesn’t understand itself, in a sense. It is a Goliath, but it isn’t very bright. In those years, certain artists in Moscow, New York, and other places were busy meditating on mass culture.

Boris Groys and Ilya Kabakov, Zürich, 1989. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.

AK: Do I correctly understand that in the years when Kabakov was emerging as an artist, he had no hope of success whatsoever, just like the other Moscow conceptualists?

BG: Yes and no. Of course, they did not count on achieving success within the Soviet official art system. That was impossible, despite the fact that Kabakov was a successful illustrator: he illustrated a huge number of children’s books in his time. But his art really could not have been officially recognized. Success in the West was also not considered a real possibility at the time, of course. And yet, the unofficial art scenes in Moscow and Petersburg were quite large and widespread. Artists, including Kabakov, sought success and recognition there, among their own kind.

This was not an exceptional situation. The same thing happened in Paris and Berlin in the early twentieth century. The Dadaists, cubists, and others were tiny groups. No one knew about those artists outside of a particular milieu. The situation in the West in the 1960s was similar: for example, Art & Language, which many people know about now, was little known at the time. Success in art is not the same as the success of, say, a pop singer. It is not measured in the thousands or millions of listeners. Even today, it is success among one’s own kind; and only over time, historically, does it come into the popular consciousness. There are exceptions, like Dali or Warhol. But Picasso gained fame only after the war, and Duchamp was basically discovered in the 1960s.

AK: And yet, many artists nowadays try to get their work into galleries, contemporary art fairs, and famous collections. How does it affect their work? What is the difference between art originally meant for one’s own kind, and art meant for something like the Cosmoscow Art Fair?

BG: Someone who wants to make a career here and now works in the codes and conventions of their time. This is the same as the academism of the nineteenth century, when people painted Venus and Adonis so their work would be exhibited at the Paris Salon and sold for a lot of money.

Unlike them, the impressionists, for example, retreated from the conventional codes. They understood their art not as the realization of the public’s current preferences but as a gesture aimed at a longer history. In letters and other texts, they say they want to find the specific reflection of their time in the sequence of historical epochs. It was the same with the futurists, who explicitly stated that they were the face of their time. Artists choose to deviate from the norm in order to do something within the great perspective of art’s evolution. That’s the difference. And it is noticeable to outsiders.

And yet, of course, after many, many centuries, we come to find the trivial works of their day interesting if they are well done. When I immigrated to the West in 1981, it was nearly impossible to see nineteenth-century academism in Europe. I first saw these works in Buenos Aires, where they had been imported by rich Argentines. But over time, the Musée d’Orsay and other institutions gradually exhibited them.

AK: In your texts, in interviews with Emilia Kabakov, the artist’s wife and collaborator, and in interviews with Kabakov himself, I have repeatedly encountered the idea that his art is not political. What does this mean? Is there such a thing as nonpolitical art?

BG: I think this claim is bound up with the political situation in the late-period Soviet Union and its aftermath. To put it rather crudely, politics meant choosing either to support the Soviet regime or to oppose it. The Soviet regime was thus implicitly or explicitly understood as the realization of a particular ideology, and you were either for this ideology or against it. But Kabakov, like many other artists of that time, including Dmitri Prigov, Erik Bulatov, and Viktor Pivovarov, saw the Soviet Union not in terms of ideology but as a particular space of everyday life. In some ways, this view is reminiscent of the French philosophy of the day, with the move away from the regime vs. common people dichotomy and towards describing everyday practices that cannot be termed either ideological or anti-ideological.

Kabakov played around with the middlebrow Soviet aesthetic. It was not a matter of ideological propaganda but precisely of aesthetics. Prigov did the same thing. Was their work political per se? It was political in the sense, of course, that the official Soviet ideology was incapable of reflecting on its own culture. It lacked the means for reflecting, aesthetically and artistically, on the Soviet space, while those who opposed this ideology simply rejected that space. Kabakov tried to go beyond these oppositions and look at the texture of the real life which people inhabited then. He wasn’t the only one who sought to do to this, but I would say he did it better than others.

