Udo Kittelmann, Vadim Zakharov

Conversation in Frankfurt, 2006


Udo Kittelmann: In looking at everything in retrospect, I would like to start by asking you about the term Moscow Conceptualism and the Moscow Conceptual School. Which idea was it based upon and how did this group come together?

Vadim Zakharov: You’ve started out with a difficult but important question. As strange as it may seem, I’ve also been trying to understand this phenomenon. By now, Moscow Conceptualism has existed for 30 years. Nevertheless, it isn’t really clear what this term actually means, not only in the West, but even in Moscow. For example, the Moscow Conceptual Circle isn’t a group of artists from one generation. There are no group memberships, no community obligations. For the last 30 years, its makeup has been changing, but not significantly. Its artists are quite different from one another, but for some reason, they all declare themselves to be conceptual artists. Many people think that Moscow Conceptualism is a closed, elitist group, but on the other hand, all of the artists that belong to it are well-known artists in both Russia and the West. There are a number of names – MANI, Noma, MOKShA – but this doesn’t change anything essential. There is no common style, but you can always recognize an artist from the Moscow Conceptual School. People speak of a school, when in fact there was no school to speak of. This is unusual, isn’t it? Of course, it’s only natural for the generation of the 1990s and even more natural for people in the West to view these characteristics as something that supplies Moscow Conceptualism with the atmosphere of a closed sect. But still, it isn’t really a sect at all, but a community of the like-minded who express their interests through common descriptive languages. Perhaps it would more interesting than anything else to try to understand what makes artists cooperate with one another for such a long time, to take part in performances, publications, and exhibitions together, despite the colossal changes that Russian culture has undergone in the last 30 years. Apparently, it is this point that lies at the root of the phenomenon “Moscow Conceptualism.” It is here that one can catch the specificity of its vector: Moscow Conceptualism is always on the borderline of any socio-cultural problematic that society and the epoch might impose. To this, you could add an interest in one another that hasn’t cooled off at all. It is no secret that everyone keeps up friendly relations without any exceptions, taking a special interest of the others’ development. In the West, you could probably find similar communities, such as Fluxus and Art&Language. We always looked at these groups with a great deal of attention and interest. But the phenomenon of the Moscow school lies in the fact that it has existed as an active – I repeat, active – manifestation for more than a quarter of a century. Contrary to the opinion of many artists and critics, who claim that it has exhausted itself, Moscow Conceptualism is still developing.

Kittelmann: Let me put it to you a little differently. When one introduces the notion of conceptualism, one gets the impression that there was some group decision to pursue a certain concept or at least a common goal.

Zakharov: I’ll tell you right away. There has never been any concerted effort to develop conceptions together, and all the more, there was never any common goal. But we do share certain notions and terms. For an example: distance, slippage, removal, archive, empty place and empty action, disappearance, departure, and many other terms that became part of the book Terms of the Moscow Conceptual School, which Andrei Monastyrsky compiled in 1999. Unfortunately, this important book, like many other books, has yet to be translated. In other words, there is a rather thoroughly developed network of common interests in language that reflect the problematic questions of contemporary culture at large, and not only those of contemporary art. Then again, one could also say that Moscow Conceptualism’s interests always lie beyond or on the borderline of the epoch’s socio-cultural continuum.

Kittelmann: When I look at all these pieces by the many artists who were members of this group or associated with it somehow, I get the impression that their art works were not only formulated according to purely artistic criteria but that they arose in the context of socio-political structures. The culture that you are citing now came about in the context of a particular society. How should I imagine the art scene in Moscow at that point in time, in the beginning?

Zakharov: As paradoxical as it may seem, no one within the circle placed an accent on confrontations, even if the totalitarian Soviet system applied a great deal of pressure. It was the Soviet system that confronted us, not we who confronted it. No one really wanted to be a dissident. Instead, we were all concerned with culture at large. In the final analysis, there weren’t many people who used the Communist language that had been imposed upon us. One day (in 1972), Komar and Melamid turned this language upside down, transforming it into the artistic movement of “sots art.” But for Moscow Conceptualism, it was the gesture of inversion (and not the resulting language) that was really important. Even if they used Soviet symbols in their pieces, Ilya Kabakov and even Erik Bulatov were talking about something entirely different. It’s interesting that the “Golden Book” of Conceptualism, which you are holding in your hands right now, includes artists that became prominent from the mid 1970s to the 1990s. But even if fifteen years have passed since the Perestroika, we’re still talking about Moscow Conceptualism. But there’s also another problem with the way the West understands Moscow Conceptualism. The term “conceptualism” constantly relates the Moscow Conceptual School to the traditional Western conceptualism of the Art and Language period. I think that this is a great source of confusion. Boris Groys was already calling Moscow Conceptualism “romantic” as early as 1979, pointing toward an entirely different scale for evaluation. Today it’s even more necessary to approach this phenomenon (and not this trend) with other criteria. We need to try to understand it as a new “event” in both culture and society.

