The Communal Kitchen


YEAR: 1991



The artist

20 Jan 1995, Permanent installation in the Fondation Dina Vierny, Musée Maillol, Paris

1993, Collection Fondation Dina Vierny, Paris


Karuizawa, Sezon Museum of Modern Art
Art on Edge, 13 Jul 1991 — 6 Oct 1991


The central structure of the installation was a tall hexahedron, 6 meters in height, with narrow windows running along the entire perimeter under the ceiling. Because of this, the dwelling turned out to be semi-dark. A light was added by two weak electric light bulbs hung from the ceiling. The installation was arranged lower than the floor level of the main part of the museum. The entrance into it led downward along a staircase, and the exit led again upward, already through another door. The objects inside of this high space were arranged in a few levels, one above the other. A long screen standing behind barriers at the height of a human being encompassed the entire dwelling, where numerous utterances pronounced by the inhabitants of the communal apartment were glued on each page. Taken together, these utterances formed a unique encyclopedia of the problems of the residents of the communal apartment.

Higher, approximately to a height of 4.5 meters, the entire surface of the walls was painted gray and was covered with hanging pots, ladles, mugs, frying pans – all kinds of kitchen utensils. In the large, dark space of the ‘kitchen,’ these hanging objects resembled large flies sitting on the walls. Higher, above all of this, two rows of paintings (with kitchen objects attached to the center of each) were arranged in a circle right under the windows. Finally, right under the ceiling, the viewer, having lifted his head, saw 16 ropes with tiny objects hanging from them with white labels under each one, and the entire ceiling was actually comprised of numerous such white specks, a unique flickering net of them. The entire construction – the upper light, the arrangement of the elements in concentric circles, the entrance downward underground, the viewers’ unexpected inevitable glance upward toward the ceiling, the illuminated top and semi-gloom at the bottom – all of this led to a comparison of this hexahedron, hung with pots, to a unique chapel. This internal image – the ‘communal kitchen as a chapel’ – was, in fact, the main impulse behind the making of this installation.

As an affirmation of this image, so as to invoke this association in the viewer’s imagination, I added ‘voices’ to this plastic resolution of the installation. A dwelling arranged below, ‘underground,’ semi-dark with the windows up above, presumes quiet, a silencing of the visitor’s conversations. In this silence, having lifted his head upward, he gradually begins to discern the quiet conversing of voices which are wafting to him from there. There are four voices, two male, and two female, arguing about something. Sometimes the argument heats up to high notes, sometimes it again becomes indiscernible mumblings interrupting one another. These voices are visually connected by the appearance of the white papers rustling under the ceiling, by the strange shadows coming from them and cast onto the ceiling by the two electric light bulbs. What results is the unexpected effect of human souls living under the ceiling, souls that have ascended to it but are unable to leave. What are these ‘souls’ arguing about, whose are they, why can’t they abandon this locked, depressing, semi-dark world? We find an answer on the first level of the ‘chapel’ in the texts glued on the screen, as well as in the translations lying on a small table. The reading of these recorded ‘voices’ should combine with the visual image of the white papers under the ceiling and the voices resounding there, all forming a unified whole. And the screen itself stretched out around the entire space, should in its turn create the image of a certain book, where all these recorded complaints that are wafting upward, toward the dusty electric light bulbs, the small windows and gray depressing ceiling of the communal ‘chapel.’

In this installation, the ‘audio accompaniment’ acts in ‘unison’ with the spatial and textual elements according to the principle of superimposition, doubling, or, more precisely, ‘tripling’ the effect produced by each of them individually.


The heart of the communal apartment is, beyond a doubt, the communal kitchen. It is here, like in a magical crystal, that the most varied aspects of the life of the apartment sparkle and intersect at their edges. Life’s illnesses are there, and its problems and hopes. Everything finds its own place in it – the base and the great, the everyday and the romantic, love and battles over a broken glass, brave generosity and petty arguments over the payment for light, the treating to a just baked pie and the problem of taking out the garbage. This is the city square of the Middle Ages, and a theater where the audience and the actors change places, where the scenes either drag out boringly long, or they change with the speed of an avalanche; where there are either two main characters or they are innumerable – but under all circumstances, the place of action is always the same. No one can nor dares to remain on the sidelines, always being either a passive or active participant in everything, and anything at all can occur here at any moment: from a quiet, thoughtful conversation to a frenzied shout and howl, from quiet stirring of compote with a spoon to a fight-typhoon, ripping shelves from the walls and turning everything all around upside down – plates, pans, meals, jars – into a shapeless heap on the tiled floor …

The communal kitchen is a rather large room in the communal apartment (from 40 square meters to 18-20 square meters in a small apartment). Its entire perimeter is lined with tables, the same number as there are families in the apartment, 5, 6, 7, etc. Each family, or more precisely, each woman of the family, has her own little table. It, this table, can be of varied quality, new, painted, old, but its size is an indispensable condition: not bigger than the others. All the tables stand right up against each other, each has its own individual shelf above it with pots, mugs, etc. When refrigerators appeared, the residents, as a rule, placed them in their rooms because there wasn’t much space in the kitchen and it was better that way: none of the neighbors could sneak in at night looking for something to eat. Only the dishes remain in the kitchen, everyone strictly watches to make sure that the floor around the tables is kept swept and washed …

There are stoves next to the row of tables – one, two, or even three depending on the number of residents. There are one or two sinks where people wash dishes and get water. Usually, there wasn’t any hot water in communal apartments, and people heated up water in buckets or in gigantic 3-4 bucket-sized barrels to do the laundry. These barrels would take up two to three burners, foam would drip right onto other people’s frying pans and pots with food, which, of course, became the reason for numerous scandals. Of course, laundry was rinsed and dried right there in the kitchen, and from that everything down below would become completely dark, water dripped into dishes and bowls … In one complaint sent to the police I saw myself (this is an entirely real case) a sketch of the location of the tables in the kitchen and the laundry hanging above, which was intended to demonstrate visually the conscious villainous intention of neighbor N, who had insidiously calculated the trajectory of the falling drops of water from her laundry into the pan of citizen A, the author of the complaint …



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1991Megan BartonComment