Ilya Kabakov and the Corridor of Two Banalities

Courtesy of Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw.Ilya Kabakov is one of the pioneers of the conceptual movement in artistic life in Moscow. Since the sixties his artistic activity has provided an alternative to Communist propaganda produced by artists of that period, making a game out of the Soviet-style Socialist Realism which dominated the arts. Kabakov’s first interest was in the artist’s book and painting; but in the mid-eighties, he shifted his concentration and was recognized as the creator of famous installations such as “Ten Characters” and “He Lost His Mind, Undressed, and Ran Away Naked,” depicting the mentality of a person dominated by ideology. At the center of the artist’s interests lies the question of the inappropriateness of the language of ideology applied to the sensibility experienced by individuals in common life, and all of the moral conflicts arising from this question. Using the language of ideology, Kabakov strives for the inexpressible; from this, a particular nostalgic mood penetrates Kabakov’s work. Kabakov’s works have been exhibited in galleries and museums all over the US and Europe. He has participated in many important group surveys including Documenta IX (1992) and the Venice Biennale (1993). Ilya Kabakov is represented by the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York.

Pawel Polit: You once described your artistic method as a way of objectifying certain ideas, meanings inherent in your consciousness, providing them with narratives and personifying them as certain characters. In your albums and installations those characters are inescapably residents of Moscow communal apartments. In your common project realized in cooperation with Joseph Kosuth at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw [“The Corridor of the Two Banalities”], you utilised authentic documents – the reports of inhabitants of Moscow communal apartments against other inhabitants. The authors of those reports remain anonymous. Do you still consider them as characters? Do they still objectify, reflect the ‘constant babble of voices’ of your consciousness, or do they retain their status as real people?

Ilya Kabakov: Concerning the residents of communal apartments, the personages and documents in the installation “The Corridor of Two Banalities”… The documents in the installation are absolutely authentic. The main characters are real, the signatures are those of actual people. (I managed to obtain these actual documents, soon they will be published in their entirety, the action occurs in Moscow in 1964-66.) But for me personally that doesn’t change anything: the voices can be personal or not personal, the same as with “speech” – I always hear them as anonymous.

P. P.: In an interview with Robert Storr you characterised your work as referring to “the historical and contextual surroundings.” How do you connect this contextual involvement of your work with its, say, metaphysical dimension? Do you treat your works as both depictions of Soviet reality and as metaphors of transcending it?

I. K.: The following observation is appropriate here: all artists can be divided into two types – those who deal with the real world, “depicting” that world, and those that deal with the “mirror” and with what occurs in that mirror. For example: Velasquez, drawing what is before his eyes, and Goya, depicting that visual delirium which lives in his imagination (even when “nature” is right in front of him). I also belong to this “delirious” type and depict not the Soviet real world, but rather my fantasies concerning that world – and naturally, metaphysically, since the imagination easily and continually gives birth to metaphors.

P. P.: Something that seems to permeate your artistic practice is your mistrust in the capacities of the visual representation, a conviction that there is something beyond its reach. Yet you put an emphasis on the handmade quality of your works, for example, inscriptions in your albums are always written by hand. How do you explain this insistence on the authentic character of an artwork, which appears in conflict with your criticism of the visual?

I. K.: You have cited a wonderful example for discriminating against the visual – “hand written text, written nicely and very well.” I really do draw paintings “badly” with pleasure, but I write “with love” and “nicely.” But in the first place, this is not the same kind of calligraphic beauty characteristic of Chinese or European “scribes,” but rather a depiction of a dead, alien, “their” bureaucratic language. Consequently these are alien, dead letters. And secondly, it is precisely in the writing of words that the text is victorious, the meaning, and the form is chosen entirely conditionally in order to “signify.”

P. P.: How do you relate the images and the word in your work? Is it possible to say that you believe one of them is more privileged than the other, e.g. the word above the image? Because, according to you, it is first of all the voices in your consciousness that are at the inception of the process in the objectification of meaning. Is language closer to meaning than image?