Kittelmann: This is exactly what my question was getting at. Just like you, I think that conceptualism is often misunderstood because the West tends to harmonize everything with Western models of reception. But then again, there’s another difficulty in recognizing the independence of the Moscow Conceptual School. There’s something is missing. Or then again, we are missing something: in the West, we lack any deep knowledge of Russian culture.

Zakharov: That makes sense, because there has not been one single truly serious exhibition of Moscow Conceptualism in the West. The only two exceptions are the exhibition at the ICA in Boston (Soviet Conceptual Art in the Age of Late Communism, 1990), and the exhibition Flight, Departure, Disappearance, held in Prague in 1995. These were the only times anyone ever spoke of Moscow Conceptualism in any immediate way.

Kittelmann: During the mid to late 1980s, I was very conscious of the fact that a great many younger Russian artists were being shown in the West. You were one of them. In the course of these years, many Russian artists actually moved to the West and showed their work there. But then they left just as quickly as they had come, moving back to Russia, to Moscow. Among other things, I think this was connected to the lack of understanding for their work: in my view, beyond pure aesthetics or the aesthetics of presentation, one needs to know about their intellectual background, and this knowledge was simply lacking.

Zakharov: Absolutely. But there was also another tendency, which I daresay is connected to ambition: initially, Russian artists had no desire to understand the Western system. And at the first sign of misfortune, many artists turned back to Russian local culture. Today, the situation is gradually normalizing. This is exactly why my work speaks about my understanding of Moscow Conceptualism so actively. In the first place, it’s important for me as an author to show my roots. For example, the publication of the “Golden Book” is no less important to me than a one-man show. Another problem with Russian conceptual artists in the West is that they pay more attention to the concept than to the formal-aesthetic side.

Kittelmann: Your works are based on very strong narrative structures. I have always been under the impression (and this is something you probably share with other artists of your generation) that your mode of working is writing a piece of literature through the means of visual art. One can see that your work - on the whole and its particular pieces - is very difficult to tear from its general context. Is this true? Am I right about the narrative structures?

Zakharov: You are right: my work – my work and the work of other artists – is based on a certain narrative. But today, it is no longer necessary to read this narrative. With time, it has become a certain matrix that is always present, even if it is not visible on the surface. One doesn’t have to know about the Moscow Conceptual School, but one can hear the pulse of its narrative in the work of its artists.

Kittelmann: What strikes me again and again is the role that you, Vadim, play: you appear as the chronologist of this Moscow Conceptual School. I keep trying to get closer to an understanding of your work, but you keep arguing from the position of this group-feeling...for the Conceptual School. But now, I would also like to try to talk about your work, even if it is a part of the whole, even if you understand this work as a part of the school’s larger context.

Zakharov: For me, this ambivalence is very important. On the one hand, I am a chronologist and tell people about the Moscow School; I collect an archive, and encourage creative collaborations. But at the same time, I work independently and take part in many exhibitions in the West without ever referring to Moscow Conceptualism. But when the West speaks of me, it always introduces me as “Vadim Zakharov – representative of the younger generation (even though I am already 45 years old) of the Moscow Conceptualists.” This is exactly why I would like to dot all the “i’s” and cross all the “t’”s today.

Kittelmann: Maybe Russian thinking and Russian art are simply based on a completely different approach than those in the West?

Zakharov: You’re talking about the West as a whole, although the West actually consists of many different countries and national cultures. Each of them has its own specificity, as do Russian art and Chinese art. I am categorically against talking about Russia’s “other” cultural and historical trajectory. We have already been following this “other trajectory” for a century, with very few exceptions. Actually, you and I think in very similar terms, which you can see in the fact that you understand me not less but even more than many critics in Moscow. But of course, there is some specificity. For an example, it is very important for me to turn to the cultural traditions of the East – of China, Japan and Korea.

