In my opinion, we don’t do enough dreaming. I certainly don’t. I blame pollution. All that toxic waste swirling about our heads and coursing through our veins seems to inhibit the pure and fluffy dream. I find drinking stops me dreaming, too. I conk out. I wake up. And the bit in between is an absence: nothing. The only dreams I remember are the bad ones: the noisy, full-colour horror chases; the wading through treacle; being left behind while everyone else escapes. It’s as if my body at night is a furnace burning up the black stuff from the day. But that could just be me.
This summer, I made a film about Islamic art for Channel 4, and found myself admiring some of the dreamiest art that humans have come up with. While making this film, we ended up spending lots of time in mosques around the world — Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, Delhi — and in all of them, there was always someone having a kip on the carpet. We were in some of the noisiest, busiest, most polluted and overcrowded cities in the world. But in every one of them, the Islamic mosque was offering seclusion, sanctuary and sleep. What it never offered was whiteness. Mosques are wriggly, cluttered, full-colour places. You don’t get an atmosphere of ersatz sparseness in them. The pure-white fantasy is one of ours.
I mention this here not only because I, too, yearn for somewhere in the city where you can stop off at lunchtime for a sleep and a dream without having to handle the all-white glare of Christian metaphysics — wouldn’t that be great? — but also because the Kabakovs are cynical sons of bitches, professional debaters of the ways of the world, hardened post-communist troublemakers and issue-raisers. Ilya escaped from Russia in 1987, and if these two venerable, ex-
Soviet cynics who survived the Stalin years are offering you a chance to sleep, then you can be absolutely certain that they are not doing it out of kindness, innocence or a need to share. They will have in mind some dark political truth. So I suggest we return to that pristine circumstance they’ve created for us at the Serpentine and take a proper look at it. Perhaps dreaming of a white Christmas isn’t such a good idea after all.
As soon as you enter, there are white curtains in front of you, like the ones in hospitals, around the beds. These form a route that leads you into the gallery. Thus, the first thing the Kabakovs are doing is making you feel like a guinea pig in some mysterious scientific experiment. A special environment has been created for you. You are being encouraged to explore it. Beware.
The white curtains lead you into an all-white ward containing all-white cubicles. You peep inside and a big white bed beckons. The next cubicle has another. And the one after that. You are clearly expected to choose a bed, lie down and snooze. But why? At the centre of the Serpentine, in that lofty, domed gallery that is this building’s most graceful space, a different sort of sleeping experience has been arranged for you. This time, you go into a dark room with its own door; and when you lie down in here, a magic-lantern display commences on the walls and the ceiling, showing pirate ships, knights in armour, birds, trees, camels and other clichés of the book at bedtime. If it hasn’t dawned on you by now that some cynical minds are attempting to control your sleeping patterns for you, then you, comrade, are guilty of chronic gullibility.
So, we’re in Orwell country. Kafka’s written the scenario. Big Brother owns the format rights. The Kabakovs may have left the Soviet Union — indeed, the Soviet Union may no longer actually exist — but their suspicions about the controlling instincts of the state and the false purities of the utopian ideal remain intact, and may even have grown. After all, there are plenty of capitalist setups that also favour this germ-free look.
What I like about this piece, apart from the excellent evidence it provides that nobody hates the system quite as fiercely as an ageing Russian, is the universal applicability of the Kabakovs’ warning. Whether it’s the all-white sanatorium in Switzerland, or the Puritan chapel in New England, or the inch-perfect modernist loft in Hoxton, we should view every house of dreams with suspicion.
To prove that all Russians are crazy cynics, you should also visit Sketch, the notoriously cool restaurant and fashionista hang-out on Conduit Street, off Regent Street,where some exceedingly strange goings-on are being projected onto the walls of the gallery by Oleg Kulik, the mad dog of the post-Soviet happening. Kulik is potty. Mad as a rabies victim. Unless, of course, he’s putting it all on, and the weird behaviour recorded for us in his worrying videos is intended to be about us, not him.
In most of Kulik’s films, he strips off, gets down on his hands and knees, howls, barks and goes for people’s ankles. In short, he makes like a dog. He’s done it in Moscow, Zurich, Strasbourg, Berlin and New York. Sometimes people know it’s art, because it happens in a gallery, so they giggle and play with him, and it loses its potency. But sometimes they don’t know it’s art, because it happens in the street, so a look of abject horror appears on their faces and they call the police. The police arrive. Put Kulik in a van. And drive him off. That’s when it really works.
Kulik is 44. He was born in Kiev when Khrushchev was president. So, like the Kabakovs, he’s a product of state-inflicted communism. And if there’s one thing you can be certain of with such a man, it is that stripping naked, biting people and making like a dog will have some underlying political purpose to it. Russian artists of Kulik’s model are genetically programmed to take on the state: it’s their raison d’être. Born into a system where the state controlled everything, their chief ambition is to remain uncontrollable. It is, I think, in this light that we must view Kulik’s mad-dog routine.
Nudity means, or meant, something in Russia that it ceased to mean in the West centuries ago. It’s an attack on the rules, an expression of freedom, a cocking of a snook. When Russian artists strip naked, they seek not to titillate their audience, nor to sell them something, but to annoy the hell out of the system. Kulik strips, barks and degrades himself in public precisely because he wants to be put into a police van and arrested. The police think they are controlling him, but he is controlling them.
All it proves in the end is that all Russians are control freaks. That the artists and the coppers deserve each other. And with that jolly Christmas message, I bid you a coolski yuleski.