For the next few months, ten floors of Tate Modern will be dedicated to the work of the Russian conceptual artists, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. The exhibition includes recreations of three of the couples’ so-called ‘total installations’: immersive environments which include a mixture of painting, drawing, sculpture, theatre and poetry that engulf the viewer in an eerie narrative. One of these installations, The Man Who Flew into Space, first created in 1985, is a shabby room covered in Communist posters and slogans, which celebrate the USSR’s technological achievements. The viewer quickly realises that the room has just been vacated, its former occupant having built himself a makeshift catapult and launched himself into space through the ceiling. The piece inhabits a grey area between affection for the Soviet way of life and biting satire of it, like much of the Kabakovs’ work. However, the natural home for these installations is not, of course, a monumental London museum; but the couple’s private apartment. They are part of a long and rich tradition of ‘apartment art’ created by experimental Soviet artists, a tradition which has often been overlooked but which deserves re-examining.
Mikhail Roshal, Art for Art’s Sake, 1982, Margarita and Victor Tupitsyn Archive.
Under the Soviet Union, there was a strict distinction between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ forms of art. The State sanctioned that all artists must conform to the style of ‘Socialist Realism’, which was supposed to be ‘proletarian’, ‘typical’, ‘realistic’ and ‘partisan’. Not all artists conformed. For obvious reasons, ‘unofficial’ artists were not allowed to exhibit in museums and galleries. Instead, they displayed their art in the privacy of their own homes. This is how the genre of ‘apartment art’ was born. The genesis of ‘apartment art’ was, therefore, due to a mixture of political defiance and logistic necessity. From the 1930s onwards, exhibitions in domestic spaces took place across the Soviet bloc and in the 1960s and 70s, they became a particularly popular form of exhibiting. Some of these shows were merely a means of displaying the fruits of individual expression in a prohibitive, collectivist society. Others were an opportunity to reflect on the very meaning of exhibitions. Indeed, an important part of ‘apartment art’ was its self-reflexivity, its ironic questioning of the boundaries between artistic and non-artistic spaces, public and private domains.
In the early 1980s came the brief flowering of APTART, a movement which consciously reflected on its setting in The Apartment. The main proponents of APTART were two Muscovites in their twenties, Nikita Alexeev and Vadim Zakharov. They described their exhibitions as ‘working expositions’, ‘exhibition-non-exhibitions’ or ‘anti-shows’. The shows featured a plethora of different mediums: they were the Soviet version of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Alekseev stated that while ‘the meetings at Kabakov’s studio were very quiet, intellectual...APTART was more like a nightclub.’ The name APTART is a contraction of ‘apartment art’, but also a repetition of the word ‘art’, first in Russian, then in English. This jeu de mots reflects the playful nature of the movement and its focus on the intersection between art and language. During the first (anti)-show, which took place in Alexeev’s modest living space, the artists turned his fridge into a novel, painting an epigraph and title page on the door and placing the plot description and characters’ monologues in boxes inside. The novel itself was about an ‘extraordinarily cosy little apartment’ which was nestled inside the monument to a battle during the Russo-Turkish War. The Novel-Refrigerator was constantly in flux – added to or subtracted from by the artists and all the while used by Alexeev for food, proof of the convergence of life and art. Finally, the fridge was confiscated in a KGB raid. APTART may not have been a political movement, but it was certainly interpreted as such by the authorities.
Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, 1985. Six poster panels with collage. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de Création industrielle. Purchased 1990. © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov.
Unlike the wild and whimsical experiments of APTART, the works of Moscow Conceptualist artist, Irina Nakhova were more serious. In the mid-eighties, Nakhova extensively used the Soviet communal apartment – the kommunalka – as the setting for and subject of her work. For her series, Rooms (1983-87), she constructed a number of maximalist installations in the Moscow apartment where she still lives today. In the first of these Rooms, she created an ‘ideal exhibition room’, a stylised White Cube-esque space, which she peopled with ‘ideal people’ - figures cut out from glossy magazines. In Room #2, she created a classical, illusionistic space, which was, however, disfigured by holes and cracks. In Room #3 the room was identical to the artist’s normal living space, except that all the objects were wrapped in paper. In these works, the viewer became an active participant, granted access to the artificial, artistic realm of The Apartment. Nakhova stated in an interview that her desire was to ‘create spaces for different experiences, physical and intellectual, that do not exist otherwise as spaces’. Her Rooms are therefore mindscapes: conceptual as well as material spaces.
Irina Nakhova. (Untitled) from the series Rooms, 1983-1987, Gelatin silver print on paper. Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. Photograph: Jack Abraham.
So, what of Soviet ‘apartment art’ now? The particular conditions out of which this genre was borne clearly no longer exist. However, arguably Soviet ‘apartment art’ has outlived the Soviet Union. Though ‘apartment art’ is in some ways inherently ephemeral, an event more than an artefact, some examples of it have been successfully preserved. APTART’s Novel-Refrigerator (or what remains of it) stands in Moscow’s State Tretyakov Museum; scions of Nakhova’s Rooms were exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and the Kabakovs’ ‘total installations’ are currently in the Tate Modern. What does it mean that this anti-institutional genre is being reproduced within the walls of institutions? It is a paradox. But an interesting one. Meanwhile, Vadim Zakharov of APTART continues to organise exhibitions in his own home, which is now an apartment in Berlin: he periodically posts on his Facebook page announcing his ‘FREEHOME EXHIBITIONS’. 2010s Berlin is certainly very different from 1980s Moscow. However, for Zakharov ‘apartment art’ is still ‘in opposition to the art system’, because it allows artists to take a more active position in the creation and curation of their work. The genre of Soviet ‘apartment art’ may be the relic of a no-longer-existent regime, but it has not lost its subversive power.