“... an avant-gardist long after the days of the avant-garde who dreams the dream of the avant-garde one last time in the seclusion of his own room.”
Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov: The man who flew into space from his apartment (London: Afterall, 2006)
The Strange City is the title of a current exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, by Russian conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov and his wife, Emilia. It takes the form of a journey through the ‘strange city’, comprising related installations which variously suggest notions of dream, the labyrinth, time-and-space, utopia; reviewing the exhibition, Matilda Bathurst found it “haunted by whispers of J.G. Ballard and Jorge Luis Borges.” The Kabakovs’ previous exhibits in the UK include pieces for Star City: The Future Under Communism (2010) at Nottingham Contemporary, and a recent installation, ‘The Happiest Man’ in London, at the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery (2013). Critic Boris Groys traces the connections in the Kabakovs’ work between Soviet revolutionary propaganda and the subsequent ‘space heroism’ of Yuri Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts, summarising that:
“The official Soviet cult of space exploration... [was] a blatant misuse of the cosmic utopia of unlimited free movement... [with] an ideological excess of parades, rituals and ceremonies... the Communist project was originally a global, cosmic project.”
|Image from The Strange City, 2014|
The Kabakovs consciously reference a tradition in Russian philosophical and scientific thought expounded by Nikolai Fedorov (1828/29-1903), author of Philosophy of the Common Task, rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) and ‘Cosmist’ Aleksandr Chizhevsky (1897-1964), whose overlapping theories of cosmic conquest, resurrection, space travel and the perfectibility of man were adapted, sometimes uncomfortably, to fit an early-Soviet Utopian vision. Philosophy of the Common Task, posthumously published by friends and followers of Fedorov, was a key text in this respect, roughly summarised by its translator Elisabeth Koutaissoff as a “utopian vision of universal human kinship”, where man’s great ‘task’, or duty, is “to regulate the forces of nature, to defeat death and bring ancestors back to life.” The fusion of belief in science and technology to improve mankind with mystical, even occult, ideas was not outlandish in pre-Revolutionary Russia; the two were compatible and these historical precedents of ‘scientific mysticism’ were carried forward into early Communist thinking, and informed the art and theory of Constructivism.
This latest exhibition makes those links explicit, as the visitor is guided around the large-scale installations which make up The Strange City, variously titled ‘The Empty Museum’ or ‘The Centre of Cosmic Energy’, where the work of Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) on the Noosphere – itself an extension of Fedorov's belief in humanity’s ability to shape “the course of evolution and the fate of the planet” – and the grand Soviet Utopian projects such as Tatlin’s Tower are juxtaposed with fragments of propaganda posters, praising “the courage, labour, and reason of the Soviet people!”. The grim reality of that illusory dream of earthly paradise and cosmic unity, evidenced by famine, the GULag, the purges and decades of totalitarian rule, are unspoken, but undeniably present. This is another strand in what curator Robert Storr calls “Kabakov’s project of recreating the jerry-rigged workers’ paradise... [recalling] barely remembered nightmares.”
A visit to Moscow’s Space Museum, explored in Part Two, reinforces the disjuncture between the Utopian vision and the Soviet reality, and provides another example of “the collapse of socialist dreams.”