Vadim Zakharov, Artist
“Moscow Conceptualism: An Insider’s View”
For many years now (roughly forty) we’ve been unable to properly define Moscow Conceptualism. It seems that every curator or art historian has his/her own “set of Moscow Conceptualists” and theories on that score. If we compile the names of all those cited as Conceptualists, we end up with a list of virtually every Moscow contemporary artist from the late 1960s until 2008. Perhaps now, some (good God, how many!) years later, we can finally answer this question once and for all. Why is there a need to keep on shuffling and reshuffling the artists associated with the movement, and to set forth all their personal artistic concepts? Why is there also a need to keep pinning the conceptual label on many outstanding artists who never considered themselves Conceptualists?
The issue of Sots Art’s relationship to Moscow Conceptualism is merely a continuation of this saga. Which Sots Art had a bearing on Moscow Conceptualism, and vice versa? It seems to me that it is utterly clear to the artists themselves that the two movements shared common roots in the 1970s (!!!)—I repeat, in the 1970s—when Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid invented Sots Art, and when this phenomenon had reached the limits of its formation in the cultural, social, ideological, and conceptual spheres. Sots Art was (unquestionably) a conceptual phenomenon of that time, but by the late 1970s it had turned into a one-way dead-end street. We only need to remember that, parallel to Sots Art, Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov were already producing their outstanding albums—but not only the albums—and that in 1976 the group Collective Actions (K/D) began staging its actions.
Even the founders of Sots Art, Komar and Melamid (both of whom left Russia in the mid-to late 1970s), always maintained a very clear ironic stance in their canonical Sots Art works. Looking at their oeuvre as a whole, it is clear that Sots Art was only one of their conceptual ideas. Other classic Sots Art practitioners—artists like Leonid Sokov, Alexander Kosolapov, Boris Orlov, and Rostislav Lebedev—are exponents of a pure, unadulterated Sots Art. They are both the promoters and the disciples of their movement, and will be so for ages to come. I don’t see anything bad in this, for someone has to stick to his guns until the end of time. That’s a heroic deed, if you’ll pardon the cliché.
It was also in the mid-1970s that another artist, Eric Bulatov, found himself at the pinnacle of both Moscow Conceptualism and Sots Art. Bulatov produced brilliant works that are difficult to ascribe to only one or the other (and it’s not necessary to do so). That’s why later on he simultaneously ended up in both the Conceptualist and Sots Art zones of interpretation (but is now actively refusing to have anything to do with either of them). The “Donskoi, Roshal, Skersis,” or Gnezdo (Nest), group, which emerged in the mid-1970s, also made many innovative contributions, today seen as canonical, to both Sots Art and Moscow Conceptualism. Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov (whom I shall continue to treat as though he were still alive), is also simultaneously in several territories, including those of poetry and literature. Though he can unquestionably be called a Conceptualist, it is nonsensical today to call Prigov a Sots Art artist.
The late 1970s saw the appearance of the Mukhomor (Toadstool) group of Yuri Albert and Vadim Zakharov. Incidentally, in 1978–79, Zakharov and Igor Luts produced “Sots Artistic” actions that were already parodying Sots Art. By the late 1970s Sots Art was no longer an actual (nor a conceptual) phenomenon. The Sots Art works and artists who emerged later, in the 1980s and even in the 2000s (Andrei Erofeev will still be discovering Sots Art in the year 3000), were merely imitating and using the Sots Art style and its conceptual basis, while managing to produce works that were fairly good, but of no value as far as the conceptual level was concerned. Interestingly enough, the attempt to understand Sots Art also failed, and everything was placed under the same rubric (that seemed simpler). That is why in 2008 we’re still comparing Sots Art and Moscow Conceptualism.
I shall now turn to Moscow Conceptualism and, as an artist, will express a few thoughts on the confusion surrounding all of this.
I think that the fundamental problem is still the same—the lack of understanding and the lack of desire on the part of the critics to tackle the distinctive features of Moscow Conceptualism (it’s easier to stick to the Western model). For this reason, there is no articulate theoretical formulation of the nature of Moscow Conceptualism. But another problem still exists: there is no stylistic (or even conceptual) unity among the artists who identify themselves with Moscow Conceptualism.
To a great extent this muddle stems from the fact that Moscow Conceptualism is spread out over time. From the position of traditional art history, which is always seeking a beginning and an end for any cultural phenomenon, it is horribly drawn-out. Since over the course of nearly forty years there were many starts, and not a single conclusion (the Soviet version), theoreticians’ and critics’ desire to tie up loose ends is quite natural (although it is impossible to achieve any kind of consensus whatsoever on this). A beginning without an end is suspect. It doesn’t fit in anywhere; it doesn’t quite make it. Therefore, when considering Moscow Conceptualism there’s a need to keep in mind its horrible length.
