Moscow Conceptualism, when historicized in the Soviet frame, should be regarded as part of a broader nonconformist anti-Soviet culture. All of the Moscow conceptualist groups functioned as collective quasi-institutions, but were nevertheless hermetic organizations that produced ironic and critical deconstructions of the languages of Soviet bureaucracy and ideology. Unfortunately, this has encouraged foreign collectors and researchers (e.g., Norton Dodge collection, Zimmerli museum) to confuse aesthetically and politically the nonconformist art of the 1960s and the conceptualist aftermath of the 70s as related dissident forms of escapism with regard to Soviet ideology. In fact, nonconformist painting, or even the Lianosov group (E. Shteinberg, O. Rabin, E. and L. Kropivnitski, V. Nemukhin, L. Masterkova, G. Sapgir, I. Holin)—generally considered to be the predecessors of conceptualists—were quite distant from conceptualist poetics. In his 60s, 70s… Notes on the Unofficial Life in Moscow, Ilya Kabakov defines the nonconformist art of the 60s as extremely individualistic practices preoccupied with quasi-modernist painting techniques.
Distinct from Soviet non-conformism, Moscow Conceptualism is also quite distinct from Western conceptualism as well. This distinction resides not so much in their methodologies but rather in their historical and biopolitical conditions of development.
In her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Rosalind Krauss makes an attempt to discover a specific semiotic paradigm that defines conceptual thinking. She refers to the signification system of Charles Sanders Peirce, in which the index is the second category in the icon-index-symbol triad. The icon doesn’t differentiate between itself and its object, as in a geometric figure. The symbol is based on convention and interprets the icon and the index, as in a word. The index represents not a mimetic, but a dynamic correlation of two elements, of two signs or of a sign and an object, as with a pointing finger, a bullet hole in a window pane, a footprint, or a pronoun. No matter what the conceptual work concentrates on—pure text, subversion, documentation, intervention, or animated situations (as in Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés)—the prevalence of index semiology makes conceptual work a machine that always preserves the gap between two correlated elements. What is most important in the indexicality of a conceptual work is this disjunctive gap that remains despite the act of correlation. So rather than defining conceptualism’s aims as juxtapositions of ideas and forms in favor of ideas, or as the correlation of the visual and the textual in favor of the textual, I would locate the tension of conceptualist semiology in the gap between the two indexically related elements, which can be objective as well as linguistic. In other words, what is important in a conceptual work is the dynamic trip, the machine that reveals related elements as simultaneously attracted and disjunctive. Conceptual works lack a third element that would symbolize or lubricate the first two. Of the numerous examples of indexical dynamics in conceptual work we’ll mention just a few: Victor Burgin’s Photopath (1967), a photograph of a floor, printed to its actual size and stapled to the floor, so that the image is, on the one hand, congruent with the object, and, on the other, marks the cut from it; Marcel Broodthaers’s Pense-Bête (1964), a sculpture of books and a rubber ball embedded in a mound of plaster, so that one is called on to read and yet cannot; Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting (1974), in which the monolithic structure of a house undergoes a vertical dissection and subversion of its hermetic structure. All these methodological features matter for Moscow Conceptualism’s poetics. But due to the Soviet social and political context, material culture, economy, and even ethics, the works of Moscow Conceptualism, whether consciously or not, exceed the rationalism, combinatorics, immanence, and indexical precision of Western conceptualism.
For example, Andrei Monastyrski’s Branch (1995) contains the above-mentioned index relations and is very reminiscent of Lygia Clark’s relational strategies of transforming the object into sensory relations and acts, but the work is realized only when it is touched. It is a regular wooden branch, pushed through the rolls of tape that hold it to a wooden panel. The installation is defined as a “musical” action-object that produces sound when the branch is pulled down and the scotch is unwound. The two incompatible indexical elements—object and sound—are present. At the same time, it is important that the sound here remains a pure potentiality, because as soon as the branch is drawn down to produce the sound, the object is ruined. As the artist himself puts it, although the branch can theoretically be pulled down, the realization of the actual sound could never correspond to the expected music.
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