Seven Exhibitions of a Painting


YEAR: 1990



The artist

Collection Ludwig, Ludwig Forum for International Art, Aachen

Collection Dresdner Bank, Frankfurt am Main

Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Private Collection, Paris


Not preserved as installation


Kassel, Kasseler Kunstverein
Ilya Kabakov. 7 Ausstellungen eines Bildes, 13 May 1990 — 24 Jun 1990


See No 49.

Pictures and boards: The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, USA.


Five partitions which do not reach the ceiling stand perpendicularly along one wall of the exhibition hall. (The other side of the hall is completely empty; only windows are located there.) Thus, four rooms in a row are formed with an open front side turned toward the viewer. In each of these ‘rooms’ a painting hangs frontally, and next to it and on the side walls there are drawings hanging in a single line. These drawings consist only of texts written by hand in calligraphy. Each of these texts is the opinion of the viewers about the painting hanging before them. There is a great diversity of utterances here: from highly intellectual ones to the opinion of a ‘simple’ person, who accidentally dropped in to see the exhibit. There are approximately 30 of these texts next to each painting, and the viewer, having entered one of the rooms, winds up in a ‘cloud’ of others’ words, resounding all around, which strangely correspond to his own personal reaction to the painting he has seen. An ‘Explanation Board,’ executed on a brown background, hangs next to each painting.

The titles of the seven paintings are:

White Covers Everything, 1978

TheWings are Protecting the White from the Berdyansk Spit, 1978

The Great Axis, 1984

The Berdyansk Spit, 1970

Ripped-off Landscape, 1979

On the Big Artistic Council, 1984

The Man and the House, 1969

Description of the Paintings

Each of these seven paintings (with the exception of Ripped-off Landscape) is a single white painting, a single white surface consisting of two display boards. The boards are painted quite earnestly with white enamel paint, but the paintings themselves are nailed together from different pieces of masonite. The seams are not done very accurately, and briefly speaking, these ‘display boards’ are ordinary, handmade products from the ZhEK: everything is slightly crooked, uneven, not tightly connected. The ‘main crack’ between the two white boards that have been joined is particularly visible. This ‘crack’ between them is visible from a great distance.

The technical aspect of this work is being discussed at such length here not accidentally, and not as an excuse for the ‘technical flaws.’ All of these elements – the seams, stains, cracks, the darkening of the paint – all carry functions that are ‘rich in content’ and should speak about the material aspect of the painting as a coarse, crude, ‘local’ work, as a poorly made object, as a bad ‘thing.’

On each painting made in this way, there are depictions that at first are not visible to the naked eye. From the distance that the entire painting is viewed (5-7 meters), they cannot be seen right away because of their paleness, their small size, fineness, and other such characteristics. This is where the ‘explanation’ hanging next to the painting helps. It is only with the aid of this ‘explanation’ that we can discern on the surface of the white ‘painting’ the things that are located there (wings, the outline of a garden, white and yellow little old men, etc.).

‘Either … or …’

Wherein lies the intrigue here, according to the author’s concept? At the base lies the choice of how to perceive the hanging white board: as an everyday thing or a painting, or which is the same thing, as a surface or a depth? The situation here is posited as equivalent in either direction: if we consider it to be ‘one thing,’ then all the elements located on the painting will conform to that decision; if we consider it to be ‘something else,’ then everything will correspond to that decision.

The ‘whiteness’ of the painting is also split as a result of this choice: if we see the painting as a ‘depth,’ then the white turns into light with no effort on our part; if we see this painting as a ‘surface,’ then the old, yellowed paint that was white at one time becomes immediately visible.

The choices posited are mutually exclusive – ‘either … or …’ – it is either one or the other. And everything here depends on the accommodation not only of the eye, but of the consciousness, as well, of its decision as to what this old wooden board really represents. This situation somewhat resembles ‘trick pictures’ such as one that is frequently recalled of a hunter sitting in the tree branches. One moment he is visible, the next he is not, depending on how we tune our vision.

