The Reading Room


YEAR: 1995



Version 1

Collection of the artist.

Version 2

Collection of the artist.

See Nos 5, 6, 12, 18, 19, 20, 27, 29, 51, 52, 79, 82, 84, 86, 98.

Version 3

Collection of the artist.

See Nos 6, 118.


Version 1

Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, Switzerland
Ilya Kabakov – Ein Meer von Stimmen, 13 August – 12 November 1995.

Version 2

Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Germany
Ilya Kabakov. Der Lesesaal – Bilder, Leporellos and Zeichnungen, 19 April – 28 July 1996.

Version 3

Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (M HKA), Antwerp, Belgium
16 Installaties, Muhka, 17 April – 23 August 1998 (as part of No 118, 16 Installations, Room 1, there called Reading Room. The Artist’s Library).


1- The installation represents reading rooms in a Russian, most likely provincial, library. The walls are painted light gray. To a height of one meter from the bottom, they are painted a green, ‘stain-resistant’ color. This green ‘panel’ runs in a uniform strip through all the halls, all the passageways between them, and the other rooms. One hall is separated from the next by hanging curtains made of dark brown fabric. This ensures that silence is maintained as well as the closeness of each individual space – it focuses attention, aids complete concentration. There are tables in each such compartment of the divided spaces, but they are not like the ordinary ones in ‘common’ library reading rooms where everyone sits at long tables with others on both sides and opposite.

Rather, these are the kinds of tables that are usually arranged in halls intended for special ‘scholarly’ work: each table stands alone, only one person can study at it. Furthermore, the tables stand at a significant distance from one another so as not to ‘bother’ anyone. Each one of these tables stands under a painting. There are as many paintings in the hall as there are tables.

The tables are made of light wood. The chairs are also wooden and of the same color.

All of this is arranged along the walls. An – another table, an authentic one, is placed in the center, along with something resembling in appearance a unique kind of podium.

I didn’t misspeak by saying in the beginning that this was a provincial library, and if we were to clarify the time period, then the ‘place of action’ belongs to the 1960’s and 1970’s, when computers hadn’t even been heard of yet and the entire ‘information’ apparatus consisted of books, paper catalogues, guides, etc. Hence, the long table with individual compartments resembling post-office booths was intended for all kinds of information, literature, and ‘periodicals’ arranged by subject.

Standing perpendicular to this table was the ‘podium,’ essentially the exact same kind of table, only elevated a bit higher. This was a place which housed catalogs, dictionaries, and programs which had a more general, ‘fundamental’ relationship to the scholarly thematic of this hall: any person could stand up and make use of these materials.

2- Usually hanging along the walls of such a reading room would be artistic production that was familiar and appropriate to this place: portraits or engravings. The general appearance and idea behind this was to impart great concentration and depth to the studies in this hall, to create here a certain solemn and yet neutral background on account of which people would spend long and quiet hours here immersed in a book.

But in our installation, the accent is placed precisely on this artistic ‘production’ (the main objects in the hall): the paintings hanging on the walls. The main visual impression created by the hall (if you distract yourself from the chairs and tables standing in it) is that of an ordinary exhibition hall in a museum or gallery. Moreover, not of an exhibit of some conditional ‘artist-personage’ which would impart to the entire exhibit the same entirely conditional ‘playful’ meaning, but rather that of a very ‘real’ artist who made all of this very seriously, and this entire exhibition (not the individual halls but the installation as a whole) represents an altogether serious retrospective of his ‘works.’ What is the connection between the paintings and drawings (executed in the past and which are fully autonomous, unconnected to one another), and the ‘reading room’ where all of this is arranged?

And furthermore, what does the retrospective of paintings and drawings – normal visual production – have in common with the enormous quantity of texts lying on the tables, on the long table ‘for information’ and on the ‘podium’? And what is more important in this pair: the plastic objects or the verbal? Do the visual images serve as illustrations to the texts, or do the texts merely help our understanding, supplement the visual works which could exist completely independently even without all of this? And just what is the interrelationship between these genres that are directly connected here but were so successfully, and it would seem, forever, divided in the past?

In order to answer such questions, and hence to demonstrate the very concept of the installation, we need to begin with, or more precisely turn to, the main character: and without any doubt whatsoever, this is not the artist, but the viewer. We must take a look at what kind of state he is in, what happens to him under the conditions of a so-called modern exhibit, how does he feel there. And this is not dependent only upon what is being shown there.

It is widely known that in the modern situation of the exhibit, the viewer can be faced with three states depending on the three types of objects displayed, the repertoire of which is very familiar today and is elaborated well in the modern art of the post-war period. He can be seized or enthralled by an extraordinarily powerful flow of energy emanating from its oversaturated ‘screens’: paintings, abstract and nonabstract expressionists – De Kooning, Pollock, Hartung, Baselitz, and others. He will be wound up to the extreme, and his nervous system will vibrate under the effect of this energy.

But he will grow quiet and calm down and fall into profound prostration in the face of the paintings and objects of the minimalists, eternally wandering off into their empty depths, losing himself and the world living in him, submerging into the white or colored nirvana, liberated from worries and the reflexes connected with them. Silently he stands before them, having lost the sense of time and place, standing before an incomprehensible and strange puzzle hanging in front of him on the wall.

