Translated from the original Russian by Lynn Visson.
AM: The topic of our conversation is Moscow Conceptualism, which in fact isn’t really conceptualism.
VZ: We’re starting our discussion of this subject twenty-nine years after Boris Groys wrote his article “Moscow Romantic Conceptualis”1
AM: Groys was right to add the adjective “Romantic” to the term “Conceptualism.”
YuL: Groys wasn’t trying to come up with any kind of label. He said from the outset that a
combination like that was a horrendous oxymoron. This moniker represented a kind of conscious poetic license in contrast to the harsh descriptive analysis in the text. Of course, it wasn’t supposed to become a brand.
VZ: Yes, and it never did. We weren’t called “Romantic Conceptualists,” nor did we ever refer to ourselves in that way.
YuL: We called ourselves “Conceptualists.” And yet that turned into a brand during perestroika,
thanks to the critics and curators who had to demonstrate that they were “keeping busy.” They didn’t have anything against “Romantic,” but the three words together sounded a bit awkward, dull, and unconvincing to anyone who took this subject seriously.
Our discussion, though, should have begun with the question of what constitutes a “movement” in art. Nowadays, it seems to me that all these surrealisms, abstractionisms, expressionisms—that whole history of which modern art is so proud—is in fact the story of its fall, because it embodied the whole range of “movements” easily absorbed by a large system. As Duchamp said about Breton: “Breton is my friend and a wonderful poet, but he takes his Surrealism too seriously.” These brands and movements serve as flashpoints for the system’s takeover and destruction of an actual situation that does not fit any labels. In that sense we were led into a double trap—the large trap of “modern art,” as well as a parochial trap.
VZ: But that’s precisely the way culture operates. Despite our protestations that we’re not
conceptualists, the mechanism of culture nevertheless selects what it needs. In this particular case, the word “conceptualism” was chosen. I’m afraid we have nothing else with which to counter it. That’s the way things will continue to be. We can’t understand the logic of this mechanism, but we must make good use of it.
AM: I actually don’t see anything parochial about the word “Moscow.” Cities are above nations. When we say the “Viennese School”—in music there are two of them: the first was made up of Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn, while the other, new Viennese School, included Schönberg and Webern…
VZ: …and there’s also the school of the Vienna Actionists…
AM: Yes, and then there’s the “Prague School.” We’re thinking here of concrete cultural
phenomena. These names are not regional or parochial. They are SUPRA-national, SUPRA-state structures. This, I think, is precisely the sense in which the designation “Moscow” should be understood. The word “Moscow” has greater freedom than the words “Russian,” “Soviet,” or “American” [as modifiers of] “conceptualism.”
YuL: Sure, in ascribing greater life and reality to the city. However, there are good reasons why this no longer works anymore, why there’s an attempt to make us into “Russian conceptualism.” But I’d like to respond to Vadik’s [VZ’s] comment regarding the mechanisms of culture. Naturally, “culture” always denotes the view of a system from the outside, the view of collective consciousness that needs to have something guaranteed, condensed, and inserted into catalogues. We’re not engaged in culture, though, but in art.
VZ: I don’t agree with that. Moscow Conceptualism always kept both points of view in its sights
simultaneously. In so doing, it emphasized its fundamental positions—Aloofness and Distancing from both art and culture. Conceptualism’s stance began to annoy you precisely because today you want to cling to your own personal-emotional paranoia. You’re forgetting that by “conceptualism” we always meant not a movement, but rather the image of thoughts and actions. We agreed with the term “conceptualism,” and when in 2005 I did the book Moscow Conceptualism, no one, including you, objected.2 So today, many years later, why are we dissatisfied with what we adopted yesterday? A lot has changed since then, but until recently the term “conceptualism” was adopted in one way or another by various artists. Yes, this term began to be actively used “as a brand” in the late 1980s, but we accepted it, we agreed to it. Why?
AM: Yes, we did agree to it. For some reason, it was to our advantage then to do so.
