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Ilya Kabakov: The Man who Never Threw Anything Away.

Amei Wallach's Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away unfolds with something of the phantasmagoric fairy-tale vision that characterizes Russian lubki (folk prints). In Wallach's essay and Kabakov's commentaries on his own work, life in the Soviet Union emerges as both treacherous and absurd, rocked by enormous political upheavals and marked by an existential angst that pulsates like a persistent toothache, one that can sometimes be soothed with the kind laughter Kabakov's installations often provoke. In these pages, we return to the gentle mysticism of Nikolai Gogol's and Anton Chekhov's sketches of Russian life, the writings of anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and religious philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev, casting aside the postrevolutionary morbidity of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and the prosaism of Giorgii Shalamov's Kolyma Tales. From this carefully tilled soil springs what Robert Storr describes in his introduction as Kabakov's "conceptualism with a human face."

Tracing the evolution of Kabakov's art - from his early work as an illustrator of children's books, to his albums and paintings, to his more recent "total installations" - Wallach's biographical narrative is usefully framed by a sociopolitical chronology of Soviet Russia. Her account, much like Bulgakov's renowned Master & Margarita - and Kabakov's oeuvre itself - effects a strange marriage between blunt, mundane reality and visionary fiction. With remarkable insight into daily life and a novelist's passion for colorful metaphors, Wallach paints an initially compelling portrait of an artist whose work is "as deeply rooted in Russian cultural history, Soviet attitude, and autobiography as in any contemporary Western praxis." In this schema, Kabakov himself emerges as a vital member of the unofficial art scene, which he describes as a kind of family, strengthened in the face of a common enemy. "Everyone belonged to one of these little friendly groups, but everyone knew everybody else because they all shared the same fate. Like a family... in a bomb shelter. Everyone is sitting on his own suitcase, but they are all together in the same basement.... We were all united by the same fate and the danger that we would all be destroyed, it could happen any day."

In accepting Kabakov's heroic account of his "internal exile" - which presumably began in the late '60s and ended with his departure from the Soviet Union in 1988 - Wallach's text falls short on two counts. First, it makes too much of Kabakov's outsider status since it was precisely as privileged insider, not as dissident, that Kabakov-cum-homo sovieticus was able to analyze the Soviet system with such remarkable perceptiveness, to endow the drabness of communal life, epitomized by the kommunalka (the communal apartment), with a certain poetry. Indeed, Kabakov's position was not unique within Soviet society, and in many ways differed little from that of the average citizen in a totalitarian state. In Vaclav Havel's words, "Individuals need not believe all these mystifications [produced by the communist system], but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.... For this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system." Secondly, to locate the end of Kabakov's "internal exile" in the artist's departure from Moscow dismisses the possibility that his arrival in the U.S. might be construed as simply an extension of this condition.

Among those Russian artists who have, in recent years, gained recognition in the West, Kabakov is certainly the most accomplished and complex, but his work also readily validates a nostalgic reading of Soviet culture as a "fatal utopia," and this is no small part of his success. Kabakov's magic realism with a communist twist, in which horrors can become dreams and pain has "real" meaning, has an undeniably strong psychological appeal. Thus it comes as no surprise that, in the end, Ilya Kabakov, much like the work of the artist who is its subject, sounds the death knell of the Soviet order, as if the fate of the former communist state had already been sealed.

Marek Bartelik is coauthor with Dore Ashton and Matti Megged of The Sculpture of Ursula von Rydingsvard, to be published this fall by Hudson Hills Press.
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Author:Bartelik, Marek
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Previous Article:Dreams.
Next Article:New York 1954.55.

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