Kittelmann: Exactly. And this is where things get difficult. It would seem that there is nothing further removed from the West than all of this. In the end, we are indebted in an extremely occidental mode of thinking. And I think that Russian art as a whole is somewhere in between, between Western and Eastern thinking, and this is something that no one here can really understand, because there is such a huge difference in the mode of thinking itself.

Zakharov: In defining Russian art as something that lies “in between,” you seem to imply that it’s something that isn’t very distinct or clear in terms of form. But it is this “in between” that supplies the key to understanding, not only of Russia’s being squashed in between the East and the West, but on the grounds that the position of “in between” is, in fact, the position of Moscow Conceptualism, to be more precise. Moreover, this interdisciplinary position seems to be extremely important to the problematic of contemporary art today. But again, it’s not important in the sense of “multi-culti,” but in the sense of refusing the mainstream of today’s thinking. But! I have to insist to that “in between” can only be a property of the notion of culture in all of its manifestations.

Kittelmann: But that’s the point, isn’t it? Your thinking corresponds to a view that is interdisciplinary and universal. I believe that this kind of thinking was present here at some point as well, but that it was lost in the course of the last 60-80 years of European history and is no longer as current as it once was. Isn’t it true that the extremely specific cultural roots of nations are lost more and more in a progressively globalized world? And your work is deeply connected to the knowledge of the cultural history of humanity as a whole; your work often quotes great literary figures. They flow into your work, but this affinity seems to extend to Asian culture most of all, and not to the history of German literature, even if you’ve lived in Germany for the last fifteen years.

Zakharov: Well, I did work with Rilke, didn’t I?

Kittelmann: Yes, Rilke, but who else? Goethe, Schiller, Heine? No. Instead, it’s Don Quixote, Marcel Proust, and Kafka, Russian fairytales and the Brothers Karamazov, masterpieces of world literature, and I think we’re all waiting for the great literary masterpiece that has not yet been written to mark the end of the 20th century. Doesn’t this entire context play a role in the reception of your work?

Zakharov: Yes, you’re probably right. I try not to separate cultural traditions according to countries and continents. For me, German culture is important in all of its manifestations. But I don’t live in Cologne in order to be a German artist. I’m an international artist. But this doesn’t mean that I devote less time to Russian culture. Quite on the contrary, I dealt with Moscow for far too long, putting together archives, publications and many other things. At the same time, I try to take an active part in the German art scene. And it seems that this is where one can detect the specificity of my thinking as a Russian artist – what’s important to me is culture on the whole.

Kittelmann: I think that every pore of your work is suffused with a specifically Russian spirit, which we have a hard time understanding, and which we can only gain access to if we have a certain affinity to it. You could say the same thing about the imagery that you use, which is also highly complex. So let’s get back to the strong narrative structures and their literary quality. One way or the other, I think that most of the artists that belong to the Moscow Conceptual School express themselves in forms that are closely linked to literature.

Zakharov: For Russian culture on the whole, it isn’t literature that is important, but the primacy of the word over the image. In Russian history, there were no more than two moments when the image and its aesthetics took the upper hand and immediately crossed Russia’s borders, becoming international events. These two moments are icon-painting and the Russian avant-garde. It seems to me that today Moscow Conceptualism can raise the Word to the level of an universally valid Image.

Kittelmann: I would like to go back and to talk about your own role some more. To me, you seem like a traveler of the spirit, a person who undertakes great mental journeys. This person travels to the Elysian Fields and follows in the footsteps of Saint-Exupéry and Don Quixote, undertakes journeys to Japan, wrestles with sumo wrestlers in a way that would be unimaginable for most people. What are you trying to achieve through these journeys?

Zakharov: You’re right in saying that I’m a cultural traveler. Today, many artists have the tendency to travel in order to collect “other” material for their work. I don’t travel in order to collect Japanese, Spanish, or Israeli material, for instance. Instead, what’s important to me on my travels – be they physical or mental – is to find the links in general cultural knowledge. What am I trying to say? In the first place, I am trying to encounter other cultures as if they were my own. This might be an illusion, but then again, it is also a reality. Both Japanese and Spanish cultures are parts of my life. So when I walk through the gates of a Buddhist temple, it’s a lot like coming home. I only do battle with windmills because this battle concerns me in person. But at the same time, I naturally create connections between different elements important to culture at large. These connections give rise to momentary surprises, to the figure of Laughter and the understanding that follows it.

