The Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein is presenting Elitist – Democratic Art, the solo exhibition of Yuri Albert, one of the most important artists of Moscow Conceptualism. It is the largest and the most comprehensive show of his works outside of Russia. RA+C met with the exhibition’s curator Sandra Frimmel to discuss Albert’s practice and the highlights of the current display.
MM: Dear Sandra, first of all congratulations with the exhibition. It is great to see such a comprehensive retrospective of Yuri Albert in the venue outside of Russia.
SF: Thank you so much! This show became a realisation of my long-term dream. I had the idea to display Yuri Albert’s works in the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein for nine years since I worked here as a curatorial assistant.
MM: One of the questions which interests me a lot in relation to Moscow Conceptualism is the issue of audience and viewers. Alternative art, including conceptualism, was not welcome in the official Soviet art system. As the result it rarely if ever reached wide audience. It seems, however, that many artists of Moscow Conceptualism, such as Ilya Kabakov or Andrei Monastyrski, were not very interested in general Soviet audience. On the contrary, they favoured the existence within their closed and exclusive art circle. This issue of the viewership seems to be one of the central concerns of the show. How did Yuri Albert respond to it? What was his intended audience at the start of his career and how was it different from that of the older generation of Moscow Conceptualism?
SF: I think a very vivd example of Yuri Albert’s intended audience at the beginning of his career is his work “Y. F. Albert gives his entire share of warmth to others”, 1978 (fig.II). Here we see the young artist – he then was 19 years old – standing on a street on a cold winter day with a signboard on his neck presenting exactly these words. Who was this work addressed to? On the one hand, this photograph was shown in the exhibition in Albert’s flat and was seen by 15 or so people who constituted the exhibition’s visitors. On the other hand, however, during the action the artist aimed to give his warmth to everybody. The questions of who constituted this abstract notion of “everybody” and whether such thing as “everybody” could exist in the USSR were very urgent for the Soviet nonconformist artists of the late 1970s as was the question of what an artist had to give/offer.
It is important to note that Albert always claimed that he wanted his works to be seen by as wide audience as possible. He was interested in people beyond the hermetic circle of fellow artists, in which conceptual art existed.It was a very closed community where artists had to simultaneously play the roles of their own critics, art historians and even audience. At the same time, however, he was also scared of meeting this “wide” audience as nobody knew who it was and what it would be like. The so called “second generation” of Moscow Conceptualism, with which Albert is traditionally associated, might be different from the older artists because they sought some, even if very rare and restricted, possibilities of public displays. And such possibilities started to appear in the second half of the 1970’s.
MM: What I also find fascinating is the shock, if you will, which many alternative artists experienced during Gorbachev’s time when their works started to be publicly shown and were viewed by unprepared Soviet audience who knew nothing about their art. As far as I know, when Albert’s work “A crisis has entered my work. I am confused, perplexed and do not know what to do next”, 1983 (fig. III) was shown at the large-scale 17th Youth Exhibition in 1986 the members of the public were quick to respond to the artist’s existential crisis. They left lots of comments on the wall next to the painting suggesting what artists should do. Some proposed to “drink vodka and relax”, others to “stop clowning and make some real art”. How did Albert’s practice change with the exposure to wider audience and how does the exhibition reflect this development?
SF: I am very happy that we are able to show this important work you just mentioned. It is on view in the first out of four rooms of the exhibition next to other early text-based works. They were created in the end of the 1970’s – beginning of the 1980’s when there was no “real” audience yet (fig. IV). What I find fascinating is how these works reflect the cultural, political and social situation of the time, for example, the lack of materials which affected most of nonofficial artists who were not members of the official Soviet creative unions. These early works used “poor” materials, such as hardboards or sheets of paper with pencil or ballpoint on them. They are quite ephemeral. Nevertheless, by directly addressing the viewer with such philosophical, sincere artistic questions or statements they create a very intimate relationship between the artwork and the viewer, which is further supported by their small sizes.
But for sure Albert’s practice did change. Entering the second room of the exhibition where the complete series “Elitist – Democratic Art” is displayed we see completely different works, notable for their bright colours and large sizes (fig. V, VI). There is a vivid transformation in the formal qualities of Albert’s art caused by the growing accessibility of art materials and new opportunities to exhibit in public venues much larger than the rooms of private flats where previously conceptual art resided.
This series, after which the whole exhibition was named, also playfully deals with the problem that came along with the new audience, namely incomprehension. The wider audience, for which the artists had so long aspired, was used to the style of Socialist Realism and did not understand the language of the contemporary art that Albert was working with. It was only the “elite” public of insiders who were able to interpret these works. The question of who was able to understand art and for whom it was created, became very acute.
Albert uses Braille, the sign language and the terminology of sailors and stenographers, which only a certain groups of people are able to read. By making purposefully incomprehensible art he mocks the construction of the “elite” groups of viewers. Albert puts all those who previously were considered to be the “insiders” in a position of those unable to understand art language. The only visitors who would be able to “read” the works are sailors, stenographers or blind people if they happen to attend the exhibit.
