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The Life of Flies
All images from
installation at Barbara Gladstone Gallery

The Life of Flies
Room 3: The Civilization of Flies

The Life of Flies
Room 4:
Flies and Philosophical

Queen Fly


Fly Mascha

The Horse and Fly

the life of flies: 
ilya kabakov

by Donald Kuspit

On one level, Ilya Kabakov's "The Life of Flies" is an amusing satire; on another level, it is somewhat labored -- a metaphor overextended to encompass the world, not only the Soviet Union, for which it was initially intended. Its pretentious and presumptuous universalism, however ironical and supposedly provocative -- we're all flies, only we don't know it -- turns it into Kabakov's statement of his own delusion of artistic grandeur. The obsessive, theatrical abundance of material -- room after room of fly material, climaxed by a cupola constructed of flies hanging on wires from the ceiling -- suggests as much. Here is an artist who is too full of himself to know when to stop.

The installation indicates that Kabakov is in serious artistic trouble: without the Soviet Union to kick around conceptually -- once a rather easy and ready-made target of critical consciousness -- Kabakov has begun to kick around the West, but he doesn't understand it as well as he understands his own country. Thus, dependent on a subject matter that no longer exists, and confronted by one which he does not understand from the inside, he is at a serious loss. The loss is compounded by the fact that the West, for all its problems, is not as traumatic and oppressive as the Soviet Union, and so is harder to challenge, and unexpectedly, to master, especially for an artist whose whole career depends upon mastery through confrontation.

The frenetic grandiosity and repetitiveness of Kabakov's installation defends against the loss, without really compensating for it. He compulsively piles up material -- a funeral pyre of the Soviet past? -- but its sheer quantity makes no qualitative difference: he cannot really develop, for he continues to inhabit the Soviet Union in spirit. In fact, his so-called "total installation" reflects a totalitarian mentality -- a reductive, totalizing system of thinking, simplistically generalizing from one detail to all particulars.

In other words, he is more of a Soviet reactionary than he knows: to see the structure of the world as a hierarchical series of interlocking systems of flies -- economic, financial, political, poetic, philosophical and esthetic flies -- is not unlike the paranoid Soviet way of seeing bourgeois enemies everywhere. They're annoying flies that have to be slapped down; if they aren't, they'll overwhelm one.

Kabakov's paranoid vision is ostensibly based on an "official" Soviet report about "The Civilization of Flies" and set in a make-believe provincial museum, rarely visited and poorly maintained. In its somewhat grim rooms, all the recorded information about the proliferating fly civilization -- it secretly rules the world -- is displayed, for the edification of the indifferent public. (They, too, are treated as so many flies; they are allowed to buzz among the displays, but kept at an official distance.) There are numerous diagrams showing the circulation and hierarchies of the different kinds of flies, and pictures concretely showing their activities.

Perhaps most interesting of all from the point of view of the art world is "A Concert for a Fly," a room crowded with music stands, on which a variety of musical scores and texts (in English and Russian), and above all colorful drawings, in every conceivable style, are arranged. Hanging in the air is a paper fly, apparently the conductor of the chamber orchestra as well as a soloist in it. As in every room, we are overwhelmed with information, which looks profoundly meaningful but has the irrational and hermetic character of a delusional system. The ultimate effect is cynical and nihilistic: works of art proliferate like flies, but to no point. Art, like any other area of human endeavor for Kabakov, buzzes with absurd, excited activity, with no inherent raison d'etre. It is, ironically, an end in itself.

For me the full measure of Kabakov's cynicism and nihilism -- and peculiar stupidity, for all his calculated intellectuality -- is evident in the seemingly playful "statements" by Western thinkers that adorn the walls. They are refrains that follow one through the exhibition, but they are less than haunting. They amount to a vicious attack on a West that Kabakov does not begin to understand. Their satire is rather thin, and instead of being subversive and perverse, it implies a kind of envy of the achievements of the West.

The following is attributed to Pascal: "There is no better means of understanding the fate of humanity than to observe the flight of flies." Bergson is alleged to have said: "Oh, how often my thoughts have taken off and fallen like a fly bashing itself against a window." And Giordano Bruno: "Space is not emptiness, as many assume, but rather a world filled with living beings invisible to us." Richard Wagner: "It often seems to me that the buzzing of a fly is much more harmonious than most musical instruments I know."

It does not matter whether these statements were actually made: what matters is Kabakov's destructive use of them. Western thinking and music making are contemptuously leveled -- reduced to fly activity. This suggests their decadence, but in fact Kabakov's satire of them reveals his -- and by extension Soviet -- decadence. The great Russian Revolution was in fact a decadent, inhumane farce -- an affair of flies buzzing around the corpse of a society -- a truth Kabakov avoids however much he signals it by describing Soviet Russia as a fly society.

In short, the joke's really on Kabakov, not us. As long as the West continues to be fascinated by "outsiders," and as long as conceptual installations remain the dominant mode of art (as the current Whitney Biennial suggests), and as long as being an ex-rebel and ex-Soviet artist continues to be fascinating -- afford instant credibility and cachet -- Kabakov himself will continue to be viable. But this exhibition suggests that he is busy installing himself as a grand old master -- Number One Fly -- which may be the only form in which he can survive in the West.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.