The Road to the Contagious Hospital

John Haber
in New York City

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

One can easily forget one's first sight of The Children's Hospital, by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. One moves quickly past it. One expected so much more.

Surely brushing aside a curtain promises magic—or its opposite, perhaps, the trickery revealed, the hidden chambers, the wizard without all the smoke and mirrors. Instead, one enters a white room, broken only by two wooden doors. Neither looks nearly sleek enough for such an upscale gallery. A year before in The House with an Ocean View, Marina Abramovic lived for twelve days near its lofty skylight, without food. The art scene is supposed to be like that now, a cross between a torture chamber and House and Gardens. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov's The Empty Museum (SculptureCenter, 2004)

Be patient

The room that Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have created is different—small, spare, and oppressive, as institutional as a gallery after all. The molding on the doors, however, marks it as an institution out of the past. It could represent one's first schoolhouse or, for that matter, a children's hospital.

With so little visual stimulus, one might easily forget the whole thing. Yet one cannot. One stays more then a moment and then keeps going. What could be more enticing than the puzzle of two doors? They must hold a great reward if, and only if, one chooses wisely.

Actually, each inner chamber has barely room for a metal cot and the glare of gallery lights. Two white folding chairs sit on the near side of the bed, by the pillow. Blankets and sheets look neatly pressed. One sees no trace of nurses and charts, no tubes, meters, or even a patient. One more disappointment, and yet one can hardly help taking a chair. An institution such as this would never permit it, but one touches the bed as well—for the comfort of the clean linen or to comfort the unseen patient.

Something stands on the far side of the bed, too, where one cannot step or touch. A little wooden box, at eye level with the pillow, opens toward the patient, like a homemade doll's house or puppet theater. In one room, two cute little mice peep out while an invisible cat meows. In the other, tiny geometric figures advance across the stage. Music plays, and a gentle voice describes the unveiling of a modern ballet.

Can so much time have already passed? One has had the privilege of watching the show alone or, perhaps, with a fellow sufferer. As a gallery-goer, one appreciates the mix of Modernism and play. One has the feeling, too, of joining the magic theater, to make a child's pain endurable. Or perhaps the true audience and harshest memories point to a real absent childhood, one's own. Just be patient.

The Children's Hospital amounts to a kind of teaser for a second, larger installation at Sean Kelly. The press release, dedicated to 20 Ways to Get an Apple Listening to the Music of Mozart, mentions it only in passing. A third work, The Empty Museum runs at SculptureCenter, in Long Island City, along with "In Practice," a group exhibition on urban themes. Compared with any of this, that empty antechamber hardly counts. Still, it says a lot about all three installations. With the Kabakovs, one expects so much more than one sees, and one gets it.

Totality, tradition, and isolation

The teaser pretty much sums up how they work. On the one hand, they inherit early Modernism. The Kabakovs love makeshift materials and open spaces. Instead of the trash heaps and sprawl of so much installation art these days, or even shows describing an actual gallery or artist studio coming into being, think of the avant-garde stage sets for the Moscow Theater in the 1920s. The metal bed reminds me as well of Marcel Duchamp and his Apolinère Enameled (Girl with Bedstead).

In 20 Ways, a huge white table fills the entire main gallery, with just enough space to circulate around its edges. It holds bare, white plates, simple place settings, and nothing more than an apple at the center of the table, far out of reach. Filmy, white curtains enclose the scene. They flutter gracefully as air circulates from the ceiling fans above. The Empty Museum means just what it says—a museum chamber with no art on the wall. In its place, one sees the spotlights that, no doubt, ought to illuminate paintings. Instead, they offer up a spectacle all their own.

Like Alexander Rodchenko, Kazimir Malevich, and others in Moscow, too, the Kabakovs aspire to a "total theater." A Mozart piano concerto indeed plays throughout 20 Ways, and Bach accompanies The Empty Museum. In the first, to either side of each plate, the artists place two sheets of paper. These describe twenty strategies for reaching, hogging, sharing, or ignoring that forbidden apple—in cramped Russian writing, then neatly typed in English below, and finally in a drawing, as if to exhaust art's vocabularies of signs. Sketches mix casual humor with a subject matter closer to desperation, like New Yorker cartoons. Outside The Empty Museum, on the side of exposed sheetrock walls, a handwritten note promises "Thursday 3 pm delivery!"—through "the back door," of course.