On the one hand, these works are concerned with understanding, or rather not understanding, the languages of art, while on the other they deal with the search for a perfect viewer. Such concerns are relevant not only to the Soviet art system, but to most museums and exhibition venues all over the world. This series demonstrates that Albert’s critique of the art systems, which originated from a very specific Soviet nonconformist context, is also very topical in the broad global context of contemporary art.
MM: Another fascinating aspect for me is the relations between conceptual art and politics and Albert’s response to it. Do you think art is a metaphor of politics? Does political life play any role in the development of the artist’s practice and was political context important for this exhibition?
SF: I think art can be a battlefield of politics and it can also reflect and deal with a certain political situation from which it originates. I already mentioned that Yuri Albert’s works and his approach to the audience changed under the influence of perestroika. More direct and visible effect of politics on his art is visible in his installation “Moscow Poll”, for which he received the famous Kandinsky Prize in 2011 (fig. VIII). Here the artist connects aesthetic and political judgements asking “Does the work of an artist seem worse to you when you do not share his political convictions?”. The artwork acquires controversial political meaning.
However, the questions in “Moscow Poll” – a series of eight pieces in total – are not purely political, they also comment on the relations between art and viewers. When standing in front of an artwork we are always forced to make a choice – at least we need to decide whether we like it or not. This is what Albert calls the democratic aspect inherent in art. This work is not only about art as a metaphor of politics but also about politics as a metaphor of art.
We display the installation directly in the entrance hall of the museum next to the public café. Such placement aims to attract and engage not only exhibition visitors but also any people who came to the museum.
MM: Many of Albert’s works are text based. And they are in Russian. Was the language a challenging during the exhibition preparation? Do you think the language affects the understanding of the works or are they as accessible to the foreign audience as they are to the Russians?
SF: Russian language was a big issue, not only for our exhibition but also generally for the reception of Yuri Albert abroad. It did not affect the exhibition preparation, but when it comes to the educational programme, guided tours or just compiling information for individual visitors it definitely is a challenge. As Albert’s works always presuppose a certain dialogue with viewers and ask for some response, certain aspects are inevitably lost in translation. But, fortunately, not all the works depend on Russian language. The text in the series “Elitist – Democratic Art”, for example, is meant to be not comprehensible, while some other works, such as as “Why they don’t love me” or “Moscow Poll” can be easily translated.
Despite language remaining a barrier in relation to certain works, this barrier in fact is intrinsic to Yuri Albert’s practice. I noticed that many museum visitors were doing exactly what Yuri Albert tried to make them do – just talking to each other about the works and inability to understand them questioning their roles as the viewers.
MM: I think in many cases an exhibition and the modes of art presentation become a continuation and inextricable part of an artwork (like it was in APTART exhibitions in 1984-1986 or in more recent cases, such as in Albert and Ekaterina Dyogot ‘s collaboration “What did the artist mean by that”, 2013). What was your experience as a curator of working with Yuri Albert?
SF: I completely agree. Yuri Albert’s and Ekaterina Degot’s wonderful Moscow exhibition was much more than just a display of art. It was a conceptual work mirroring the artist’s conceptual thinking. For this exhibition, however, we could not adopt the same approach. Firstly, we had only six months from the moment when my proposal was accepted by the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein until the opening. Secondly, we had to limit ourselves to the artworks available in the German and western European collections, which in many cases meant the works from the artist’s own collection. That’s why we had to stick to the more traditional concept of a museum white cube display. However, as Yuri Albert told me at the opening of the show, it was something he had been dreaming of since the beginning of his career.
I think the way we worked together very much reflected the patterns of his artistic work. When it came to different or conflicting interpretations of his works he often said: “This is right, too”. Such approach shows that not only his relaxed attitude and tolerance towards different readings of his works, but also his desire to provoke a variety of meanings. Albert finds the whole art system rather ridiculous and his only way to position himself inside it is based on irony and humour. That’s why he distinguishes between “real” art/artists and “contemporary” art/artist. I share the same doubts when it comes to contemporary art system and the meaning of curating and cannot take them too seriously. That’s why it was a wonderful, relaxed, and very enjoyable experience working with Yuri Albert.
The exhibition catalogue also became the continuation of his artistic practice. We didn’t have enough time to commission texts, but we used this situation to our own benefit reproducing and translating for the first time into German already existing materials, namely the interviews and artist’s texts produced from 1981 until today. Yuri Albert loves talking and writing about his own practice. Such quality which might be seen as the legacy of the Moscow Conceptualist School. In this book he took on all the roles: Yuri-Albert-the-art-historian used texts by Yuri-Albert-the-art-critic to comment on the works by Yuri-Albert-the-artist. The texts, thus, became a part of his artistic practice demonstrating his ongoing interest in the self-reflection and complementing the display in the museum.