I. K.: Everything is only a word. And depiction is also only a word. When an artist is drawing a tree, he is saying to himself, “this is a tree;” when an Impressionist draws not a tree, but air, he is saying to himself, “I am drawing air.” And in fact when we are not drawing anything, in order to see something, we must first name it, at least in our subconscious. Play best friv games site.

P. P.: Do you consider the texts you used in “The Corridor of Two Banalities” as an example of a language contaminated by ideology, or as authentic, real speech? Is there any kind of banality about it?

I. K.: There is no such thing as an authentic language, neither “personal” nor artistic, nor everyday, nor intimate. Everything is only quotes, everything is borrowed, everything is “someone else’s.” Each person only manipulates with this ready-made language, “ideologizes” it: loads it with emotion, “desires” (formerly we would have said “will”). Sometimes a ready-made form is taken, and the ideological emotion is already embedded in the “complex” (be it moral, political, destructive, etc.). But, as a rule, the author will add “from himself” yet another component, like a chef adds whatever he has at hand. The poorer the language of the speaker, the simpler will be the linguistic “components” with which he operates – but in principle the procedure is the same for Leo Tolstoy and Olga Nikolaevna from apartment 14.

P. P.: I had the strong impression when looking at and reading the collages which you created for the exhibition, of the text emerging from beneath the surface of representation, as if it were something suppressed which slowly makes itself visible through the veil of banal, politically loaded imagery. It looks as if the visual layer in the collages in a way parenthesizes the textual and disables its power to speak. Is this what the effect of banality consists of?

I. K.: The visual element in the collages extinguishes, it doesn’t allow the verbal to emerge – that’s a wonderful observation! Thank you! As is completely clear, a method of superimposition of two languages on top of one another is used in these collages: ideographic and “normal” language written in words. The ideographic is perceived instantaneously: what we have before us is a vivid industrial “leaflet” reporting yet another labor victory, or some kind of solemn directive for the holiday. Both of these, as everyone knows, were not subject to being read by the end of the Soviet era, but rather were present in the dreary corridor as a bright smudge. But for whoever might assign themselves the work of actually reading what is in the collages, a fundamental image would arise: under the cover of happiness lives a Gulag. But the entire matter lies in this work by the viewer: will he bother to read it? After all, a visual attack is much stronger than an attack of meaning! (We shall recall the analogous situation when we see a beautiful monogram and cannot distinguish the letters, an Arabic carpet with a text from the Koran, etc. Everything lies in the desire as well as in the skill of the viewer – reader.)

P. P.: Do you think that there is a trace of communication between the voices of common people, the inhabitants of Moscow communal apartments, which you utilized in your collages, and the voices of famous people, writers, philosophers, politicians, quoted by Joseph Kosuth? Do these messages overlap in any way? Or does banality consist of speaking with no intention of communicating whatsoever?

I. K.: The most direct: in my texts, pain, despair, helplessness, dissipation in the face of the circumstances of fate, and the “ultimate request” are all audible. In Joseph’s texts, there is tranquillity, confidence, the consciousness of strength, control over circumstances and an “ultimate recipe for everyone” – naturally, for everyone who asks for help in the complaints filed from the communal apartments.

P. P.: How do you perceive your cooperation with Joseph Kosuth? It seems that both of you, as conceptual artists, represent quite different strategies for making art; your signs, be they visual or textual, seem to emerge from the center of the white page, as if they were the offspring of meaning which they mediate. In Joseph Kosuth’s case, the meaning does not reside in an artwork, it comes as an effect of imploding the contextual framework of the work. What is the common ground in your work together?

I. K.: A sense of humor.

P. P.: What is the role of the viewer in “The Corridor of Two Banalities”?

I. K.: Just like for any person, there is a multitude of roles. But since this installation, like any “work of art,” aspires to attract attention, there are usually three roles: a pensive and sympathetic reader of the texts; to a certain degree a “connoisseur of contemporary art history” in order to qualify what he is seeing in its specific “niche” and to evaluate it; and a casual “observer” who finds himself in a castle, examining the oval ceiling, the smeared windows, and who thinks about how much money and work it must have taken to bring so many tables here, and wondering who felt all this was necessary, and wondering who is responsible for all this when the economic situation in the city and in the country is so difficult . . .

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