Ilya Kabakov

Galerie Pakesch

The viewer as marksman, the show as a rifle range, the paintings as targets? This may be a rash response to this installation entitled Die Zielscheiben (The targets, 1991) by Ilya Kabakov, where he has spread rocks, crumpled newspapers, and wooden cudgels as weapons on the floor. A few shards are already in the paintings, the “targets.” However, Kabakov does not want this installation to seem all that clear-cut—for it to be taken simply as a banal civil-war scenario or as a dissident barricade against the perestroika stormers. This is an internal esthetic matter, i.e., iconoclasm, the storming of images. The three compartments, rigged up as shooting galleries with unfinished plank partitions, are not without a militant character, against which, the artist assures us, art has been immune for a long time now.

Commentaries in the works reveal the artist’s concerns—art and its inability to capture certain contents and visions in forms and words. For these themes, he reactivates a narrative mode that had been taboo in Modernism. In the early ’70s, this one-time illustrator of children’s books found an adequate formulation for his concerns in albums—foldout collections of single or multiple pages with illustrated tales and narrative captions, often with ambiguously contradicting images à la Magritte. Mostly, we see a little man who is obsessed with big ideas that resemble those of the Modern avant-garde. In these pictorial histories, Kabakov attempts to track down the myths and dead ends of Modernism. He does so through a parodistic retelling of a story that often entangles the viewer in an irritating net of ambiguities, unraveling enigmas only to reveal new enigmas. This multicausal narrative structure is deployed not merely as a metalanguage, but also as a means of contrast, as an antidote for an avant-garde that has run its course. This structure conceals his yearning to reintegrate art and his life in a meaningful way.

This installation follows a seemingly autobiographical background. However, the first-person narrator who speaks to us from the pictures is fictitious. The first of the three targets shows a figure in front of a house and, underneath, the words, “I was born in this house on March 12, 1931.” The next station shows the thoroughly bleak room in Moscow that the narrator inhabited as if in a prison cell during 1961. “I feel as if this room has become a part of me since that time; it is always here and is still alive within me.” The third station, depicting the Berjansk street where the artist has lived since 1976, distills his state of misery, and in doing so begs the viewer to “please take rocks, throw, throw, smash, shatter everything connected with me and my life.”

If we compare this installation with Kabakov’s earlier works, we are struck by the directness of the new pieces. There is something unconditional, indeed ineluctable about these intricate examinations, playing with semantic gaps between image and text, on the tar-black floor of a rear-court gallery, between the crude wooden partitions. Yet this work does not startle the viewer, for it partakes of the more political tone that has now come to art.

Markus Brüderlin

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.