On the Subject of “The Void” Ilya Kabakov

In the spring of 1981, I was in Czechoslovakia and I remember that among all the interesting impressions and ideas, I was struck by the experience of looking at “our place” from the outside, from the vantage point of someone who has left, of seeing it from another place. How does our place look when viewed from “the outside”? The situation might be compared with a long train journey when, after traveling an interminable distance sitting cooped up in a compartment, you sud­denly pull into a station. You go outside onto the platform and walk alongside the train, and from the platform, from the outside, you look through the glass into the very compartment where you had just been sitting.

You are immediately gripped by an intense sensation which brings everything together and makes everything fall into place—this is the clear, final vision of the void, of the absurdity of the place where we live all the time.

The void is, of course, primarily a spatial notion, and indeed this sense is the familiar one for the artist—it is the way he experiences space, so to speak, his pro‑fessional sense, the viewpoint from which he sees, and so on. The sense of the void under discussion here, though, is not just the spatial sense, the optical sense. It is something quite different.

It is a gigantic reservoir of emptiness. This gigantic reservoir, this volume of emptiness we are talking about here and which represents our place, is not a void at all, at least not in the European sense of that word. The understanding of the void as an (as yet) unoccupied space—a space that has not yet been built on or is shoddily or scantily built on—is an understanding which is peculiar to that approach and perception. To put it simply: we are talking about an understanding of empti­ness that is like the emptiness of a bare table that has not yet been set but which can be set, or the emptiness of land that has not yet been sown but which can be sown. It seems that this European, rationalistic conception of emptiness as a field where potentially we need only apply human force in order to gain mastery over it, as a place which is “awaiting man’s labor,” is just not applicable. The emptiness of our place that I would like to talk about is something of a completely different nature. Terms like opening up, colonizing, working, or cultivating, in other words, rationalistic European terms, can never be used to describe it.

This void is an extraordinarily active volume, like a reservoir of emptiness, like an especially hollow type of life, tremendously activated but contrary to authentic existence and authentic life; it presents itself as the absolute antithesis of every living thing. “Nature does not tolerate a vacuum.” “But neither does a vacuum tolerate nature,” one might add. The void of which I speak is not zero, it is not “nothing,” it is not a neutral charge or a passive zero line. Absolutely not. The void is exceptionally active. Its activity is equal to the activity of positive existence—be it the activity of nature, the positive activity of man, or of higher powers. But its activity exists with a contrary force, pointing in the opposite direction, possessing the same energy and strength as the striving of a living being to become, to grow, to build, or to exist. With the same indestructible activity, strength, and permanence, the void “lives,” reducing existence to its antithesis, destroying construc­tion, mystifying reality, transforming everything into dust and nothingness. It is, I repeat, the transformation of active existence into active nonexistence and, most importantly—and I particularly wish to draw attention to this—it lives and ex­ists, not of its own accord, but feeds off all the life and existence that surrounds it, digesting it and pulverizing it, making it disappear into itself. I see this as the essence of the void, its fatal role for life. It sticks to, grows off, and sucks up dry ex­istence; the void derives its mighty cloying nauseating anti-energy by sapping energy from the existence surrounding it, like a vampire.

In searching for a metaphor for what I want to say, I see a table, covered by a tablecloth, at which people sit, conversing. On the table there are dishes of food, and the lady of the house keeps putting new dishes on the table. I watch as some­one, almost unnoticed, keeps tugging at the tablecloth and everything on it, the plates, vases, and glasses crash to the floor with a uniform clatter. Why? What is his purpose? It is no use asking. Such a question can only be addressed to living, reasonable things but not to a void. The void is the other, contrary side of every question, it is the foil, the contradiction, the ubiquitous “no” to everything small and large, to each and every thing, to the reasonable and the insane—in other words, to the unnamable and to things which have meanings and names.

So this void is what has settled in the place where we live, from Brno to the Pacific Ocean. It is a special hole in space, in the world, in the fabric of existence, which has its own real location, poised in opposition to the world like a reservoir of emptiness going about its horrific, emptying business in relation to the whole of the rest of the world—drawing that world into itself, extracting from it its exis­tence and its vitality, and in the end reducing it to its own nonexistence. And this, I repeat, is not some metaphysical design, it is not someone’s evil will, but, as I said before, this is the very condition on which the void exists, its vampire energy in relation to existence and the world.