Kittelmann: Could one approach your work as an artist as something comparable to the creation of a very individualistic encyclopedia, compiled through artistic means? Could one describe the motivation of your work on the whole as an attempt at creating an encyclopedia? Yesterday, I was reading a recently published book by Alberto Savinio (who was De Chirico’s brother). In the introduction to a private dictionary of his own design, he writes: “I am so unhappy with all the encyclopedias that I have written this tome of reference for my own personal use. Arthur Schopenhauer was so unhappy with the existing histories of philosophy that he wrote his own history for his personal use.” In this sense, you are also creating an extremely individualistic work of art.

Zakharov: Here, there is yet another but. Basically, each artist is concerned with creating his or her own encyclopedia. Maybe this is something I do more actively and consciously than most. But my main goal is to show what already exists in culture through myself, but to show it from a different angle. From the avant-garde onward, the principle of Western art has been to search for the new by any means possible. The search for a new style is always important in the contemporary West. In contrast, for the East, tradition always comes before innovation; even today, tradition is always right. This is why no one could tell me who built the Royal Grand Palace compound in Bangkok. Who was the author of this grandiose complex, which was built no more than some 200 years ago? The authors simply didn’t sign their work, assuming that tradition has no need for authorship. Much in the same way, encyclopedias have no need for authors. So if you ask me whether I’m in the process of compiling my own encyclopedia, the answer is yes. But the most difficult thing to do is to create an “authorless” encyclopedia.

Kittelmann: There is no such thing as the absolutely New. This is a huge misunderstanding, one of the greatest misunderstandings in occidental culture since the invention or application of the term “avant-garde culture.” I would like to put forth yet another thesis without formulating it directly, but by asking you a provocative, hypothetical question: what do you think would change in the perception of your work if your name wasn’t Zakharov, but let’s say, Zacharias? What would happen if you weren’t immediately recognizable as a Russian artist? To put it more plainly, would anything change in the public reception of your work? I’m not so sure.

Zakharov: I’m a Russian artist, but could be German or Spanish or whatever; it would be the same. My main interest would still lie in culture as the most interesting achievement of humanity. I think that notwithstanding international interests, Western art is still based on the interests of its particular countries. And this is the way it should be. This is something that Russia is only coming to gradually today, which is something that is very important for us artists, since we are always dangling somewhere between heaven and earth. But my own specificity lies in that I try to step into this universally acknowledged zone through my interests and actions, bypassing the national. This is absurd. It is not a goal that I set myself; it’s something that happens of its own accord. This is why it’s difficult for the West to identify, understand, or describe me. The West always addresses the other directly: in the case of China, it addresses China directly; it doesn’t need any go-between. But this is the problem: neither I nor we are intermediaries. There can be no a priori primary, secondary, or intermediary links in the cultural chain. The whole may split by fault-lines, but as soon as we begin to speak of its parts, we lose the whole, the image of culture in general. Take, for an example, my publication On One Page, where many printed layers of text create one unified image. Or the moment when an Austrian policeman shoots at the Proustian madeleine pastry: this may describe the Western image of memory, but it is a Russian artist who is describing this situation.

Kittelmann: But isn’t it true that your work distinguishes itself as something very anecdotal? Don’t all of these anecdotes link up with one another in order to finally form one, unified whole? And doesn’t this whole simply require time to be understood?

Zakharov: What we’re talking about isn’t really the anecdote in the sense of a joke, but laughter in culture at large. What I am trying to do now is still to supply the spectator (and in this case, I mean both Western and Russian spectators) with an understanding of my structure and method in one image. The piece On One Page contains the entire complex of my thinking. But among other things, (I hope) this is also the period at the end of a universal text that needs to be read with a smile.

Kittelmann: I remember so many of the exhibitions that you’ve made. For me, it has always been a wonderful moment to step into their image worlds, worlds that I do not know very well on a formal level. This is a possibility that your work provides me with in a way that very few other artists are capable of providing.

Zakharov: You’re a phenomenon, an anomaly. Unfortunately, in the last fifteen years of my life in the West, there have only been about five or six people who have understood my work.

Kittelmann: This is because Western thinking always searches for solutions and doesn’t allow questions to be posed again and again. It seeks resolutions, conclusions. There always has to be some sense of closure.

