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Empty cities, sleeping buildings, art and nostalgia

Reading BoingBoing today, I was drawn to a photo essay on a group blog, “English Russia“, which describes itself as “a daily entertaiment blog devoted to the events happening in Russian speaking countries, such as Russia (Russian Federation), Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, etc.” The series focused on a city build around a strategically important part of the former Soviet Union, later abandoned when there were no longer reasons to maintain the city. (The comment thread on the post speculates that the city might be in Kazakhstan, judging from the steppe characteristic of the land.)

Image from English Russia

The photos that drew me in were the ones of an abandoned school – peeling paint, books scattered on the floor, decrepit furniture, many of the surfaces painted in an impossibly ugly shade of institution green. It took me a few moments to realize why the school looked so familiar – I’ve travelled very little in the former Soviet-influenced states (Armenia, Mongolia). But I’ve been to Marfa, Texas several times.

American minimalist artist Donald Judd returned to Marfa, Texas in 1971, where he’d served in the army just after World War Two. He began buying buildings in the dusty west Texas town, eventually purchasing much of former US Army Fort Russell. In the former army buildings, he invited artistic contemporaries to install large-scale artworks, or build new installations to fit the space – artists represented on the base, now the home of the Chinati Foundation, include Judd, Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella.

I’ve been to Chinati twice in the past few years. The installation that draws me back is Ilya Kabakov’s “School No.6”, a recreation of an abandoned schoolhouse from the former Soviet Union, built in 1993. Using one of the former barrack building, Kabakov built classrooms, filling them with the furniture, books and memorabilia of a Soviet school, abandoned due to disuse and shifting population patterns. In his statement about the piece, Kabakov tells us:

If only something had not started to occur beyond the walls of the old school. The working village where it was located and the children of which ran there with such pleasure every morning, gradually started to decay and die. Perhaps there was no point in working in it any longer: the factory around which the village had been built decayed, grew old, or perhaps life itself, isolated from other places, was becoming excessive and hard, or perhaps there were other reasons, but gradually first one and then another family picked themselves up and moved away, and along with them the children, and it soon became clear that there was no sense in having and maintaining a school in this place. The school was closed.

Image from the Chinati website

The installation is a sharp stylistic break from the cold, austere works that make up the rest of the Chinati collection. I remember the rooms of Kabakov’s school as cluttered, dusty, filled with dozens of objects which may, or may not, have meaning for the artist, but suggested storylines for the imaginary children and teachers who would have inhabited this displaced space. It smelled different from the rest of the spaces in Marfa, older, farther away, even though it was as artifical and constructed as the other pieces of sculpture in the museum.

Detail from School N0.6, Ilya Kabakov.

Looking at my photos of School No. 6 and the photos from English Russia, it’s clear that reality is dirty and messy in a way that even Kabakov’s installations are not. A major curatorial debate exists over Kabakov’s piece – should it be allowed to decay over time, as the Marfa winds damage the building, as grass grows through floorboards and books fall from shelves? Or is the goal to preserve the piece as Kabakov left it in 1993. A friend visited the piece a few months ago and told me “it’s too clean”, which is the reaction I have as I look at my photos and those of the unknown blogger who posted her photos. In Chinati, someone sweeps the accumulating dust and keeps Kabakov’s debris clean and intact – in the “abandoned city”, it piles up for the photographers to capture.

It’s possible to view Kabakov’s work as nostalgic, a regret-filled celebration of times past. Some interpreters of his work suggest that Kabakov isn’t looking back with nostalgia, but with fascination at the fall of a modern civilization, an attempted utopia that fell far short.

I live near the university campus where I went to school over a decade ago. I rarely spend time on campus now, but I sometimes dream or daydream about walking through buildings there. The student center – a memorably ugly building – was torn down eighteen months ago to make way for a new structure. I never liked the building, though I spent countless hours there over four years, and I find myself visiting it more often in my mind now that it’s not possible to visit it in reality.

I can’t decide whether Kabakov’s ability to create a space (that may or may not have existed) to the level of accuracy that makes me look at a contemporary photo and feel deja vu makes him an artistic genuis, or just a skilled documentarian. But I’m grateful to him and to the photographer who documented this abandoned city for the chance to think about buildings and memory.