Issue: №1 2005

Section: Essay

Kloster Oder Paradize

Kloster Oder Paradize

Ilya Kabakov and Andrey Monastyrsky in front of the work by Igor Makarevich “Ilya’s Wardrobe”. 1987. Photograph

Bogdan Mamonov Born in 1964 in Moscow. Artist, critic and curator. Member of the Working Group “Escape”. Lives in Moscow

I found out about Andrei Monastyrsky when I was on a walk near the Memorial to the Heroes of Plevna and ran into Kostya Zvezdochetov, who took me down Maroseika Street to the studio where the artist community "Champions of the World" had their headquarters back then. The first thing I saw when we got there was a phrase written on the wall, which became the name of this text: "Kloster oder Paradize". A little later, the artist Gia Abramishvili told us that yesterday someone called Monastyrsky had walked straight through a bus about to run him over.

Whenever I remember this episode from the early days of my artistic career, I see that I lived in an world of legends, half-truths and fairytales, in which artists were mythical heroes, and information was replaced by stories like these, stories that somehow had much more to do with reality than all of the transparent information of today. By the time I heard about how Monastyrsky walked straight through a bus, I had already heard rumors of other names and legends. I mean Ilya Kabakov, of course. I knew something of the latter since Yuri Ivanovich Chuvashev, the dean of the Moscow Polygraphic Institute at which I was studying, told us students that Kabakov was "anti-art" and proceeded to fire Vladimir Salnikov to make his point. Salnikov, now a veteran of the contemporary scene, was then an instructor for drawing at the Polygraphic Institute's faculty for graphic design, with what was already a predilection for left-wing discourse; his crime was that he dared to think about taking his students on a pilgrimage to the holy of holies, to Kabakov's studio. Since Kabakov was anti-art, according to Chuvashev, this idea cost Salnikov his teaching job.

I think is important and symbolic that these two legendary names (not Chukavoshov and Salnikov, but Monastyrsky and Kabakov) were the first names I encountered when I entered Moscow's contemporary art scene. It is absolutely obvious that they were the names which defined that epoch. Even the relationship between these names themselves was strange: Monastyrsky comes from the Russian monastyr (= monastery), while Kabakov comes from kabak, which is a pub or barrelhouse. Monastery or barrelhouse, two poles that have dominated the spiritual landscape of Russia forever, so strange that it seemed to be invented. So what if only the first of these names was a pseudonym? In that context you might have thought the second name was also only contrived for the sake of polar symmetry. This is what it was like in the 1980s, but in the next decade, there was something of a rupture.

What happened was that both heroes died. Of course, they both still continue to live on as ordinary mortals, but seen from the perspective of the mythological era in which artists could walk straight through buses, they had both definitely passed away. The old heroes were gone, and the last thing anyone wanted was a new set of heroes; what's more, they couldn't see their heroes as living beings, because what all they wanted was to live themselves. However, the most interesting thing is that the fates of both Kabakov and Monastyrsky beyond the grave are as polar as their names. Kabakov has moved on to the future, into which, as we know, "not everyone will be taken". (It seems that Monastyrsky too was left behind). It is probably only fair to define his posthumous existence as an attainment of the Heavenly Kingdom, a place that was somewhere in America at the time. This would all be good and well, only that something completely unheard of happened at the end of the century. First in whispers, then louder and louder, people started to talk about how Eden was actually the bottomless pit. This sensation found its confirmation in rumors of Kabakov's life and his own stories of how he had become slave to an entire army of people who worked for him in one way or another. In his last piece at the Biennale 2001, the mysterious "Not everyone will be taken into the future" has reappeared on the back of a train, now in English, with a far more unambiguous meaning: disappearing in the murky tunnel, the train exits Venetian paradise and plunges to the depths of hell.