But in the territory which the void inhabits—on its, let us say, physical surface (which is closed, covered by woods, earth, and hills)—live people and animals. It is, in the physical sense, inhabitable. On its surface live almost 300 million people with their towns, houses, etc. What sort of life is this? How do the inhabitants of this place interact with the void? This is what we wish to examine here.

First I would like to say something about the psychological constitution of the people who were born in the void and live there. It is as if the void penetrated every one of their sensations and emotions. It is part of their every action and deed; it is mixed up in all their affairs, words, and aspirations. Every person who lives here lives, whether consciously or not, on two planes: on the plane of his relations with other people and nature, and on the plane of his relations with the void. These two planes are in opposition, as I have already said. The first is “construction,” the second is the destruction, the elimination of the first. On the level of daily life, this split, this bifurcation, this fatal lack of connection between the first and second planes is experienced as a feeling of general destruction, uselessness; dislocation, and hopelessness in everything, no matter what a person does, whether he is build­ing or performing some other task, he senses in everything a feeling of impermanence, absurdity, and fragility. This life on two planes causes a particular neurosis and psychosis in every inhabitant of the void, without exception. The void creates a particular atmosphere of stress, edginess, debility, apathy, permanent groundless terror: that is the state of the people who live in the place where the void dwells.

Their psychological condition is akin to the psychological stress of primitive men or of small tribes in Central Africa who are constantly awaiting whatever dan­ger may come from the boundless, frightening world of the jungle to befall their little village. But there is a big difference between the mind of the neurotic man who is surrounded by the jungle and the mind of a man living in the void. Sooner or later, the jungle-dweller will know how to deal with the spirits of the jungle, will be able to give them names, make up spells and interdictions. After all, the forces of the jungle are real for him, part of daily life, and however big and frightening they are, he can live with them, make contact with them, make peace with them, fight them, avoid them, or run away from them. Not so for the inhabitant of the void. The sensa­tion of the presence of the void is a quite different kind of sensation; essentially it is the impossibility of definitively knowing it, naming it, or even distinguishing it. For the void is neither natural nor supernatural—the void is antinatural and to live with it is impossible and beyond one’s strength—to live with it is not to live at all. The sensation of living in the void is like the fear felt by a blood donor from whom blood is continuously drawn. But the inhabitants of the void do have their methods, their psychological techniques, for dealing with life in the void. They have worked out their terminology for the void, they have personified it, and they have given it names. For them, the void has a definite form and its own fantastic but defined appearance—but more of that later. First I would like to say something about the topographical form of life in the void. Topographically, it is a very defined form; the settlement in the void is principally insular in character.

We can really talk about a type of ocean, about an archipelago with both large and small settlements, lost, scattered about the area of the void, like a kind of Phil­ippines; not like islands in a warm ocean, but in the ocean of the unknown, in the ocean of the void.

In our case, the form and essence of the void takes over the territory itself. It is itself, shall we say, a measure of territory, in its vastness, its infinity, incompre­hensible immeasurableness, not just a big area which can be calculated, understood, and mastered, but an unfathomable unending one, and just at the border where phys­ically the void should have ended, the territory fades back into the void.

These inhabited islands have a tendency to come together, to huddle toward one another and onto one another, protecting themselves, separating themselves from the void around them. The villages and settlements are like this too, where the houses are crowded together, and gigantic cities the sizes of which bear wit­ness to the multitudes of fugitives gathered there, crowd together, fleeing, saving themselves from the void.

These settled islands are connected (as befits an island culture) by a system of communicating bridges across the void. But these communications, all these roads, paths, chaussées, rivers, and railroads belong to a different form of the void, which emerges, in a certain sense, in opposition to the life of these islands (but more of that later).

I would like to emphasize at this point the peculiar feelings of the inhabitants of these islands. Their feelings are formed in a very peculiar consciousness, in the knowledge that the void, nonexistence, begins just beyond the boundaries of the island, just beyond the last house, no matter whether this is a village, town, or settlement.

Let us move on to examine the island itself, the place where the “colonists of the void” have gathered together, its permanent residents, islanders for genera­tions back. What is this settlement like, this community of people, “floating in the void”? Has this community united in the face of the void, formed a perfect inter­dependent social network?

Nothing of the sort.