On the other hand, the artists seem to long for a more traditional past. One sees it in the wooden doors, the classical music, and the drawing style. One sees it in the recollection of magic theaters and gala dinners for twenty. The pretend museum looks like a relic of old Europe, with somber colors and wainscoting. One sinks gladly into the soft, high benches in the middle of the room. They do not make museums like that anymore.

One the one hand, too, one lingers far longer than one has any right to expect, from what could seem a one-joke conceptual work. One indulges in the music. One examines all forty color sheets of paper. Another gallery-goer dares to pull up a dining-room chair, to get a better look at the instructions. One does the same, with a hesitant smile across the table. If Minimalism makes the viewer a part of the work and a shared creator of its space, the Kabakovs make one an actor in a play whose script one has never seen.

On the other hand, the sense of community fades quickly, leaving a kind of helplessness and isolation. If Judy Chicago's Dinner Party made all of history into feminism with a fuzzy, communal, spiritual glow, the Kabakovs are party poopers. Other gallery-goers remain strangers, and so, apparently, are the invited guests who never will sit down to dinner. One never tastes the apple of discord, and the twenty stratagems for obtaining it demand silence, patience, cunning, and an awareness of one's own foolishness. The paintings refuse to arrive, and I did not notice a back door anyway. The sick child never recovers or appears.

Memorials and memory

In all these ways, the Kabakovs tease out the very idea of an institution. He places his viewers, as William Carlos Williams might put it, "on the road to the contagious hospital." Not surprisingly, at the 1997 Whitney Biennial, Ilya Kabakov created a mental ward, as part of a modern museum. Like Emily Fisher Landau today opening her collection to the public, he recreates the birth of the modern museum as institutional nightmare.

A hospital or prison cuts one off from others and from one's life, and so, all to often, does a gallery. It imposes its own total regimen and environment. It unites the inmates and turns them against one another. Survival, if even possible, takes humor and imagination. Yet institutions are one's link to a shared past, too. Ceremonies invent and enshrine tradition, and they give people a space to live.

In other words, institutions both deny and create memory, like the memory of one's own childhood. A memorial to 9/11 will bring people together and give them a history. At the same time, it involves a struggle over whose history matters—over who counts as us.

The Kabakovs no doubt have a special awareness of institutions, from years in the Soviet Union at a time of El Lissitzky and its greatest experiments. Even in the heady days of Vladimir Tatlin's 1919 Project for the Monument to the Third International, the nation was developing an obsession with public memory. Before long, artists learned how much of memory the state can repress as well. Ilya Kabakov had turned fifty when he started showing in Soho, while still living in Paris. He must have seen the grand tsarist museum interiors. He must have known the system that Alexander Solzhenitsyn recreated as prison camps and cancer wards.

A knowledge of institutions links the Kabakovs to the problems of art now. Postmodern artists and critics have fought over the canon. They have drawn attention to commercial galleries, public and private spaces, and museums as a nexus of power—as one exhibition had it, "The Museum as Muse." It may be only a small step from The Empty Museum to London's White Cube, the factory interior of Dia:Beacon, or photographs of an actual empty museum by Wijnanda Deroo. It seems only fitting that Maya Lin, who created the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and sat on the committee for Ground Zero, redesigned the SculptureCenter not long ago. It seems appropriate, too, that the Center now prefers its name without a space between words, like a dot.com.

In the end, a Freudian might argue, repressed memories matter the most anyhow. All art has to do is to bring them to life. The process has a way of dissolving abstractions like "the institution" anyway. I liked each of the three installations. I found creature comforts in the quaint museum walls, and I found an almost mathematical challenge in displacing the apple. I found myself most, however, in the children's hospital.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"The Empty Museum," by Ilya and Emily Kabakov, ran at the SculptureCenter through April 11, 2004. Other works continued at Sean Kelly through March 6.

 

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