String Theory


Left: Young artists visit the Kabakov studio, ca. 1980-81. Right: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in Grenoble, 1994. (Photos: Moscow House of Photography)

“The piece is from '85,” says American critic and Ilya Kabakov expert Amei Wallach. “No, no, it's from '86,” retorts Joseph Backstein, Kabakov's old friend. Both of them should know, but here in the artist's former studio—where the classic work 16 Strings has been reconstructed—all straightforward facts seem to disappear into a thick cloud of Slavic mythology. It's January 30, the day after the opening of Moscow's first contemporary art biennale, and the curators, artists, and critics in town for the show have come here to pay homage. Kabakov built the studio himself in 1968 and lived and worked in it until he left the country twenty years later. It is a mecca and a sacred venue for recent Russian art, the birthplace of Moscow Conceptualism.

Minus twenty-two degrees Celsius is kind of cold, even if you've had several glasses of vodka during dinner, as most of us had before starting the difficult search for the studio. For me a drink was doubly necessary, since it is my first day off after a torturous installation process in the old Lenin Museum, one of the main venues of the biennale, which I organized along with five co-curators. Whenever you step into a taxi in Moscow you always have the feeling that it might be your last trip, but my fellow traveler and cocurator Nicolas Bourriaud and I manage to find the right building without incident. Snow is falling as we walk from one courtyard to the next and then up the famous 165 steps to the top floor. People appear in the dark, speaking French, and I notice Suzanne Pagé, director of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and then one familiar face after another emerges: Rosa Martinez, cocurator of the biennale and director of the next Venice Biennale; Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, chief curator of Turin's Castello di Rivoli; the omnipresent Hans Ulrich Obrist, also a cocurator of the Moscow extravaganza; and all the key people from the Basel and Frieze fairs. Of all the exhibitions and projects that accompany the biennale, this show seems like the one nobody is willing to miss. It's a simple installation consisting of sixteen strings that run horizontally through the studio. Pieces of garbage with notes documenting everyday discussions among a typical Soviet-era family are attached like clothes on a line. The rooms is full of people silently reading, their heads sticking up above the strings.

So why is the artist not here himself? “He will never come back,” says Backstein (who took over the studio when Kabakov left the country in 1988 and turned it into an art school). “He made an exception when he attended his recent show in Petersburg. But he promised never to return to Moscow.” The city is the productive force behind everything Kabakov does, Backstein explains. “Moscow is the motor, but, of course, it's an imaginary city that probably has little in common with the Moscow of today.” So is Kabakov frightened of a confrontation between his imaginary Moscow and today's realities? I get no answer to that, since Backstein is already involved in other discussions.

One thing is left from the old days: A strange-looking lamp, festooned with lacy, flimsy material, hangs above a large table. I've seen it in innumerable photographs showing the key protagonists of the Kabakov circle: Boris Groys, Backstein, etc. It's made of the underwear of the artist's ex-wife Vicki. In a Russian art world that is being rapidly transformed—internationalized in a positive way, some would say, or commercialized and leveled, as others would claim—this fetishlike object seems to represent an increasingly rare point of permanence and stability. It's unique. I hope nobody turns it into a multiple.