Ekaterina Andreeva

Timur Novikov and Ilya Kabakov: Everything and Nothing

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Ekaterina Andreeva

Timur Novikov and Ilya Kabakov: Everything and Nothing

from Everything and Nothing: Symbolic Figures in Post-War Twentieth-Century Art / Все и Ничто. Символические фигуры в искусстве второй половины XX века (Saint Petersburg: Ivan Limbakh, 2004, revised edition 2011, in Russian)

This essay is a comparative study of the two most significant Russian contemporary artists of the late twentieth century, Timur Novikov and Ilya Kabakov.

Although the work of Novikov and Kabakov paradoxically overlaps in several aspects, their ways of seeing the world and making meaning are quite distinct. Both artists try to solve the same problem: to render a final judgment on the cultural experiment launched by the Russian avant-garde and continued in the Soviet era. The artists choose the image of emptiness as the key to performing this task. They use the avant-garde’s notion of emptiness to illuminate everyday objects and occurrences. The choice of this problematic points to their desire to reflect on their place in history, to engage in art as a matter of life and death. The products of this quest are likewise deadly serious and have been recognized as such by their contemporaries. It is thanks to Timur Novikov and Ilya Kabakov that our place and time—Russia in the last three decades of the twentieth century—will be remembered in the future. It is Novikov and Kabakov who have inscribed Russia into a western art history that could just as well do without it. Since the days of Peter the Great and the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev no other method has been discovered for inserting Russia into the cultural world-system.[1] I will show how Novikov and Kabakov managed this feat and what face of Russian culture they reveal in their work.


The sequence of names and concepts in this essay’s title itself suggests one possible contour of my argument. Why have I listed Novikov’s name before Kabakov’s although Novikov (born September 24, 1958) was younger than Kabakov (born September 30, 1933), and his name comes after Kabakov’s in the alphabet?[2] More important, do I mean to draw parallels between Novikov and Everything, between Kabakov and Nothing? It would be more accurate, in fact, to imagine a proportion, an equation in which Everything represents an unknown quantity x, an essential historical and artistic task, while Nothing is the fundamental variable y in the solution to this equation. This is how this mathematical graph was conceived in twentieth-century art. How an artist understood Nothing determined the kind of Everything he produced.


This graph has taken exactly this same shape in the artistic careers of Kabakov and Novikov. In the seventies and early eighties, both men were card-carrying zeroists, to borrow the term of the twenties that Novikov resurrected, along with Larionov’s everythingism (vsëchestvo), in his theoretical articles and manifesto

of 1985. Novikov and Kabakov both presented to their publics materialized, spatialized zeroes—or, to put it more bluntly, holes—as works of art. In 1982, Novikov exhibited the Zero Object (Nol’ ob’ekt), which he created with Ivan Sotnikov. In the same year, Kabakov conceived his project for the installation The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Room, which was essentially a sequel to his album Ten Characters (1970–75).[3]

Both holes combine the fourth dimension with outer space, which became a fact of popular life in the sixties even as it retained its virtual character.[4] Outer space figures in the published chronicle of the Zero Object in the entry dated October 20, 1982, the ninth day of the psychedelic work’s existence. The work appeared on October 12, 1982, during the mounting of an exhibition of the TEII (the Society for Experimental Visual Art, an umbrella organization of Leningrad nonconformists). Novikov and Sotnikov noticed a quadrangular hole in one of the picture stands. The hole reminded them of the windows that connected the “profane” and “sacred” zones in Soviet establishments—for example, between the kitchen and the dining hall in cafeterias, or between the registration desk and the waiting room in medical clinics and passport offices.


Novikov and Sotnikov claimed the hole as their own work with two pieces of signage that included a declaration by the artists. They also issued Decree G-7 No. 0 of the Chief Directorate of Zero Culture, October 12, 1981: “Effective January 1, 1982, a new spelling of 0 will be adopted. Instead of the old spelling nil, it will now be correct to write zero. The new spelling zero ends with the letter o, which is equivalent to 0. The new spelling is obligatory only in zero documents.”[5] Novikov and Sotnikov’s decree is reminiscent of the Soviet absurdist writer Daniil Kharms’s quasi-philosophical fragment “Nil and Zero,” a text with which the two young artists were then unfamiliar. “Take a closer look at zero, for zero isn’t what you take it to be. . . . Let the doctrine of the infinite be the doctrine of zero. As opposed to nil, I call zero precisely that which I mean by it. . . . The symbol of nil is 0. But the symbol of zero is O. . . . We will assume the circle as the symbol of zero.”[6]


A comparison of these two texts shows us how the avant-garde’s image of infinity had been “nullified” by the absurdism of the seventies. Novikov and Sotnikov’s declaration (dated October 12, 1982) adopts a tone of modest praise for their own work, thus rendering absurd the seventy-year tradition of avant-garde prophesying:


