Beetle

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  • Provenance

    Livet Reichard Company, Inc., New York

  • Exhibited

    New York, Ronald Feldman Gallery, Ten Characters, 30 April – 11 June, 1988; Washington DC, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Ten Characters, 1990; Prato, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Contemporary Russian Artists, 10 February – 14 May, 1990; Hamburg, Deichtorhallen, Ilya Kabakov – Der Lesesaal (The Reading Room), 19 April – 28 July, 1996

  • Literature

    A.Alexeev, A.Kosolapov, I.Shelkovski (Eds.), ‘In the Studio; Ilya Kabakov’, in a­(A­YA), Contemporary Russian Art, Unofficial Russian Art Review, Paris, 1984, no.6, p.33 (illustrated); M.Tupitsyn, Margins of Soviet Art, Milan, 1989, p. 43; B.Groys, Gli artisti russi degli anni ottana: La bella vita senza il complesso di Edipo, Contemporary Russian Artists, Prato, 1990, p.75 (illustrated); A.Wallach, Ilya Kabakov, The man who never threw anything away, New York, 1996, p.158 (illustrated); B.Groys, ‘The Movable Cave, or Kabakov’s Self­memorials’, Ilya Kabakov, 1998, London, p.55 (illustrated); Z.Felix, Ilya Kabakov, The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression, Köln, 2000, p.149 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Ilya Kabakov's painting The Beetle is one of the best and most important works of his painterly oeuvre. Seen from today, it looks like a strangely ironic prophecy of the artist's own fate, as well as the fate of all artworks once they become commodities.This is all the more remarkable because the artist knew next to nothing about the woes of commoditization when he made this piece in the 1980s; he lived in the Soviet Union, worked in the Soviet system of institutions, and did not depend on the capitalist art market in any way.
    The children's poem that overwrites the picture plane tells the story of a young hero who has found a shiny beetle ‘just right' for his beetle collection. But the beetle ‘tears free, chatters, and jumps from his hands' because ‘the collection is the last place where it wants to land.'The contemporary art market behaves in a similar way: it seeks out the ‘shiniest' works of art to lock them up in collections; but the artist – if he is a serious author – doesn't want to be caught or drained by the market completely. This is why he must follow a path of constant innovation, eventually switching to media such as installation, video, or performance (‘chattering and jumping'), working in media that are not so easy to sell. This limits the number of potential admirers to only the most advanced connoisseurs. But it also makes the artist's work more expensive.
    Kabakov intuitively understood this mechanism of innovation as a game of cat and mouse that market and artist must always play. In the early 1980s, his work becomes far more ‘shiny' and visually seductive. He begins to make large, illusionist paintings that have little in common with his earlier graphic style, albums and paintings with a linear and schematic quality that referred to visual-ideological objects such as posters, noticeboards, or wall newspapers, i.e. to a didactic montage of quotes, often arranged in the form of bureaucratic tables.
    But now, everything has changed. The somewhat dry ‘aesthetic of administration' has given way to colourful entertainment. The artist begins to use colour illustrations for advertising or magazines, enlarging them,and combining them with the texts that are always a mandatory element in his compositions. The captions are now no longer stenciled out on a white background, but directly onto the image. The most well-known paintings of this new cycle include ‘Department Store' (1981), ‘Avenue' (1982), ‘First Snow' (1983), ‘Deluxe Room in the ‘Pearl' Hotel in Sotchi', and, of course, The Beetle (1982).
    The text is no longer written in black on abstract white (like letters in print, or like Malevitch's ‘Black Square,' for that matter). Instead, it now appears in white against a coloured background. This means that the text becomes an interruption or pause in the totality of the smoothed¬over, uninterrupted image, which is no longer placed onto white paper like the element in a collage (as, for example, in ‘The Little Water¬Sprite,' an earlier work please see lot 15). The image is now a full screen picture that leaves no room or alternative for anything but itself. The priority of text is replaced by the primacy of the image. This means that the rational, cognitive procedure of reading can be little more than a rare interlude in a never¬ending pyrotechnics display of instant images, photography, films, and TV.
    Kabakov's new series came at the time of a deep cultural paradigm shift all over the world; the critical approach that had emerged in the wake of 1968 mutated into a post¬modern game with virtual images; the logic of rupture was displaced by the logic of uninterrupted continuity. In the local Soviet context, the didactic and essentially critical principles of avant¬garde image¬montage lost their previous popularity, and suddenly seemed unbelievably provincial and hopelessly out¬of¬date. Official art, film, and propaganda capitulated fully to the temptations of seductive entertainment, as unstoppable torrents of Western mass culture flooded into the USSR. This all started in the early 1980s, and became a foretoken of the Soviet Union's impending demise, signaling its failure as an original politico¬aesthetic project.
    Of course, Kabakov is no advocate of the text's capitulation in the face of the image; instead, he sees it from a skeptical and ironical point of view. In this series, he develops a visual language that parodies a Soviet luxury lifestyle; the image¬quality becomes more and more reminiscent of colour TV. The tree¬lined avenue in a park or the deluxe hotel suite are false memories of resort vacations; the people standing in line at shops signal a new abundance of consumer goods, as strange as that might sound today. Construction cranes and new buildings around a new metro¬station (‘First Snow') bespeak an improvement in housing conditions. Then again, in Russian, and especially in the Soviet Russian of the time, a ‘beetle' is not only a visual metaphor of a precious stone in a fancy setting, but also the name for a crafty person who knows how to make lots of money.
    At the same time, Kabakov is consciously using ‘empty' texts that have been drained of any meaning. They cannot even be called trivial like the scraps of everyday conversation in the earlier ‘Kitchen' series; while those everyday phrases were amazingly juicy and straight¬from¬the¬shoulder, the present captions were as empty as commercial advertising or elevator muzak. Such ‘empty' texts do not only include parodies on children's poems as in The Beetle. Kabakov also works with genuine 19th century romantic poetry (as in ‘Avenue'), or a tearful love letter (in ‘First Snow') as ‘empty' texts.
    In all of these pieces, Kabakov places the ‘human' world, the world of real emotion beyond the image, as a part of his broader theoretical and philosophical project. Then again, this series allowed Kabakov to test the use of illusionist devices and their seductive, captivating effects on the audience, devices he was later to develop more fully. Four years after The Beetle, Kabakov made his classic installation ‘The Man Who Flew Away into Space'. Its central themes – the rupture of the image's illusory surface, and the breakout into real three¬dimensional space – describe the artist's further trajectory as an attempt to tear through the impenetrable surface of the smoothed, glossy media image.
    Dr Ekaterina Degot

14

Beetle

1982
Enamel paint on wooden panel.
226.5 x 148.5 cm. (89 1/4 x 58 1/2 in).
Signed, titled and dated ‘I.Kabakov Beetle 1982 [in Cyrillic]’ on the stretcher.

Estimate
£1,200,000 - 1,800,000 ‡ ♠

sold for £2,932,500

Contemporary Russian Art

28 Feb 2008, 6pm
London