Three Russian Paintings


YEAR: 1990



The artist

Collection John L. Stewart, New York


See No 65


Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales
The Readymade Boomerang. Certain Relations in 20th Century Art. The Eighth Biennale of Sydney, 11 Apr 1990 — 3 Jun 1990

Urbana-Champaign, Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion of Illinois
Ilya Kabakov. He Lost His Mind, Undressed, Ran Away Naked, 28 Feb 1992 — 5 Apr 1992

Vienna, Akademie der Bildenden Künste
Über Malerei – Begegnung mit der Geschichte (as part of No 65, Unhappened Dialogue)

Annandale-on- Hudson, Center for Curatorial Studies Museum
Ilya Kabakov: 1969-1998, 25 Jun 2000 — 3 Sep 2000


Four boards painted brown are hanging in a row on the wall. On the first three, there are very few small depictions that are not easy to see. On the fourth board there is a text written in white letters: a commentary and ‘explanations’ of the first three paintings. There is a wooden barrier in front of the paintings that is placed a bit askew, with a chair and table nearby. The viewer is invited to sit down and read the commentary on the hanging boards and to investigate the commentary on the commentary.


In the summer of 1981, I was in Czechoslovakia and I remember that among the most interesting of my impressions and notions was one connected to the possibility of looking at ‘our place’ from the side, from the vantage point of one who has left, to see it from another place. How does our place look, when viewed from ‘outside’? This situation is approximately similar to when we travel on a train and go a seemingly endless distance, sitting without a break cooped up in a carriage, and then suddenly arrive at a station. We exit onto the platform and walk alongside the train, and from the platform, from the side, we look through the glass and into the very carriage where just before we had been sitting. One is immediately gripped by a sensation that intensifies, that defines itself, and gives everything its place – this is the clear, final vision of the void, of the absurdity of the place where we live all the time.

We usually consider the void to be a spatial thing, and this is part of it. Indeed, for the artist, this is the usual meaning. The painter senses the void with professional expertise and this is usually a void in the spatial sense. The meaning of the void under discussion here, though, is not just the spatial sense, the optical sense. It is something quite different. It is a gigantic reservoir of emptiness.

This gigantic volume, this reservoir of emptiness being discussed here and that represents our place, does not at all appear like a void, at least not in the European sense of that word. The understanding of the void as an (as yet) unoccupied area, an area which has not yet been built on, or has been badly or scantily built on, is an understanding that is peculiar to that approach and perception. To put it simply: we are talking about an understanding of emptiness as the emptiness of a bare table which has not yet been set, or the emptiness of land which has not yet been sown, but that can be tilled and can be sown. It seems that this European, rationalistic conception of emptiness as a field, where potentially we need merely to apply human effort and this place ‘awaiting human labor’ will be mastered, is just not applicable here. The emptiness of our place that we have to speak about is a completely different thing. It can never be described in European, rationalistic terms of perception such as ‘application of labor,’ ‘occupation,’ or ‘economics.’

This void is an extraordinarily active volume, like a reservoir of emptiness, like an especially hollow type of life, brilliantly activated but contrary to authentic existence and authentic life; it presents itself as the antithesis of every living thing. “Nature does not tolerate a vacuum” – it should be added that: “A vacuum does not tolerate nature.” The emptiness of which I speak is not zero, it is not ‘nothing,’ it is not a neutral charge or a passive frontier. Absolutely not. The void is exceptionally active. Its activity is equal to the activity of positive existence – whether this be the positive actions of man, the actions of nature, or those of a higher power. But its activity exists with a contrary force, possessing the same energy and strength as the impulses of living existence, the impulses towards becoming, growth, building or existing. With the same indestructible activity, strength and permanence, the void lives, reducing existence to its antithesis. It destroys structures, it obscures reality, transforming everything into dust and nothingness. It is, I repeat, the transformation of active existence into active non-existence, and most importantly, and I particularly wish to draw attention to this, it lives and exists not on its own, but by its life it reworks, grinds up, collapses in on itself and all that is around it. I see this as the particular ‘fatal for life’ role of the void, its essence. It sticks to, grows with, and sucks off existence, with its mighty, cloying nauseating anti-energy, which has been taken from and out of the world by vampirism, growing with it.

In the search for a metaphor for what I want to say, I visualize a table, covered with a tablecloth, where people are sitting and conversing. There is food on the table, nicely presented, and the lady of the house puts more dishes on the table. I watch as someone, always alert, unremittingly pulls this tablecloth and everything that is on it – plates, vases, and glasses – everything crashes to the floor with a measured and thunderous clatter. Why? What is his purpose? It’s no use asking. Such questions can only be addressed to living, reasonable, and natural things, not to a void. The void is the other, contrary side of every question, it is the foil, the contradiction, the ever-after ‘no’ to small and large, to all and everything, reasonable and unreasonable, to the unnamable and to things which have meaning and names.

