Boris Groys freelance author and critic, is Professor of Aesthetics and Media Theory at ZKM (Centre for Art and Media Technology), Karlsruhe, Germany, and a Global Professor at New York University in the United States. His books include The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond (1992).
We Shall Be Flies. (A critical response to Ilya Kabakov's installation, The Life of Flies) (1992)
A member of the contemporary Russian avant-garde recalls Mayakovsky's ironic reaction to the work of the then well-known artist Chekrygin: "So, he's drawn another angel. He should have drawn a fly. It's been a long time since he drew a fly."
In his work Ilya Kabakov constantly reverts to drawing flies. At first glance, therefore, it seems natural to ask what significance the depiction of flies has for the artist or, to rephrase the question, what place the fly occupies in his artistic system. No doubt the simplest answer to this question would be that the fly by its very nature cannot occupy a definite position in any system.
The fly constantly buzzes about, alights, and is instantly away again. Its movements through the air are always chaotic, the place it occupies on the surface of an object is always random. Moreover, the fly lacks identity: we find it difficult to fix our gaze on it and can never be certain that the fly that circles, alights, and flies off again is the same one we saw a moment before.
The foreignness of the fly to any fixed order of things is emphasized by Kabakov, particularly in his earlier graphic work: he sometimes places the thoroughly realistic representation of a fly on his minutely planned, bureaucratically ruled-up drawings - as if the fly had settled on them by chance for a moment before flying off again. However, while the fly itself is so restless, the concept, at least, of the fly and its place in the language of culture is firmly fixed. In his fly drawings, Kabakov explodes this illusion: the concept of the fly proves to be as volatile as the fly itself.
In the cultural consciousness the fly usually figures as something tedious, unclean, and ugly. Something one wants to squash, to be rid of. The campaign against flies and, for that matter, any insects in the name of hygiene is one of the most important subjects in the entire history of culture.
Flies are also linked to the rubbish tip, to dirt and rubbish for Kabakov and in this respect they remind him of his homeland - Russia which, as we all know, is far removed from the ideal of a well-appointed lifestyle.
In one of his texts Kabakov describes Russia as an eternal "building site and rubbish tip." Indeed, in the historical perspective Russia is always under construction, always rebuilding, mercilessly smashing the old and erecting the crystal palace of a new society (whether a Christian empire, communism, or democracy is immaterial). But at any given moment this eternal building site seems no more than a filthy rubbish tip, covered in rubble.
However, rubbish, which is another constant theme in Kabakov's work, certainly does not always have negative connotations for the artist. In a certain sense he sees the entire world as rubbish and every object as fragile, liable to be thrown away and swallowed up aimlessly by time.
Kabakov therefore preserves rubbish as his objects and in his installations, catalogues it and correlates it with sentimental recollections of the past. Rubbish, which is mercilessly thrown away in complete disregard of its value as a recollection of life lived, is a metaphor of human existence: the individual, too, is cast out of memory after his death as something no longer necessary for life.
For Kabakov, the fly, too, functions as a metaphor for human existence: not for nothing do we sometimes say of someone that he was "killed like a fly." Elegiac comparisons of the span of man's life and that of fly's are among the most constant elements in the poetic rhetorical vocabularies.
We may recall Kafka at this point, in one of whose stories a man metamorphoses into a beetle. In light of this interpretation the fly, instead of natural revulsion, begins to evoke sympathy and a willingness inwardly to identify with its fate. Simultaneously, Russia, land of rubbish and flies, comes to appear a place of truly human existence, unlike those countries where the urge towards cleanliness sweeps away all unsuccessful projects and redundant memories.
In Kabakov's work this anthropomorphic perception of the fly is further emphasized by the fact that he sometimes endows it with sex. For example, in one of his early works, the symbol "fly" is given the interpretation "wife." In other works by Kabakov the fly is juxtaposed with a ball, which also has the property of chaotic movement in space but most probably embodies the male principle.
However, for Kabakov the fly's ascent of the hierarchical ladder does not stop at the level of human existence. Of course, the fly does not figure in Kabakov's work alone as being a conductor of higher forces. It is enough to recall Sartre's fly-furies or Golding's demonic "Lord of the Flies."