Ilya Kabakov, Box with Garbage, 1986. Courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

AK: Why did he do it better?

BG: Because he was more accurate. Of course, both Prigov and Bulatov also produced accurate works. But I would say that Kabakov, in his albums and installations, conveyed with the greatest accuracy the aesthetic and the space which people inhabited in the Soviet years. He had a studio on Sretensky Boulevard, in an old six-story building with a steep staircase. To get there, you had to climb to the top of the dark, smelly, garbage-strewn stairs and walk across boards hanging over god knows what.

Once a small group of French art critics went up there, a visit which I witnessed. They cursed as they clambered up those stairs, and even more so as they threaded along the catwalk. For a while we sat in Kabakov’s studio talking about this and that, and then he began to show us his works, which at that time mostly consisted of the so-called boxes with garbage. He would pull out a box, empty the contents, and repack it before opening the next box. This action had such a magical effect on those French art critics that when we descended the stairs afterwards, they were incredibly delighted. “He made this staircase too! Look at the wonderful garbage! What an amazing smell! What a play of light and shadow!” It was the most striking example of reality’s transformation by art that I have observed in my life.

Kabakov could see things quite realistically and not succumb to any illusions while maintaining a distanced, metaphysical perspective—the perspective of art history, for example. There are all sorts of things in the history of art: not only the beautiful young women of the Italian Renaissance, but also the Dutch period when artists depicted vegetables. We nevertheless admire these works because they represent their era both with great accuracy and great poetry. Kabakov did the same thing—eyes open wide, accurately, and at the same time poetically. He looked at the reality around him from a more distant perspective than most people.

AK: Does the image of an artist explaining the Soviet Union to the whole world help us to understand Kabakov’s art or hinder us?

BG: I don’t think he was regarded in the West as a person who explained the Soviet Union. I don’t think it was expected of him or that he was seen that way. If we are talking about the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (Kabakov immigrated to the West in the late 1980s), they were the heyday of conceptualism and post-conceptualism, of reflecting on how art functioned in society, everyday life, and popular culture. Everyone was doing this, at least all the interesting artists, from Kossuth and Art & Language to Warhol, not only in America but also in Europe. Attention was then shifted from the individual artwork to its space and functioning, to its connection with language, society, other works of art, and so on. It was then that the white cube was challenged as a space in which individual works are exhibited, such that the viewer goes from one work to another and “flips” them like pages in a book.

Kabakov was impressive, first of all, because he had been doing the same thing in the Soviet Union: shifting attention from the work to its functioning in the cultural space. Upon arriving here in the West, he immediately began making installations and challenging the white cube. This was the most vivid impression made by his works, this was his greatest influence on world art.

His exhibition “Ten Characters,” at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in 1988, made a splash in America. The space typical for all standard exhibitions, whether in a gallery or a museum—white walls and uniform lighting—had been totally destroyed. You found yourself inside a baroque space in which some things could not be seen, where it was dark in places; that is, you found yourself in a completely different system of expectations. That made an impression.

The fact that the subject matter was Soviet was important, of course, but as far as I remember that time, it was less important than his treatment of problems which were the artistic community’s focus back then.

AK: The invasion of Ukraine has revived talk about Russian culture’s appropriation of artists of Ukrainian origin, such as Malevich. Kabakov was born in the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, now known as Dnipro. You have written that Kabakov’s art reflects not identity but, on the contrary, “nonidentity,” the sense of being a stranger in one’s native land. It’s probably odd to apply labels like “Soviet,” “American,” and “Ukrainian” to Kabakov, and yet, are Kabakov’s works somehow connected with Ukrainian culture?