VZ: We ourselves renounced the terms “MANI,”3“NOMA,”4 and “MOKShA.”5Even “Moscow Conceptual School” is rarely used.
AM: Ultimately, “conceptualism” remained. Terms like “MANI” or “NOMA” mean nothing to
the international public, although on the meta-level that’s preferable.
YuL: Of course, for the public these are merely artists’ jokes. The public needs something simple and
AM: Something that smacks of nomenclature. Moreover, in our circle (MANI or NOMA) there are
in fact conceptualists. For example, [Yuri] Albert and [Rimma and Valeriy] Gerlovin are typical conceptualists. It’s hard to call the three of us conceptualists. It’s even comical.
VZ: Nevertheless, we’re actively using this term today, and we’re not suggesting any replacement
for it. That’s the real paradox.
ÀÌ: But we use it with a kind of grimace and internal discomfort.
VZ: In fact, the various movements that emerged in the West had their own ideologists, who insisted on a particular terminology. Andrei [AM] compiled the Dictionary of Terms of Moscow Conceptualism.6 As an ideologist he didn’t insist on the terms “NOMA” or “MANI,” and he didn’t write the Dictionary of Terms of the Moscow Archive of New Art. That sounds strange and incorrect. And yet we all took a passive position. We adopted Western formulaic wording, perhaps because many artist-ideologists who linked their own positions to conceptualism, such as [Vitaly] Komar and [Alexander] Melamid and the Gerlovins, had emigrated to the West in the late 1970s. Later, Groys and [Viktor] Pivovarov left, and therefore a critical mass of “intellectual artists” was never reached. The moniker “NOMA” even less accurately described the specific features of Moscow intellectual art. This was an intra-group term, and we played around with it a bit, but you may remember one day walking along the Ring Road toward Furmanny Lane in the late 1980s,7 you asked me if I considered myself a part of NOMA. To your surprise, I replied that I didn’t. In our case one can’t even discuss the sequence of changes in the terminology. “Conceptualism” remained our label for some thirty years because it’s not a term denoting a movement or a group, as it’s been in the West, but rather a kind of strategy of conduct in culture. It’s another question as to who—aside from some five to six artists (if not fewer)—is following it today.
AM: I think there’s one important thing we weren’t able to do. For example, “Dadaism” is wrong,
but “Dada” is right. And “Fluxus” is right. Because “Fluxus” and “Dada” are self-designations; it’s absolutely the same with “MANI” or “NOMA.” They are above movements—above conceptualism, surrealism, etc. It’s like a city and a state. They’re in the position of the city. And we couldn’t put “MANI” or “NOMA” in those ranks. “NOMA” is a poetic term.
VZ: It’s because we ourselves did not insist on our own basic terminology. After all, “MANI” is an
abbreviation and not a term like “Dada.” MANI means the “Moscow Archive of New Art,” i.e., it means almost the same thing as “Moscow Conceptual school.”
YuL: But an abbreviation, too, can be poetic. After all, “MANI” sounds wonderful!
VZ: Naturally. “MANI” sounds very much like the English word “mîney.”
AM: Rubinstein and I came up with the word.8 At the time, we weren’t thinking about this connotation, though, of course we were both aware of it.
VZ: For me personally, though, that was the point of the game. Money turned out to be the framework both for a refined and yet—at the time—the most radical direction in art. The phonetics created a screen, a kind of protective layer for what was behind it. A sort of game arose, although that, too, didn’t work.
AM: But why didn’t it work? Perhaps because it quickly turned into “NOMA”? Yura [YuL], in what year did the word “NOMA” appear?
YuL: It was conceived by Pasha ([Pavel] Pepperstein) in early 1988.
AM: So “MANI” lasted for seven to eight years.
YuL: But that doesn’t mean that one term replaced the other.
AM: You replaced “MANI” with “NOMA.”
YuL: No, once again it was the critics who made the change. At the time they needed something
youthful and esoteric-sounding, something clubby, and so they latched onto that word. Within our group Medical Hermeneutics, there were dozens of different self-designations: “NOMA,” “literary-dogmatists of the era of faded signal flags,” and some “all-union production associations.”