The present Zero Object is the product of a “purified” creative process: its creators expended no physical effort in its formation; the only condition of its appearance was their desire. The appearance—of what?—of nothing. The Zero Object is, strictly speaking, nothing, but at the same time it is visible. Like the traditional painting next to it, it is exhibited on a wall. It is immobile to the same degree as the wall on which it is hung, but simultaneously it alters continuously in time because the space projected through the Zero Object changes continuously as well. The number of different points from which one can view the Zero Object is indefinite, although they are divisible into two basic subsets—Exposition No. 1 and Exposition No. 2. Which, however, doesn’t at all destroy the work’s integrity. It is volumetric while also occupying a flat plane. It is new, unique, and unrepeatable. And it is also traditional: it wholly corresponds to the long-nonexistent parameters of the avant-garde. It is non-objective, but anyone who contemplates it will conclude that this entire exhibition merely serves as its frame.[7]


On October 12, a commission from the Municipal Directorate for Culture inspected the exhibition. Fortunately, they failed to notice the Zero Object. The exhibition opened to the public on October 14. For two whole days (October 15–16), “broad segments of the public continued to give high marks to the Zero Object,” and “photography of the Zero Object proceeded apace.” On the evening of October 17, however, storm clouds gathered. As explained in Bulletin No. 1 (To Everyone Interested in the Zero Object), Sergei Kovalsky, the leader of the TEII, “announced that the Zero Object was a real threat to the exhibition. . . . He said . . . that he would prevent the artists from all contact with the object of their creative activity. Speaking on behalf of the exhibition organizing committee, he forbade T[imur] Novikov from visiting the exhibition.”[8] In fact, the Zero Object also revealed the “nonexistent parameters of the avant-garde” in that it demonstrated how an avant-garde acts to create a revolutionary situation. As a result of this particular situation, Timur Novikov’s first major artistic and educational venture, the New Artists group, was launched.[9]


Novikov and Sotnikov responded the same day (October 17) to Kovalsky’s ultimatum. “Since the accusations made against us by S[ergei] Kovalsky are quite serious, we cannot remain silent. We give our Zero Object to S[ergei] Kovalsky and those who control him. . . . We ask that the Zero Object be officially closed (or deactivated). We order that the Zero Object’s visual existence be ended by covering up the aperture in the wall.”[10] The next day Novikov put together a “working model of the Zero Object” and made copies of it. Then, on October 20, according to Bulletin No. 2, Novikov and Sotnikov “went into hiding and departed for Moscow,” whence they conducted telepathic séances with the Zero Object. They also announced that UFOs were “Unidentified Flying Zero Objects.” Although it had existed for only a few days, the Zero Object thus took on cosmic dimensions. It aspired to the status of conceptual art’s principal provocations—Duchamp’s Fountain and the works of Yves Klein’s “pneumatic period.” The original Zero Object was irretrievably lost, surviving only in photographs. More and more new copies, endlessly multiplying “working models,” amplified its impact, however.


Bulletin No. 6 informs us that at 00:00 on October 28 (“old style”) a “world zero r.” (a “zero revolution”?) took place. This event preceded a discussion of the exhibition, to which “noted member of the zero movement Oleg Grigoriev” arrived at 18:30. On October 31, the TEII exhibition at the Kirov Palace of Culture closed. In a special proclamation, Novikov and Sotnikov declared that all apertures whatsoever were Zero Objects. In Bulletin No. 7 they likewise informed all concerned that they had been reconciled with Kovalsky at a banquet held to celebrate the exhibition’s closing. The chronicle of the Zero Object ends with A Secret Appendix to Bulletin No. 7:


As part of the zero experiment, on October 21, 1982, T[imur] Novikov made the passage from three-dimensional space to four-dimensional space. This passage was effected with the immediate participation of the Z.O., i.e., by means of passage through the Zero Object. The enormous amount of data gathered in the course of the experiment—a transcript of T.N.’s words immediately after his passage through the Zero Object, made by his assistants—is being analyzed at the present time. This transcript breaks off at the moment that the Z.O.’s effect on T.N. becomes apparent.[11]

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[1] Kabakov’s works are discussed in such standard texts as Michael Archer, Art Since 1960 (London, 1997); and David Hopkins, After Modern Art: 1945-2000 (Oxford, 2000). Novikov is canonized in Edward Lucie-Smith, Movements in Art Since 1945 (London, 2000).


[2] In 1993, at Art Hamburg (where Kabakov’s installation NOMA was accorded the “sacred” site, under the dome of the Hamburger Kunsthalle), Novikov spoofed his status as the “young disciple” of the “old master” Kabakov. Novikov spotted Kabakov moving slowly down the main corridor between the exhibition stands in the company of a large entourage. Novikov waited until Kabakov was a few paces away before placing himself squarely in the older man’s path. Novikov theatrically brought his right hand from behind his back, carefully wiped its palm on his jacket, and extended this “clean” hand to Kabakov. Elegantly playing along with Novikov, Kabakov smiled and shook the younger man’s hand as if he were his patron. The two artists then struck up a brief but polite conversation. Novikov also considered significant another encounter with Kabakov, at the New York home of critics and curators Margarita and Victor Tupitsyn, in the early nineties. He often recalled a revolutionary dictum allegedly uttered by Kabakov during that conversation: “The picture is on the verge of death, but it hasn’t surrendered.”


