“The future is certain. Only the past is unpredictable.” This anekdot wryly characterises the temporality of what was once everyday Soviet life. Yet, Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 proclamation of “communism in twenty years” remained unfulfilled, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s later attempts at glasnost and perestroika failed at keeping the Soviet Union from ruin. Its future was no more than a utopian dream. With the Soviet experiment behind us, its history is open for interpretation. Thus, my research explores the phenomenon of the historical turn as evinced in contemporary Eastern European art.
For centuries, artists have looked back on the past as a source of inspiration or catharsis in their works. And while the term has been more recently invoked within art historical discourse by scholars and curators such as Hal Foster and Dieter Roelstraete, I provide a deep dive into both the impetus and result of the historical turn, arguing that, by mining the past through artefacts, archives, reenactments, and reconstructions, artists hailing from Eastern Europe trace the afterlives of communism, actively questioning the legacies of its lived experience today. Examining the historical turn reveals how the communist experience is not only still acutely relevant in but also innately particular to the region.
One example of this tendency is found in the work of Ilya Kabakov. An artist-historian par excellence, his return to the past in the subject matter of his work allows him to continually reposition himself vis-à-vis shifting hegemonic histories. In doing so, he transforms his initially Soviet-oriented strategy of self-historicisation into one well suited for the global art market.
Self-historicisation is a tool for coping with a lack or loss of representation. As art historian Zdenka Badovinac notes, artists respond to this situation by taking control of the dissemination and preservation of their own legacies through grassroots institutionalisation. In the Soviet Union, artists working in an official capacity were privy to established networks of state financed support, including artist unions and exhibition circuits. Artists who chose to work in unofficial capacities could be deprived not only of certain freedoms of expression but also these coveted resources. Some artists, including Kabakov and his peers within the circle of Moscow Conceptualism, took on the responsibility of writing their own histories and building independent infrastructures for art, including apartment exhibitions, samizdat journals, and personal archives. They developed what French philosopher Michel Foucault calls “heterotopias” or “counter-sites” within the spaces of their everyday lives.
In the early 2000s, Kabakov described how these conditions produced “a unique genre of ‘self-description’” in which “the author would imitate, recreate that very same ‘outside’ perspective of which he was deprived in actual reality. He became simultaneously an author and an observer. Deprived of a genuine viewer, critic, or historian, the author unwittingly became them himself, trying to guess what his works meant ‘objectively.’ He attempted to ‘imagine’ that very ‘History’ in which he was functioning and which was ‘looking’ at him. Obviously, this ‘History’ existed only in his imagination and had its own image for each artist….”
Kabakov first noted the nature of this schizophrenic state in the 1985 text “Artist-Character,” which addresses the split between authorship and subjectivity in works of unofficial art, including his own. In enumerating the many facets of the artist-character, Kabakov introduces the panorama as a metaphor for history—one to which he has returned numerous times throughout his career before and after his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1987.
Derived from the Greek, meaning “all seeing,” a panorama is a larger-than-life horizontal painting typically depicting a natural or urban landscape in the round. It allows the viewer a nearly unobstructed three-hundred-sixty degree view. In the eighteenth century, British painter Robert Barker heralded the panorama as a spectacular new way of seeing and a beacon of modernity. In the late Soviet period, it represented an alternative to the everyday life of unofficial artists, who faced a double disadvantage, operating outside the parameters of both official Soviet and Western art. “Yanked away” from “the normal artistic cycle (artist–painting–exhibition–viewer),” they were left to their own devices, imagining their life and work as a “shining ‘panorama’” of “isolated, immobile ‘painting-images’… ripped out of their historical flow.” The panorama of history is the magnum opus of Kabakov’s artist-character, who takes on a multi-perspectival view as the maker, subject, and spectator of a work of art. This subdivision of self parallels the act of looking into the mirror between a utopia and heterotopia. “In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space,” writes Foucault. Like the panorama, the mirror is a “placeless place” that is “at once absolutely real… and absolutely unreal.”
As with its topography, the temporality of the panorama is also duplicitous. It exists as a memory of the past, a record of the present, and a projection of the future. “That very same imagination that ‘sees’ before it the whole panorama of art is capable of ‘seeing’ its own yet-to-be-made painting, and of placing it next to the works of others that already exist in reality, of placing it in the general order of things, into the panorama as though it is already finished,” writes Kabakov. Only in this way could their work finally be judged against internationally accepted standards. Employing the strategy of self-historicisation, which transformed him into the multivalent artist-character who both creates and stars in the narratives within his own panorama of history, Kabakov wrote himself into the history books of the future.
Kabakov fully realised his metaphor of the panorama of history in his 1991 installation The Red Wagon. “There was a great interest in Russia at that time because the Soviet power has just ended, and museums wanted to exhibit the ideas that came out of this context as well as the artists who came from there,” he recounts. The work of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, specifically their cooperative installations produced in the 1990s, frequently focused on visual representations of Soviet life that questioned the fate of an eternal utopian future, as espoused by communist doctrine. Kabakov attributes these interests to an internal yearning as well as an external expectation. “I had the insane desire to tell about that disgusting prison [the Soviet Union], in which we lived—like Sinbad the Sailor, returning from his travels, has the irresistible desire to recount the terrible conditions from which he escaped,” he says. For the West, their work was unique as it “could describe the Soviet world [opisat’ mir sovetskii], which was not accessible and lesser known [in the West].” Despite competing pressures, the Kabakovs embraced Soviet themes, processing both its individual and collective experiences in their works exhibited in venues around the world.
