BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 06 JUN 98

According to Ilya Kabakov, the Palace of Projects, made in collaboration with his wife, Emelia, is 'a unique museum of dreams, of hypotheses...' Their aim, he explains, is to improve the life of others: 'to heighten creativity and to perfect the individual. Only at this stage can a project be tailored for the self'. Any project, he maintains, involves establishing an identity and even discovering the meaning of one's own life. Not surprisingly, the route taken by visitors to the Palace... winds through honey-coloured rooms with chairs, tables and low lighting - places where projects can and should develop. ('Should', because of their purpose: to prepare for the future and to ponder the meaning of life, which is different for everyone.) There is a reason: only when a project has matured in the mind of the individual will 'existence' replace mere 'survival'. This, then, is the goal, reached partly with the help of the testimony of others.

A chauffeur describes how he decided to better himself by making a pair of wings and wearing them in complete silence for five or ten minutes every day. An author named Korneichuk proposes an extended stay in a cupboard, with water, radio and food, 'as though sitting in the capsule of a space ship but without all the hardships of a flight into space'. A correspondent from Vitebsk recommends a 'punishment corner' for household objects which refuse to do what they are told. Another suggests a common language for men and animals alike. A man called Rudyantsev recommends hiring a horse and forcing it to climb upstairs until it can go no further, while Sotnikova, a teacher, reminds us that 'Sometimes everything seems to be going well but something is wrong. This is the time to buy a new kettle'.

However ludicrous Kabakov's invented figures and situations might seem, they are based on daily life. Moreover, in the tradition of the 19th-century novel, humour and pathos are interwoven. The result is mock-documentary involving people trying to come to terms with nature and the universe, and offering proposals for bettering their own lives and those of others. The result resembles a website visited regularly by geniuses and madmen, all with suggestions of their own. Why aren't the heavens illuminated night after night simply to inspire us? Why can't we relieve our bowels in holes dug on the sides of hills, which offer a chance to answer a call of nature and enjoy the beauties of the landscape at the same time? Why not start a choir which would stroll the streets singing? As if to put such ideas to the test, the unwieldy picture book that accompanies these suggestions also contains tips on how to follow them through. From gardens around the skirting board to plans for giant plates to be laid in the oceans, no possibility is ignored, it seems, however small or large, apt or dotty. The result is a self-help manual of an unusual kind. One of many ironies is that the exhibition book includes not only sketches and plans but also ways of making versions of the exhibits, with pitiful results: collecting toy animals, for example, and placing them just under the ceiling so that their shadows appear, flickering and bodiless.

One important aspect of the Palace... is its location: the Round-house in Chalk Farm, North London, where the current exhibition begins, was a famous hippie meeting-place in the late 60s. Now instead, the idea of a building within a building suggests a shadow of all that: a moveable church, circus or a travelling show which would encourage self-development for members of society who feel displaced or who simply want to remain 'travellers' in the fullest sense of the word. For if they persist, so does their peripatetic lifestyle, however reviled and misunderstood it might have become. So, logically, the building that sheltered visitors for a time has become a makeshift museum. 'Palace' is hardly an accurate description, but in this direction lie the Kabakov's deepest jokes.