[3] In 1986 Kabakov constructed this installation in his Moscow studio. In 1988 he re-created it as part of the show Ten Characters, at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York.


[4] The inauguratory role of the sixties is not incidental. It was during this decade that Russian culture took a short breather from the slow suffocation of the Soviet era, and anything capable of growth quickly flourished. Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 space flight symbolically contributed to this sense of life’s expansion. After the brief Thaw (a spring that never did turn to summer), many Soviet artists employed the avant-garde’s absurdist traditions in an intense meditation on society’s illusions. It was during the sixties that, despite a twenty-year age difference, both Kabakov and Novikov were visited by the artistic insights for which they would later be inscribed into the art-historical canon. In the early sixities, Kabakov was a veteran graphic artist who had tried his hand at abstractionism. In 1962, he experimented with absurd subjects, and in 1963–64 he created a series of metaphysical works about “white light.” In 1964, the young Novikov painted his first significant canvas, Parade on Palace Square. In 1968, he moved with his mother to the island of Novaya Zemlya, where the boundless northern horizons would lead to his discovery of semiotic perspective.


[5] Timur Novikov and Ivan Sotnikov, “Nol’ ob’ekt,” in Novye khudozhniki, 1982–1987: Antologiia, ed. Ekaterina Andreeva and Elena Kolovskaia (Saint Petersburg, 1996), 66. Unless indicated otherwise, all translations from the Russian, here and elsewhere, are our own.


[6] Daniil Kharms, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 4-kh tomakh, vol. 2 (Saint Petersburg, 1997), 312–3. During the late sixties and early seventies, the works of Kharms, stored in the city’s public library, were possibly the most in-demand “samizdat” texts in Leningrad. It was in the spirit of Kharms and his allies in the OBERIU (The Association for Real Art) that the legendary underground poet and children’s writer Oleg Grigoriev composed his own works. Grigoriev imparted this spirit to his disciple Oleg Kotelnikov, Novikov’s comrade in the high-school rock band Monsters and the New Artists group. Novikov believed that the ideal anthology of Russian poetry would open with the poems of eighteenth-century Russian renaissance man Mikhail Lomonosov and close with the  verses of Grigoriev and Kotelnikov. The artist and writer Viktor Pivovarov calls this time “the Kharms years,” while Boris Groys has often noted the congruence between Moscow conceptualism (Kabakov, Pivovarov, et al.) and the absurdist culture of the OBERIU, especially as exemplified by the works of Kharms. In their memoirs Kabakov and Pivovarov mention, however, only Kharms’s verses for children and his play Elizabeth Bam, not his quasi-philosophical texts. Thus, the “Kharms years” were not so much inspired by a thorough knowledge of the philosophical absurdism of the twenties and thirties as they were a witness to the vital tradition of Russian revolutionary art.


[7] Novye khudozhniki, 66. Like the Zero Object itself and the entire correspondence with the TEII concerning the Zero Object, this declaration is evidence of a fully developed conceptualist tradition. It is no coincidence that in the summer of 1990 Andrei Erofeev, director of the recently formed Museum of the Object in the Moscow suburb of Tsaritsyno (the first museum of contemporary conceptualist art in Russia), inquired about the fate of the Zero Object when he was making his initial purchases of Leningrad art. Novikov suggested that he talk to Alexei Feoktistov, the author of the book Zero History. Following Novikov’s advice, the “eminent zero theoretician and practitioner” Feoktistov suggested to Erofeev that he use an empty slide-picture frame as a “working model” of the Zero Object. Is this model now among the works that Erofeev had transferred to Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, which now houses his Tsaritsyno collection?


[8] Novye khudozhniki, 67. Kovalsky’s fears that the exhibition might be shut down if officials found a work not included in the list of works approved for exposition were well founded. Novikov and Sotnikov recreated the Zero Object for one of the first perestroika-era exhibitions of nonconformist art, in January 1987, in the Leningrad district of Gavan. Once again, the Zero Object was not in the list of works approved by the Municipal Directorate for Culture, and this time exhibition administrators ordered that it be removed. Soviet Kulturträgers saw in its emptiness a devastating insinuation, like the mythical reeds that whispered the secret of King Midas’s donkey ears.


[9] “And that’s how I lived until 1981, when several groups of artists organized the TEII, whose aims were more political than artistic. I began to have conflicts with members of the TEII since I was more interested in the practice of contemporary art, which I’d read a lot about. It seemed to me, though, that many of the paintings by members of the TEII, especially those by artists from the circles of [Osip] Sidlin or [Alexander] Arefiev, weren’t exactly contemporary art. And so in 1982 Ivan Sotnikov and I organized the New Artists.” “Avtobiografiia neoakademista Timura Petrovicha Novikova,” in: Timur Novikov: Retrospektiva (Saint Petersburg, 1998), 12. Formed in 1981, the TEII was essentially an alternative trade union engaged in the political and economic struggle for public exhibitions and studio space for unofficial artists.


[10] Novye khudozhniki, 67–8.


[11] Novye khudozhniki, 77.



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