VZ: Those were your intra-group terminological squabbles. For a while, therefore, “NOMA”
became an umbrella term for all of us. When [Nikolai] Panitkov showed his collection in Frankfurt, however, its name included the term “MANI”: the “MANI Museum.”
Now we can’t change anything by simply deciding to do so. We can’t say, “Hey guys, sorry, we deceived you; this is a mistake, and we’re not conceptualists. We must accept the situation as it is. But we can slightly tweak the way we’re seen, for example, shift the focus to “MANI,” or something else, if we could come up with that something else.
AM: Or if we could explain that this isn’t conceptualism or say that this is, inter alia, conceptualism, or a considerably expanded understanding of conceptualism, a kind of Moscow variant that to a great extent is not identical to the Western understanding of conceptualism.
VZ: Conceptualism is a distanced stance, as opposed to a decorative, poetic , or conceptual one, but the term “MANI” contains the word “archive.” We didn’t propose any other term that described our position of distancing and would still have been understood in the West.
AM: It should also be noted that conceptualism is linked to the “Russian question,” to the understanding of “Russian culture” as a culture based on literature and text. Famous Russians are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—in a word, literature. Not music, not philosophy, not theology, but specifically literature. Conceptualism is also texts: the description of a chair, the definitions from the encyclopedia of Art & Language. If you don’t go into detail and merely take this formal aspect, then the term “conceptualism” can easily be applied specifically to the Russian situation.
YuL: In fact, though, there is no similarity between Western “concept-art” and the Russian literary tradition. For example, [Joseph] Kosuth, like all the positivists, turns a totally deaf ear to literature. Yet it can be easily explained that “conceptualism” is, well, you know, it’s when there’s a concept instead of a work of art. And in that case Leonardo da Vinci would be a conceptualist, too.
VZ: A connection to the Russian tradition can be seen in the work of Katya [Ekaterina] Degot, who tries to find a Russian link among the Moscow Conceptualists: the Oberiuty. Though this parallel is possible, it doesn’t work as far many as other artists, myself included, are concerned.
YuL: I’ve said repeatedly that “art criticism” and “art history” are known as such not only because they are about art, but because they themselves form the essence of art. This is an act of discourse creation, and not of a newspaper’s categorization by lists. In this sense Katya Degot is probably the only art critic in Moscow trying to develop a new critical perspective, rather than just droning on with the usual banalities. Therefore, like any work of literature, these things do not fall into the categories of “right” and “wrong.”
On the other hand, I recall how here, at Andrei’s [AM’s] place, I first read [Aleksandr] Vvedensky’s Christmas at the Ivanovs.9 Or perhaps Andrei read it aloud. And how important it was for me when later, once again at Andrei’s place, I heard [Yuri] Mamleev’s audio cassettes. For me, he became the link between the Oberiuty and [Ilya] Kabakov. His Letters to Katya makes use of the same principle as in Kabakov’s albums. I understood that Kabakov, too, did not emerge full-blown out of nowhere, and that some links, some donations to the future, had been preserved even in the totally subjugated Russian culture of the twentieth century. Dostoevsky’s Poor People,10 which was also a novel in letters, likewise had a great influence on me, and I started creating my notebooks under the influence of those impressions.
AM: I was influenced by [Daniil] Kharms’s early play, Elizaveta Bam, as well as by Vvedensky and [Nikolai] Oleinikov.11
VZ: Like the Russian nationalists, you’re trying once again to find a Russian connection for a movement that had become international, and to locate Russian roots in a phenomenon that never sought national roots. They were always there, anyhow. I emerged in the late 1970s, and was totally plugged into the international system, without forgetting about Russian traditions and literature…
ÀÌ: Frankly, so was I.
YuL: Any normal person would say that.
AM: Right now, that’s very important. Right now being a Russian artist, a Russian poet, a Russian writer, is very important: it means resisting Western culture. That idea is being elaborated at the governmental level.
