At first the exhibit looks like it could have been produced by any old painter. We’re given some biographical information about the artist, S.Y. Kochelev. We’re told that this is the first time the legendary Russian painter of socialist realism has shown in Chicago. You pause to study the work–idealized renderings of peasant life in the Soviet Union. Not particularly moving, they do the job. It’s too bad about the hole in the ceiling, you think. The water dripping from the pipes into various metal pails causes quite a clatter. And as you pass through the galleries you start to pay less attention to the paintings on the wall than to the sound of the water. Somehow the accident has been transformed into a symphony.

The symphony of drips–no accident at all–and the paintings are equal parts of an installation created by Russian artist Ilya Kabakov and Lithuanian composer Vladimir Tarasov at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Incident at the Museum, or Water Music combines the work of the fictional artist Kochelev and the effects of the “accident” to suggest the positive forces that can be unleashed by destroying something definite and ordered–like a museum exhibit or, say, the Soviet Union.

“The idea is that the water system of the museum has just broken down,” Kabakov tells me mischievously. He is something of a disheveled mess himself, white hair uncombed, black T-shirt untucked, cheeks flushed. “The water is coming down. The impression of the viewers will be destroyed completely because everything upstairs is a disaster right now. Water is on the floor and everywhere. They’re trying to do something, but they’re not sure if they’re going to have time. All these beautiful Russian paintings will be probably, unfortunately, unable to be seen.”

Though rarely seen in this country, Kabakov’s work is widely known throughout Europe. The work of this fanciful artist was included in a Paris exhibit entitled “Magiciens de la Terre” two summers ago. Kabakov fashioned an installation designed to represent the squalid studio of an artist. The messy apartment was littered with drawings and models of flying machines–clearly the work of an artist who dreamt of escape. The effect might have been sad and pathetic except for the enormous hole in the wall, which suggested that he had indeed succeeded and, through his work, been able to sprout wings and fly away. Another installation dealt similarly with ideas about art leading to freedom. An empty chair stood in front of a canvas that glimmered like a burst of sunlight, giving the impression that the artist had disappeared into it.

An underground artist in the Soviet Union, Kabakov made his living in the 60s and 70s doing illustrations for children’s books and designing giant picture books for adults. Now an escapee of sorts himself, he’s settled down in New York, where he’s gained a reputation as perhaps the most important artist to emerge from the postglasnost Commonwealth of Independent States.

“At our time, all artists are extremely serious,” he complains. “They manage to convince the viewer that they must be understood. The viewer must understand all of their grand plans and ideas and the viewer must understand what the artist wants to tell them. But art shouldn’t be like that. It is possible for there to be more than one point of view. Today the viewer is lost because he doesn’t have a chance to figure things out for himself and to understand what works of art are all about. He is not able to find definite opinions in himself about what he is seeing. In my work, I don’t want the artist to be lost. I want the viewer to figure out for himself what he is seeing.”

American reactions to Kabakov have been decidedly mixed. Last week he and Tarasov performed a puzzling piece at HotHouse on Milwaukee Avenue, about the misery of Russian communal life, in which they swore at each other in Russian while banging on instruments and kitchen utensils. The show resulted in a couple of standing ovations and more than a few hasty exits.

“In New York we had a lot of very funny comments from viewers who took Incident at the Museum at face value and decided only to talk about the paintings and not about the total installation,” Kabakov giggles. “I’m not talking about just bystanders. I’m talking about professional art dealers and professional art critics. One very famous professional art dealer was asking how we could put such terrible paintings in an exhibition. ‘You are disgusting,’ he said. ‘You make such terrible paintings.’ A very serious critic from a very famous newspaper told me he didn’t understand what was going on. And somebody else, a critic, asked, ‘Is it serious or is it a joke? Because if it’s a joke, why does everything look so serious?’ They didn’t understand that this is a total installation. It combines a lot of art styles–music, sound, painting. And to understand and to accept this art, it’s only possible in this context. This sound of water is really a musical form and the paintings are more than just paintings. Since the installation is made like a joke some viewers think that means it’s not to be taken seriously. The viewer has to know the history of the art to know where the installation came from and then he will understand that it is not just a joke. He’ll understand that the paintings aren’t simply paintings. And the water is not just running down; it’s music.”

Ask Kabakov to comment on the meanings behind his work and he gets cagey. He has no interest in interpretations and wants to make sure that he doesn’t do the work that the viewer should do for himself. “Don’t ever ask artists their opinions about their artwork,” he cautions. “It’s not important what the artist wants to say. It’s important what the viewer takes away from it. Everything you think is there is there.”

Incident at the Museum, or Water Music will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 237 E. Ontario, through September 21. Museum hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 Sunday. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for seniors and students. It’s free Tuesday. Call 280-5161 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/James Prinz.