Kabakov Online: Russian Art

Ever wondered what the web yields when you type your name into Google? Some of us may be pleasantly surprised by the number of pages found, only to be dismayed by seeing the actual content.

This reviewer, although not exactly passive in terms of online activity, has been outranked by several eponymous persons: among these goldsmith, a Conservative city counselor, and an artist biker. (By the way: If you want to find out whether you rank better than your friend / colleague / worst enemy, www.googlefights.com is the site for you.)

However, if you type the name of your favorite artist into Google, and this artist happens to be Ilya Kabakov, you may be in for another surprise – or you might not, since his impressively designed new homepage ranks a meager 3/10 on Google, far behind private art collections, outdated exhibition announcements, descriptions of single installations, book announcements, occasional articles, university websites, art encyclopediae, and 404’s.

This is a shame, really, and ought to be improved. So hey Google bot, crawl off to www.ilya-emilia-kabakov.com and give ’em the thumbs-up! But you, gentle reader, do not click on the link right away. Be aware that it opens a window the size of 800×600 pixels, which might well block your screen as well as your connection, if you’re not equipped with the latest hard- and software. But more of that anon.

So www.ilya-emilia-kabakov.com is the site you want to visit to find out about the world-famous, ex-Soviet concept artist Ilya Kabakov, now collaborating with his wife, Emilia, on his installations and public projects. Eleven installations are documented, if not in loving detail, then in glossy Flash animation.

This is a site to lose yourself in (fortunately, the navigation bar keeps floating across the top, unobtrusively changing direction with every wriggle of your mouse’s tail). Hot spots in images open installation details. Zoom functions let you move across (alas, two-dimensional) pictures.

Text windows give comments by the artist himself, his faithful sidekick, Boris Groys, and the characters that inhabit Kabakov’s artistic re-creations of dreary Soviet life. Sound files wash you in 1930’s Soviet ballads. Every installation is documented in a slightly different style, giving way to wonder and surprise while retaining a familiar look-and-feel.

This is, however, not the familiar look-and-feel that most readers of ArtMargins would connect with Ilya Kabakov. The site has nothing of the dreariness and boredom of his installations, nor of the Soviet reality that inspired them.

While the Kabakovs often go to great lengths to create massive, shabby installations that are to be read rather than viewed, on their web site there is a lot to be seen, but relatively little to be read. For example, “The Life of Flies”, an installation that yielded a 256-page companion volume, is documented with a handful of photographs and one single excerpt from Boris Groys’ introductory essay to the aforementioned book.(Ilya Kabakov: The Life of Flies. Cologne 1992.) So if you expect this site to be “The Great Archive” (as another installation is called), you’re in for a disappointment.

Now, what is there? First and foremost, 11 installations are documented in more or less detail. For those interested in hard facts about the artist(s), there is a biographical timeline of Ilya (not Emilia) Kabakov’s life and work (completed by a well-hidden printable essay) as well as a (non-printable) “Exhibition history”.

Finally, there are photographs of six “Public Projects”, i.e. works that do not create a secluded space (like the “Total Installations”), but are situated in an open context, on public squares or in parks. Whether these really ignore the spirit of the place, as Kabakov claims for comparable projects (sculptures, monuments etc.) in his introductory essay to this section, is open to speculation, as this part of his work is documented in but a few photographs.

It is the installation part of the site that is the most rewarding, and in fact the site itself works much like a “Total Installation”. Either you enter this site or you don’t (that’s why I cautioned you, gentle reader, against clicking away from my modest efforts too soon). Even though, during the very process of reviewing, the non-resizable pop-up window in which all the action took place disappeared, any attempt to while away those dreary hours of loading 106-kB Flash animations over a 56k-modem by having a look at another screen window were relentlessly punished by the window re-loading right from the start.(With 800×600 screen resolution, a 56k modem, and the latest Opera browser.)

Unlike the concept of the “Total Installation”, however, feedback is not encouraged. In many installations, Kabakov has pursued the strategy of integrating (fictitious) comments on the installation itself, thus striving for a dialogic effect. This site does not. It is the site of an author and his work, Dirk. There isn’t even so much as a contact address, or a guest book, or an online counter (but be sure he keeps track of every mouse click).

So yes, as the developer’s website puts it, this site is an online museum. As such, it is well designed, interesting, sometimes amusing. But if Kabakov has hitherto tried to keep open a sort of escape for himself, by turning back on his work, reflecting and commenting on it, and eventually re-framing it as the work of a fictitious person, he has now arrived in the coveted position of an acknowledged international master, who can securely hand his oeuvre over to the greatest – and most unstructured – of archives, the Internet.

To quote Kabakov: “I really do believe in the existence of this absolute infinite text before and after any utterance, any participant in dialogue, cut off from any single human being”.(Ilya Kabakov / Boris Groys: Die Kunst des Fliehens. Munich 1991, p. 29.) Only, contrary to this belief uttered ten years ago, he is now himself part of this big (hyper) text. So, click and enjoy: www.ilya-emilia-kabakov.com.

Stephan Küpper has written extensively on Moscow Conceptualism, as well as translated a host of texts by Ilya Kabakov, Dmitrii Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, and others. He is now working as content manager for one of the few surviving dotcoms in Berlin.