Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 25, 2005
Toni Stooss, ed. Ilya Kabakov: Installations Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2004. 1008 pp.; 455 color ills.; 485 b/w ills. Cloth $175.00 (393380728X)

This deluxe two-volume boxed set is a catalogue raisonné documenting Ilya Kabakov’s important and influential work as an installation artist. Yet in keeping with the current practice of institutional critique, which turns every corner of the institution of art into an exhibition space in order to make those corners visible in a new way, it is much more. Included are descriptions of 155 installations executed between 1983 and 2000, along with preparatory drawings, installation photographs, and information about the exhibitions in which they appeared and the museums that own them. The bulk of the book consists of extensive commentaries by the artist. These often take the form of transcribed dialogues with three of Kabakov’s favorite interlocutors: Boris Groys, Joseph Bakshtein, and Pavel Pepperstein. In this way, Kabakov can use the form of the catalogue raisonné to further develop his work, which is appropriate, given that the theme of his work is the artist’s formation.

This theme is recognized in different ways in four accompanying scholarly essays. Before looking at the contributions of Groys, Oskar Bätschmann, Robert Storr, and Rod Mengham, it is worth highlighting the fact that the total number of pages dedicated to their critical analysis of Kabakov’s work amounts to fifty, including notes. This, out of a total of 1,008 pages. All of the information relevant to each installation’s provenance and exhibition history amounts to a paragraph, sometimes only a line or two. Although most of the book is taken up by illustrations, Kabakov provides approximately two pages of commentary for each piece, which is six times the amount of combined writing by the four critics chosen to analyze his work.

There is something funny going on here, and it is actually mildly amusing. Granted that after the 1960s and, say, an artist such as Robert Smithson, an artist’s ruminations have become an integral part of her or his work, does it then follow that this book will itself be included in a future catalogue raisonné to be put together, according to convention, after the artist’s death? If every space in the museum can be turned to some sort of aesthetic use, there is no reason why art history should not also provide some interesting new spaces in which to work—or is Kabakov simply trying to ensure his own posterity? The amusement is provided by the sense that it is not really clear whether there is a joke.

This moment of doubt recalls Kabakov’s installation at the 2001 Venice Biennale. At the far end of the Arsenale, near the very last wall of the exhibition, he built a full-size model of a train leaving a platform, which itself served as the viewing stage for the piece. Lying on the tracks behind the caboose was a pile of discarded paintings. Just so the viewer got the point, an accompanying text declared that the train of history will leave many artists behind. Coming from an artist I admire, I found it disappointingly small and mean. Not that the message bothered me, but that the point was minor. Actually, the point is major, but somehow he made it seem small, perhaps because he had not turned his own anxieties about oblivion to good use. Afterwards, my feeling of melancholy reflected not my own future nullity but the possibility that history will have no power to judge; that thanks to the increasing professionalization and rationalization of art world procedures, the artist who collects the largest number of catalogues while alive will also win the future. History is supposed to provide a better grounding for judgment, but scholarship plays a role in that, and scholarship has an unfortunate tendency to defer to the already canonized. In any case, if we are to take this “catalogue raisonné” seriously as such, then it may be too strong a bid for posthumous security. If it is more, and if it is art, or something close to art, then it will accomplish the same goal more effectively and give pleasure besides. Kabakov’s motives are rendered ambiguous by the fact that the critics and scholars in the book are also part of the effort; if the intention is to make an artwork, then their position is a strange and potentially awkward one.

Mengham’s piece is described as a “critical biography”; it is basically a descriptive account of the artist’s life and the progress of his work. Bätschmann’s piece also has the character of an overview, although with more focus on ideas. Bätschmann surveys the history and theory of installation, describing Kabakov’s own theoretical position within this history. Here there are a number of points that one could contest, and it seems that Kabakov has a somewhat reductive view of the tradition he seeks to transform, but this is hardly important. That Kabakov has tried to theorize his practice within a historical framework, that he regards his work as at the beginning of a new genre he calls “total installation,” and that he has published a book—quoted by Bätschmann—developing his ideas is altogether admirable and enough to confirm that he is an important artist indeed. There is no need to quibble over minor points.