Zakharov: …But from the very beginning of my life in art, the idea of a self-evolving system with endless possibilities for development has been important to me.

Kittelmann: And so, we’ve come back to the beginning. A system that does not foresee any final conclusion simply does not correspond to Western thinking. In Western thinking, there is always black and white, God and Satan. There can never be anything divine in the devil and vice versa, although both can be the case.

Zakharov: That’s interesting. I always thought that this division into black and white is something unique to Russia, and that the West consists of a multitude of nuances, of polyphony.

Kittelmann: And now, after having lived in the West for so many years, do you still see this polyphony?

Zakharov: No matter what, I create this polyphony myself by addressing different cultures. After fifteen years of living in the West, there are many things I still don’t understand, and probably never will. That’s no tragedy. In all of these years, I’ve tried to do many different things in the West. In Russia, this isn’t as easy, because Russia is monocultural. This is why my position in the West is the position of an international artist. Of course, many things depend on my personal mistakes or misunderstandings. But nevertheless, I will continue to do what I do, to do what I find interesting.

Kittelmann: In this sense, I’m sure that you’re really an extremely individualistic person. And this is something one would hope for in any creative human being.

Zakharov: But I always thought that this was something all artists had in common.

Kittelmann: I can assure you that this is not the case.

Zakharov: If my trajectory is so individual, then I find it far less interesting.

Kittelmann: I beg to differ. A work of art – be it artistic or literary – needs to be individualistic before it is anything else. Of course, it is tragic if it cannot get beyond this individuality. But its precondition is individualism. I don’t want to say that the work of art corresponds to an ivory tower. But it is formed through an individual view of the world, through a particular position, and in this sense, through its own positioning.

Zakharov: This is the crux of my perplexity. If my work is so individualistic, then why doesn’t the West receive it adequately?

Kittelmann: I’ll try to find an answer to this question. Many of the most important artists are actually only understood by very few. Take, for an example, Rodney Graham, who you find so sympathetic. Who understands him? I think that this is a problem that all works of art have in common if they are authentic, to use another word for “individualistic.” Let me clarify through an example. Our museum recently acquired that wonderful piece of yours, the installation that embodies a chronology that should be read as a dictionary or an encyclopedia of the history of 20th century Russian art, expressed in an unbelievably minimal, compact form, almost like a tent for backpackers. If this were the history of Western art in the 20th century, one could read it immediately. But people just aren’t familiar with the history of Russian art…

Zakharov: Well, then again, the Russian avant-garde is well-known in the West…

Kittelmann: Yes, maybe, people do know about the Russian avant-garde, but it snores and sleeps in one of your installation’s compartments, just like all the other utopias since the beginning of the 20th century. But something else comes into play in your work. This “something else” is time. Your work requires time from the spectator or the reader. And time is something that nobody has today. And this is probably one of the greatest challenges, seen on a global scale, and of course, art can help to bring the aspect of time back into life.

Zakharov: But then again, I actually always depart from the assumption that no one has time today. This is why my activity as a publisher or an archivist etc. is connected to spatial expansion, to stopping time by capturing new points in space. Think of the piece on the execution of the madeleine pastry. I work by anticipating. This is why I always keep a few extra seconds in reserve to stop time. Like a clown, I appear in different places in one, then another, then a third mask. Some people only deal with me as an archivist, asking me to give them some material, while others talk to me in my role as a collector and ask me to show some of the pieces in my collection…But this is actually what is so important to understanding the contemporary artist: he needs to contain a complicated mechanism for provoking or stopping time.

Kittelmann: One of your newest pieces that I love very much is your wonderful Zen-garden with cheese. This seems to be one of your most abstract pieces to date. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it in the original. But it seems that you aren’t present in this piece anymore.

Zakharov: You’ve really made an accurate observation here. This is my way of escaping from my own personality and my enormous baggage. But unlike other attempts, the trace that remains – despite the allusion to the Zen garden and many other things – has become comprehensible to culture. And this is what is particularly important to me today.

Kittelmann: I am absolutely sure that this work will open up an entirely new perspective. I think that that this piece contains the knowledge of everything you’ve done in the last years; it is a kind of conclusion drawn from everything you’ve done so far, and it has a great deal of freedom. It seems to me that this piece is no longer a reminiscence of something, but that it has simply arrived fully in the world at large.