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Boris Groys

Boris Groys is Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. He is the author of many books, including Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (2006) and Art Power (2008), both published by the MIT Press.

Titles by This Author

Moscow Conceptualism

In the 1970s and 1980s, a group of “unofficial” artists in Moscow—artists not recognized by the state, not covered by state-controlled media, and cut off from wider audiences—created artworks that gave artistic form to a certain historical moment: the experience of Soviet socialism. The Moscow conceptualists not only reflected and analyzed by artistic means a spectacle of Soviet life but also preserved its memory for a future that turned out to be different from the officially predicted one. They captured both the shabby austerity of everyday Soviet life and the utopian energy of Soviet culture. In History Becomes Form, Boris Groys offers a contemporary’s account of what he calls the most interesting Russian artistic phenomenon since the Russian avant-garde.

The book collects Groys’s essays on Moscow conceptualism, most of them written after his emigration to the West in 1981. The individual artists of the group—including Ilya Kabakov, Lev Rubinstein, and Ivan Chuikov—became known in the West after perestroika, but until now the artistic movement as a whole has received little attention. Groys’s account sheds light not only on the Moscow Conceptualists and their work but also on the dilemmas of Soviet artists during the cold war.

Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics. Art, argues the distinguished theoretician Boris Groys, is hardly a powerless commodity subject to the art market’s fiats of inclusion and exclusion. In Art Power, Groys examines modern and contemporary art according to its ideological function. Art, Groys writes, is produced and brought before the public in two ways—as a commodity and as a tool of political propaganda. In the contemporary art scene, very little attention is paid to the latter function.

Arguing for the inclusion of politically motivated art in contemporary art discourse, Groys considers art produced under totalitarianism, Socialism, and post-Communism. He also considers today’s mainstream Western art—which he finds behaving more and more according the norms of ideological propaganda: produced and exhibited for the masses at international exhibitions, biennials, and festivals. Contemporary art, Groys argues, demonstrates its power by appropriating the iconoclastic gestures directed against itself—by positioning itself simultaneously as an image and as a critique of the image. In Art Power, Groys examines this fundamental appropriation that produces the paradoxical object of the modern artwork.

The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment

The fictitious hero of this 1984 installation is a lonely dreamer who develops an impossible project: to fly alone in cosmic space. But this dream is also an individual appropriation of a collective Soviet project and the official Soviet propaganda connected to it. Having built a makeshift slingshot, the hero apparently flies through the ceiling of his shabby room and vanishes into space. The miserable room and the primitive slingshot suggest the reality behind the Soviet utopia, in which where cosmic vision and the political project of the Communist revolution are seen as indissoluble.

The Man who Flew into Space from His Apartment also raises questions of authorship in modernity. All of Kabakov's work is made in the name of other, fictitious artists. This reveals a hidden rule of the modern art system: only an artist who doesn't want to be an artist or who doesn't even know that he is an artist is a real artist—just as only an artwork that does not look like an artwork is a real artwork. The installation is a narrative, the documentation of a fictitious event.

Afterall Books are distributed by The MIT Press.