Vadim Zakharov

Kölnischer Kunstverein

For his recent show “Der Letzte Spaziergang Durch die Elysischen Felder” (The last walk through the elysian fields) 36-year-old Russian artist Vadim Zakharov transformed Cologne’s Kunstverein into an indoor park. Amid newly planted “meadows” of grass he laid down gravel paths and set out small trees to give the space an outdoor ambiance. Yet any assumption that this was meant as a serious simulation of nature, or even of a landscaped garden, was quickly dispelled by various surreal elements within the installation. A file folder with a jet of water spurting out of it, for example, might well have been interpreted as a reference to an outdoor fountain, but the predominant association was art historical—it seemed to reference in particular Duchamp’s urinal.

The most fascinating aspect of this show was how convincingly Zakharov managed to present both a completely new site-specific piece and, at the same time, as promised by the show’s subtitle, a retrospective of work from 1978 to 1995. He filled three-quarters of the exhibition space with an extensive, generously conceived installation, while packing the remaining rear quarter of the long space with works from the last 17 years of his career. In extremely narrow passages, he exhibited photo-documentation of his communal projects with other artists, as well as his own conceptual images and objects. Books he designed were also on display, and a word processor allowed visitors to write their own stories, which are to be published in book form in 1996.

This may all sound like a trendy show geared to the zeitgeist, but the omnipresence of Zakharov’s personal history lent a special urgency to the retrospective portion of the exhibition. The claustrophobic aspect of the narrow walkways could be interpreted as a reflection of the social climate within the Soviet Union, a constant theme in the young Russian’s early works. At every turn one felt his need to speak out and oppose the political conditions existing at the time. Through strategies that could best be defined as the collection, filing, and display of social and cultural contexts, Zakharov managed to elude state-imposed restrictions. Yet even after perestroika and glasnost, his work continues to be characterized by a kind of investigatory, even forensic procedure. As if in a kind of self-regenerating system, fictitious persons who appear year after year in his works mingle with real fellow artists. Here Zakharov documented not only his own unusually productive career but, through videotapes, also the exhibitions of his Russian friends and colleagues, the so-called “circle of Moscow conceptualists,” including Ilya Kabakov.

On a podium that became an integral part of the installation, people from the art and business worlds held conversations about the future that, as a seedbed for new ideas, will no doubt enter into the artist’s future work. Zakharov’s choice of a park metaphor seems particularly apt. He turned the hall of the Kunstverein, with its skylights and great glass front, into a metaphoric hothouse, one in which his thoughts reached fruition.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.