Question: “What kind of person lives in a toilet?” Answer: “20 percent before perestroika and 80 percent after perestroika.” The irony of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s pun is in the fact that some citizens in the former Soviet Union actually lived in public restrooms. Incidentally, the installation of a Soviet public restroom/makeshift house drew protests from the persons who lived in those very dwellings.
Their comments and installation were not meant to be deprecating towards the citizens in the margins of Soviet society, but instead served to remark about the spiritual, physical and psychological toils that every Soviet citizen shared.
As part of the UCSB Art Symposium through Arts & Lectures, the Kabakovs presented an exposition of their art, which focused on the conditions in post-Stalinist Russia. While sitting in on a guest lecture in Isla Vista Theater is a routine exercise for many students at UCSB, giving such a lecture was inconceivable for the Kabakovs prior to their move to the United States in the late 1980s.
From the era of Stalin to Gorbachav’s perestroika (an era of reform in the mid 1980s), Soviet realism was the rule. The state had a virtual monopoly on all the art officially produced. The exclusion of anything not in the socialist realist vein led artists like the Kabakovs to form an "unofficial" art scene in the late 1950s. Even after the cultural climate liberalized after Stalin’s death, unofficial art was shut out from state museums, galleries, and publications, denying fellow artists Eric Bulatov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid exposure to a much wider audience.
Since then, the Kabakovs have been seen as some of the most celebrated Russian installation artists of the late 20th century. During their visit to UCSB, the Kabakovs worked on a public installation entitled "The Empty Bottle: Mother and Son." With the assistance of students representing departments from Art Studio to Asian American Studies, the Kabakovs transformed a series of iron bars into a structure resembling an enormous bottle.
The giant tilted-wire bottle leads to a round patchwork of pebbles on the ground from which a trickle of water flows out. If the function of the fountain was to project water into the bottle, it fails miserably since hardly enough water is emitted to even be called a fountain.
This notion of the broken, dysfunctional, or incomplete is not inconsistent with much of the Kabakovs’ work, the most prominent evidence of this being their series of "total installations." The irony, humor, and sadness that encompass their work is a reflection of the Soviet psyche that is still an integral part of the Kabakovs and why they continue to call themselves Soviet and not Russian artists.