The Kabakovs produced The Red Wagon for the group exhibition BiNationale Israel/UdSSR: Sowjetische Kunst um 1990 [BiNational Israel/USSR: Soviet Art Around 1990] at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in April 1991. Although the exhibition subsequently travelled to Jerusalem and Moscow, it was organised in the West—from the outside looking into the East. How does this third party perspective inflect the work as well as its reception locally and globally? Curator Jürgen Harten pinpoints the challenges faced by such a transnational endeavour. “They [the artists] insist on their artistic identity [as Soviet], but they want to discover it with the help of Western criteria,” writes Harten in his catalogue essay. Paradoxically, what previously marginalised these artists ends up serving them well. No longer castaways of History, artists like the Kabakovs are folded back into its grand, teleological narrative.
In this period of establishing their identity on the global stage, the Kabakovs took the opportunity to look back at the history of the Soviet Union. The Red Wagon is a veritable monument to the Soviet era. An installation in three parts, each represents a period of the great Soviet century. Describing the installation as “an arch or a ‘bridge’” that traces the development of three disparate but interconnected historical epochs, Ilya originally conceived of the idea in the summer of 1989 while on residency in West Berlin. “It became extremely important to realise this ‘Soviet time’ from its first to its last moment, and somehow to reflect, depict, and ‘memorise’ it, as nothing like it ever had been or will be in human history,” he recounts.
The installation’s first period begins in 1917 and ends in 1932, the year before Ilya was born. It takes the shape of a wooden armature composed of staircases and platforms rising toward the sky. Sketches for The Red Wagon reveal its source of inspiration: Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. Conceived in 1920, this 1,300 foot glass and iron tower commemorating the 1917 October Revolution unfortunately was never built on the banks of the Neva River in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd). The Kabakovs’ rendition of this unrealised utopian project forms the entryway to the second and central portion of the installation, the wagon itself.
Spanning from 1932 to 1963, the second period coincides with Ilya’s youth and formative years as an artist and almost exactly recapitulates his own stylistic evolution from academic to modernist painting. These decades saw both the highs and lows of Stalinism—from ambitious industrialisation to coldblooded purges. It ends in roughly the final year of the Thaw, a brief softening of restrictions under Joseph Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, which revived hope in the everyday lives of Soviet citizens. Two friezes of paintings along the sides of the wagon depict scenes of this euphoria—lines of handsome men in army uniforms, smiling young lovers riding bikes in the countryside, a young boy and an old man hovering intently over a game of chess, a farmer harvesting a field. Rendered with muted colours in soft brushstrokes reminiscent of Paul Cézanne, the paintings are realist in form and content. They culminate in the Panorama of the Future, an interior wall panting capturing an expansive view of a communist utopia replete with bustling factories, verdant farmlands, and a strong military presence. Although blocked from approaching the panorama with a hip-height barrier, the viewer is welcome to sit on a bench opposite the painting and contemplate this purported paradise, which extends through the horizon line. As historian of the panorama Stephan Oettermann writes, its horizon line “reflects the historical experience that the known world is contained within it [the panorama] and an unknown world begins beyond it.” In the Kabakovs’ panorama, this potential is signalled by the many airplanes, hot air balloons, and blimps populating its blue sky. The Red Wagon invites the viewer into its liminal space to contemplate the multifarious histories of utopian visions that characterised the Soviet experience.
The years 1963 and 1985 demarcate the third and final period in The Red Wagon, which corresponds to Ilya’s time working as an artist in Moscow, when he first formulated his ideas around the panorama of history. Beginning at the wagon’s exit, this period is literally a heap of rubbish—broken boxes, leaky trash bags, dirty tarps, and scraps of bubble wrap. From this vantage point, the viewer can see The Red Wagon is a train car without wheels going nowhere fast. This garbage—a trademark material of the Kabakovs’ installation practice—acknowledges the eventual failure of the Soviet experiment:
“Around 1985… Some sort of new, already “nonhistorical” time had begun. But for me, it also seemed clear that not only a particular period but all of it—the “Soviet history” which began in October 1917 and ended that year—had gone away and would never return. That which seemed destined to last for eternity had quietly burst and leaked out, like and old painful, purulent boil.”
Like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, the Kabakovs have turned toward the past only to find its wreckage at their feet. “A storm is blowing from Paradise… This storm is what we call progress,” declares Benjamin. This urgency is conveyed in The Red Wagon through a new genre of art called the “total” installation, which is “constructed in such a way that the viewer (in addition to the various components participating in it) finds himself inside of it, engrossed in it.” More than just an amalgamation of objects in a given space that would act as a stand-in for the Soviet experience, this installation aims to be “a three-dimensional polygon-field” in which “the viewer could correctly recognise and interpret, from [the artists’] point of view, what was shown.” In this way, the viewer is not only exposed to the panorama but also physically becomes a part of it, figuring into the legacy of its circulation.
As this short essay has demonstrated, the panorama has served as a versatile and useful metaphor in the work of artist Ilya Kabakov produced during the late Soviet period as well as in his collaboration with Emilia on the global stage today. Lending itself as a framework for historicising both oneself and context, the panorama opens up new fields of inquiry into the chronicling of potential pasts that bear fruit on our future.
Ksenia Nouril is a Brooklyn-based art historian and curator.