Sunday 13 September 2020

The Boat of my Life - Ilya Kabakov

Ilya Kabakov, The Boat of my Life (1993), at EMST (Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens)

Ilya Kabakov works in partnership with his wife Emilia, but this installation is solely his work, given that it's autobiographical. The Kabakovs are widely known as pioneers of installation art. They began their artistic partnership in the late 1980s and have produced a prolific output of immersive installations and other conceptual works addressing ideas of utopia, dreams and fear, to reflect on the universal human condition.

You can see more of their work here

The last installation on the fourth floor was behind this wooden screen - we did not know what lay behind it.

We entered through a narrow door into this space

A large, wooden, virtually 'real' boat 17.4 m in width and 2.6 m in height. It's deck is horizontal, level. Two 'shelves' are raised on its bow and stern.

Two sets of stairs lead from the floor to the deck, one for getting on the boat, the other for disembarking. There are special holes cut through the side of the boat for this. Two people at a time are allowed in.

Twenty four cardboard crates, its 'cargo', are arranged inside the boat in a disorderly fashion on the deck. Each crate is open, the packaging is unwrapped, and the viewer can look into the contents of each crate. All kinds of residential objects are heaped there, like what you might see in the case of any move or of sending things somewhere: children's clothing, toys, dishes, books, clothing, boots... In the middle of all of this, like a list of the contents, there are pieces of cardboard inside the crates with all kinds of junk glued to them: pins, buttons, pencil stubs, newspaper clippings, photographs... Under each object is an inscription in Russian and a translation.

It becomes clear by reading what's written, that before us is the story of a life represented day after day, year after year.

Each crate, together with the things contained in it, represent a particular period of that life, and all of them, standing one after another in disarray from the stern to the bow, form a 'material' history of that life.

The installation represents a combination of two images: a 'sailing' boat and the author's story about his life, beginning with the moment of his birth and continuing until the making of this installation. This biography is told in a 'visual-material' way, usually common in library 'museums'.

'One of the most fascinating endeavours and states is the following: to be alive, but yet to not really be living - not to participate in all of life, in all of its upheavals, but rather to be living as though 'later' - and to see this whole life of yours somehow from the sidelines, from some height, and even, if possible, even as through it had already been lived, as if you were dead (a strange and desirable combination). Perhaps this is one of the lightest, most marvelous states: without any emotion whatsoever, without pain, exhaustion and the unknown in front of you, to see everything, to hover above everything, and (what is most important) to be relieved of your uncertain and long life in which you are sure of nothing and where you don't even know whether you are acting of your own free will or whether this is all happening at someone else's behest. 

But, being dead already, you see your life in its entirety. You can freely fly from one end to the other and back again, similar to some light, noiseless flying machine that is rushing toward the origins of the river, to its mouth. You are able to hang above any spot along this river, to descend lower, lower and very low to the window of any house on the bank of this river and peer in. Then you can suddenly take off again and rush quickly along the riverbends, along the river where the real 'I' is floating, not knowing and fearing what might turn out to be the next bend, feeling a constant fear of capsising on the slippery log that I have been sitting on all my life, not understanding anything inside of me or around me, or, as the landscape floats past, suffocating from terror and being afraid of falling head first into the cold water...'

'The last box ix empty: a powerful association arises from the journey through the boat - that of the boat of Charon who transported human souls to the other side of the river Styx. At least, that's the image that stood before me when I conceived of this installation'.

What a great installation, and a wonderful idea.


  1. Hello, I was wondering if you could use some of your photos of "The Boat of My Life" installation for some educational material we are producing?

    1. Yes, of course you can. That would be lovely. Could you please credit the photos to me, Eirene from A Place Called Space. Could you also please send me a link once the educational material is produced, so that I can have a look? Thank you.