Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa

Ilya Kabakov and his wife, Emilia, have always focused their work on social conditions in the Soviet Union during the post-revolutionary period, and their art describes that way of life and its paradigms. In the splendidly restored Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa, the two artists presented a project that is emblematic of their work. Monumento alla civiltà perduta (Memorial to a lost civilization), 1999, represents a dream harbored by the Kabakovs for more than ten years, namely, to create a monument to the USSR, which, seemingly destined to endure for centuries, instead disintegrated unexpectedly. As soon as the USSR collapsed, their desire to realize this grandiose project assumed an even greater urgency.

The Kabakovs propose the installation of an underground monument, constructed adjacent to a museum and accessible through a small door. Once inside, visitors would find themselves in a sort of city, made up of the pair’s previous thirty-eight installations, which have been shown in museums throughout the world. The regrouping of these earlier projects would become a reconstructed fragment of a now vanished society, one that played a leading role in the century about to end.

The exhibition in Palermo included elements from and designs for these thirty-eight works and constituted a model for the monument. On view were a series of explanatory panels, drawings, period photographs, and long manuscripts in Russian, as well as architectural models. In the final project, the visitor, making his or her way through some forty rooms, would be able to relive the atmosphere that existed in the USSR. As in their installations, the individual “scenes” will range from public places to private environments, addressing issues as various as Communist ideology and propaganda and the former health-care system. Very long, austere corridors will link these various sectors, imbuing them with a disquieting dreamlike quality that will exist in contrast to the harsh, coercive reality of the places described.

In addition to this show, the Kabakovs intend to give the city a monument, to be built in the urban center, entitled La Battaglia di San Giorgio. Three figures—a woman, a warrior on horseback, and a dragon—will stand amid the ruins of an old building. The design calls for them to be made out of thin steel wire, so that they will be almost transparent, their volume barely suggested. Suspended in mid-air, the three heroes will end up as spectral visions. Only their aura will remain, suggesting that everything can disappear, even stones, but the spirit of legends, the meaning of great undertakings, remains unaltered, like the utopia turned dystopic that was Soviet civilization.

—_Mario Codognato

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.