But the majority of modern paintings and objects do not belong to these two categories, and in order to understand and to assimilate them, the viewer needs a certain, or better to say, a significant reserve of knowledge and information which rests in his past experience of assimilating not only classical art – which was already incorporated into his subconscious long ago – but also the history of the classic avant-garde as well. Exhibits of modern art – I repeat, I am talking here about works of the post-war period – have as their fundament, so to speak, as their measure of comparison and assimilation, that ‘background.’ And that background has already become museum-like, classical, but it also continues to be still alive and topical, with which the artist can now correlate his works; this was not the case with the classics of past epochs which have already become historical myths invoking deferential but cold respect, even if we were to talk about the relatively recent Barbizons and Impressionists. Our epoch of the postmodern finds its justification and provision in the comparatively recent epoch of modernism – it’s not accidental that both words contain the same root.

Therefore, returning to our viewer, the main time that he spends in front of a work of contemporary art is devoted to the comparison of what he sees before him and what is in his memory, so that as a result of such a comparison he can come to some sort of conclusion about what he is viewing.

3- But he conducts this comparison under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, in conditions where ‘everything bothers him.’ Foremost among such difficulties is the fact that he has to stand and continually move from place to place.

The most difficult thing at exhibitions is to stand before a painting, and the other, no less excruciating obligation is to move around the entire exhibition space, to move from hall to hall. This is our obligation – as dictated to us by someone – to view everything, to be everywhere at the opening exhibit, in all of its places. But both the first and the second, in essence, are excruciating compulsions experienced by each person who comes to a contemporary viewing, no matter where it is organized.

4- One of the most uncomfortable states during the viewing of something, no matter what, is the viewing of it standing, directly aiming one’s ‘view’ at the object being scrutinized. This sounds paradoxical: then how else should you view it, since this seems to be the most optimal way of viewing what is hanging still before you. After all, you are completely free in your movements – you can change the distance, get closer, move farther away, choose a better point of view. Ultimately, you can leave or return again at any moment. But it is precisely this freedom of movement, contained in the fact that you are standing on your feet and can move in any direction, that you shift around like a boxer in a ring, that places your attention and your consciousness along with it into direct dependence on the state of your legs. And your legs, speaking in elementary terms, are more inclined to serve as the ‘means of movement’ rather than as prolonged and immobile ‘support’ for our ‘observation camera’ – it’s clear what we’re talking about here.

It is very difficult to stand, no matter how attractive or intriguing a painting might be, precisely because of the exhaustion of your legs from standing in one place and the program inherent in us to look at everything that is all around us, to examine everything, to get to the end of the exhibit.

This is what pushes us further along, tears us from our spot and doesn’t allow us to fully submerge into the contemplation either of paintings of ‘energy’ or of minimalist tranquillity, nor does it allow us to extend the efforts of our mind, memory, and associations when faced with works of the ‘comparative’ type.

5- But this was not always the case in the past. Where, in essence, did this practice of excruciating standing in white, illuminated halls come from, where it is impossible to sit down and concentrate?

The manner of such strenuous somnambulistic movement emerged relatively recently, as demonstrated by history. The exhibition space of old classical museums (examples of which can easily be found in English cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, and others), are constructed according to entirely different models, intended for a completely different contemplative mode of viewing. It’s not just that the halls in them, as a rule, are smaller, more intimate, nor that the quality of the lighting is softer, easier on the eyes, nor that the walls provide a dark background that don’t create the deadly contrast like today’s white walls with the works hung on them. The difference is that a principally different atmosphere is created in them for the viewer: the atmosphere of a private estate, where the viewer has been invited and is treated like a guest and not like an accidental passerby in the metro or airport.

Any objection to this can be reduced to the fact that old art was already intended, during its very execution, for prolonged contemplation, deliberation, scrutiny; whereas modern art is intended for a ‘flash,’ for an instantaneous ‘flare-up’ of consciousness, for a certain shock. Actually, this is applicable to the works of modernism, which from their inception are aimed at the ‘new,’ at extracting the ‘unprepared’ viewer from his ordinary reality. But today, during the epoch of ‘post-modernism,’ the avantgarde with all of its similar ‘shock’ technique already itself appears as that very same familiar, ‘ordinary,’ expected background against which the works of the postmodern must function entirely differently. Perhaps it, this art, again will demand a lengthy, at least prolonged, presence near it, as well as a less ‘business-like,’ less neutral, less ‘cold’ means of display.

6- And primarily, perhaps, no matter how elementary this might sound, this requires a shift from the dynamic, ‘kinetic’ means of being in a museum or at an exhibition to a more comfortable means – the manner of interacting with the artistic work in a ‘sitting’ mode. I foresee immediate objections: the ‘sitting’ position of the body is the position of rest, relaxation, a loss of attention or interest in what is around you; whereas the ‘standing’ position is a pose for mobilizing one’s attention, the vertical position of the body concentrates, activates the attention, etc. And furthermore, there are always benches, stools or chairs in the halls which one can occupy and submerge into the proposed contemplation. But everyone knows that, as a rule, these benches are placed in such a way that you can see the whole hall, but it is impossible to view a work individually; and secondly, the distance from any painting is sufficiently far and this space is intended for passage and viewing precisely not by a ‘sitting’ but a ‘walking’ contingent of viewers. This ‘walking’ contingent, having the ‘privileged right of way’ (to use here transportation terminology), constantly obscures the contemplated object from the person ‘sitting.’



1995Megan BartonComment