But in the installation "My Homeland" the hierarchies of flies hovering over the land are far more reminiscent of the ranks of angels than of demonic forces. For Kabakov, flying or hovering above the earth is always the highest conceivable form of bliss. He often returns to this theme, in particular in his "positive" album "The Flying Ones." The fly thus becomes a symbol of the soul, hovering freely and liberated from the bonds of earthly existence.
None of these interpretations cancels out the others. Flies move constantly from place to place and alight on the most varied objects without distinguishing between their values: from a filthy rubbish tip the fly moves to the dinner table and then, perhaps, on to some entirely sacred object.
In Kabakov's work the concept of the fly likewise shifts constantly from one level of value to another, never lingering for long on any of them. Kabakov explicitly demonstrates this movement, in particular in his installation "Fly with Wings." In this the depiction of the fly is correlated with a potentially infinite number of possible interpretations, from the most commonplace and profane to the most elevated and serious. The installation is organised visually in such a way as to "reproduce" schematically the body of a fly, in which a mass of interpretative texts forms the wings.
At the same time this flight from level to level certainly does not mean that Kabakov denies hierarchies of value. In recent decades all art has, in one way or another, placed these hierarchies in question, with the result that the impression could be formed - and really has been formed in many minds - that all values have now been finally vitiated and an age of universal equality has dawned, accepted euphorically by some as liberation and by others dejectedly as the loss of historical perspective.
But this new "post-modern" equality is, of course, as illusory and utopian as all other previously advanced egalitarian projects. Values are contagious as well and are carried from object to object, just as their vitiation is. And so the fly, moving from one level of value to another, not only carries with it the contagion of nihilism from the lower levels to the higher, but also introduces these lower levels to higher values.
The fly functions here as a metaphor of a metaphor - as the bearer of a metaphor. But any metaphor operates in two directions. If an angel is no more than a fly, then, conversely, a fly is an angel. Therefore, when the artist, following Mayakovsky's advice, ceases to draw an angel and begins to draw a fly, the result is an angel anyway. Consequently, the collapse in the hierarchy of values for which Mayakovsky hoped does not, in fact, take place.
Our culture contains a small stock of words that lack a clear, firmly defined meaning. These words are, in a way, linguistic jokers which, without meaning anything in particular, are thereby able to mean practically anything. Specifically, they include "being," "life," and "thought."
These words mean simultaneously everything and nothing - and are equally applicable to anything at all. For this reason they have traditionally enjoyed great prestige in culture. Kabakov transforms the word "fly" into another of these joker-words which are potentially applicable to anything whatsoever -just as the fly may alight on anything whatsoever. Kabakov achieves this by consciously erasing the concept of a "fly," emasculating it, stripping it of a definite content and thus transforming it into an empty word, a parasite-word.
The word "fly" does not, of course, have behind it the lofty tradition that such words as being, life, or thought do. Yet it is capable of functioning in the same way. In stating this we can see an ironic light cast upon high philosophical concepts which, in essence, are indistinguishable from a fly.
At the same time, however, in the ability of an ephemeral word bereft of a noble philosophical tradition to achieve the lofty status of the words which possess this tradition we may see an historic opportunity which is also open to the fly - the opportunity to construct a flyparadise of its own, its own world of platonic, fly-essences.
These two readings - vitiating and endowing value - are intended equally by Kabakov. An unambiguous choice between them is impossible if only because they presuppose one another and constantly turn into one another. The tension between them is what, essentially, constitutes the drama of Kabakov's fly series as, indeed, it does of the majority of Kabakov's other works.
For this reason Kabakov is unfailingly vigilant in ensuring that neither of these readings gains a perceptible advantage over the other. In each individual work, and in the series as a whole, the fly functions as an instrument for the ironic cutting-down and translation of all elevated values into rubbish and, at the same time, as an angel which descends from heaven into our sinful world. It is impossible to make a firm choice between these two readings - all that we can do is pass constantly from one reading to the other, like a fly.