VZ: Oleg Kulik is drawing up a strategy for the Russian artist.
AM: Or take the “Russian writer” Vladimir Sorokin. Formerly, he wasn’t a Russian writer.
VZ: It’s interesting that attempts are now being made to undo our fundamental premise of the
1970s and 1980s: that art is a phenomenon shared by all mankind. I’d even call it a universal phenomenon. We never tried to see Russian art as local or specific, and never divided art and culture into “Western” and “ours.”
AM: [The art critic] Aleksandr Rappoport asked me in a letter yesterday whether I thought K/D [Collective Actions; Fig. 1] was closer to the Russian or the Western tradition. What is so awful in this situation? That process of division. He considers Russian achievements in culture, literature, poetry, or music not as international but as Russian, as distinguished from Western [achievements]—that preposterous nineteenth-century division between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.
In any case, however, it seems to me that “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” is the most appropriate name. It isn’t accurate, but it’s closer to
the real thing than just “Moscow Conceptualism.” I agree with the word “Moscow.” That’s very important.
YuL: Yes, if “romantic” is not understood in the commonly accepted sense of the word (Oh,
you romantic!), but more substantively. I really like the idea Andrei [AM] once proposed, that in the entire history of art there have only been two trends, two dominant trends: romanticism and classicism. In that sense conceptualism—Western “concept-art”—is in fact classicizing art.
VZ: Thirty years later, though, they never discussed whether or not they had used the correct
terminology, but we’re doing that. That in itself is very interesting.
AM: Kazimir Malevich at first didn’t even think of himself on a global scale, but rather on an
international one, and Velimir Khlebnikov conceived of himself as such. Incidentally,
Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko shared the same view of themselves, albeit in less prophetic and more cultured forms. Even when I was young and imitated some poetry—let alone at the age of seventy-three—I never thought of myself in relation to the Russian tradition or as a Russian poet. I merely dealt with poetry, with international poetry.
VZ: Yura [YuL], can you try to describe your position in culture today?
YuL: Not in culture! I don’t deal with culture. That’s for the culturologists and the functionaries.
VZ: Well, all right, then, your position in art.
ÀÌ: The morality here is interesting. Yesterday you made a brilliant remark, saying that Russia can move in the right direction only if the Gulag
museum is, first, not squeezed into two rooms of a communal apartment on Petrovka Street but housed in a high-rise on the Koltelnecheskii Embankment, and, second, if everyone knows about it.
YuL: The main question, to which I don’t have an answer, is this: how can there be art in the present
situation? Can there be anything at all in that situation? I’m drawing a line here. Does anything in the world change at the moment before anyone has seen that line? As for morality: ten years ago I wrote a text that was very important to me, entitled “Dima Bulichev,” dedicated to a school friend who had died. While I was writing I very clearly understood that—no matter what kind of a text it was—of all the people who had known Dima Bulichev, I alone could write about him, and that until the end of time there would not be any other text about him. That’s a feeling of unbearable caution and, at the same time, determination, somewhere on the brink between them. As Vvedensky said, “the novel I am writing is perhaps badly written, but at least it’s the right novel.”
It’s clear that, by definition, culture has nothing to do with this, since we’re not talking about
how to “structure” Russia over here, or Ukraine over there. Modern art is also irrelevant here. Its system of representation has already been completely written off. It has almost nothing to do with art. It’s simply an amusement park, an intellectual joyride…
VZ: You’re taking an overly primitive view of the situation. Contemporary Western culture assumes the existence not only of amusement parks, but also of a vast number of scholarly editions, literary evenings, readings, seminars. In the West this operates as a parallel system, though perhaps it’s not as powerful as a market system. But it cannot be ignored.
YuL: Naturally. I’m talking about the dominant element, about where all of this is going: “Oh dear,
don’t you have something about conceptualism, because we’ve been assigned that for tomorrow’s seminar.”
