Opening New Spaces: 1980 to the Present
Following World War II, the Soviets found themselves in another conflict called the Cold War. This time they were rivals with the United States for world leadership. Although the Soviet Union and the United States did not fight one another directly, they often supported opposing factions in wars in poor countries. The participation of the Soviet Union and the United States turned small, local conflicts into larger, more deadly, confrontations. By the 1960s the Soviet Union and the United States were the two most powerful countries in the world, each spending trillions of dollars on weapons and military expenses. During the Cold War millions of people—both soldiers and civilians—died in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and other countries around the world. Millions more were left homeless or imprisoned because they spoke out against their governments. Another feature of the Cold War was the race to outdo one another in space exploration. The “space race,” as it was called, was a competition to show which country had the best technology.
The communist revolution of 1917 had promised a “worker’s paradise.” All citizens would be equal and everyone would have the basic needs of life. While the Soviet government did provide most citizens’ most basic needs, such as housing, employment, education, and health care, it provided little else. And housing was a constant problem. Although rent was cheap, most ordinary citizens lived in cramped “communal apartments,” in which entire families lived within a single small room, sharing a kitchen, bathroom, and living room with other families. Citizens had little or no privacy.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet economic growth slowed, and citizens became more and more disillusioned with the communist system. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. He pushed a package of economic reforms and reduced the restrictions on individual liberties. Throughout the Soviet Union, regions that had once been independent countries demanded a return to independence. Then, in 1991, independence became a reality. By the end of the year, with surprisingly little bloodshed, the Soviet Union had dissolved. Once again, Russia became an independent country.
About this work
Ilya Kabakov’s work is today exhibited internationally, but this level of attention was achieved only after his relocation to the West in 1987. Before that, he lived in the Soviet Union, making art in difficult circumstances for more than three decades. Born in 1933 into a Jewish family, Kabakov is the son of a locksmith and a bookkeeper. After attending art school he worked as a book illustrator and contributed to more than 150 books for children. He also began to work on his own personal art.
Kabakov grew up in a climate where only officially approved art was endorsed. Artists who dared to make work that strayed from official doctrine were met with strong government disapproval, and it became increasingly difficult to publicly exhibit work that did not reflect Soviet government policy. One of the most important venues for the alternative art scene that developed under these restrictive conditions was the apartment. Around 1975, Kabakov began hosting artists’ meetings at his Moscow apartment. His studio became the focus of an active exchange of ideas, a venue for lectures and discussions among artists.
After years of creating characters in albums that contained both text and drawings, Kabakov began to build full-blown habitats based on the characters he invented in his Moscow studio, which was located on the rooftop of a communal apartment building. Starting in the mid-1980s, Kabakov’s work began to move toward the planning and realization of a series of “total” installations, all-encompassing environments in which the elements of music, poetry, theater, painting, drawing, and sculpture united to produce a multisensory theatrical experience. The earliest complete project, installed initially in Kabakov’s own studio, was The Man Who Flew into Space. This work presents a room with walls covered in posters and slogans celebrating the Communist Party, its leaders, and its technological achievements. The room’s inhabitant, having built a makeshift slingshot, has launched himself through the ceiling of his shabby room and vanished into space. This humorous but complex work ridicules the gap between Soviet technological ambition and the impoverished material reality of everyday life in Russia. This almost impossible amalgam of biting satire and idealism is characteristic of Kabakov’s mixed response to Soviet reality.
Kabakov explores the potential of spaces to tell stories. Much like literature, his work combines character, plot, setting, dialogue, and point of view. The Man Who Flew into Space is one installation from Ten Characters, Kabakov’s first New York gallery show in 1988. In this exhibition, his central metaphor for Soviet life was the communal apartment, in which generations of a family crowded into a single room, and assorted family groups shared a kitchen and a bathroom facilities. These communal interiors and the characters who inhabit them have provided Kabakov with the raw material to invent a world of varied personalities, each with their own environment, idiosyncrasies, and unique commentaries.
- Take a few minutes to describe this place and its individual components. Make a list of all the things you see. Which ones are familiar to you? Which ones are new?
- Where are we? How can you tell? Do you think this is a specific (“real”) place, an imagined one, or a combination of the two? Which elements seem to be observed; which elements are from the artist’s imagination?
- Describe the narrative (story) that this installation suggests. How would this scene be different if we had visited 24 hours earlier? What might we have seen?
- Describe the person who might have inhabited this room. Even though he is not present, what can we assume about him by looking at his possessions?
- Why might this person have wanted to “get out” so much? What clues to his discontent does the environment hold? Try to put yourself in his frame of mind before he left/launched. Write a farewell letter that discloses his state of mind and motivation.
- Some of the other characters in the exhibition Ten Characters included The Man Who Flew into His Picture, The Man Who Collects the Opinion of Others, and The Person Who Describes His Life through Characters. Create your own “Eleventh Character.” Write a character profile that includes:
- Physical attributes—gender, height, age, weight, etc.
- Social attributes—such as family life, occupation, hobbies.
- Emotional attributes—what are his/her interests, fears, passions?
- Environment—where does this person live, work, visit?
Present this character through writing, drawing, and/or acting out a monologue. Before he began constructing installations, Ilya Kabakov created characters in the form of albums that included writing, drawings, and paintings.
English / Language Arts
- Create a model installation that would be an environment for your character to inhabit. This scale model should include as many specific details and manifestations of your character’s personality as you can imagine. Like Kabakov, who frequently includes a soundtrack for his installations, you may want to consider the addition of sound components to your total environment.
- In the former Soviet Union citizens were not free to speak out, to express their ideas or criticize the government. Newspapers, books, music, art, and movies were heavily censored. From the Soviet perspective, this enforcement was necessary to ensure that would-be capitalists did not exploit the working class. From the American perspective freedom of expression is at the core of a productive society. What are your feelings about censorship? Do you think there should be any limits on free expression? Explain your response.