If you examine an island on which there live between 100 and 1,000 people (as in the villages) or between one and seven million people (as in the large cities), you will notice that each person on this island behaves as if in the void, never noticing the tens, hundreds, and millions of others—just like him—who have gathered nearby. The feeling of terror of the void is so great in him that he sees and experiences those around him as he would experience the void. The great sea of people around him does not lead him to an understanding of the links between himself and his neighbor or to a concord of goodwill between himself and others. No, everyone around him, without exception, is his enemy. To him, ev­erything is equally alien, streets, houses, today’s affairs and those of the past, the objects around him—everything is emptiness, everything is the embodiment of the void. Everything around him is in opposition to him as the void is. The interior of the island—a sanctuary from the void—is also the void, and so it is for every inhab­itant of the whole island; whatever is inside or outside this island is all, without exception, nothingness, void.

We move now to the next level of topography, the topography of the interior of the island.

All the inhabitants of the islands and the interior of the islands who feel them­selves in danger take refuge in burrows.

These burrows are the basic cell structure, the basic atoms in the atomic struc­ture of the island. The burrow is the only place where the void dweller can live—a relatively secure refuge from the void and from the representatives of the void, other people. And just as the island itself is a refuge from the emptiness of space, so the burrow is the refuge of the individual from the other inhabitants of the island. This structure is basically not a social one—it is antisocial and so it must be; after all, all this is taking place in the arena of the void, and the void is active in every cell, penetrating everything that is situated there. Around the burrow man, other inhabitants appear as a potential danger, as enemies or at best neutral, unthreatening, indifferent. The movements of the “burrow-dwellers” mirror ex­actly the communications structure of the whole insular culture. Here, as there, the burrow-dweller moves across the island as though through the void, moving to another burrow where one of his neighbor burrow-dwellers lives—one he trusts—trying to get across as quickly as possible, to cross the danger-zone between the two burrows, immediately getting himself across the line of the entrance to the burrow—the line where his security ends and the void begins. All the streets, roads, and pavements of these islands, the settlements, towns, and villages are filled with thousands of people dashing from one burrow to another. On leaving these burrows they see nothing, they are frightened and notice no one, although they bang into and knock against a multitude of people like themselves as they scurry along.

Except for acquaintances, almost no interaction or interrelations exist between the inhabitants of one burrow and the inhabitants of another. There is less sociability here than between animals who live in the forest, where each has its own territory, its own paths, and there is an established pecking order.

We talked, above, of how the inhabitants of these islands personify and give names to this experience of the void. For the inhabitants of the burrows, this naming is connected with the idea of “the state system,” and this conception is on a par with and equal in importance to the main conceptions of the place such as void, island, communications, and burrow.

“The state system” in the topography of this place is what exists beside and between the inhabitants of the burrows; it is between everyone, but does not re­late to anything in particular, and it belongs to the boundless impersonality of the place. It is an element of the place, and it is what all the spaces between the bur­rows and all the communications between them are filled with. In short, everything that is an embodiment of the void, that blends with it and expresses it.

The metaphor that is most apt for defining the state system is the wind, cease­lessly blowing through and between houses, blowing everything before it, an icy wind, bringing cold and ruin, howling and smothering, always with the same continuous pressure.

Just as the aim, purpose, roar, and continuous pressure of the wind are in‑comprehensible to the “burrow-dwellers,” so too is the state system incompre­hensible, the state system with all its gusts and sudden changes of direction. The permanently fierce pressure, thunderous gusts, and howling sounds, just at the entrance to their burrows, bring horror to the souls of those taking shelter there, filling them with permanent fear. And not without good reason. In these gusts—terrible rolls and peals and blows and uncontrollable, incomprehensible unstoppable move­ments—the timid inhabitant of this place recognizes the voice of the real master: it is the voice of the void. The state system is the void itself, which the people of these parts cannot feel materially or tangibly with their senses and which there­fore inspires fear and horror in them and is perceived like a punishment. More than anything, the state system expresses itself in actions whose purpose remains incomprehensible to a person, contrary to and inaccessible to his mind. The state system demands from each person that he fulfills the state’s own secret aims and tasks and in return promises only mercy. What aims has this wind, this state system set for itself, if indeed it has any at all? The aims are always concerned with acquir­ing for itself all the territory that can be occupied by the void as a single entity. This is, above all, a territorial expansion over the whole area of this place, understood as a single, incalculable, smooth whole. The inhabitants of this place are plunged into this cyclone, becoming, themselves, helpless particles in the cyclone.