VZ: But I think that we started discussing conceptualism precisely because the situation of
Russian artists is so deplorable, in the sense that it’s pieced together all the strata of the past, including the intellectual, dissident, and alternative ones, into a single Glamour stratum. And we’re projecting our deplorably glamorous situation onto the West, thinking that the same thing exists over there, and we don’t want to see a multi-level system in the West. We—even those of us who know this—somehow always seem to pass over it in silence.
ÀÌ: Perhaps we could say that ideology always enjoyed considerable dominance over the free play
of modern discourse, which kept on developing here. And now it’s off to the future, to a progressive movement forward. Here, that was the Communist ideology, Socialist Realism. In a sense, it was a popular ideology, rooted in the people. Glamour is that same Communist ideology. It is the sea, the ocean, with bubbles of free play.
VZ: Did the Communist system have an impact on Collective Actions?
AM: And what about the red slogan? Like a field for exhibitions, of course.
YuL: Like a zone of resistance. Following Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze wrote magnificently
about that—ideology folds over into a crease, and your individuation is revealed inside it.
ÀÌ: But the Glamour ideology is a thousand times more horrendous than the Communist one.
YuL: Because it is inflexible, unbending.
AM: Yes, it’s virtually inflexible.
VZ: In my view, it’s too flexible.
AM: Yes, that’s absolutely right. It’s like radiation. The Communist ideology and its slogans had no
center from which to radiate outward, and that’s horrendous.
YuL: Glamour is based on sexuality, and that’s the area of the human “I” closest to the communal. No exit. And at the same time, the foundation of each step must be an exit.
VZ: I agree with that. But coming from you, that position regarding an exit is a bit troubling.
Glamour never bothered me; it never bothered you. So why should we be reacting to glamour, which is not a hindrance to us? This position is wrong. An exit from what, in that case? From the accepted model of modern art? From ourselves? From our principles? From Moscow Conceptualism? Or, ultimately, from the Western system?
If we regard the Sotheby’s auction of 1988 as the first example of active Western penetration into Russian territory, [xii] then we see that this process of penetration has in fact been going on for twenty years—not without our help—and that we’ve done a vast amount of work in moving toward the West by actively participating in the international art system, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Nevertheless, today we’re here at Andrei’s [AM’s] place, at the same round table where we sat years ago. Do we really have to abandon this experience we’ve gained?
I think the phenomenon of MANI/MOKShA/Moscow Conceptualism is unique. It’s not a fragmented phenomenon, not a sect. It’s a historical phenomenon. That’s why, no matter what you call it—“MOKShA” or “Moscow Conceptualism”—you need to remember that there are people who in one or another way stand by this phenomenon, and will continue to do so.
The fact that we’ve gotten together after thirty years and are actively, loudly analyzing today’s cultural situation attests to the uniqueness of the building we erected, which has surpassed all of us in height. Thirty years later we’re trying to crawl out from under the building we built, which is simultaneously becoming both our monument and our gravestone. No situation like that has ever existed. It turns out that both the strength and the ideas needed to undertake something today do exist, even if they’re aimed at a total exit.
YuL: We’ve just reached the conclusion that Moscow Conceptualism was not a uniform movement.
There were completely different things at work there. I recently went through Yura [Yuri] Albert’s catalogue. Well, I have nothing in common with Yura Albert, nothing! I’m very fond of Yura; he’s my friend, he has a superbly refined understanding of art, and it’s a real pleasure for me to go to museums with him, but as artists we have nothing in common! The same goes for Andrei Filippov (Fig. 2), no matter how friendly I was with him. What kind of phenomenon are we talking about?
VZ: What’s unique is that each of us is the leader of a kind of nonexistent trend. Each of should
have schools and students, but note that neither Kabakov nor [Eric] Bulatov nor Monastyrsky has students…
YuL: How come? I and all of Medical Hermeneutics, along with Volodya [Vladimir] Mironenko, are
students of Monastyrsky’s.
VZ: But there was no apprenticeship as such. Kabakov didn’t say, “I have so and so as my students.” Monastyrsky doesn’t say that, either.