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Healing with Memories, 1997. Courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

BG: You know, this is always a very difficult question. I don’t think that place of birth played a considerable role either in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. But ethnicity did play a role. Malevich was an ethnic Pole, and this circumstance had a huge impact on his life. At all stages of Russian imperial culture’s evolution, people of various ethnic origins functioned within it. Kabakov was a Jew, and he sensed his own Jewishness. He kept it in mind. But as far as I remember, he did not take on Jewish topics. He only illustrated Sholem Aleichem once, for his thesis project.1

In the imperial center of Moscow, he felt himself in a dialogue with the prevailing mass Soviet culture. Actually, he was involved in it, as an illustrator. Sovietness, to him, was not ideology or the Party but the standardized hares and wolves that he drew.

His albums are rendered in the manner of Soviet children’s book illustrations. The language of mass culture was the language Kabakov himself spoke for part of his life. That was Soviet culture for him. He reflected on it and, I must say, it made him quite anxious. I was at an exhibition of his children’s drawings in Japan. He was terribly worried. It was as if they were not his own works: he sensed them as something alien inside him, as something he had to deal with, and that he reflected on in his studio. Reflection on Soviet culture was for him a form of self-reflection, an attempt to understand what he was doing himself.

Kabakov and Warhol are very different artists, of course, but they have something in common. Warhol was a commercial artist for a while, working in advertising, and it was then that he began thinking about what he was actually doing, what his work was about. And he became an artist when he started thinking about it. The impulse for both Warhol and Kabakov came from trying to understand themselves as participants and actors in the culture they inhabited.

AK: Tell us about how you and Kabakov played tennis for one of his performances.

BG: He performed that piece first with the artist and writer Pavel Pepperstein, then with me. We had a lot of conversations, and Kabakov made the analogy between a conversation and a tennis match. I’m not sure whether it was a significant work in his biography or mine, but it was funny. The ball functioned like a fly. Since neither of us played tennis very well, we had no idea where the ball would go. It was a way of ironizing dialogue: you say something, but you don’t know where your remark will fly and what effect it will have. In that piece, Kabakov thematized the instability of communication, the absurdity of all conversation.

AK: We might recall his series of “dialogue” paintings, Questions and Answers.

BG: The dialogues in his works are pointedly absurd. “Whose fly is this?” “It is Nikolai’s fly.” “Yours is boiling.” These are pseudo-dialogues, pseudo-rejoinders in a pseudo-everyday situation that reveal the situation’s randomness, absurdity, and emptiness.

When you hear, “Yours is boiling,” at first glance, you must act quickly, you must dash somewhere; otherwise “it” will boil over. It is a signal to act quickly. But when you look at the painting inscribed with the phrase “Yours is boiling,” you seem to freeze in this situation. “It” is always boiling. It’s unclear where to run. A permanently absurd situation arises, which is what Kabakov was after, strictly speaking.

AK: So, the flight of the fly whose identity is discussed by the characters in Kabakov’s paintings is a visualization of their aimless dialogue?

Ilya Kabakov, The Life of Flies, 1992. Kölnischer Kunstverein Cologne. Courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

BG: In a way. The fly has a long history. Many authors started with flies: Sartre’s first play was called The Flies. Flies have been compared with both angels and demons, because both fly in the air. But flies are neither angels nor demons. They are things that fly to parts unknown for reasons unknown, and they are in constant motion. When you look at them you get the impression of life’s absurdity, including human life’s absurdity, because human life is also the life of flies.

The movement towards success which you mentioned is also the flight of a fly. You see absurd, random movements that may be understandable to the fly, but not to you. This delighted Kabakov because he sensed the absurdity of human existence. He made an installation about the life of flies in which he described a fly bureaucracy, a fly kingdom in heaven. On the one hand, it resembles a hierarchy of angels; on the other hand, it is groundless and absurd, since we are talking about flies in chaotic flight.