For this reason, megalithic, inhuman projects and constructions are among the great works of the state system: the canals of Peter the Great, slicing through the country from north to south; the regular militarized cantons along the entire bor­der of the empire of Nicholas I; the forestry protection belts of Stalin, his schemes to tear down mountains and change the course of rivers, skiers crossing the coun­try from Khabarovsk and back again; the cultivation of the Virgin Lands under Khru­shchev and the flights into the cosmos; the Arctic shipping route and other such activities all have a “state” meaning. But all these projects and constructions, all mixed up together like awesome gusts of wind, change nothing, either in the ter­ritory of the place or in the situation or state of mind of the inhabitants of the burrows (despite the fact that all the projects have been completed with their help). The inhabitants always feel as if they have been dragged into these displacements, departures, and mighty works. They experience them as a frenzy, like mind­less violence or intoxication.

After all that has been said already it is hardly necessary to point out that all communications and links between burrows and between the islands belong to this wind, to this state system.

Does this place, this island archipelago scattered in the void, have a history? No, the islands have no history. They disappear into the past as into the void, dis­solving into it like clouds, losing their form and configuration. The memories of islands past disappear, severed by the disappearance of old islands and the ap­pearance of new ones. The same void gapes at the edge of today as gapes beyond the limits of the island. There is no history, no legacy, no continuity, the only thing that sticks is a dim poetic memory—once there were monasteries as centers of culture, there were towns, there was some kind of … life … sometime, but when and where? It all blows away like smoke in the void. Nothing is begotten of any­thing, nothing is connected with anything else, nothing signifies anything, every­thing is suspended in and disappears into the void, it is blown away on the icy wind of the void.

Among the most important features of life for all the local inhabitants are flight, displacement, and pursuit. The wind of the void flushes out, blows away the inhabitants from their burrows, like identical leaves from the huge surface of the country, not allowing any tarrying or any putting down of roots. It is as if every­one here exists temporarily, they have come from nowhere in particular not long ago and are strangers in a land that belongs to no one.

How do the inhabitants relate to this feeling of the void and to this rootlessness?

It is possible to distinguish four different types of attitude. The first is trying not to consciously notice anything—one tries to live in the void “naturally,” and to regard all occurrences, reasons, and links to life in the void as “just the way things are.”

The second is to consider the void to be unworthy and unacceptable for a human being. Thus, what is needed are projects and reforms in every sphere, economic and legal reforms in order to change this place and the living conditions of those who live here by means of resettlement, hard work, and more reforms.

The third is the mystical-religious attitude, according to which the void and the lack of worldly attachments is deemed very good for the human soul. Here in this place, dedicated to nonexistence, this place “of evil, deceit, and nonbeing,” it is easier to find salvation, to attain the “heights of ecstasy,” to search for and to find higher truth.

The fourth is simply to see everything as it really is and to describe this place as a doctor might describe the history of a disease that he is suffering from himself.

Returning to the start of this article, to the recollection that the void first became visible from Czechoslovakia, we must say that the place which afforded us this view has a completely different spatial structure.

If we return to the analogy of the void as an ocean in which the islands of the archipelago are scattered, then Czechoslovakia, like the whole European area, can be imagined as a vast collection of bridges and constructions, built above the ocean, from island to island in various trajectories and at varying levels, built up over generations and now completely covering the ocean below. In a sense this is rem­iniscent of the view of a floating market on the water in Hong Kong, where the water itself is completely invisible because of the multitude of boats, constructions, and awnings.

I am not sure whether the dimensions of the ocean were smaller in Europe or whether the bridges between the islands were simply built so close together, with such persistence and energy. Whichever it was, man was able to create his own uninterrupted, human world, his human society.

Here, on the other hand, life remains today as it was in the past and how it will most likely always be. It is a life that reminds us of the life of scientists in the uninhabited icy wastes of the Antarctic. Of course, one can go and visit friends, go to a tea party or a dance, go from one tent to another, from the Soviet tent to the American one and back again, and one can forget oneself in these activities, but one’s real relationship to the place where these tents stand will be expressed in the feeling that what one encounters here is a five-kilometer-thick ice floe, from which we can expect anything— but above all ruin and death.


Ilya Kabakov “On the Subject of ‘The Void,’” Total Enlightenment: Moscow Conceptual Art 1960–1990, ed. Boris Groys, Max Hollein, Manuel Fontán del Jundo, Hatje Cantz, Hatje Canty Verlag, Ostfildern 2008, p. 366–375.