So where was Monastyrsky for the last ten years? Obviously, he has also left us. The fact that I am writing this text for an issue of Moscow Art Magazine on Monastyrsky confirms what was already clear: you can only publish an entire journal dedicated to one personality when that personality has gone to glory. Curiously, the exact date when Kabakov "made it" and reached the future is unknown, but in Monastyrsky's case, there can be little doubt: the exhibition "The Surroundings of the Regina Gallery" in August 1991 marks his passing. The entire curatorial project, which covered the floor of the gallery with plowed-up turf, was in fact a funeral, a burial, and it is symbolic that one of the most odious and striking figures of 1990s, Oleg Kulik, stepped into the role of the gravedigger.

It goes without saying that both Kabakov and Monastyrsky were people who posthumously continued to work miracles and so forth and so on. However, again, there was a key difference. Kabakov haunted Moscow in a more subtle way, through the work of other artists. It is no coincidence that when Groys came to Moscow in the early 1990s and saw one of my early pieces at the Guelman gallery, he remarked that "they're all little kabachki here". (In Russian, kabachok has two meanings, which Groys is exploiting ironically: one is the vegetable squash or marrow, the other is bar or pub, the root of Kabakov).

Monastyrsky, on the other hand, preferred tangible, substantial manifestations through texts or performances, but these hardly ever "made it ". There were several reasons. Unlike Kabakov the kolobok, the mythical Russian Pillsbury dough-boy, whom you had no chance of understanding anyway, "Collective Actions" developed a theoretical discourse that was somewhat foggy, but also advanced and comprehensive, which is exactly what made it so vulnerable. There was no way Monastyrsky's complex conceptualist discourse could have been accepted in the crazy 1990s, which demanded concreteness and clarity, not pseudo-spiritual contemplation.

But actually, this wasn't the main thing; the main thing was success. Glory and money here and now – the slogan of the decade. Notwithstanding his aesthetic and philosophical remoteness, Kabakov remained a guiding star for most. Because if he could do it alone, that meant that it would be possible, in principle, to conquer the West. With Monastyrsky, it was quite a different story. It seems to me that the community of the 1990s could not forgive him his lack of success, maybe because it was expecting a miracle, namely that he would walk straight through the West like he once walked straight through a bus, but instead he turned over topsoil in his vegetable garden. This is something the community could never understand or accept. So what happened? Was Monastyrsky really unable to become a star, or was stardom simply something that he did not want?

The Russian poet Alexander Blok felt that if you wanted something badly but didn't get it, it meant you didn't want it badly enough. If you didn't get what you wanted, this means that you wanted what you got, and didn't want what you didn't get. How and when does this choice present itself, even if it is something that is hidden and unconscious? It seems appropriate to recall a story that they used to tell as a joke, but which actually might have happened, a story that explains quite a lot at any rate.

Imagine: at the height of the boom of Russian art during the late 1980s/early 1990s, a few gallery-representatives from Italy (Germany, England) come to Monastyrsky and offer him an exhibition. Monya responds by suggesting a project that would fill the gallery up to the brim with frozen sharks, through which the artist cuts corridors, armed with a chainsaw. Upon hearing this, the Italians are disappointed and leave. This actually explains a great deal as to the personality of the artist, the mechanisms of the market, and the relationship between the representatives of Western galleries and the artist from Russia. It explains a great deal, but it doesn't explain everything. Did Monastyrsky realize the impossibility of the endeavor that he was suggesting? Did he – like many others – simply lose his sense of reality for a moment? Or – let's make a somewhat fantastic suggestion (but after all, Monastyrsky's personality is full of the fantastic) – did he consciously take a step that locked him out of that gallery and all the other galleries, of the entire Western world? In and of itself, the project is simply brilliant. And this is even before Damien Hirst and his cows, sharks etc. After all, Hirst is a Western artist; he is completely aware of the market's rules and possibilities: while his slice-sawed cow or his shark in formaldehyde are located on the very boundary of perception, they are also representative objects, products par excellence. But Monastyrsky's frozen sharks are something entirely differently; anyone can tell you that that sort of thing simply doesn't pass. And there isn't even the slightest hint of exoticism, none of the "Russian-derevyashn" wooden village kitsch that Oleg Kulik and, later, the "Blue Noses" have played out so daringly.

