The Strange City

The concept for an exhibit at the Grand Palais in 2014 is the creation of a utopian city resembling “The City of the Sun” that at the same time has a romantic, lofty content similar to Hermann Hesse’s Castile.  There are five buildings in this city that has the shape of a full circle.  The central building is located directly next to the entrance into the city and is titled “The Empty Museum.” Represented inside is the interior of a “classical” museum, but instead of paintings there area bright spots of light on its dark bordeaux-colored walls. The solemn music of J. S. Bach’s “Passacaglia” and everything together -- the semi-darkness, the gold gilding, the soft chairs – form a strange and lofty kind of union of a museum and a temple. 

The other four buildings of the city, similar in layout, represent structures that partially resemble chapels with a central main space surrounded by a corridor.  The subjects displayed in each building are different, but all of them are united by an atmosphere of tranquility and concentration, thanks to the vertical direction of the central hall and the light shining downward through an aperture in the ceiling.  A large model of the magical city of “Manas” existing simultaneously in two planes -- the “heavenly” one up above and the “earthly” plane down below – is erected in the first building.

In the second building is the model for the structures “Center of Cosmic Energy” and “Center for Communication with the Noosphere,” which can serve, according to the idea of the Russian scientist D. Vernadsky, as a constant source of creativity, since it is precisely in the Noosphere that ideas created by humanity’s best minds are preserved.

In the third building is a visual representation of how one might meet one’s angel, in what way and under what circumstances that angel might come to our aid.  

The fourth building is devoted to the display of another enigmatic project:  presented within a composition of 12 paintings and an object are various versions of the image of a “Gate” standing at the very horizon that can be viewed to have the symbolic meaning of a gate both “into here” and “to the outside.” 

In all the corridors surrounding the central space of the buildings are sketches, objects and models that help to reveal and complement the main concept.  Two other structures can be seen beyond the city walls, along the same axis with its entrance and exit.  Directly in front of the entrance into the city, not very far from it, is a “Gate” resembling in appearance and meaning a victory arch and it underscores the main axis of the entire exhibit.  At the very exit from the city along the exact same axis is the largest building of the project, “The Great Chapel” (with dimensions of 11 x 22 x 7 meters), that houses a large white space with an open ceiling and a multitude of fragmentary images on all four walls.  These fragments leave the impression that the reality surrounding us is disappearing in the white light, along with the peace and tranquility.  The “Chapel” harkens back to the tradition of the “artist’s space” and was conceptualized as a continuation of Giotto’s chapel and Rothko’s chapel.

The ring perimeter of the entire “city” is surrounded by two walls.  Inside they represent a suite with paintings hanging along both sides.  For this project we have selected only those works that correspond to the overall concept:  they are light, “meditative,” and insofar as possible, large. 

The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment

Created in 1984, the viewer enters the installation through a single door and is invited to visit the separate rooms, only one of which cannot be entered and must be viewed through cracks in a door that has been shoddily boarded up. The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment tells the story of one of the residents who built a catapult-like contraption to shoot himself through the roof into outer space, where he would travel on powerful streams of energy. A text describes the story as narrated by three of the other residents, one of whom happened to know the cosmonaut better than the others yet admits, “I didn’t know him well.” The room still contains the contraption, a gaping hole in the ceiling, and scientific drawings and diagrams tacked to a wall that is covered with wallpaper composed of old Soviet propaganda posters. A diorama of the town shows the man’s expected projectile path into outer space. The text explains that shortly after the man went into orbit authorities arrived and boarded up the room.


The Untalented Artist

In this room, three large canvases rest on the floor against the walls. Each canvas is divided in half horizontally and depicts various scenes, including a soccer match, a drawing class in an art academy, a group of workers, and three views of the countryside with assorted landmarks or industrial settings. The narrative of The Untalented Artist describes the man as 50 years old (approximately Kabakov’s age when he created this work), who took some art classes when he was younger and now works for the state. The paintings resemble the crude works created for propaganda, agitation and advertisements for official events. The narrative suggests the works are “a dreadful mixture of hack-work, simple lack of skill.”


The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away

Another character, The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away collects and treasures ordinary and discarded items. The walls are adorned with Three Green Paintings along with another of Kabakov’s artworks; also called The Ropes, strings are tied in rows several feet above the floor, from one wall to the other. Countless items hang from the strings and below each item a small piece of paper explains its origin. The character writes about garbage, lamenting that the world that surrounds him is a dump and wondering if every other country is likewise covered with garbage. He points out that the land, owned by no one, has become a dump and looms threateningly beyond the walls, submerging the apartment.