The important critical perspectives on the artist’s work are provided by the remaining two writers, Storr and Groys, and here there is a neat and illuminating division. Storr takes the work at face value and assumes that it really is a representation of Soviet life from a particular era. He then must claim that such a picture has a certain universal value, although perhaps not for people in the United States, who are uniquely unable to recognize anything of themselves within it. This may be reasonable, and has the merit of straightforwardness; it also demonstrates a valuable sensitivity to context and history. But Groys takes another and more interesting tack. For him, the ostensible content of Kabakov’s installations is not what is crucial about the work; rather, it is the artist’s deeper anxieties and more profound meditations on authorship itself.

Personally, I would read anything Groys writes. He is always brilliant, with a subtle and wry humor. The following quote demonstrates these qualities well: “By assembling his temporary installations inside the ostensibly stable institution of the museum Kabakov also wishes to remind us that the museum itself is no more than an installation, a passing phenomenon subject to decay and destined for the rubbish heap” (vol. I, 42). Observations such as this are truly enlightening; they change the way we see our context as much as they display what could be called the joy of the critic—that is to say, the pleasure found in imagining the destruction of art’s institutionality while reaffirming the value of the work that goes on within art institutions.

But Groys’s importance lies above all in his originality. At least, his ideas appear original in a Western context, particularly his interest in and use of Kierkegaard as a basis for an anti-Marxist position. It is safe to say that the grounding of modern thought in the critique of religion is probably better appreciated in the former Soviet Union than in the United States (an unfortunate state of affairs, given the current state of U.S. politics). He is the most important commentator on Kabakov’s work, and they have had a long and rich dialogue that has been very productive for both of them. Evidently, Groys’s more fundamental insights into the meaning of death in contemporary art are derived from a specific case, namely Kabakov, and in this respect he has the integrity of a philosophical critic; unhindered by the social demands of the moment, his speculations are nevertheless concretely grounded in actual works.

Groys is concerned with what he calls “the theater of authorship,” and he makes the case that Kabakov has a leading role in it. Actually, Kabakov is only one of many artists today questioning the status of the author. He is perhaps unusual in that for him a work of visual art can approximate a work of literature in the way that it invents and presents characters and situations. He tells stories. Thus, for Kabakov the concept of authorship as applied in the visual arts might have a more specific meaning than it does for most other artists. Further differentiating his work is a lack of concern with subjectivity, or, more specifically, a lack of interest in staging the critique of the author as a crisis of the individual subject. For Kabakov, all subjectivities are fictions, and so are necessarily subject to the larger form of the work. For Kabakov the limit of the author is the limit of the work; he constantly stages the impossibility to define where art ends and the rest begins. However unlikely it may seem, he is in this respect rooted firmly in the central modernist/symbolist tradition of the last one-hundred-and-twenty-five years.

The effect produced by his game of boundaries is not sublime; instead, it is an agonizing ordinariness—not so much full of suffering as of enduring a day-to-day banality without the chance for aesthetic escape. One might suggest that a canonical late modern strategy is to go down to the ordinary, down to the pebble on the ground, and in a complementary expanding movement to rise to the sublime. Smithson might provide one of the best examples of this simultaneous deflation and inflation of value, which maintains the modernist ideal of progress through negation while still offering the museumgoer a reward in fantasy. Kabakov goes down and out of art into a world in which things do not really mean, they just are, and life continues without a preset teleology, certainly not a utopian one. His most ordinary thing is not a pebble but a piece of trash. It might be right to claim, as Storr seems to do, that this particular kind of nihilism is the Soviet Union’s gift to the world.

Groys has elsewhere discussed this nausea of the ordinary in Kierkegaardian terms; in the current publication he limits himself to the problem of authorship. It is therefore surprising that it seems to have escaped Groys that Kabakov, as the author of his own career, has involved his critics in an authorial project. In the end, perhaps the weakness of this book is that it fails to make art history into something small, ordinary, and banal. But if it did so, the critical essays included would be impossible to read, even as the contemplation of their embarrassment would make us wiser.

Robert Linsley
Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo

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