New York

Ilya Kabakov

In “The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges constructs the evocative metaphor of a library with endless rooms as a means of representing the way humanity structures society. The Soviet artist, Ilya Kabakov, also uses the matrix of adjacent rooms to invoke a metaphor of the world in his first solo exhibition in the United States, “Ten Characters.” The show consisted of ten, specially constructed rooms flanking a central hallway. The rooms took the form of a communal apartment, common to most Soviet metropolises, in which several families live simultaneously and share a common anteroom, corridor, and kitchen. Unlike the identical rooms in Borges’ meta-informational world, the rooms in Kabakov’s cosmos were varied. Each room assumed the individual character of its fictional inhabitant(s), and was shaped by that tenant’s idiosyncratic struggle toward self-expression within the constrictions of society.

Entering the installation, one walked through a dimly lit corridor which led past various rooms. One, “The Man who Flew into Space from his Apartment,” was covered with Soviet propaganda posters. The room’s primary focus was a leather saddle, suspended by plastic straps from the ceiling’s four corners. There were diagrams and a diorama at left which plotted the parabolic trajectory out of the apartment building and across the neighboring river into rural farm land. Plaster detritus from an imaginary ceiling had been scattered across the floor, the final document of the ex-tenant’s successful launching. Another room, that of “The Composer who Combined Music with Things and Images,” contained music stands supporting sheet music that was covered with words and drawings; still another, that of “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away,” offered a teeming display of meticulously labeled residue.

Besides the ten characters’ rooms, there were also communal living areas, such as the kitchen. In “Kitchen II,” there was a collection of hundreds of small objects, ranging from thread and cork to fetishistic conglomerates, all evenly strung across the room. In the background, one heard the quiet muttering of different voices speaking simultaneously. Here, Kabakov succinctly draws a metaphor between the arrangement of the room and its collective character, thereby examining the point at which individuality succumbs to multiplicity. The entire history of the apartment has been presented in one syntagmatic totem of space and time, where the individuated objects appear simultaneously upon a visual field.

The rooms, while appearing haphazard and bizarre, are not to be mistaken for purely surrealistic juxtapositions of Dada objects. Instead, Kabakov locates individual psyches, driven by various compulsions toward self-expression. We enter each individual’s room unannounced, to touch the inhabitant’s shoulders and listen in on his secrets and desires. The most intimate, unguarded details of human obsession are revealed. The truthful expression of unadulterated identities is laid bare, unprotected by convention.

The random structure and eclectic array of objects presented under the rubric of a communal apartment avoids subordinating the disparate elements under any one dominating idea. In this way, Kabakov has created a non-monument. We do not enter a triumphal arch, to which all elements have been reduced to a single allegorical theme; instead, the diversity and disharmony of collective living is stressed and, in fact, rises above the tendency that society has toward squelching personal freedoms. The metaphor Kabakov evokes is more universal than specific to Soviet society, reminding us of the tension between the antithetical realms of personal freedom and social order.

Kirby Gookin