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Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Reality of Absurd


Moscow Romantic Conceptualism was a major Soviet underground art movement and the echoes of its influence still manifest themselves in the pacesetting and often rebellious contemporary art of Russia. Developed in the atmosphere of strict ideological conventionality of the 1970s Soviet Union, Moscow conceptualist art served as not only a form of protest but also a means of escape from artistic and personal constraints characteristic of the period.

This series offers an analysis of the most prominent names and artworks of the movement along with a discussion of such concepts as freedom, choice, and courage in a restrictive environment, as well as the ways they are presented through art. The series consists of six chapters focusing on the works of six individual artists who were categorised as part of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualism movement by the art critic and philosopher Boris Groys (1979), and delves into the topics of protest, escapism and reciprocal influences of the artists and social phenomena:

  1. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Reality of Absurd

  2. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Celebration of Solemnity

  3. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Cultural Labour

  4. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Art of Heightened Senses

  5. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Riot of Paradigms

  6. Moscow Romantic Conceptualism 101: The Resurrection of Romanticism.

The Reality of Absurd

Moscow Conceptualism was an art movement that was formed in Soviet Moscow in the 1970s. Art critic Boris Groys in his work Moscow Romantic Conceptualism singled out a number of literary-centric artists, thus dividing the movement into two groups, one of which was named "romantic" by Groys (1979). The other branch of Moscow conceptualism — "analytical" — was characterized by bringing generally accepted ideas about art to the point of absurdity then building and analysing new models of reality on this basis. For example, working with propaganda imagery from the point of view of a vigorously devoted approach in the so-called Sots Art or Soviet Pop Art of a duo Komar and Melamid, the pioneers of soviet conceptual art, took the form of a farce (Albert, 2014). The artists attributed by Groys to the romantic group did not strive for the absolute in rebuilding the signs of reality, but mostly observed new and often arbitrary systems composed of the concepts of everyday life. The series of articles that opens with this entry examines the problems and language of the art of Moscow Romantic Conceptualism.

Figure 1. Komar & Melamid, Thank you Comrade Stalin for Our Happy Childhood, 1983. [Lithography]

Unofficial Soviet art, which found itself outside the scope of communist propaganda, was learnedly allegorical and quiet. To ensure its continued existence, it often renounced direct protest and adopted the form of the surrounding ideological reality, replacing semantics of familiar images and ideologemes in a subtle way. The very existence of nonconformist art in an environment of total control was defiant and made it an opponent of ideologically correct thinking. Ilya Kabakov, the artist who stood at the origins of Moscow Conceptualism, however, claimed that he did not consider himself a dissident and never put his art in confrontation with any political reality. The artist was shaping new worlds from the building blocks of reality in order to escape from it (Tupitsyn, 2006). In light of these comments, the works of Kabakov will be further seen as a form of escapism, analysis, reaction, creative reflection, but not as a conscious battle with the system. The artist, curator and art theorist Anatoly Osmolovsky also argues for the apolitical nature of Moscow Romantic Conceptualism and speaks of its attempts to escape from direct statements and clear meanings (2012). This critical assessment outlines the problem of characterising Moscow conceptualism as an integral movement in the world of art. Having now become a classic of its kind, it has not yet received an established definition that allows it to be decisively assigned to a specific category in the classification of the history of both Soviet and world art.

Regardless of the intentions of the artist, artworks modeled on the texts of the surrounding reality cannot exist without a connection to it. Thus, the installations of Ilya Kabakov, or as the artist himself called them, “total” installations (Podoroga, 2003), are monuments to Soviet utopian ideas. Elements of Soviet life and dreams, woven by the artist into a single whole, critically and at the same time psychotherapeutically decompose the cultural base of the surrounding society into molecules in order to reassemble it in a kind of deja vu — a recognisable in detail, but non-existent model of reality. One of the artist's works, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1985), appeals to one of the pillars of Soviet ideological pride — space flight. But beyond that surface lies the far more pressing problem of a closed society — the desire to break out of enforced and all-encompassing confines, either physically or in the form of creative escapism.

