The Operating Room (Mother and Son)


YEAR: 1994



Consisting of the installation No 6, Ten Albums as well as Four Albums I, Four Albums II, Four Albums III, Four Albums IV, and the album Far Away on gray paper from 1977-80, the album A Universal System for Depicting Everything and The Album of My Mother from 1987

Not preserved as installation


Collection John L. Stewart, New York.

Collection Musée National d’Art Moderne- Centre de Création Industrielle.

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

Collection of the artist.


See No 6, 31, and 162


Helsinki, Ateneum
Ilya Kabakov. Leikkaussali – Äiti ja poika, 3 Feb 1994 — 10 Apr 1994 (Organization: Nyktaiteen Museo, Helsinki)

Oslo, Museet for Samtidskunst
Ilya Kabakov. Operasjonssal (Mor og sønn), 8 Oct 1994 — 8 Jan 1995

Kunsthalle Göppingen, Germany
Ilya Kabakov: Universal System Zur Darstellung von allem / A Universal System for Depicting Everything, February 10 to March 31, 2002


The walls of the space for the installation are transformed into the walls of an ‘Operating Room.’ To create this impression, they are covered by thin, plastic panels (a short distance from the real walls) in light green. The whole space is surrounded by these panels and in the ‘Atheneum’ –all the rooms and corridors as well. (The height of the panels is 295 cm.) In the center of each of these operating rooms are narrow, white tables, which form narrow corridors (passages). Together they create a complicated labyrinth for the viewer to pass through. On the desks, two on each side, are frames containing drawings, connected together into long screens. Each of these screens tells a story. On the plastic walls (panels) that surround this labyrinth on all sides is also hung a long row of drawings in frames. The whole installation is flooded with intense, bright, even, white ‘operation room’ light.

The subject of the installation is explained very simply: the whole ‘labyrinth,’ and all its contents represent everything that is going on in the author’s mind – his fantasies, his fears, his sins, his hopes, etc. The whole line of drawings on the walls, including the texts, is a life story of the author’s mother, documentary, real memoirs written by her at the age of 82.

In this way, the image of The Operating Room is a dissection of a son’s mind in the context of a mother’s story about her son.

Both the ‘labyrinth’ and the ‘ring’ surrounding it are portraits of the consciousness of two real people: the author, Ilya Kabakov, and his mother, B. Solodukhina. Moreover, it is as though the ‘mother’s consciousness’ –her genuine description of her life –surrounds the ‘consciousness’ of the son, encloses it inside itself, and a dialogue arises between them.

But if the mother’s ‘recollections’ consist of detailed and documentary material from her life, an unraveled ribbon of her memory, then the ‘content’ of the labyrinth – the son’s consciousness – is of a somewhat different, more confused, stranger, somewhat fantastic nature. Most likely it consists of graphic parables, stories about various states and levels of consciousness. These parables are in the form of a large group of drawings and texts related to them collected into albums, each of which has its own content unlike that of any other album. This should be discussed in a bit more detail. In the first place, ten albums united by the common name ‘Ten Characters’ participate in the ‘labyrinth.’ This is an attempt by the author to express various problems which disturb him not in a ‘direct’ way, so to speak, but by making use of his unique ‘heroes,’ characters, in exactly the same way that any writer does when he expresses various ideas by personifying them in specific characters, ‘psychologizing’ them. (The example of Dostoevsky here is very pertinent.)

In such a way, Ten Characters is the description of 10 ‘psychologized’ ideas, depicted in their development from the very beginning to their logical conclusion. The album Sitting-in- the-Closet Primakov presents the image of existence in a closed space, isolation of oneself from other people, confinement of oneself in complete loneliness, in darkness. But such a character ‘flying out’ of the closet leads not to the acquisition of life, of a real horizon, but only to the same emptiness, an emptiness that is now white rather than black.

In the album The Joker Gorokhov, the ‘humorous’ attitude toward life is subject to criticism as a simple, nonconflictual means for perceiving the surrounding world.

Subject to analysis in the album Generous Barmin is the ability and desire that are so inherent in each of us to ‘define’ another person, to attribute various qualities to this other person, that as a rule don’t have anything in common with the real person.