Red Wagon

Red Wagon was exhibited in 1991 at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf, Germany. Compared to other installations, Red Wagon is rather simple. Entering a large gallery with a high ceiling, the viewer finds an unfinished wooden ramp and a series of ladders and platforms. Able to explore the construction, the viewer discovers the final ladder is directed upwards diagonally but does not lead anywhere. Moving past the unpainted wooden construction, the viewer enters what might appear to an American to be a trailer home but which is modeled on a Russian wagon, which at one time could have been used as a railroad car. The exterior is decorated with Socialist Realist paintings. Music emanates from the wagon’s darkened interior, and, upon crossing the threshold, the viewer finds a mural depicting an idyllic Soviet city, peaceful, harmonious, and prosperous, with a blue sky filled not with clouds but apparently with an airshow of biplanes, hot-air balloons, and zeppelins. Benches are placed opposite the mural, allowing the viewer to rest and take in the music and imaginary scenery. At the rear of the wagon a final door takes the viewer to a room strewn with piles of garbage, but, unlike most of Kabakov’s other installations, a narrative is not offered to clarify the setting.


The Toilet

The Toilet is an installation that was erected in 1992 for Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany. Visitors entered a small building to find a public restroom containing six toilet stalls. The room, however, was filled with furniture and appeared to have been used as a living space with a bed, crib, dresser, nightstand and a table that looks as if it were in the midst of being set for dinner. There was more clutter left about and some of the toilet stalls became storage closets. As in many of Kabakov’s installations, the viewer was left with the impression that the inhabitant had just stepped out and might return at any moment.


The Palace of Projects

The Palace of Projects is an installation that was originally conceived in 1998 for Roundhouse, an art space in London. Mimicking the building’s structure and perfectly placed within a central ring of columns is a smaller enclosure in the shape of a spiral, glowing from within and illuminating the otherwise dim interior of the Roundhouse. Built of wood, steel and fabric, the structure resembles Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. Kabakov’s building was ironically designed with less ambition than Tatlin’s but is far more functional.

The text provided states, “the installation displays and examines a seemingly commonly known and even trivial truth: the world consists of a multitude of projects, realized ones, half-realized ones, and ones not realized at all.” Thus, despite the immediate reference to the Soviet Union’s utopian project, the viewer is told that this installation refers to the entire world. The text continues and promises the viewer that within the palace are over 60 projects, some complete, many not, but one that, perhaps, is the viewer’s own and which will give meaning and significance to his life. The text insists that a life is worth living only if it has a project of some sort.


Monument to a Lost Glove

The concept of the monument is a motif used throughout Kabakov’s oeuvre. Monument to a Lost Glove was a public project created in 1996 for Lyon, France to coincide with the G7 summit. Later in the year it was placed on the corner of Broadway and 23rd Street in New York. A red plastic woman’s glove is attached to the ground and around it is placed a semicircle of nine metal music stands, each engraved with a text from a different imaginary character and written in poetic form. The texts, written in four languages (French, English, German and Russian), are recollections of the woman inspired by the dropped glove.

In a text separate from, but pertaining to, the public project, Kabakov explains his focus of attention for Monument to a Lost Glove. From the 17th through the 19th centuries, the ability to create a sonnet, eulogy, or epigraph was highly valued. By the end of the “iron twentieth century” the literary tradition had been lost. “To resurrect it is the goal of our project”, the artist declares. Therefore, the glove symbolizes the lost tradition of poetic verse and the ability to “shroud…thoughts in poetic form.”


Monument to a Lost Civilization

Monument to a Lost Civilization is at once the most comprehensive retrospective to date and Kabakov’s grandest statement. Originally exhibited in Palermo, Italy, in 1999, the monument includes 38 installations out of a self-declared oeuvre of 140 artworks. The installations within Monument were chosen because they all reference the Soviet Union, or the lost civilization. The monument serves as a reminder to the Sicilians in Palermo who hope to create a new society. Emilia Kabakov warns, “Don’t repeat our mistakes, look at your dreams clearly, but don’t sacrifice the people in the name of ideology.”