Figure 2. Ilya Kabakov, The Man who Flew into Space from his Apartment, 1985. [Installation]

Kabakov, like many artists of his circle, for a long time combined his official work as an illustrator of children's literature with unofficial, almost clandestine studies of contemporary conceptual art that interested him (Kabakov, 2008). This organically echoed the duality of Soviet reality. Official and unofficial, declared and felt — the difference between these concepts was an unspoken norm. Art thus made it possible to get rid of ceremonial customs of society and often showed plots of escape, violation of social rules, inadmissible extravagance and freedom. Such is Kabakov's work He Lost His Mind, Undressed, Ran Away Naked (1990). This installation reproduces a poorly lit room, reminiscent of an abandoned corridor of a Soviet communal apartment, exposing the loneliness of the heroes who once inhabited it and of the viewer, left alone with someone else's bleak life. But no matter how viscous and boring the world of artificial slogans of ever-building communism and tightened belts is, Kabakov gives his heroes the opportunity to realize the futility of building mythical happiness and break out towards their own freedom.

Kabakov is more ruthless towards Soviet ideology, contrasting its absurdity to the normality of the human desire for freedom of choice and self-expression. Kabakov's installation The Red Wagon (1991) is a long red wooden train car, the entrance to which is preceded by a constructivist structure resembling a stairway to heaven. Constructivism, as an optimistic trend of the 1920s, together with the proud aspiration of construction to the sky, recalls the Soviet promise of a brighter future as a reward for labor and the sacrifice-demanding creation of a socialist society. Inside the claustrophobically dark car, the visitor is invited to sit opposite the image of a modern developed city of the future and contemplate it to the life-affirming music of the 1930s. Behind the car is chaos: scattered pieces of rails, paint and building materials.

Figure 3. Ilya Kabakov, Red Wagon, 1991. [Installation]

Kabakov is in many ways an artist of impression, memory and reflection, but having formed under certain conditions of if not declared then forced confrontation with the Soviet system, he exposed the inhumanity of some of its aspects and the void of its propaganda. Kabakov's hero is alive and striving away from the cold ideological machine that churns out slogans, mixes up concepts and packs people into dark boxes like its own cogs for the construction of a world in which someone else will someday be happy. The language of Kabakov's installations consists of generally accepted representations of conventionally correct concepts, lifestyle, everyday life in constant comparison with phenomena that are at odds with the system. This comparison most clearly demonstrates the artificiality of authoritarian norms and the success of any long-term social experiment in accustoming society to certain conditions of physical and emotional life, as well as accepting these conditions as a given. In this sense, Kabakov's art is universal and goes far beyond the limits of personal or local experiences in a collectivist culture.


Albert, Ju. (Ed.). (2014). Moskovskij konceptualizm: Načalo. [Moscow conceptualism: The beginning]. [Ehhibition catalogue]. Nižnij Novgorod: Privolžskij filial Gosudarstvennogo centra sovremennogo iskusstva.

Degot, E., & Zakharov, V. (Eds.) (2005). Moskovskij konceptualizm. [Moscow conceptualism] Moscow: WAM.

Groys, B. Moskovskij romanticheskii kontseptualizm. [Moscow Romantic Conceptualism]. A-Ya 1, Paris, pp 3-11. (Original work published in the samizdat magazine 37, Leningrad, 1979).

Groys, B., & Kabakov, I. (2008). Dialogi. [Dialogs]. Vologda: Biblioteka Moskovskogo Konceptualizma Germana Titova.

Gutov, D., & Osmolovsky, A. (2012). Tri spora. [Three debates]. Moscow: Grundrisse.

Kabakov, I. (2008). 60-70-e: Zapiski o neoficialʹnoj žizni v Moskve. [60s-70s: Notes on the unofficial life in Moscow]. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie.

Podoroga, V. (2003). Notes on Ilya Kabakov's ‘on the total installation’, Third Text, 17:4, pp. 345-352. DOI: 10.1080/0952882032000166189

Tupitsyn, V. (2006). Glaznoe jabloko razdora: Besedy s Ilʹej Kabakovym [The Eyeball of Discord: Conversations with Ilya Kabakov]. Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie.

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Eugenia Ivanova

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