Facing a crowd of 500 people in Isla Vista Theater on Tuesday evening as a UC Regents’ lecturer, Ukrainian artist Ilya Kabakov, one of the top 10 living artists according to Art News magazine, talked trash.
Kabakov, whose words were translated by his wife Emilia, built his reputation in the 1960s in the Soviet Union by collecting throwaway items from different aspects of Soviet culture and mixing them into three-dimensional pieces of art. One project, a box surrounded by garbage, was labeled with offensive words.
“It’s like Pandora’s Box,” Kabakov said. “To get something positive, you have to go through all the garbage.”
His work now features large collections of objects, which viewers can walk through or around. The style of art, called installation, is intended to draw the viewers into a separate world and force them to interact with the piece.
“It’s different from other forms of art,” Kabakov said. “Total installation has the ability to use people resources, to get people engaged.”
Kabakov will display his work at UCSB in the installation “The Empty Bottle: Mother and Son,” which he and his wife have worked on with several UCSB students on the Lagoon lawn. Kabakov conceived of the project as something extra to emphasize his regents’ lecture while he is in Santa Barbara for the week.
Chancellor Henry Yang spoke at a small reception for the artist on Tuesday afternoon in front of the piece while Kabakov stood by and nodded.
“The idea behind this installation project was to present a work in progress, to give our campus community the opportunity to experience a work of art in the making,” Yang said. “By creating this installation here on our campus lawn, the Kabakovs and our students have changed this space.”
Art Studio Dept. Chair Kim Yasuda, whose speech followed Yang’s at the reception, praised Kabakov for spending his extra time in Santa Barbara working with students on the installation.
“His generosity to us as a university, in the context of this event, has been phenomenal,” Yasuda said.
Kabakov was born in Soviet Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, in 1933 and lived in the Soviet Union until 1988. He built his reputation with installations critical of Soviet life, but since moving to the United States in 1988 he has focused on themes such as the disenfranchised and the mentally disabled.
Changing cultures was difficult for the artist, because viewers in the United States did not understand many of the references to Soviet life.
“How to present your work in a way people here will understand?” Kabakov said. “It’s a familiar problem to those who have left one country and come to another.”
Americans, Kabakov said, took the work completely out of context, but noted the low probability of American students making something of Soviet garbage.
To compensate, Kabakov worked on engaging his audience. “It was a lifesaving necessity to create some way to show this work in the proper context,” he said. “What concerned me was people don’t spend time in front of the painting anymore. They’re used to TV, where you can go change the channel.”