In the album Agonizing Surikov, the character suffers because life, the meaning of life, is concealed from him by a film. He sees only parts, scraps, fragments through this curtain.

The album Anna Petrovna Has a Dream tells about a soul traveling in our world which doesn’t have a material, physical shell, not touching anything and finally flying away, abandoning it.

The Flying Komarov is a utopia of bliss, a state of eternal soaring and hovering between the earth and sky, between dream and reality.

In The Mathematical Gorsky, we see the fear of winding up in a compulsory row along with ‘others,’ the desire to ‘leave the row’ no matter what, to abandon it.

The album The Decorator Malygin is about the impossibility, the lack of desire, to wind up in the ‘center,’ to step out ‘into the middle.’ It is about the desire to hide in the corner, to be ‘from the edge,’ ‘on the side.’

The Released Gavrilov also tells about the desire to run, to disappear, to dissolve, to lose oneself, but this time in nature, where nature is the image of happy idleness, happy nonexistence.

The last album of Ten Characters – The Looking- Out-of-the-Window Arkhipov –tells about a dying consciousness, where the images of reality slip away like temporary patterns from the window, and where the vision of another world appears before the consciousness.

If in the Ten Characters the portrait of consciousness is given through others, invented heroes, if an attempt is made to look at and describe one’s neuroses and phobias from the outside, then in the ‘Four Albums’ (the series is titled ‘Four Albums’) the author makes the transition to direct speech in the first person and what floats to the surface from the inside of a ‘released,’ uncontrolled consciousness is recorded over the course of 240 pages using the technique of ‘automatic,’ uncontrolled drawing and ‘automatic’ uncontrolled notations. Three albums of the series are filled with this. The first album of the series consists of notes of those voices of ‘others’ which the author constantly hears in his ears: the voices of the streets, of books read, the voices of friends.

Some of these ‘voices’ sing, others speak in verse.

‘A Universal System for Depicting Everything’ is an attempt to make some discovery of extreme importance, to think up something which has never before occurred to anyone or has still not been successfully realized. In this case, it is an attempt to see the world and to draw it as it appears from the ‘fourth’ dimension. As a result of specific mental manipulations and dangerous tension lasting many days, the author ‘manages’ to do this, and in reality, he ‘sees’ the world from this angle. As it seems to him, he achieves an unexpected, even unheard of result, a resolution which only he alone sees, and he not only ‘imprints’ in detail what has been revealed to him, but he also argues and describes the ‘regularities’ of his theory in detail and with scientific precision.

But the tragic-comicness of this situation rests in the fact that it is not clear what should be done with this vision of our world as discovered from the fourth dimension. Although he has an exact, perhaps real ‘in actual fact’ depiction (and according to his theory we have seen the world ‘incorrectly’ until his discovery and only now, given his discovery, will we see everything correctly depicted), his discovery is impossible to verify and turns out to be absurd fantasy bordering on severe delirium, and it is not at all necessary for those of us who are living and seeing the world in three dimensions.

The last album participating in the ‘Labyrinth’ is ‘Far Away.’ It, like all the others, aspires to sad humor. There are two or three dots in the sky above the fine line of the horizon. The names Petrov and Nikolaev are in the corner of the drawing. We have to make a choice: do we consider these ‘dots’ to be merely black dots made by a pen on paper, or believing the inscription, do we believe that they are Petrov and Nikolaev who have flown into the sky, but they are just very ‘far away’ so that it is impossible to make them out? In this way, ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ become the criteria for the existence of Petrov and Nikolaev, and we, in essence, become the ones who either give them life or take it away. Moreover, the same is true of the belief of the viewers themselves who are wandering inside the labyrinth: do they believe that everything before them represents works of plastic art, or specific documents, registrations or symptoms of our (in this case, the author’s) psyche?

The title of the installation The Operating Room is understandable. If looked at from above (see the plan of the installation), the entire installation, the entire ‘labyrinth,’ represents a schematic depiction of the brain after trepanation. Furthermore, the unique mental exhibitionism which served as the theme of this installation brings to mind specific, completely clinical associations.



1994Megan BartonComment