Soviet artist Ilya Kabakov has arrived in Los Angeles with a big load of garbage. Getting the trash out of Moscow wasn't easy. Soviet customs officials didn't understand why he wanted to export the accumulated debris from his studio, and they feared that it might actually be valuable.
As it turns out, the officials were right. The aluminum cans, broken combs, match boxes, keys and wads of paper that Kabakov transported to the United States are symbolically valuable art materials. Kabakov needed them to create conceptual artworks in an exhibition opening today at the Fred Hoffman Gallery, 912 Colorado Ave., in Santa Monica. "The Rope of Life and Other Installations," Kabakov's first show on the West Coast, will continue through Feb. 10. A reception for the artist is planned today from 3 to 5 p.m. at the gallery.
The Russian garbage in Kabakov's work has nothing to do with the ecological problems of the West, the artist said, speaking through an interpreter. Instead, it symbolizes Russian culture that has been destroyed and reduced to the state of garbage--something that once was important but has been ground into dust.
Kabakov has created four separate works for the exhibition, but they are unified in their evocation of desperation. The works suggest the nerve-wracking quality of life in communal apartments, crowded offices and packed buses, as well as realities of an oppressive government that has lightened up but still distrusts individual freedom.
"I work on the borders of life within a system that treats individuals as small and unimportant," Kabakov said.
He was born in the Ukraine in 1933 and has lived in Moscow since 1945, graduating from the Moscow Art School in 1951 and the Surikov Art School in 1957. To make a living, Kabakov joined the Soviet Artists' Union and became a successful illustrator of children's books. In the meantime, his "unofficial work" developed into a highly unorthodox form.
While conceptualists and trash pickers are plentiful in United States art circles, Soviet artists had little if any contact with such aesthetic developments until the last few years. Nonetheless, some of the best of the Soviet work fits quite seamlessly into the international annals of contemporary art. While current avant-garde art from the Soviet Union is almost relentlessly political and tends to have strong literary roots, the work fans out stylistically and philosophically from traditional painting to folk art and sophisticated conceptualism.
Kabakov said that Russian literary traditions featuring underground characters have inspired his work. Life in Moscow also has been an important influence, as well as whatever he could learn about contemporary art in the West.
He has become known for adopting the personae of fictitious characters and creating entire environments for them as well as texts that expose their private fantasies.
His first exhibition in the United States, in 1988 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, featured the cramped living quarters of 10 characters, including "The Short Man," "The Collector," "The Untalented Artist," "The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment" and "The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away." These invented people yearned for escape from banality and created complex fantasy worlds or orderly systems to deal with their distress.
At the Fred Hoffman Gallery, Kabakov has created an ambience that looks unfinished but actually refers to Russia's notoriously shoddy workmanship. Absent "workers" haven't finished painting the walls, and they have left open paint cans and ladders behind them. In one room that is completely painted, a wobbly green line separates upper white walls from a dark brown strip that emulates wainscoting.
Within this environment of messy austerity are four installations. The largest, an entire room called "On the Edge," has bits of garbage and snatches of conversation (printed in Russian on little cards) dangling from a string that runs around the walls. Kabakov repeats the phrases--"Why is the table so dirty?" "Why are you throwing me out?" "Let him go where he wants"--on tape, which is played in the gallery. An English translation is provided.
In the other room are three other installations: "The Rope of Life," a biographical string of trash and text; "In the Corner," a placard that talks about retreat to a metaphoric corner and "fear of coming out into the middle," and "Box With Garbage," a wooden crate containing pieces of trash with attached printed phrases (often expressing frustration through obscenities).
Visitors get a picture of an explosive society kept under wraps at enormous human expense. Kabakov agrees that his portrait of Russian life is profoundly negative, but he talks about his work with such warmth, wit and charm that he appears quite content.
Is he a happy, unhappy man?
The notion obviously pleases him.
"It's possible to be a happy man and an unhappy artist. In fact, it's a good combination," Kabakov said.
"Artists like me are always a pessimists. No matter where we are, we find things that aren't right. This would be true even if we lived in paradise, but in Russia you don't have to look for discomfort. It's easy to be unhappy there."
His professional life has taken off like a rocket since glasnost allowed him to show his work outside the Soviet Union, and he has had about 25 exhibitions at such prestigious places as the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris and the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland. But fame isn't likely to change the nature of his work. "It has just given me the opportunity to express the ideas and feelings that already existed inside me," Kabakov said.
As one of the best known and oldest artists whose works were in Sotheby's landmark 1988 auction in Moscow, Kabakov said the sale had little effect on him. But the auction exerted a strong influence on younger artists, he said.
"The positive effect is that every artist needs to feel that someone is interested in his work. Unofficial artists hadn't had that experience before the auction. But the negative effect is that there is clearly and strongly a market price for art. That is something that many Soviet artists weren't prepared for, and the change has been too sudden," he said.