- Alternative Histories of Soviet Visual Culture
How do we know what the Soviet Union looked like? The complexity of answering this apparently innocuous question should not be underestimated. A spontaneous response might be: we know what it looked like because there are photographs, films, works of art, buildings, monuments, even entire cities from which we can see for ourselves. Certainly this visual record is a valuable historical document, which allows us to view certain features of the Soviet cultural environment, but it does not provide a historical context for what we are seeing. Much of the visual environment of the Soviet Union was constructed in the image of a future socialist utopia, yet the sociopolitical reality of this promise was left unfulfilled. To "look back" on Soviet culture is to invest it with the significance of subsequent events and to mold our interpretations according to contemporary models: fatalism, nostalgia, irony, and prejudice are some of the more common features of a post-Soviet cultural history. A challenge faced by scholars is to negotiate these obstacles in order to consider the visual environment of the Soviet Union not as a unique and isolated aesthetic phenomenon but as part of a coherent narrative of 20th-century culture based on a dialogue that spans historical periods and political boundaries.
A representation of this problem is provided by a recent exhibition in the new Garazh Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow by the acclaimed artist couple Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, titled Al'ternativnaia istoriia iskusstv (An Alternative History of Art).1 This ambitious "total installation" explores the constructed narrative of 20th-century Russian art through the device of a transgenerational group exhibition.2 The Kabakovs present the audience with a chronological story that traces the creative dialogue of three fictitious artists: Charles Rosenthal, a student of Marc Chagall who attempts to reconcile the [End Page 582]
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pure forms of Suprematism with the socially applied art of Socialist Realism (Figure 1); an alternative Ilya Kabakov, a provincial Soviet artist of the 1970s who finds inspiration in the work of Rosenthal; and Igor Spivak, a Ukrainian artist of the post-Soviet generation who is nostalgic for the straightforward optimism of Soviet socialism. This is not the first Kabakov exhibition to feature these fictional characters, but it is the most comprehensive, comprising a huge number of works arranged through 33 rooms of a specially constructed gallery space sealed off within the vast hall of Konstantin Mel'nikov's constructivist landmark, the Bakmet'evskii Garazh.3 It is also part of a much-publicized return to Russia by Kabakov, who has not exhibited in his home country since his emigration to the United States in 1988.4 An Alternative History of Art is an exhibition that explores...