Moscow Conceptualism is a dynamic discursive territory, maintained over time by free artists fleeing from any kind of definitions and boundary frames. It is important to understand (and forty years later, easier to do so) that the Conceptualist tradition is still alive today, despite moments of lethargic sleep, turnover in the temporary leaders, or even their temporary absence. The set of instruments developed by Moscow Conceptualism over this prolonged time period includes sleep, emptiness, playing the fool, doing nothing, swearing at oneself, and much else, allowing the artists to fall asleep, leave and come back, and document all of this in a bureaucratic fashion, showing another fundamental side of Moscow Conceptualism: the archival side. For the Conceptualists, the Archive is understood as a collective linguistic reservoir, operating not so much according to the principle of storing and preserving personal and collective materials, but rather as an endless text developing of its own accord.
We may put it thus: Moscow Conceptualism is a living, self-evolving text, permanently stretched along the boundaries of culture and art by the multifaceted (and often absurd) activity of its members, focusing its attention not on form and stylistics, but rather on a kind of discourse that unites the movement: the discourse of the Unknown. It is precisely the urge for the horror of the empty sheet of paper, an urge understood as a method, which marks the border separating conceptual artists from all others. Strange as it sounds, it’s that “discourse of the Unknown” that eliminates (like the cholera) some artists from Moscow Conceptualism, while infecting others with an incurable disease (there are far fewer of the latter). Holding on to the self within the zone of incomprehension of Everything, within the zone of indistinction, on the border of any attitudes, including one’s own conceptual assumptions, produces a genuinely poetic (romantic) scream into nowhere, which, naturally, can rarely be transferred to the present.
To scream and shout out proclamations into nowhere demands incredible efforts on the part of the artist (particularly an intellectual one, if you get my drift). This results from yet another characteristic, distinguishing feature of Moscow Conceptualism (still not fully understood today): the turnover in leaders, strategies, and even the very concepts of Moscow Conceptualism. It’s not possible to hang over the edge of the abyss and shout for a thirty-year period, but this can be done with interruptions, watching (over a cup of tea) how someone else crawls up an unbelievable path to that edge.
The multiplicity of names given to Moscow Conceptualism was born there, on that edge of the abyss: “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism,” “MANI,” “NOMA,” “MOKShA.” All of these designations merely define the various periods of development of a single phenomenon. We could add to this the multifaceted activity of each artist, largely stemming from the small number of people in MANI, NOMA (however you want to refer to the movement). Maximalism of actions (the change of masks, “persona-hood,” intra-group collaborative projects, joint publications), combined with a minimal number of components, constitutes the method that “expands the interpretative field ad infinitum.”
There is yet another specific feature: that of geography. Moscow Conceptualism is not a local phenomenon. Its geography expands through the unified activity of the artists who comprise it, who stretch the “discourse of the Unknown” until it converges with other international linguistic practices. In this way, new corridors are opened up for exiting into the Unknown, and the genuine freedom of “supra-national adventure” is achieved.
It is not easy today to grasp the nature of Moscow Conceptualism, but it’s time to finally evaluate its true nature. To take a fresh look at this phenomenon, we need to give those who wish do so the opportunity to study its original works, and not merely make judgments based on critical articles. Many things must be done, among them translating the canonical texts and the Dictionary of Terms of Moscow Conceptualism into other languages. Rather than waiting impatiently for the “old man” to go off into other worlds so that then we can then tinker with and rewrite his biography, we need to accept him, quirks and all. For the real situation is such that all of this (these comic and sad shufflings and reshufflings) is taking place while the “wise old sage” is still alive (which is immoral, and for him painful). Moscow Conceptualism has no plans as of yet to kick the bucket. In 2008 Andrei Monastyrsky, Yuri Leiderman, and myself formed the association KAPITON (see Fig. #), so, if you understand what I’m saying, it’ll be necessary to postpone the burial service.
In conclusion, I shall provide cite a list of artists (excuse the bureaucratism) who, in my view, are the “long-term survivors” of Moscow Conceptualism. They are, in alphabetical order: Yuri Albert, Nikita Alekseev, Sergei Anufriev, the Collective Actions group, Ilya Kabakov, Yuri Leiderman, Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina, Andrei Monastyrsky, Nikolai Panitkov, Pavel Pepperstein, Victor Pivovarov, Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, Victor Skersis, the group S-Z, Vadim Zakharov, and Anatoli Zhigalov and Natalia Abakalova.
The others—the collaborative pair Komar and Melamid and the groups Nest, Toadstool, and Medical Hermeneutics—have ceased to exist, but their activity remains a common thread that runs through the history of Moscow Conceptualism.
 The conceptual artist and poet Dmitrii Prigov (1940–2007), who was a member of the Moscow Conceptualist and Sots Art movements,
died in 2007 at the age of sixty-six [Editor’s note].
 Andrei Erofeev is an independent art critic and curator who organized the major exhibition Sots Art: Political Art in
Russia from 1972 to the Present (see note 6) [Editor’s note].
 MANI is an acronym for “Moscow Archive of New Art,” while MOKShA stands for “Moscow Conceptual School.”
 Andrei Monastyrsky, “Slovar’ terminov moskovskoi kontsepualnoi shkoly” (Dictionary of Terms of the Moscow Conceptual School),
Pastor 7 (1999); idem, ed., Slovar’ terminov moskovskoi kontsepualnoi shkoly (Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1999) [Editor’s note].