Double trouble: conceptualist masters John Baldessari and Ilya Kabakov at Moscow Biennale

Double trouble: conceptualist masters John Baldessari and Ilya Kabakov at Moscow Biennale
Ilya Kabakov and John Baldessari in conversation at Central House of the Artist

Ilya Kabakov and John Baldessari are both living legends with new shows in Moscow. But together they're even better

30 September 2013

Obvious juxtaposition and the self-conscious interplay of similarity and difference have been the bread and butter of conceptualism ever since Marcel Duchamp was bunging bike wheels on stools and René Magritte was mislabelling pipes. The arithmetic is surreally simple: if you add apples and oranges, you end up with a whole different kettle of fish.

It was fitting then, that the revelatory potential of combination and contrast was at the heart of the recent meeting between veteran conceptualists John Baldessari and Ilya Kabakov. The two were brought together by Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture for the pleasure of a standing-room only audience at the Central House of the Artist in Moscow, on the eve of the launch of the Moscow Biennale.

“The rangy, bearded Baldessari played the role of the laidback, independent Californian who loves napping, pop culture and practical details”

Once the formalities were out of the way, and the octogenarian artists — who are without doubt two of the most significant figures of their generation — got stuck into conversation, you couldn’t help but go along with the compare and contrast conceit and play a game of spot the difference. First, there were the similarities: half-century track record of excellence — check; historical contribution to the development of their medium — check; venerable but sprightly demeanour — check. But the differences quickly became apparent too, turning the meeting into something resembling an art world version of a mismatched buddy cop movie: the rangy, bearded Baldessari played the role of the laidback, independent Californian who loves napping, pop culture and practical details; Kabakov was the slightly crotchety egghead east coaster with Old World hang-ups about the past and declining standards. Over the course of the hour-long conversation, they disagreed about most things apart from their shared suspicion of the label “conceptualist”.

The mystical maths of conceptualist art were at work not only at this talk, but out in the galleries. The arithmetic underpinnings are announced loud and clear in the title of Baldessari’s first solo show in Russia, held at Garage’s temporary pavilion in Gorky Park: 1+1=1. Curator Kate Fowle explained the sums: if you add one artist to another artist, you don’t get two artists, but one wholly new artist. Although for reasons of linguistic clarity this title replaced the artist’s preferred version, Double Take, it was no less appropriate: the principle of creative combination lies behind every work in the show. (They have all been made in the years since the artist’s blockbuster touring retrospective in 2009 to 11. Baldessari may be a napper, but he’s also a workaholic.)

Baffling combinations of text and image have always been Baldessari’s trademark (thanks for the idea, René!). At a press conference at Garage, he explained his motivation: “It’s amazing the kind of magnetism that happens when you put an image and words together: people immediately figure out why they’re together, and I wanted to delay that response and make it a little slower … The human psyche is such that we can’t stand to have things not explained, so you explain it by yourself.” Baldessari makes sure this pause for thought is a cheerful one: there is a cheeky, ludic quality to the way he puts an artist’s name on an obvious pastiche of someone else’s work, for instance popping Duchamp’s name on a Dalí melting clock.

It’s a good gag, but by the time you’ve walked through a variety of iterations on it — film noir titles on textbook illustrations, song titles on more famous art works — you struggle to raise a smile. From a curatorial perspective, the Garage show is in many ways exemplary, and further evidence of the centre’s pioneering work in Russia; but it all feels a bit one-note and you can’t help but agree with the damning-with-faint praise review of Garage’s own director, Anton Belov: “A very clean little exhibition.”

“Kabakov’s wry but not unbeautiful chronicling of a Soviet (and post-Soviet) life of disappointment and drudgery”

The same cannot be said for the four-floor blockbuster Kabakov show at the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow, which literally includes a room full of trash, albeit artfully suspended on wires and supplemented with little snippets of text (are you sensing a theme here?). The experience of Utopia and Reality? is undeniably richer, deeper and more rewarding than 1+1=1. But perhaps the comparison is unfair: not only is there more space and more art here, but the dialogue with art history continues not in the form of tongue-in-cheek pastiche, but as actual works from avant-garde genius El Lissitzky. The creative juxtaposition is thus between Lissitzky’s boundless revolutionary enthusiasm — horizontal skyscrapers! new art! new everything! — and Kabakov’s wry but not unbeautiful chronicling of a Soviet (and post-Soviet) life of disappointment and drudgery. The show is bookended by two meditations on our failure to ascend to the heights that Lissitzky aspired to. The entrance hall of the elegantly tiered exhibition space is dominated by the prone, surely dead, figure of a giant Icarus — his plummeting fall took him smashing through a copy of Lissitzky’s iconic Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919). We remember this crash when we reach the top floor houses The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment (1984), a meticulous faux-reconstruction of the room in which a mild-mannered Soviet citizen has attempted a mission to the cosmos by means of a giant catapult. We suspect his fate is similar to that of Icarus.

Utopia and Reality? is another slickly presented affair (it previously ran at the Vanabbemuseum in Eindhoven), which masterfully traces the parabola of Russian artistic optimism. This ascent and descent is, of itself, tragic and grandiose. But, one feels its enormity all the more keenly when juxtaposed with Baldessari’s arch and detached meditations on the history of art — a story which seems distant from the grand historical narratives that underpin Kabakov and Lissitzky’s work. This is not a slight against Baldessari: detachment, lack of history and plentiful sunlight is what makes California a great place from which to examine European culture. Rather, it’s a further credit to the enlightening power of compare and contrast. One superstar is good, but two is always better.