AK: Kabakov worked a lot with garbage, systematizing it and outfitting it with commentaries, and you have written about this work in detail. Moreover, garbage was a capacious metaphor for both of you. Today, humanity—at least its relatively prosperous segment—is rethinking its relationship with garbage at the everyday level. Garbage is now sorted and partly recycled. Some countries even sell and buy it. Does this new understanding of garbage echo Kabakov’s work?

BG: I have thought about this. At the time when Kabakov was engaged with garbage, he had in mind, of course, that everything humans create goes into the garbage, that all human activity, including art, is meaningless. A person works, dies, and then relatives or acquaintances throw everything that remains of the person into the trash, including pictures and everything else. For the most part, all lives end this way. For Kabakov, the garbage disappeared into nothingness, it went god knows where. But with the growth of environmental consciousness, it became clear that garbage does not disappear into a void. It winds up somewhere, in a certain place. You start thinking about what this place faces.

I would say that contemporary civilization is a civilization in which nothingness has disappeared. Kabakov’s treatment of garbage still retains the intuition of nothingness. He assumes that it is possible to disappear into nothingness, and he often describes it—for example, as a departure into outer space from one’s room. This space of nonexistence can be mythologized. But now we are going through the stage of garbage’s desacralization. There are quite a lot of works on the topic of garbage’s sacredness. Garbage is sacred because it is in a different space. If you touch garbage, you become infected and die. It is as dangerous as touching, say, a statue of the god Zeus.

Garbage played a partly sacred role for Kabakov, of course, and partly the role of “nothingness.” But ecology is the next step towards the world’s secularization. There is nothing that is other. Garbage is not something else; it is something that is recycled, that is bought and sold. It is not the sum of things tossed out of circulation. The topic of being thrown out of circulation, out of the economy, out of life was important to Kabakov. But nowadays nothing can be thrown out of life, out of the economy, out of circulation: everything is worth money, and all operations leave you inside the system.

And yet, in a paradoxical sense, Kabakov took one of the first steps towards a garbage economy (ecology is a garbage economy, in point of fact). He also reused garbage, albeit in an aesthetic sense, by collecting it and hanging it.

AK: You have written that Kabakov did not criticize or attempt to abolish cultural hierarchies, the differences between “high” and “low,” unlike, for example, pop art. But why are these hierarchies necessary? How do they help us?

BG: They just exist. When we come into the world, museums, universities, books, libraries, streets, and traffic lights at which you have to cross on green and stop on red are already there. We are born into a certain order. Does this order make any sense? No. Does it make sense to protest against it? If you want to improve it, to change it, yes, probably. But when you try to change it, you get the next order. You don’t know yet whether it is better or worse.

In any case, Kabakov didn’t seek to change the existing order. Rather, he saw that no order makes any sense for the reason that we didn’t choose it. We fell into it by accident of birth, like a fly into a spider’s web. If there is a new order, a new system, a new hierarchy, it will not be a conscious choice for the next generation either.

This combination of the impossibility of choosing, on the one hand, and the need to operate within this system, on the other, is the subject of many authors, starting with Kafka. And it was Kabakov’s subject too. You didn’t choose this, and you don’t like it. But you’re alive.

You can’t identify yourself with the role you are forced to play, with the mask you must wear, or even, if you like, with your own face on the screen or in the mirror. Is that political or not? It is not political per se. But the source of politics lies precisely in this fundamental discontent, in the lack of identification between people and their social roles. This gap is the place where discontent, doubt, skepticism, and protest—that is, political reactions—emerge.


Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916) was a popular Yiddish-language author and playwright born in present-day Ukraine. The musical Fiddler on the Roof is based on one of his stories.—Ed.

Contemporary Art
Conceptual & Post-Conceptual Art, Soviet Union
Return to Issue #139

Originally published in Meduza on June 18, 2023. Translated from the Russian by Thomas H. Campbell.

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.

Anton Khitrov writes criticism on modern art, theater, and pop culture for well-known Russian media such as Meduza, Colta, Afisha Daily.


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