Labyrinth (My Mother's Album) is a large-scale installation consisting of a series of narrow corridors leading in a maze-like double spiral. The viewer enters the installation through a door and is lead through progressively shorter corridors at right angles until he or she enters a small space in the centre of the labyrinth. This room, only a square metre in size, contains bits of wood and other debris. A recording of the artist plaintively singing Russian romantic songs is audible in this room; the music can be heard faintly throughout the installation. The corridors then continue until the viewer exits the installation through another door.
The corridors are constructed to resemble the interior of an unkempt Soviet-era housing block or civic building. The walls are painted in dingy grey and brown, the floor is made from grubby wooden boards and the ceiling is supported by cheap, unpainted timber frames. The floor is strewn with dirt and dust. Bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling give off a dim light. Pine doors are situated at irregular intervals along the walls. Some of these are propped open slightly.
Kabakov has described his personal memories of corridors as the site of boredom and expectation. He has said, ‘Numerous corridors have persecuted me all my life – straight ones, long ones, short ones, narrow ones, twisted ones, but in my imagination, they are all poorly lit and always without windows, with closed or semi-closed doors along both sides ... All the corridors of my life, from earliest childhood on, have been connected with [the] torture of endless anticipation’ (Kabakov, ‘“The Corridor (My Mother’s Album)” 1988’, The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression, p.369). The process of negotiating the claustrophobic corridors in the installation gives the viewer a similar experience of being trapped in time waiting for something that will never come. Kabakov intends the central room to be deliberately anti-climactic: after wandering through the corridors, the viewer is confronted only with rubble and the melancholic sound of singing.
Periodically situated along the walls are seventy-six assembled collages of printed images and text. Each panel has an identical dark frame and the same composition: one or two photographs in the top left hand corner, typewritten texts on white paper below and to the right. Immediately below each text is a thin vertical strip cut from a postcard. All the elements are glued on old-fashioned pink patterned wallpaper. The text in the panels, written in Russian, recounts the memoirs of Kabakov’s mother Bertha Solodukhina. The story charts her tragic life in simple, almost deadpan prose. Happy and unhappy memories mingle in the text, which begins with a description of her childhood:
[My mother] was very attached to me. The thing is, before me, she had had a handicapped boy who hadn’t lived very long and had died. I was the second child, and after me, another son had died in infancy. My parents lived peacefully, they didn’t argue, but I felt that they weren’t really close to each other. My mother devoted all of her affection to me. She dressed me like a picture, even beyond her means (‘Text in the Installation’, The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression, p.370).
The texts are paired with photographs of the Russian coastal city of Berdyansk taken by the artist’s uncle, a professional photographer. They represent a state-approved view of the Soviet Union: officially sanctioned images of happy people and the inevitable progress towards a better future. The juxtaposition of these pictures with the text, with its matter-of-fact depictions of the harsh realities of Soviet life, lends irony and pathos to the panels.
Kabakov’s work is influenced not only by visual art but by literature, particularly the Russian narrative tradition of Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Gogol. Kabakov is best known for albums and installations in which he toys with the notion of personal identity by describing fictional characters, often artists, in the first person. It is unclear whether the text in the installation was written by the real Bertha Solodukhina or whether it is another of Kabakov’s fictions.
Kabakov moved from the Soviet Union to the West after his mother’s death in 1988 and made this work in her memory shortly thereafter. Labyrinth (My Mother's Album) was first shown at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York in 1990. It was included in Tate Modern’s inaugural exhibition Between Cinema and a Hard Place in 2000 in a slightly different configuration.
Boris Groys, David A. Ross and Iwona Blazwick, Ilya Kabakov, London, 1998.
Ilya Kabakov, On the ‘Total’ Installation, Ostfildern, 1995, reproduced p.56 in colour (detail).
Ilya Kabakov, The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression, Cologne, 2000, reproduced pp.190, 192 (details).