Imagine Malevich's black square, out there on the highway, as a billboard with a text printed in its lower right corner.
No, start again. Imagine Malevich's black square as the darkness inside a locked closet, in which a young boy is living. He crouches on the floor in a nest of clothes, listening to the sounds of the rooms outside. Sister doing her homework, neighbour visiting, and so on. Life in the closet - in the black square - is framed by a text; a quote from a novel by V. Kaverin. 'They opened it: there was old clothing and shoes inside...' The closet door is opened and there is a view to the living-room. Family at table, flowered table-cloth, matching curtains, all drawn in the clear, primly outlined style of official Soviet educational illustration. The eye follows the view through the drawing and out the window with a series of new drawings: The backyard. Then street. The city. The region. The larger region. Pale blue page; the earth. Pale blue page; the sky... Then an all-white page: it is the atmosphere, hanging like a white billboard with a piece of text in the upper left corner. But as the closet opens to this view, the boy carefully pronounces words that make no sense. 'A fresh cucumber!' 'A fresh tomato!' 'A clear day!' 'A strong light!' Each exclamation is placed spatially on the white pages, as a series of billboards within billboards, objectified like the words in a piece of conceptual art. Finally all dissolves into clear page, light, heaven or sky, no text. Or rather, no context.
From all text to no context: To grasp the convoluted movements of Ilya Kabakov's huge installation Operation Room - Mother and Son (1994), installed at the Museums of Contemporary Art in Helsinki and Oslo, a particular tracking of the passages of imagination is needed. Imagine, for instance, the passage from Malevich's black square to Yves Klein's blue paintings: the blue that, according to Klein himself, is beyond substance, material or dimension, that is pure sky, air and nothing. Imagine that this passage, seemingly just a small step - the simplest chromatic change - can only be made through the most excruciatingly laborious labyrinth: a real labyrinth in which one is not so much perpetually lost as perpetually wearing oneself out. Operation Room, which starts out with this almost blunt transformation of the Malevich square into an 'image', an image that is complemented by a 'text', is such a labyrinth.
It is first of all a labyrinth in the most explicit, physical sense. Kabakov has mounted the pages of his various albums of text/images from the 70s and 80s in a maze-like arrangement that fills the room: The temporal act of walking through the pages equals the temporal act of leafing; the resulting physical continuity and discontinuity of the images equals the turning of the pages, the sheer force of forgetting as one image is replaced by another. There is no escape - no escape, that is, from reading, seeing and interpreting... dissecting: the surrounding walls are covered in bright green hospital tiles, the lights are brighter than at the morgue. Forgetting, here, is nothing like John Cage's blissful 'lack of memory' - it is rather the constant pain of tracking and tracing. And moving through the labyrinth is real pain, hours of solid work under the harsh lights, one's back, feet and head aching.
Secondly, it is a labyrinth in the sense that the notion of sequence, the sequence that usually keeps you in a state of panic-stricken bureaucratic duty, is continually confused. Each album, while presenting a theme or problematic - a particular and curious mixture of 'Soviet daily life', art history, the art of illustration, philosophy etc - disintegrates, through various forms of tautologies, overlays or confusions, into single images. And each image becomes a new passage that takes its own counter-direction. You are transformed into the boy in the closet, and from this position in the dark, each moment or image is as piercingly new as the rays of colour swirling behind your eyes, or the fragments of sounds reaching you from the room outside. The texts act as a running commentary on your life in the black image/closet: 'When he was just a small child he started to climb into the closet and hide there...' Then they interpret, analyse: 'Apparently, when he was sitting in the closet, he was suddenly overcome by terror and in order to calm himself down he kept repeating to himself "I'm in the closet! I'm in the closet!" Hence, naming became an important and saving device for him. He is becoming an unconscious nominalist, and, of course, when he looks out from the closet he sees words instead of things.'
Through the labours of the labyrinth, this passage from the darkness and dry nominalism of Malevich to the sky, air and nothing of Klein's blue, is made. At regular intervals the very concrete stories and images, and their heavy object-like physicality, dissolve into blue air and blank page. And to see exactly what kind of strange bliss these blanks come to represent, one might try to describe them less in terms of nothing than in terms of zeros. Because nothing and zero, while often playing the same game, are basically different. As Brian Rotman has pointed out, when the number zero was introduced into Western mathematics, 'nothing' not only got an almost wicked graphic presence. The zero also worked to turn the whole system of counting in on itself in a sort of self-referentiality or self-consciousness. From now on the rules of the game or the presence of the one who is counting suddenly become marked out. Submitted to the forced movements of the labyrinth, to the back-aching duty of interpretations, of 'depths' and 'surfaces', 'words' and 'images', crossings and confusions, the blank spaces arrive like moments of revelation: revelation of a fresh, new subjectivity. It feels like suddenly surfacing from the depths of the murky art-historical/daily-life-in-the-USSR darkness represented by the Malevich square. It is like discovering yourself: I am here after all, I am still alive - I can do what the hell I want! Walk right out the window, into blue air, like Klein did. Take gravity for a trial run. Or, even, enjoy the labyrinth. Try out the stories.
Sounds like a beautiful end, doesn't it? Unfortunately Operation Room's conclusion is not quite as kind as it appears. Around this live and kicking 'I', high prison walls are closing in. Circling the labyrinth stretches the wall of one very long and continuous story - a real-life story this time, heavy with authentic documentation. It is the story of Kabakov's mother, an endless typewritten autobiography of a sad and difficult life, chillingly illustrated with idealized propaganda photographs of the more glorious aspects of Soviet life. Documentation has weight. Who are you to play in the face of such sadness? Two subjectivities fight for space: yours and that of the mother. The fact that this wall can easily be 'deconstructed', the fact that its heavy opposition between sad, boring, true story and glamorous images can be dismissed as a dead kind of criticism, example of just the kind of rigid dialectics on which both the Soviet system and a certain idea of realism is based, does not really alleviate matters. The very reality of the whole thing still hovers with a ghost-like presence. It has exactly the kind of eerie irritating documentary assurance that has characterised so many of Kabakov's post-glasnost installations, all of them flattering a Western curiosity for Soviexotica, because Soviet reality, heavy and grey, is supposedly more real than the experiences of any of us spoiled First-Worlders. There you are, back in the dark closet of history, words and definitions. And out you go, through the labyrinth, fighting for your piece of air and sky. Dark space? Come on, it's just a square, a billboard against the sky.
More than in any of his previous museum installations, Kabakov seems to expose these complications or misunderstandings, indicating short cuts while deliberately and unashamedly misleading. Often so theatrical, he now seems to be leaning back in the face of our honest-to-god struggle: 'The public is very clever', he has said in an interview. 'I think all of these different interpretations are very good.' What is achieved is neither cynicism, nor generosity, but a sense of a deep delve into the tangled physical materiality of history itself.