Ilya Kabakov: The Toilet in the Corner, Sprovieri
History, it would seem, has overtaken Ilya Kabakov, Russia’s most famous contemporary artist. His work expanded the language of installation art and had a major impact on scores of young Western conceptual artists, including Mike Nelson, a Turner Prize nominee last year. However, his almost exclusive focus on the conditions of life in Soviet Russia threatens to condemn his work to being of only historical interest.
His installations present visual slices of Soviet life, in the form of faithful, life-size recreations of domestic scenes. They are like theatrical sets that, without the need of actors, tell their own story — of the tragic-comic struggle of “lonely little people” to break free from the repression of Soviet society. Human activity is revealed only by the detritus that it leaves behind.
The eponymous piece The Toilet In The Corner consists of an old set of frayed double doors, crudely inscribed with the Russian word for toilet, set into the far corner of the gallery. From behind the doors, light shines from a bare bulb and the sound of a man is heard, singing low, sad Russian folk songs. A simple, comic and melancholy work, it presents the toilet as the last sanctuary for the individual in Soviet Russia, although even there he could be heard by his neighbours.
The walls are adorned by legends spelt out in little plastic flies, saying: “We are ready to fly” and “The order is the main thing”. The fly is Kabakov’s visual shorthand for the repressed Russian, both mocking and celebrating the plight of those powerless to change their circumstances.
In a society where freedom is equated with the largely illusory power of consumer choice, our power to escape our circumstances is more constrained than we are led to believe. Thus this work addresses a historical problem that remains very much of the moment.
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