New York

Ilya Kabakov

Entrance to Ilya Kabakov’s exhibits is always carefully choreographed. At the Barbara Gladstone Gallery you found yourself caught in a trembling gray curtain as you entered the space. At the Whitney Biennial you passed through a very squeaky door—an obscure object of Soviet nostalgia—the sound of it opening and closing punctuating the slide shows of family snapshots intended as therapy for elderly patients. What interests Kabakov is precisely the threshold between street and museum, trash and art, the disposable and the memorable.

The Life of Flies, 1992, (first shown at the Kunstverein in Cologne and reinstalled this winter at Barbara Gladstone) documented many forgotten worlds—from the invisible universe of household flies to the lost imaginary community of unofficial Soviet artists. The gallery was transformed into a dimly lit Soviet provincial museum where the new was presented as always already boring. A thin blue line of the sort painted on the shabby gray and brown walls of Soviet buildings, schools, and prisons, enclosed the space of the installation and served as Kabakov’s curatorial signature. Since his departure from Russia, the artist has moved from making fragmentary albums featuring found objects to working exclusively on “total installations.” Kabakov creates an environment in which he can be at once artist and curator, criminal litterer and trash collector, author and multivoiced ventriloquist, the “leader” of the ceremony and his “little people.” As I followed the blue line and tried to read all the intentionally obscure texts on flies and Soviet conceptual art, I began to speculate about the other frontier that had to be crossed on entering this exhibition—the one between the US and the USSR, or perhaps “Russia and the West.” Why is it that with the end of the Soviet Union and the loss of the totalizing official narrative, as well as the community of dissenting friends who defined themselves in opposition to it, Ilya Kabakov seeks refuge in his “total installations”? What is the artist nostalgic for? What makes the nostalgic virus so internationally contagious?

At first glance Kabakov’s Life of Flies recalled a Borgesian labyrinth, a museum within a museum with many forking paths. Each hall boasted its own charts and diagrams—multiple signifying mirrors that made it impossible to tell the difference between the thing andits sign. Four interconnected rooms contained material ranging from pseudoscientific diagrams to tabular poetry, to exquisite watercolors depicting designs for fly costumes reminiscent of Bakst and the Ballet Russe, to 500 flies suspended in the air. An official report on a conspiracy of “cosmopolitan” insects informed us that the creatures had infiltrated the climactic zone above central Russia and Eastern Siberia, causing both economic and psychological depression. In the first room there was a glass display case containing two curious flies in the process of “discovering their own reflection,” yet this “primal scene” of insectile narcissism offered no revelation. Neither did the abundant explanatory texts on flies and conceptual art. (With this plethora of textual material, Kabakov makes a wry nod to Russian culture and Soviet conceptualism, a legacy the artist at once parodies and can’t escape.) There was no discernible thread through Kabakov’s labyrinth; if science failed to discover the secret of the flies, art followed in its footsteps. One had a sense of being held captive in Kabakov’s total environment, tantalized by possibilities of multiple interpretation.