YuL: That’s the normal way to study with someone, not as in biographies of young German writers,
when they write, “I studied at the Kunstakademie in Professor so and so’s class…”
VZ: That’s what I mean, that we have a unique situation here. We never say that there are teachers
and students. We accept each other on the level of an event within the culture. That is because we recognize the uniqueness of each person. We meet as leaders of various trends, and each one is of interest to us. Our discourse is never fully developed. That is why we value the moment of contact with each other. We are glad to complement each other.
YuL: That could be said about any artists with similar life experience. But if you start talking about
Kabakov, Medical Hermeneutics, or about yourself, then a kind of vaguely discernible ridge emerges.
VZ: What conclusion did we arrive at?
AM: At my age, my point of view is this: when responses are given such as “Life didn't work out,
but the works are eternal,” or “Life didn’t work out, but art is eternal,” then everything is fine. But inside glamour the assumption is the opposite: life there worked out, but art isn’t really important, art is transient. The most important thing is the empty space all around, because when there’s emptiness, everything can be seen and heard well. The sources of the sound are far away.
This conversation took place in Moscow on February 17, 2008.
1. B. Groys, “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism,” A–Ya (1979), no. 1.
2. Ekaterina Degot and Vadim Zakharov, eds., Moskovskii kontseptualizm (Moscow Conceptualism) (Moscow: WAM, 2005) [Editor’s note].
3. MANI stands for “Moscow Archive of New Art.” The term was arrived at in the late 1970s by Monastyrsky, in conjunction with Lev Rubinstein and Nikita Alekseev. It denoted the circle of Moscow Conceptualists from the second half of the 1970s until the late 1980s, i.e., until the appearance of the moniker “NOMA.”
4. Pavel Pepperstein introduced the term “NOMA” in the late 1980s to indicate the circle of Moscow Conceptualists. It replaced the earlier designation “MANI Circle.” “NOMA” denotes a “circle of people who describe their regions using a jointly developed set of linguistic practices.” The term comes from the word “Nom,” which in ancient Egypt referred to the parts of Osiris’s dismembered body. Nomes were the territorial units of ancient Egypt in which, according to legend, the individual parts of Osiris’s body were buried.
5. “MOKShA,” an acronym for “Moscow Conceptual School,” represents the third stage of development of Moscow Conceptualism (after MANI and NOMA). The term was introduced by Monastyrsky in the course of interpreting the film Dead Alive in 1993.
6. Andrei Monastyrsky, “Slovar’ terminov moskovskoi kontsepualnoi shkoly” (Dictionary of Terms of the Moscow Conceptual School), Pastor 7 (1999); idem, ed., ed., Slovar’ terminov moskovskoi kontseptual’noi shkoly (Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1999) [Editor’s note].
7. Furmanny Lane is a street in Moscow that was home to many unofficial artists in the late 1980s [Editor’s note].
8. The conceptual poet Lev Rubinstein (b. 1947) had strong ties to Moscow Conceptualism. During the 1970s, aspects of his work anticipated or otherwise shared affinities with Moscow conceptual performance art, among them his poems written on index cards that were meant to be shuffled (and thus their order changed) by the reader [Editor’s note].
9. This is the title of the English translation by George Gibian. The Russian title is literally The Christmas/New Year's Tree Party at the Ivanovs’ [Trans. note].
10. Poor People (also known as Poor Folk), about a down-and-out government worker, was Dostoevsky’s first novel. It appeared in 1846 [Editor’s note].
11. Daniil Kharms, Aleksandr Vvedensky, and Nikolai Oleinikov were members of OBERIU, a Leningrad-based group of absurdist writers of the 1920s and 1930s that was an important source of inspiration for the Moscow Conceptualist movement [Editor’s note].
12. The Sotheby’s auction in Moscow in July 1988, the first such auction held in the Soviet Union, was largely devoted to the work of unofficial artists. The sale played a key role in opening up Russian art to the West, along with demonstrating the existence of a Western market for the work [Editor’s note].