Ilya Kabakov

30 September 1933, Dnepropetrovsk

When we look at Ilya Kabakov’s early paintings and installations, we should consider one important question. Who is the author of these stands, evenly covered in an extremely inexpressive color and filled with boring, inexplicable texts; who is the author of these strange realistic paintings?  That is a rather strange question, since, there is no doubt that physically these works were done by the artist Ilya Kabakov, whose name is used to sign them. However, it is not that simple. In fact, it is he (Kabakov) who raised the question: “Whose paintings are these?” However, it is just as absurd as the question posed in “The Apartment Battle”—“Whose fly is this?” In a dialogue with Margarita Tupitsyna, Kabakov gave a precise and exhaustive reply: “A fly does not have an owner, and there is no fly at all. And when there is nothing, then there is no author.” Here we see Kabakov reformulating René Magritte’s classic postulate (“This is not a pipe”), so brilliantly complicated by Michel Foucault. Thanks to him we understand that there is no point at all trying to keep searching in the emptiness between signified and signifier. By the way, Joseph Kosuth in his famous “One and Three Chairs” never did bother to clarify the fundamental question: “Whose chair is this?”

Actually, this “character author” who poses these questions is Ilya Kabakov’s first important invention. (The next was the idea of “total installation,” but it, in most cases, is the creation of that fictional artist.) This is the same character who registers the arguments in the kitchen of a communal flat, like the ones where the majority of citizens of the USSR were forced to live in crowded and impoverished conditions. It is he who with complete indifference paints planks a repulsive, extremely anti-aesthetic and indefinably gloomy color and then with the handwriting of a precise scholar traces totally meaningless captions upon them. In this way, Ilya Kabakov catapulted himself from the sphere of aesthetic production. A painting ceased expressing only the artist’s feelings and perceptions of how to express feelings and perceptions and asked itself the question, “What is a painting?” But it must be understood that it is not simply a painting, it is also a work of literature, and one of its components is a heart-breaking story of the events taking place in the kitchen. One of them has materialized visually—a sack of sugar hangs on the board, and the text lets us know how important it is for the pensioner who is one of the residents of the apartment. Somewhere deep in the apartment is a “children’s corner,” a cot on which lies a boy, his back to the boring and inexpressive world around him, looking at illustrations from children’s book hung on the wall. These pictures are covered with incredibly bright designs made of candy wrappers, which turns them into incredibly bright abstract paintings. Here Kabakov continues the old argument with his fellow nonconformists, whom he accuses of escapism and a refusal to look at reality and study it.

It should be understood that the “character artist” image created by Kabakov is not removed from the real Ilya Kabakov, and on the contrary the life events of both intertwine closely and almost indistinguishably.  We might note that the depiction belongs to Ilya Kabakov and refers to the period when he made a living illustrating children’s literature. In fact, this was a gentle method of socialization in an ideological society. In fact, Ilya Kabakov and most of his comrades in the circle of Moscow Conceptualists by education should have been painting big Socialist Realist paintings. Ones like “Morning of Our Homeland,” which the story goes was abandoned by a failed Socialist Realist painter in a neglected room. Or the works from the “Holidays” series. Their “author” worked long and hard on the state commission, but suddenly realized how stupid his work was and how much it disgusted him. He fell into a profound depression and started gluing paper flowers onto his paintings in an attempt to improve the situation. Perhaps, it was that same boy who once lay in bed, fleeing the reality around him in a world of vivid and colorful images. We can imagine that he had gotten an art education and made a career in the official Union of Artists. But one day he realized the depth of his fall, like the protagonist of the installation “The Artist’s Despair.” He came to his own personal show and chopped up his works with an ax.

And here we leave the territory of the vanished past of the Soviet Union and find ourselves in a different reality. An influential art critic arrives on the scene and suggests that the gallerist turn the “event” into an installation, leaving everything as is: the ax, the broken glass, and so on. He tells him to add a dry description of what happened. Naturally, there were no gallerists in the USSR, and art critics who could have given such advice did not go to exhibitions by realist painters. The subtitle of the installation, “Conspiracy of the Untalented,” gives a bitter description of how the contemporary art world functions.

Andrei Kovalev