An oversized blue fly, suspended in the air and casting a flickering shadow on the exhibition wall, teased the visitor like an alien caught on the border between different worlds. Kabakov’s fly is the opposite of Nabokov’s butterfly, another insect that inspired an émigré on a quest for aesthetic epiphany and American romance. If Nabokov's butterfly was a dandy among allegorical insects, singular and beautiful, Kabakov’s fly is, in the artist's words, “the image of the banal.” Flies in Kabakov’s installations are subjected to innumerable taxonomies and systems of State control. They are accused of sabotage and international conspiracy, dissected, disempowered, immobilized, aestheticized, and extinguished with the ineffective Soviet insecticide Dyxlophos. Yet these flies have the seemingly inexhaustible capacity to evade regulations and circulate without a visa from one world to another, agents of communication and contamination—at once nomads and homebodies, internal and external exiles. It is not by chance that an exhibit Kabakov did in 1991 was entitled “My Motherland/The Flies.” Like Nabokov’s butterflies, Kabakov’s more plebeian insects have the capacity to de-familiarize the familiar, to bring into focus “the emptiness that surrounds us,” as a treatise displayed in the exhibit put it. They create much buzz about nothing and in so doing make this nothingness and cacophony perceptible—a crucial aspect of Kabakov’s eccentric metaphysics. The fly is, in fact, a projection of our desires and a pretext for many “discourses on method.” One could engage in erudite games and try to remember all the annoying flies immortalized by writers from Swift to Kierkegaard, or, better yet, become inspired by the red-lettered citations—from Pascal to Bergson to Wagner—that adorned the wall of each room, much like quotes from party leaders once decorated the interiors of Soviet schools. (No need to look for the literary citations in official Soviet and American editions of those authors’ works. They were “omitted” and later “rediscovered” by Kabakov’s theoretical collaborator Boris Groys.) The fly is also a conduit for memories and mythologies. One of the texts in the exhibit referred to the most famous fly in Soviet children’s literature—the gilded-belly Mukha Tsokotukha, a great adventuress and the muse of every Soviet child. In Kornei Chukovsky’s poem, the fly Tsokotukha is saved from the evil spider, a distant relative of the totalitarian Cockroach complete with ominous mustache (an oblique but readable reference to Stalin). Kabakov was a successful children’s book illustrator for twenty years as well as an unofficial artist. Children’s literature had a unique place in Soviet culture: from 1930 through the ’70s it served as the last refuge of the Soviet avant-garde. In the ’30s, many experimental poets, including Nikolai Oleinikov and Daniil Kharms, later killed in Stalin's camps, were given work by Kornei Chukovsky, and found their last refuge writing children's literature. Thus, for this ex-Soviet artist, memories of childhood, the history of the oppression of alternative art, and compromised strategies of survival are closely linked.

Of course, it is unnecessary to pin down Kabakov's fly. The fly is not a symbol but rather a protean metaphor for thinking and artmaking itself. It is not by chance that the display with the reference to Mukha Tsokotukha, in itself not particularly relevant for American viewers, was not well—lit. This insufficient lighting created a teasing chiaroscuro that figured the reaches of memory and the limits of our understanding. Though a certain visitor wondered whether the shadow the fly cast on the wall was real or painted, the show repeatedly insisted it was absolutely real. Kabakov’s installation was not a simulation but an environment in which the dutifully illuminated cracks on the wall and patches on the ceiling read as nostalgic traces of a lost materiality. Here Kabakov captured a moment—one’s childhood or a previous era—when time moved at a different pace, when one could observe the interplay of light and shadow and wonder about games of chance and material contingency. Trompe l’oeil belongs to a different temporal order. Here the materials were ostentatiously cheap; no computer graphics, no television sets; even the photographs seemed to have that peculiar tinge of color prints made (at best) in the GDR. It is as if Kabakov’s museum were the last enclave of a material world, and outside its walls “all authentic materials” have been replaced by substitutes, look-alikes, and virtualities.

Having survived the dismantling of many twentieth-century utopias, the artist retreats to the museum, returning utopia to its origins—art, not life. While Kabakov’s installations embody grand curatorial dreams, his nostalgia remains wistfully ironic. Nostalgia is a longing for a home that no longer exists, or perhaps has never existed. In the case of Kabakov, it is always a utopian attempt to challenge the irreversible course of time and to save places and things from the dustbin of history. Kabakov’s “total installations” are at once overwhelmingly exhaustive and forever incomplete. They are his diasporic homes, transient yet memorable like castles in foreign sands. It is precisely the vulnerability of Kabakov’s parallel universe that makes his work so resonant and haunting.

Curiously, Kabakov’s installations in the West are both more personal in their elements and more formalized in their overall design. The artist has confessed that he has become more “sentimental” in his Western installations, but also more conscious of their conceptual frame. In his Whitney installation Kabakov ingeniously combines Soviet conceptualism with American confessionalism, fitting right into the fashion for personal storytelling and self-seeking of the current art scene. To the Barbara Gladstone exhibit he brought his personal memories of the Moscow conceptual circle but intentionally darkened them, making them appear as relevant as a bureaucratic thesis on fly civilization. Prisoners in Kabakov’s labyrinth of slow nostalgic time, we could reflect on the hide-and-seek of our own memories. Paradoxically, the opaque, foreign context of Kabakov’s installations serves only to highlight our common preoccupation with memory and the seduction of intellectual games. At the end of the millennium, when we all gaze at the ruins of our individual and collective utopias, it no longer matters that our nostalgias have different points of departure. Once we exit the museum, we usually don’t have time to figure out exactly what they are.

Svetlana Boym is professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Harvard University. Her most recent book, Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, was published by Harvard University Press in 1994.