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Back to Reviews 97

by Serge Khripoun


Ritual Oblation
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The highlight of Russia's art calendar this March was ArtMoscow, the city's new international art fair, now in its second year. Russian contemporary artists, ranging from classic Conceptualists to brave young radicals, were featured at the top galleries, which include Aidan, Guelman, Obscuri Viri and XL. Also present were art magazines, publishers and invited foreign dealers, among them Ronald Feldman Fine Arts from New York.

The Kokserek gallery was invited to represent Kazakhstan. The day before the opening, a group of Kazakh artists revealed plans to perform a ritual oblation in their booth. This news caused some disturbance among exhibitors, who called on Expo Park, the fair organizers, to forbid the killing of an animal by the artists. After some argument, the Kazakh artists agreed to abandon their scheme, but insisted that a sheep should remain in their booth as part of their installation for the period of the fair, Mar. 3-8, 1997.

With everything settled, on Monday the fair was successfully opened. At midday a German staffer from Edition KunstKontakte came to the Kokserek booth to play his clarinet for the sheep and the viewers. And then, at around 3 p.m., without warning, the Kazakh artist Kanat and his companions killed the sheep. It took only a few seconds. In the next couple of minutes the artists skinned the animal and cut off the sheep's head, posting it in the booth. Kanat drank some of the animal's still-warm blood. Others artists stapled the cloth spilt with blood onto the wall, like a flag.

People began to gather, buzzing with anger. The verbal melee that resulted had some German artists, who sympathize with the Greens, as well as some Russian artists and gallery-owners shouting violently at the Kazakh artists, who tried to explain their blood bath with various references to the Vienna actionism of Nitsch and his followers, to the war in Chechnya and to the hypocrisy of meat-eaters.

I asked some of the exhibitors and artists for comments. "I'm against performing [such things] in public exhibition space," said Aidan Salakhova, owner of Aidan Gallery. "An artist may do anything with himself, but if that effects another creature, an animal, then that's not art." The artist Sergei Shutov said that "we still face the deep and unfortunately irreducible problem of implementing a moral code for our art practice. This is a recurrent error in basic ethics."


Album Graphics
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Not only bloody mess happens here. At the end of March two different exhibitions opened dedicated to the work of Ilya Kabakov -- who himself hasn't visited his "launch site" for almost 10 years. Still, he's considered as a key figure of contemporary art in Russia.

The first show, which opened Mar. 25, is organized by Joseph Bakstein, Kabakov's old friend and loyal disciple, who is director of the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art. The exhibition takes place at the ICA office and exhibition hall, which curiously enough is Kabakov's original attic studio. Titled "Ilya Kabakov: Album Graphics, 1971-1974," the exhibition was made in strict accordance to the title: sheets from the artist's album placed on white walls. Nothing more, just the first solo show of work by Ilya Kabakov, at least since he went to the West in 1989.

The second show, which opened at Red Art Gallery (directed by Petr Plavinsky), in collaboration with XL Gallery and Boris Belsky (a collector and director of the Moscow Studio gallery), is much more interesting. The showÕs title, "Taboo," in Russian is a play on words for "stool," and also mocks Kabakov's "parental role" to many Russian artists.

The artist's original "Stool" drawing, made in 1972, is the exhibitionÕs central object. Since then Kabakov has done dozens, if not hundreds, of stools, both drawings and lithos. Also included are two "clones" -- a bigger one, with some typical Kabakov's textual banality, and a small color print that mocks a well-known but weird Aeroflot ad, "Fly by Stools" (don't ask).

To emphasize the peculiarity of Kabakov's drawing technique -- which thoroughly imitates typical Soviet book illustration and blueprint handwriting -- organizers included a "How to make a stool" pamphlet made in the late Ō60s by some unknown technical student. And the attic -- yes, again the attic -- where "Taboo" is shown is much more alike the original Kabakov's attic at the time when he worked there, gloomy, with bare-brick walls.

And by the way, we don't expect to see Kabakov himself in Moscow. Both of the exhibitions were tributes, each of its own kind.

The catalog includes a text by Milena Orlova, one of Moscow's wittiest independent art critics, which I append below to show that Kabakov isn't a complete myth, even here at his abandoned home.


A Kabakov Stool
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This exhibit opens up another page in "Kabakoviana," the beloved epic of Moscow artists. A couple of years ago the "Abandoned Photos" exhibition by Vladimir Dubosarsky at Tryokhprudny Gallery showed the same theme in the genre of "memorial museum." Today we're presented something different; I'd define it as some kind of TV commercial.

As in any regular ad here is certain "logo," short and intriguing, which however says nothing about the nature of advertised item but captures imagination. Really, "Taboo" corresponds to the stool (taburetka) the same way as "Diesel" to fashion wear, "Pampers" to diapers and "Coke" to soda pop. Such change of proper names to common names is rather typical; as a result some banal stool becomes the one and only Stool -- in capitals -- made by the real Artist -- of course, in capitals.

The item's quality is unobtrusively certified with numerous layouts and schemes that uncover the technological process of stool-making. Milk and honey with almonds and raisins -- how familiar -- and, sure, all natural, cholesterol-free, no nitrates, no fakes!

And finally the last and most important point, "a legal tradition," which is also absolutely OK. The "Kabakoff" company is present at the world market for 25 years, that's serious! Decorations are an eyeful -- such Stools could be made only at such Attics. The latter is quite significant, for the vendor's original attic has been modified by the present shareholders so much -- according to modern fashion -- that decorations appear to be more convincingly "historical."

As for the advertised product, any household could hardly do without an old stool, so it's noble nothingness could probably be the best symbol of the Kabakov myth.

SERGE KHRIPOUN is the editor of Moscow's in.sider art'zine and has a Website at