Moscow Conceptualists

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Thinking has changed radically, but many people don’t appear to have noticed.

Our institutions have been stuck on linear Neo-Platonic tracks for 24 centuries. These antiquated processes of deduction have lost their authority. Just like art it has fallen off its pedestal. Legal, educational and constitutional systems rigidly subscribe to these; they are 100% text based.

‘You probably think of Doublethink as a negative concept. We in Russia think of it as just the beginning,’ says Russian artist, Pavel Pepperstein. Our “Doublethink Double vision” exhibition starts with Moscow Conceptualists who were not acknowledged as artists by the state in 1970s and 80s, so had to form a new way of communication and showcases a new balance in thinking between text and image through the work of 34 artists from all around the world.

Let’s find out more about Moscow Conceptualists via Alistair Hicks’ article in our exhibition catalogue.

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Overlap between text and public communication was still at a low ebb in the Soviet Union in the 1970s when the Moscow Conceptualists started their protest against their own silence, but things were a little less brutal than in Stalin’s ‘Eurasia’. The artists’ only audience was each other. Their need to make art was as honest as it will ever get. What made them do it? It was in these stark circumstances that the main critic of the group, Boris Groys, casually redefined conceptualism as the balance between text and image. This was complete gobbledegook to those in the West brought up on conceptualism being the truth to a concept, and a pure idea at that. The conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp, Sol LeWitt or Daniel Buren was about the pursuit of an idea at all costs. It was directly descended from the model of the ideal concept that Plato had set out all those years ago.

Not every American was convinced in the untainted concept. In 1970 Bruce Nauman made L.A. Air. It was a book, following up an earlier one which had shown the clear blue skies above Los Angeles. He photographed the pollution. The images look pure but are in fact toxic.

Text was increasingly important in the sixties and seventies for some American and European conceptualists: Robert Barry, Lawrence Wiener, John Baldessari, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Keith Arnott, Joseph Kosuth and the list goes on. Yet for all of them the text was just an aid: it was the only way they knew to try and create the ‘ideal’ concept in our heads. There was no question that they were looking for balance between text and image. Indeed in Art as Idea as Idea (1966-68) Joseph Kosuth, who is often considered the closest American artist to the Moscow Conceptualists, actually tried to eliminate images in order to totally focus on an idea conveyed entirely with language. Equally despite their name Art & Language were much more interested in dry text than pictures. As Michael Archer in Art Since 1960 observed ‘Conceptual art proposed that images can be recognised as being language-like: an artwork can be read. The reverse is equally true: words can work in a picture-like way.’[i] Yet he also pointed out that this had already been achieved many years earlier by Magritte’s Treachery of Images, 1929. One of Moscow Conceptualism’s big leaps was that its artists demonstrated that words can be just as treacherous as images. ‘This is not a pipe’ is just as much of a lie as the picture of a pipe. It is the very friction between these two statements, the visual and the verbal that is explored by artists in this exhibition.

Friction is very voluble in some of Bruce Nauman’s videos. Violent Incident (1986), is positively angry. He confesses, ‘My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition. And about how people refuse to understand other people. And about how people can be cruel to each other.

It’s not that I think I can change that, but it’s just such a frustrating part of human history.’[ii] Though the circumstances are markedly different the feeling surely is not that far removed from that of the Moscow Conceptualists. He talks of having no control and about being left out of the decision-making process, but his reaction is very different to his Russian contemporaries: the Kabakovs, Erik Bulatov and Nikita Alexeev. He expresses his anger: even L.A. Air can be interpreted as pointing out the imbalance between the prettiness of his colour fields and the noxious gases in the air he depicts.

The world was not sitting around waiting for Moscow Conceptualism. By the 1970s the art world was centred on America, but there was still life in Europe. Joseph Beuys was a one-man band of energetic resistance to the established way of thinking. He formed his own independent university[iii] as the Düsseldorf Academy could not contain him and his students. He declared his independence from the prevailing thinking when he performed I like America, and America likes me (1974), and refused to contaminate himself by any direct contact with modern Americans while he communed with a coyote that represented an older, truer native culture. Yet this resistance was far removed from that in Moscow. As Erik Bulatov remarked: ‘Joseph Beuys tried in vain to turn life into a continuous performance. He might as well have tried to establish God’s kingdom on earth.’[iv] Professor Beuys spewed out words and equations onto blackboards. He was evangelical: he thought art could make the world a better place. Yet he used words, much as Plato had before him, to build his concepts. Words were only an imperfect tool to try and achieve the perfect concept, an idealised world.

Take a look at our exhibition catalogue!


[i] Archer, Michael, Art Since 1960, Thames and Hudson, London, 1997, p. 85

[ii] Simon, Joan, ‘Breaking the Silence: an interview with Bruce Nauman’, Art in America, New York, September 1988, p. 148

[iii] After resigning from the Düsseldorf Academy Joseph Beuys formed the Freien Internationalen Hochschule für Kreativität und Interdisziplinäre Forschung (association for the advancement of a free international university for creativity and interdisciplinary research). This evolved into the Free International University (F.I.U.).

[iv] Bulatov, Erik, Erik Bulatov, ‘My pictures and the Mass Media’, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2006, p. 48

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