New York

Ilya Kabakov

Ilya Kabakov is known to American audiences for elaborate installations such as Ten Characters, 1988, in which the artist constructed an almost life-size Soviet communal apartment inhabited by characters such as “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment.” The range of imaginative strategies employed by Kabakov’s invented characters read as parodies of various modes of avant-garde art, from collage to process art, for each character left physical traces of his guiding obsession.

The combination of high art and lowly existence appears again in the current exhibition. For Installation I, My Mother’s Life II, 1990, Kabakov has again erected a simulated Soviet apartment. This time one enters a seemingly interminable, serpentine labyrinth. Along the walls are framed panels in which the artist’s mother’s autobiography of hardship and social injustice is paired with faded photographs of an idyllic provincial life of elegance and leisure. Here the discrepancy between real and fantasy lives dissolves into a contrast between an actual individual’s harsh life and what seem to be government propaganda photos. The relentless rhythm of the identical panels and monotonous green, gray, and maroon walls are punctuated by bare ceiling bulbs, construction debris, and unpainted two-by-fours propping up sections of the ceiling—signs of the futile battle against decrepitude and decay.

The latest of Kabakov’s fabricated personae—suggested by another work’s title, He Lost His Mind, Undressed, and Ran Away Naked, 1990—can be imagined as an earnest government-employed sign painter who was hired to print schedules of mandatory social and domestic activities. The man began fabricating all kinds of obligations which he then found impossible to fulfill; in a moment of panic he stripped, leaving his clothes as offerings. Like Kabakov’s previous incarnations, this man was an odd character warped by the constraints of Soviet life.

Overall, this exhibition is less satisfying than Ten Characters, in its odd bifurcation between the two parts—the labyrinth/maternal biography and the fictional insane painter. The first section lacks the wacky humor that lightens Kabakov’s essentially dismal scenarios, and the second suffers from disjunctive presentation: one must alternately bury one’s nose in pamphlets spread around the exhibition and gaze around at the artist’s handiwork to take it in. Kabakov has always relied on textual apparatuses to supplement his art; in this case he has not done enough to integrate the two.

Lois E. Nesbitt