Ilya Kabakov: “50 Installations”

Ilya Kabakov: 50 Installations. Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland: www.kunstmuseumbern.ch

“For Kabakov, art remains an inevitable, existential need and a therapy for survival. The artist loves the museum not merely as an institution, but as a personal refuge,” Svetlana Boym argues in her recent essay for this publication, The Soviet Toilet and the Palace of Utopias. In his retrospective exhibition, 50 Installations, Ilya Kabakov has turned his refuge into his playground. The tripartite exhibition itself displays many of the features of Kabakov’s “total installations.” This is most evident in “The Children’s Hospital,” a hospital ward with two beds, on the sides of which two peep show boxes contain miniature replicas of two artistic sujets – “The Raft of the Medusa” and “The Earthquake in the Serail.” Image, space, text and sound lead the spectators through this tiny ward which, in spite of the colorful boxes and the fairy tales accompanying them, retains the morbid and dreary atmosphere of Soviet and Post-Soviet life.

However, while it is important for Kabakov’s “total installations” that they have no “outside,” i.e., that they form a space that appears completely detached from the museum space containing them, Kabakov’s installations in Bern “spill over” into the museum’s sphere. Not only are they located on several floors, thus interrupting the passage from one room to another, but part two of the installation is located in the Kunstmuseum’s central Hoedlersaal, where two massive paintings hang right next to the permanent collection’s chef d’oeuvres. These paintings, attributed to the fictive painter Charles Rosenthal, are accompanied by control desks which enable the visitor to light up a particular section of the paintings with the press of a button. These paintings exemplify the interactivity of paintings and spectators that is central to Kabakov’s art, but alongside the classic masterworks their claim to artistic autonomy contains a particular challenge.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a suite containing the “50 Installations” that gave the show its title – or rather, it contains the models, sketches and photographs of these installations, as a display of the originals would amount to a minor city. If Duchamp presented models of his most famous works in a suitcase, Kabakov frames them in museum halls, turning the walls themselves into part of the installation. Painted in greenish grey, brown and reddish colors, they create a particular atmosphere that is characteristic of most of Kabakov’s installations. The museum that Kabakov cherishes both as an institution and a personal refuge is now re-framed by the artist.

15 years after Bern housed Kabakov’s first one-man show in the West, Kabakov has come full circle. If his first exhibition was indeed “On the Margins,” it marked the beginning of a journey to the center of the art world. Over the last decade-and-a-half, Kabakov has always shown much concern about his position within world culture, as much as mistrust in the institutions of art. Within the context of Soviet alternative art, this guaranteed him independence both from the demands of officialdom and from the delusions of his fellow underground artists, most of whom simply exchanged one system of values for another. In questioning not only all values, but the very conditions of their validity, Kabakov’s strategy of subversive affirmation succeeded in assuming a position that was free from external constraints, precisely because he consciously succumbed to them. At the same time, the fact that he provided the frame as well as the picture made his art highly exportable, in that each viewer was instructed on how to perceive a given work, yet free to form his/her own opinion. Only recently, Kabakov seems to have given up his reservations about the institutional status of art. The inclusion of his installations’ debris now amounts to nothing more than a self-ironic gesture, as it mocks his own questioning of art’s value by including it in the museum he himself has created. Now the total installation turns into a museum, as the museum itself turns into a total installation. If 15 years ago, Kabakov was “born as an artist” in Bern, it is only fitting that it is here where his work should finally merge with the institution of the museum and, in the last turn of the screw, leave it behind.

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