The first major installation produced by Soviet artist Ilya Kabakov after he immigrated to the West in 1987 was entitled Ten Characters. The work included ten rooms devoted to fictional narratives of characters living in isolation, and relate to the artist’s alienation from his unfamiliar cultural surroundings. Behind this door is one of the rooms.
Evocative of an abandoned communal Soviet apartment, the dimly lit room includes a chair facing a large white board. The accompanying text tells of the absent protagonist’s transcendental experience. To escape his melancholy surroundings, he perceives the miniature, faintly rendered man on the white board as himself flying into an infinite depth of blinding white light and fog. Ultimately, this is tempered by the character’s doubt about his perceptions, and he longs for the presence of a third person to validate them.
Gallery label from 2006.
Kabakov has described himself as part of a “generation of unofficial artists” who worked under police surveillance in the former Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991. The Man Who Flew Into His Picture, first exhibited in New York in 1988, introduced his work to Western audiences. Inside the crudely constructed room that contains this installation, a forlorn lightbulb hovers over an empty chair, facing what appears to be a blank white wall; behind the chair is a shelf bearing framed Russian texts. Nearly invisible, a tiny gray silhouette of a man floats across the wall like a ghost. Has Kabakov conjured an abandoned no-man’s-land — a metaphor for the prison of deprivation and oppression he and others endured in the USSR? Or is the room occupied by hope, the product of imagination and fantasy? Is the ghostly figure trapped in the wall, or is it escaping to a better place?
The installation belongs to the Ten Characters series, a larger body of work by Kabakov loosely inspired by people who shared the cramped communal apartment in Moscow that he grew up in. Kabakov insists that “the very essence of Russian life is communal.” He has often recounted the dehumanizing effects of communal living, but for him the experience also contained a germ of hope: “It is only when you are lying on the floor of a boarding house of the lowest degree that you begin to look up at the sky: the man who lies in the dust looks upward.”
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 39.