One exhibition that I saw back in 1992 still resonates, both literally and figuratively, for me today: Ilya Kabakov’s Incident at the Museum or Water Music at the Ronald Feldman Gallery. The immersive and enchanting experience continues to conjure feelings of wonder and total displacement as I revisit the memory of it every so often. I remember the sense of confusion as I looked and listened: Who was the artist whose paintings were on the walls? How could there be water leaking in so many areas of the gallery? Why was it open to the public in this condition?
I had been in New York for eight years, and this was my first encounter with Kabakov’s work. I stayed for quite a long time. At first I took the time to look at the paintings, respectfully giving them my attention—after all, they were in a “museum.” Then it started to sink in that this painter from another era was fictitious. The rest of the installation took a little longer to reveal itself: the sound of water dripping into buckets and onto plastic coverings at different intervals—tap, tip, tap, tap, tap, tip—engaged and confused my desire to make sense of what I was experiencing. And then it hit me, perceived revelation—or at least I thought I got it. The low lighting heightened all this, the creaking boards of the gallery, and the absence of other visitors in the gallery. Whether Kabakov intended to address the obsolescence of the traditional museum exhibition or the beauty of decay, or to give life to his own memory of an event is not an issue for me. The exhibition gave me the moment and platform or stage for my own performance—the viewer as the performer. I could not have foreseen at the time how influential this work would become in my own artistic development. I now sense that some of my recent work with sound and several of the immersive installations that I have made since the mid-’90s are indebted to this “Incident” that happened 21 years ago.
Since then, I have seen several works by Kabakov and Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, such as “The Palace of Projects” in 2000, a 40-foot-high, 80-foot-diameter, translucent structure in the shape of a nautilus, which you walk through to view an archive of utopian ideas in the form of paintings, maquettes, etc., by fictitious Russian citizens. It was grand and ambitious, and yet for me the smaller “Incident” is one of those moments that live with you forever.
Would I like to see/hear “Incident at the Museum or Water Music” again? Most certainly, although it will never be as remembered, for such moments are specific and tied to time—mine or yours. However, like certain sculptures and paintings, Kabakov’s installation would be on the list of works to revisit. If it were to be re-created today, replicating the architectural scale of the original rooms—ceiling height, square footage, and so on—would be crucial to me, to preserve the sense of intimacy of the space and the accuracy of the piece. The involvement of Ilya Kabakov and Vladimir Tarasov, the composer of the “drip music,” would be essential to making an ideal re-creation. Optimum fidelity to details, in my mind, would ensure the “same” work—if not the same experience—as opposed to a new one.
And here a final thought about mnemonics. As our fingers no longer “do the walking,” the body has no memory of telephone numbers. We used to dial or punch the numbers on our phones. The phenomenon of the hand “remembering” the number when the mind could not has practically been eliminated by our submission to technology. No one dials or punches numbers on telephones anymore, and our bodies cannot “remember” what they have never physically experienced. The same is very likely true of art. Photographic representations of an exhibition, in books or on the Web, can never register on the body and physically complete the individual experience of an exhibition.