According to Kabakov’s plans, Monument to a Lost Civilization is to exist below ground in a space without any windows, which might allow the viewer to find solace through the sight of the sky. The space was to be designed like a cavernous lair impossible to navigate where visitors will get lost. They will ask directions to the garden and be told they must find the final room, only to discover the door to the garden, which the artist equate with paradise, locked. In part due to the monument’s enormous size, viewers would enter and forget where the exit is, but never forget what is outside as they begin to feel an atmosphere resembling the Soviet Union, thus giving “an idea of totalitarianism.”


Looking Up, Reading the Words

The concept of the sky as a route to escape is used repeatedly by Kabakov. Looking Up, Reading the Words is a public project that was installed in 1997 for the Skulptur.Projekte in Münster, Germany. The sculpture resembles a 50-foot-tall (15 m) radio antenna. At the top, aerials protrude horizontally creating an oblong shape. The aerials form lines on notebook paper and there are words made from metal letters sandwiched between, with the sky used as a backdrop. The words, written in German, read:

My Dear One! When you are lying in the grass, with your head thrown back, there is no one around you, and only the sound of the wind can be heard and you look up into the open sky—there, up above, is the blue sky and the clouds floating by—perhaps this is the very best thing that you have ever done or seen in your life.

The text simultaneously directs the viewer’s gaze to the sky and obstructs his view. Furthermore, as Iwona Blazwick points out, the transmission from the text crackles with irony: “Why was such an exquisite piece of new technology devoted to something so simple as a handwritten text? We had come here (to the park) to escape but, with his tender irony, Kabakov had reconnected us with the pains and the neglected pleasures of reality.”


The Artist's Despair

The Artist’s Despair, or the Conspiracy of the Untalented of 1994 tells the story of an exhibition. The text informs the viewer that the three paintings, which are part of the work, are chosen for an exhibition. The night after the opening the artist returns and damages the artworks. An influential art critic then convinces the gallerists to add some props and call it an installation, which they do. Kabakov’s text offers the criticism from a fictional artist, who denounces the series of events as a conspiracy. The final imaginary statement is from an art historian who accepts “the naturalness of this process.” The story is meant to be ironic, and maybe even critical, of the way in which the art world can work at times. Through the voice of the art historian everything from the creation to destruction and subsequent rebirth of the artwork is justified. The message is left ambiguous, just as the very title allows the viewer to be the final judge of, and contributor to, the artwork.


Where is Our Place?

Since emigrating to the West, Kabakov’s work has slowly and cautiously taken on new meaning. His installation at the 2003 Venice Biennale was an independent exhibition, rather than in the Russian or American pavilions.

Kabakov’s Where is Our Place? is a literal question posed to viewers. A gallery is decorated with an exhibition of modern art, specifically small black-and-white photographs surrounded by white mats and black frames. Above the modern art hang the bottom portions of oversized, antiquated gold-leaf frames of 19th century paintings. The frames are cut off by the ceiling, as are two pairs of giant legs garbed in 19th century attire, the only visible portions of the oversized exhibition.

With the works Where is Our Place? and The Artist’s Despair, Kabakov has moved from Soviet era conceptualism concerned with readdressing historical narratives to Western postmodernism that deals ironically with art for art’s sake. His oeuvre, however, continues to evolve as some of his former motifs are altered to address new issues.


In the Closet

Kabakov’s In the Closet of 2000 was another installation shown at the Venice Biennale in the Utopia Station pavilion, a group show without allegiance to any country, composed of a diverse collection of artworks.

In the Closet resembles a simple wooden armoire crammed with decorations and belongings that suggest it was being used for someone’s living space. The closet is dreary and drab, similar to the burrows in the communal apartments Kabakov had previously recreated, but with far fewer imaginative devices; even more notable is that nothing refers to the former Soviet Union, and it is only the knowledge of Kabakov’s previous installations that lends itself to comparison. The diminutive installation does not offer text to further explain the closet, but the concept behind the group show, utopia, informs the viewer what is being addressed. In the Closet effectively updates Kabakov’s earlier installations of the Soviet era communal living spaces by conflating the idea of privacy with a phrase, ‘in the closet’, that is almost universally defined as a hidden deviance from the norm. Thus, Kabakov finds the idea of utopia, a recurring interest of his, in anything but the average and everyday. More significant, perhaps, is the artist’s preference for a private utopia, rather than a colossal public project.