Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

The Roundhouse

Ilya Kabakov is a contemporary phenomenon not just because of his originality or the way he, in Chekhovian fashion, constructs a story out of subtle allusions and seemingly insignificant details. Another part of his success is how he manages to reinvent himself and his art with each project. One has come to expect Kabakov to probe the Soviet condition or its legacy—which he willingly does—but with each new installation it is practically impossible to predict how he will transform past experience into art that feels timeless.

The Palace of Projects, 1995–98, a monumental installation and one of the first works Kabakov has coauthored with his wife, Emilia, addresses delusional utopianism as a form of a common dissatisfaction. The work takes the form of a collection of “special projects” that anyone would want to realize in order to have what the Kabakovs call “a worthy human life,” presented by an array of comical but ordinary fictional characters. None of these projects can be fully achieved, but there is sheer joy to be found in fantasizing. One might, for instance, change oneself by donning a pair of wings and sitting in silence for five to ten minutes (as N. Solomatkin, a chauffeur from Kishinev, advises us), or regain happiness by lying on a mattress and quietly contemplating illustrations from a favorite children’s book attached to the wall (according to G. Sobakina, a music teacher from Serpukhov). In a more ambitious folly, L. Stachovich—a violinist from Moscow—suggests a system of specially equipped panels erected at the height of 28–30 kilometers above the earth to produce an equal distribution of energy over the entire planet. A certain E. Stakhovsky—a psychiatrist from Dnepropetrovsk—proposes installing a door on the ceiling to ensure access to another dimension.

In London, The Palace of Projects was installed in a structure designed in the 1860s by the engineer Robert Stephenson for reversing the direction of steam engines. Considered by some to be one of the finest examples of industrial architecture from Victorian Britain, the Roundhouse is a symbol of the era’s beliefs in technology-as-progress and a cipher for utopian ideas. The Kabakovs’ installation comprises sixty-five eccentric objects housed in a building made of wood and sheets of semitransparent plastic with light glowing through its walls as if it were a Chinese lantern. The objects are arranged in three groups: “How to Make Yourself Better?”; “How To Make This World Better?”; and “How to Stimulate the Appearance of Projects?” Each model, maquette, painting, or plan is credited to an anonymous dreamer, and is accompanied by written commentary including instructions on how to realize the piece. In the Kabakovs’ world, things are always arranged and labeled, suggesting an oppressive bureaucratic taxonomy, while also calling attention to how fragmented and impermanent ordering systems can be. Their two-story structure was built in a spiral- or snail-shape, recalling Tatlin’s unrealized Monument to the Third International, 1920. But whereas the Constructivist’s model tilted optimistically toward the sky, proclaiming the triumph of the classless society, the Kabakovs’ construction speaks of the fragility of an aborted dream. It features a large stairway leading to the second floor and a small spiral staircase descending toward the entrance hall; at the apex of the pavilion, a hole in the roof reveals two wooden planks like diving boards above an empty swimming pool.

Rather than an extension of utopian visions from Plato to Sir Thomas More to Marx—all of which it seems to mock—The Palace of Projects is an homage to everyday strategies for survival. What the Kabakovs’ tragicomic dreamers seem to hope for most is to move beyond the need to compare their idealistic models with dubious realizations, and to achieve personal utopias in which life is saturated with warmth and tranquility. The artists keep a subdued tone, conveying a sense of melancholy and anxious vulnerability. Like Swedenborg, the Kabakovs may be telling us that they have conversed with angels, but their installation is not infused with mystical spirituality. Instead, from the perspective of nomads, the artists map a universe of small, private truths that belong to a utopia that is both the “good place” and “no place.”

Marek Bartelik