words Justin McGuirk
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have created a sanctuary from modern life, a soothing reminder of the benefits of confinement.
When I was a boy – it must have been at about the age of ten – I used to spend time in cupboards. Sometimes it was to read, with the aid of a torch, and sometimes it was just to be by myself. Luckily, the days when even a pub psychoanalyst would have used this admission to turn me inside out – exposing my anxiety at having been pulled from the womb, and no doubt a touch of latent homosexual panic along with it – are over. These days it is a truth universally acknowledged that confined places – cupboards, corners, cellars, attics and other hideaways – are spaces of the imagination. Only by making the world around you very small can the mind switch from processing to imagining.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov understand this. The Ukrainian husband and wife are not only two of the finest installation artists ever to work in that genre, they are masters of escapism. Their entire oeuvre has been defined by the use of the imagination to rise above the drudgery of life in a Soviet city. In their most expansive work, The Palace of Projects (1995-98), they assembled a panoply of fictitious proposals, some practicable and others entirely fanciful but all aimed at alleviating urban existence. One of them was called Closets of Solitude, and proposed that public cupboards be provided at various points in the city so that people could shut out the world for a few minutes and regain their composure.
The House of Dreams, the Kabakovs’ installation at the Serpentine Gallery, takes this rather sweet civic gesture and expands it into a more elaborate critique of both society and culture. The galleries are curtained off into cubicles, each containing a bed. Everything is white and for the time being clean, and the effect is less of a hospital than a sanitarium, particularly in the way the cubicles look out on the park. There are dents in the pillows, and these are the only prompt you need to get over your inhibitions about touching anything in a gallery before you’re lying back thinking, That’s more like it.”
The obvious implication here is that modern life doesn’t allow us to sleep enough, and hence to dream enough. In that respect, each of these cubicles is a therapy room. But more importantly, here is a fictional institution not only encouraging but prescribing a sin that we constantly berate ourselves for – the thing that so often prevents us from getting anything done: daydreaming.
We know that we need to daydream because we know that fantasies provide the momentum of our lives. We are not very often aware, however, how the spaces we inhabit determine or inhibit our daydreams. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming.” And yet not everyone has such a natural relationship with their homes. Underpinning much of the Kabakovs’ work is Ilya’s experience of having lived in a communal apartment in Moscow where privacy was virtually non-existent and where clutter was unavoidable. In another of the Palace of Projects proposals, a character writes: “Our entire private life, if there is such a possibility, occurs in our apartment or our room. Even if our thoughts or fantasies are sometimes elevated (whenever possible) and we try to overcome depressing everyday existence, all that surrounds us in this existence doesn’t permit us to do so.” The curtained cubicles in this installation, and the clinical minimalism, offer an explicit form of escape.
There are other Soviet overtones in the exhibition though, and they are less escapist. The division of space and the lighting are institutional and bureaucratic. The central, domed gallery is even cultish. Here stepped plinths support sarcophagus-like beds in an overtly ritualistic space. The symbolism is perhaps literal, merely placing the individual on a pedestal. But while you can’t climb the plinths, you can enter them, and then you find yourself on a bed, in a dark, cramped space, watching a magic lantern show of angels and butterflies and knights on horseback. Okay, the imagery is corny, but this is the cupboard of my childhood.
There ought to be more beds in galleries and museums. I don’t know what it is about these places but they do something to my lower back. It’s as though the weight of all that culture were bearing down on my spine. The beds in this exhibition, though, offer a different kind of relief. This may be a paradox for a gallery, but they allow you to be liberated from cultural stimulation – from didactism and self-improvement. Here you can watch your own show.