I think it was the Moscow artist Sven Gundlach who said that Monastyrsky was just much of superstar for Russia as was, let's say, Andy Warhol for America. But if in America being a superstar means working with mass-culture, then in Russia, it means becoming the Elder Zosima from Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov". There is a sizable portion of truth in this remark of Gundlach's, even if it was made in passing. Come to think of it: who, exactly, is ' Russia's oldest "pop star"? Of course: the saint, the hermit, the holy fool, and sometimes even the white, non-celibate, worldly priest. Take, for an example, Father Ioann Kronshtadtsky, who was so popular that he involuntarily inspired heresy: they thought he was the Savior incarnate. Doesn't this remind you on Lennon's famous claim to be "more popular than Jesus Christ now"?

If we return to our couple, to Kabakov and Monastyrsky, we can see their polarity as an opposition that touches upon a deep dualism that has defined Russian culture as a whole. The most complete expression of this opposition can be found in the famous 16th century theological dispute between the the "Possessors" and the "Non-Possessors", two parties represented by two future saints: Joseph of Volokolamsk (known as Iosif Volzhsky) and the Elder Nil Sorsky. Essentially, the dispute came down to the question of whether the Church should be socially active, meaning rich (this is what St. Joseph thought), or whether it should orient itself completely toward the realizing the monastic ideals of poverty, silence, and seclusion. This was a dispute between civilization and culture. Civilization was heading toward the future, (a future defined by the victory of the Possessors, whose views coincided with those of the state). But the teachings of the venerable Nil lay in the contemplative Byzantine tradition of hesychasm. This tradition has always presented itself as something on the very borderline of culture's possibilities, something that attempts to reach the self, transfiguring it and rendering it divine.

What does all of this have to do with our heroes? It seems to me that theirs is also a clash of two ideals or two conceptions of culture. Kabakov's movement is indubitably the movement of civilization, which always thinks of itself through the predictions of a future that "will not take everyone". No matter how ironically Kabakov understands his turn of phrase, it is obvious that the myth of the exclusive future actually lies at the core of his entire work.

Monastyrsky's thinking is completely different. He is acutely aware of the dichotomy between culture and civilization, (a dichotomy which, by the way, is not that obvious in the contemporary world, since this world is based on the suspension or equalization of difference). When the Moscow Art Magazine's editorial group asks him which field "Collective Actions" inhabits, he answers, "The field of culture, of course"*. He sees culture as that which faces the past and appeals to "eternal images". (As strange as it sounds, it turns out that in this sense Monastyrsky is quite close to one of his antagonists, Alexander Brener, who spent most of the 1990s calling for a return back to the roots of art, to laughter, hunger, love etc.)

You can see the choice that Collective Actions made in their "trips beyond the outskirts of town". The city is the source of civilization, which is why, according to Monastyrsky, you have to run. Incidentally, this is reminiscent of one of the venerable Nil's central postulates, namely that true spirituality would only be possible in solitude, far from any human settlement.

What is also important is that "Collective Actions" leaves no "works" behind. There is an archive of documentations; you can restore, present something or another...But there is no art. Art is completely out of bounds, inaccessible because it has already taken place in here-and-now that, for us, is already then-and-there. Monastyrsky's art is the collective constellation of people, circumstances, times and places that no-one will ever be able to reproduce. This is yet another reason why Monastyrsky was not in demand. In this epoch, the product came to need a face; even Brener was forced to find himself a girlfriend who is able to draw.

If I turn away from medieval Russia and turn to the more prosaic pantheon of contemporary art in my search for a Monastyrsky prototype, I would say that he reminds me most of Marcel Duchamp. After all, Duchamp only became a cult figure in the 1960s, after many years of obscurity. I am firmly convinced that the return of Monastyrsky has yet to come. Maybe it has already begun. You can feel this is the desire for "new seriousness" that has surfaced lately, as well as through the wave of so-called non-spectacular art, and even in the fact that I'm writing a text about a man I never knew, whose art I've never seen and who I was never even interested in before.


Continue reading