This void really does live, settled in place, wherever we live, from Brno to the Pacific Ocean. This is a special (not in the positive sense of the word) hole in space, in the world, in the fabric of existence, having in reality its own location, poised in opposition to the world like a reservoir of emptiness going about its horrific empty business in relation to the whole rest of the world – that business is to consume that world in itself, extract its existence and its vitality, and in the end, to mutate it with its own non-existence. And this, I repeat, is not some metaphysical design, it is not someone’s evil devil, but, as I said before, this is the precondition on which the void exists, its vampirism in relation to existence and the world.

But in the territory which the void inhabits, on it’s, let us say, physical surface (which is hard, covered by woods, earth, and hills), live people and beasts. It is, in the physical sense, inhabited. On the territory of its surface live 300 million people with their towns, houses, etc. What sort of life is this? How do the inhabitants interact with the void? This is what we must look at.

First, we must say something of the psychic constitution, the psychological condition of the people who were born in the void and live there. It is as if the void penetrates into every one of their sufferings and sensations. It takes part in every action and deed; it is mixed up in all their affairs, words, and aspirations. Every person who lives here lives, whether consciously or not, on two planes: 1. on the plane of his relations with other people and nature, and 2. on the plane of his relations with the void. These two planes are in opposition, as I have already said. The first is the ‘constructive’ side. The second is of the type that consumes and destroys the first. On the level of daily life, this split, this bifurcation, this fatal non-contiguousness of the 1st and 2nd planes is experienced as a feeling of general destruction, uselessness, dislocation, and hopelessness in everything; no matter what a person does, whether he is building or undertaking some other task, he senses in everything a feeling of impermanence, absurdity, and fragility. This life on two planes causes a particular neurosis and psychosis in every inhabitant of the void, without exception. The void creates a particular atmosphere of stress tension, muscle fatigue, apathy, and permanent groundless terror. That is the state of the psyches of people who live in the place where the void dwells.

Their psychic condition is akin to the psychic stress of a man or of small tribes in the center of Africa awaiting whatever may come from the boundless, frightening world of the jungle. Just by stepping outside the little village he enters that world. But there is a big difference between the mind of a neurotic man who lives in the jungle, and the mind of a man living in the void. Sooner or later, the jungle-dweller will be able to approach the spirits of the jungle, will be able to give them names, work out some cures and interdictions; the forces of the jungle are real for him, part of daily life, it is as if they were not, in fact, mighty and frightening; they can be lived with, one can make contact with them, make peace with them, struggle with them, eliminate them or run away from them. Not so for the inhabitant of the void. The sensation of the presence of the void for him is of a different sort. Essentially, it is the impossibility of knowing it definitively, naming it, or even of distinguishing it. The thing is that the void is neither nature nor the supernatural – the void is anti-nature, and to live with it is impossible and beyond one’s strength – to live with it is not to live at all. The sensation of living in the void is the fear felt by a blood donor from whom incessantly and permanently the blood is to be decanted and dripped away. But the inhabitants of the void do have their methods, their psychic system for dealing with life in the void. They have worked out their terminology, they have personified it, they have given it names. For them, the void has an absolutely stern manner and its own fantastic but defined look – but more about that later. Now we must turn to the (so to speak) topographical form of life in the void. Topographically it is a very defined form; the settlement in the void is principally insular in character.

We can talk simply of a type of ocean, of an archipelago with both large and small settlements lost, scattered about the area of the void, not unlike a part of the Philippines. But these are not islands in a warm ocean, rather they are in the ocean of the unknown, in the ocean of the void. Here, in our case, the phenomenon of the void takes space for itself, it is itself, shall we say, a measure of territory in its vastness, its infinite, incomprehensible immeasurableness, not just a big area which can be calculated, understood, and mastered, but a simply unfathomable unending one, and just at the border where the void should have ended physically, the territory fades back into the void. These islands of the settlement have a tendency to come together, to huddle towards one another and onto one another, saving themselves, separating themselves from the void around them. The villages and settlements are like this, too. Houses move toward one another, and gigantic cities bear witness to the multitudes of fugitives gathered in them, crowding together, fleeing, saving themselves from the void.

These islands of the settlements are connected (as befits an island culture) by a system of communicating bridges across the void. But these communications, these roads, paths, chaussées, rivers, and railroads belong to a different form of the void, which emerges, in a certain sense, in opposition to the life of these islands (but on that matter later). We should emphasize at this point the peculiar feelings of the inhabitants of these islands. Their feelings are formed in a very peculiar consciousness, in the knowledge that the void, non-existence, begins just beyond the border of the island, just beyond the last house, no matter whether this is a village, town, or settlement.

Let us move on to an examination of the island itself, the place where the ‘colonists of the void’ are bunched together, its permanent residents, islanders for generations back. What is this settlement like, this community of people ‘floating in the void’? Has this community united in the face of the void, formed a perfect interdependent network of mutual relations in the face of this threatening terror?



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1990Megan BartonComment