Whose fly is this? and the beginning of Moscow linguistic conceptualism : text and image in the early works of Ilya Kabakov (1962-1966)



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This dissertation examines the early works of the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov and traces the beginning of a linguistic trend in the development of Moscow Conceptualism. Analyzing the drawings and paintings that the artist created between 1962 and 1966, I place Kabakov’s artistic style and ideas in the context of the cultural, theoretical and scientific phenomena that affected Soviet art and society in the early 1960s. Kabakov’s works are shown as evolving in a process that renders the artist’s techniques increasingly polysemantic, dialogic and conceptual. The dissertation then demonstrates that Kabakov’s visual images and linguistic titles participated, indirectly yet actively, in the cultural debates of Moscow’s artistic underground and the Soviet society. The dynamic correspondence between a fervent cultural context, growing interest in linguistic and scientific ideas, increasing conceptualization of visual means of expression and intellectualization of the artistic approach to the image led to the appropriation of language in the works of Moscow underground artists. The dissertation establishes such a development in the early works of Ilya Kabakov, proposing that his earliest “conversational” work Whose Fly is This? was the first conceptual painting to display text in the form of a written dialogue. The colloquial style and conversational character of the depicted discourse are examined as an ironic gesture that takes its genesis from the polyphonic theory of Mikhail Bakhtin and reverses the official non-dialogical imperatives of Soviet newspeak and ideology. The main figural image of the painting—the fly—is seen as articulating the utopias and anti-utopias of avant-garde figures such as Kharms or Malevich and interpreted as alluding to a key contemporaneous scientific discovery—the chromosomes of the drosophila. In the end, the words and the image of Whose Fly is This? form the two mutually exclusive and mutually complementary aspects of a compound conceptual signifier. That is the signifier of the free artistic spirit, evanescent human existence and mundane, yet resilient human nature that ironically survives—against all odds and despite all absurdities—beyond the boundary of the social utopia and the limits of epistemological systems.