However, thanks to the equality of the possible choices, our ‘painting’ doesn’t allow for movement into the depth, in the direction of one of the potential choices. It is like one of those topsy-turvy toys, always swaying before our eyes and our consciousness. In glimmering first there, then here, its parable-like nature remains on the level of understanding: “if I know, then I see it, if I don’t know, then I don’t see it.” As a result, everything together – the painting, the explanation and the commentaries on the walls – appear like an excessively elaborated idiocy, like a bad joke.


It is not difficult to understand that the main thing that is before us is ‘whiteness.’ In essence, the only thing that equally participates in this is the ‘whiteness’ of the board. It participates, taking this or that side equally, as though consenting to be both ‘for’ and ‘against.’ But it does this, it participates ‘to all appearances,’ passively, as though indifferent to one or the other. Orienting ourselves to this ‘whiteness,’ we can look at it motionless, and it will also be motionless before us, equally preserving and containing both sides, as well as other possibilities, while remaining the same. In some sense, this ‘whiteness,’ is indifferent to how it is perceived, as either being full of everything or entirely empty, containing nothing. It is equally present ‘here,’ and equally detached from everything, it depends on our level of interest and choice, and it is also indifferent to that, it exists along with it and at the same time, separate from it. It is genuinely ‘extraneous.’

Doesn’t there exist in these exhibits some image of ‘zero,’ some boundary from which everything originates: up, considering all the possibilities, the advantages of what is higher, ‘spiritual,’ artistic, etc.; and down – toward garbage, junk, ‘nothing,’ some stupid and useless ‘thing’ doomed to perish. Isn’t this situation similar to the one in the installation The Ant where for years an insignificant shell attracted tense attention?

…‘Zero,’ where is it – the eternal point of departure, the horizon, the dull starting-point from which anything to be done always begins. We have to somehow understand it, adapt, draw ‘conclusions’ and ‘evolutions’ in any direction, right down to the very ‘last’ and ‘ultimate’ ones. But at the same time, ‘zero,’ as though laughing, remains the point from which ‘to begin again from the beginning,’ it will always be there and remain the same, not disappearing, not becoming more comprehensible, frightening forever with is mysterious and persistent presence: ‘my purpose is not clear, but I am.’ Spending a little time at the exhibit, we turn and go home. The technical aspect of this work The technical aspect of this work


Since childhood, there has been this insane sensation of being locked inside oneself, of the senseless, chaotic noise of a multitude of voices in which it was difficult to discern and distinguish one’s own from the multitude of others. There were interminable neurotic reactions to everything that occurs outside, but there was no contact whatsoever with that external world, a world which always is and always was without you, a world which didn’t need you, in which you wound up completely accidentally…

Simultaneously, with this locked-up feeling – the impossibility of breaking out of yourself, of finding contact with anyone located ‘outside’ of you – there was also an insane passion and insurmountable desire: to look at this whole situation of ‘you and the external world’ as though from the outside, in general ‘from the side’ … It’s as though some sort of strange, incorporeal part of you flies away, but not far, and whirls ‘above’ you, observing and recording all that occurs inside you and all that goes on outside, seeing everything simultaneously, grasping everything all at once. It, this part, looks at everything, so it seems, very calmly, coldly, and its task is to record everything in the minutes: to write down, to list, to arrange in order. Calmly, meticulously, like some sort of fly, it, this part, flies all over the space between me and surrounding objects, it hears and records everything that I say inside myself, it sees all that surrounds me down to the most minute details.

It scrutinizes the objects surrounding me up close and at a great distance, in the recent past (and some things in the distant past). It hears clearly and distinctly everything being uttered about me by others around me.

But who is it, this part? Who is this person? It is something very small, minute, like a spot, tiny and virtually invisible. But since it, this spot moves around all the time, then most likely it is easiest to call it a fly, an ordinary fly, racing around inside the room, flying along the streets, continually changing its direction, not having its own permanent place or goal, knowing neither up nor down.



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1990Megan BartonComment