[to] live in Moscow at century's end is to exist in a strange and contradictory landscape, one filled with both ruin and possibility.After talking with Vladimir Voinovich, a former dissident writer, Remnick went on to describe the plight of artists, authors, and intellectuals who suddenly found themselves adrift after the Soviet Union's collapse. The old order, repressive but stable, had provided fodder for work for generations. What kind of work would emerge in the post-Soviet "strange and contradictory landscape?" As Remnick noted:
The texture of Russian life after 1991 is so fluid, so changeable and supercharged, that it is nearly impossible to capture in words and images.Ilya Kabakov rapidly became the poster child for post-Soviet art, wowing international audiences at biennials with his reflections on Soviet life. He riffed on themes of fluidity, doublethink, and displaced identity, and the critic Svetlana Boym wrote that "going to Kabakov's exhibits is akin to trespassing into a foreign world that feels like home." It's easy to see Boym's point in his 1997 installation My Grandfather's Shed (above) at PS1, one of many installations where Kabakov painstakingly recreated scenes from Soviet life in gallery spaces, building transient spaces replete with the intimate warmth of domesticity.
Kabakov, who insisted on calling himself a Soviet artist for years after the Soviet Union broke up and he moved to the West, mines a special kind of history for his work. He draws on the history not so much of "daily life" (a province better suited to the dry analyses of academic visual culture enthusiasts), but rather on the history of how a certain people wove a world from things. By building strange, contradictory artworks that plumb the depths of time and space, he does what the best archaeologists do. He makes the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.
Charged by the unraveling of Russia's social fabric, Kabakov's works deal in the currency of ruins, but exude a kind of possibility of re-engaging the past, whether that past is alien or our own. I agree, therefore, with Boym, who argues that his installations are about the "reenchantment of the world through art, at any cost." This, I think, is the best response to Remnick.