by Kevin Czap
Above is an photo of Russian artist Ilya Kabakov’s 1984 installation, The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment. The installation consists of a small apartment that you enter and explore, consisting of about three rooms. The third room, shown above, is closed off, the doorway boarded up making it possible only to peer in at the scene from the outside. This decision, by keeping the viewer from entering into the space and really exploring, makes the piece more of an image. There’s a very limited – frontal – point of view with which to see the work, and so the artist is able to control what we see and how.
Text accompanies the installation, presented as documentary evidence as to the history of this space. The written portion is supposedly by one of the amateur cosmonaut’s roommates, who explains just what had happened with this room that has a gaping hole above what looks like a spring-loaded slingshot. The sum total of all these pieces creates the story of a person committed to the utopian ideals of the Soviet Union, so much so that he was driven to figuring out the means by which he would achieve space flight. Although his calculations and hard work were apparently successful, his breakthrough is boarded up and swept under the rug by the communist authorities.
The Man Who Flew Into Space…was finally shown in New York in 1988, included as part of the series Ten Characters. Made up of a number of similar installations, this series is a primarily narrative work. Although each piece is only a single environment, autonomous and static, a whole story flows out from it. By staging scenes contructed of remnants from a purported action, Kabakov is calling on viewers to recreate this story in their mind. Hmm… why does that sound so familiar?
Yes yes yes, of course, why we’re all here — comics! Kabakov puts together singular installations that show a distinct moment in time, sliced out of a sequence of events so that we’re left with the remnants of the narrative. From the visual information on hand, along with the added details brought by the text, we’re able to put it all back together in our minds. Basically, this is what comics panels do as well — slices of time, selective depiction of elements that more or less act as clues to the narrative that we put together in our minds. The common thread uniting these two very different types of work is the fact that visual art relies on its audience to be able to read images.
Words in Your Eyes
Folks who spend a lot of time thinking about and researching comics should be very familiar with the notion that pictures have a lot in common with letters and words. While written language is more associative than representational imagery (ie. there is less direct relationship between signified and signifier, mostly what has been assigned to it), they are both still graphic symbols that are loaded with meaning. We spend a lot of the first portion of our lives learning and perfecting verbal and written language, figuring out what all this stuff means, how to use it ourselves, what the tricks and rules are, things like that. Comparatively, we don’t spend much time at all on learning how to read images, in large part because it’s so much more intuitive. The ability to process visual information at an alarming rate is hardwired into our brains. As visual animals (our eye sight is the most developed and relied upon of our senses) we have to know what we’re looking at, so we can tend to take that skill for granted. How I mean is that we might know viscerally what we’re looking at, but we’ll be expecting some specific answer, and so, occasionally, we can ignore our own decoding talents.
Everything we see is loaded with more information than our eyes can even register, but what they are able to pick up is more than to keep our minds busy. I think there’s an old cliche about this, just how much meaning a single picture contains. Anyhow, back to comics. Pictures and drawings are the main vocabulary cartoonists have to work with. Yes we have words to play with as well, but as that other old saw goes, we get a much more visceral response from showing what’s going on rather than just yapping about it. So when it comes right down to it, the cartoonist has to decide what do they want to show and what is the best way to do so. When each line is treated as critical information, what the cartoonist chooses to show influences the entire meaning of the work.
Kabakov is able to tell a compete and complex story with The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment, a silent and solitary installation, because of the elements he’s chosen to place within it. Even without the accompanying textual information, we’re able to see the hole in the ceiling, the makeshift contraption that created the hole, the flyers pastered all over the walls that define a time, place and mood, the model that allows us to see the trajectory up into the sky over the town, the dirt, the debris, etc. Beyond all of that, too, we’re able to see the boards keeping up out, further contextualizing this evidence before us. We know what we’re looking at, we can read this story with just the visual information on display. By adding the title, we become fully grounded. We got this.
There’s a lot in this example that should tell us how important backgrounds are to comics. You can convey so much character and backstory by showing a thought-out environment rather than trying to explain everything with words. More than that, though, it also speaks to how important other visual cues are, like body language, facial expressions, but also color, composition and design. Everything you put into a comic (or anything, for that matter) adds to and shapes the meaning, so the more conscious one is of the choices they make, the more they can account for what a work is actually saying. I think this is where editing becomes such a crucial tool is the comics making skillset, being able to organize everything so that all the parts are really working together, and there aren’t any red herrings throwing people out of the work. One of the key lessons I picked up from Eisner is choosing the best possible moment in time to present in each panel. Kabakov is a master of this — showing this scene at any other moment would negate the works impact and rob it of its transcendence.
“I Feel the Cosmos”
Kabakov’s work has been a major influence on me and my work, especially in school. For about two years, I made installation work almost exclusively, all in the vein of creating immersive narratives. I went to art school with the vague idea of making comics work, at least the kind I had been exposed to before then (not too diverse, folks). My second year there flipped my paradigm and I fell in love with contemporary, conceptual work. Around this time I was also urged to finally just read Understanding Comics, which allowed me to see a potential bridge between comics and these new forms of art I was being exposed to.
Particularly, I was taken with one idea that McCloud barely alludes to, that the nature of comics isn’t tied to any one material. He seemed to be saying that there was nothing besides tradition that was saying a comic had to be paper and ink. I’m not sure if he put too much stock into this idea himself, but suddenly it seemed like there was no limit to where comics could go. I continued to extrapolate this idea so that, hey, who says comics need to be flat?! Who says comics need to be cartoons?! Who says comics need to be in a book?! So, combined with my growing love of installation artists like Ilya Kabakov and other conceptual artists like Mel Chin, Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, etc., I set out to see how far I could take the concept of comics.
So, I set out and made a couple of room-sized installations, keeping as close to the spirit of narrative comics as I could. My goal was to create space for people to explore, and based on what was there, they would piece together what i was trying to say. Detective work, basically. It took me a while to finally get that my poor craftsmanship was just stressing me out too much and that no one was understanding anything I was doing anyway, and I eventually made my way back to drawing books again. Rather than moving backwards, I was able to tap into something that I really loved again and bring with me the lessons learned from this other perspective. I was able to see the comic book as an object, which carried its own contexts and meaning tied to its physical dimensions and presentation.
An interesting fact I believe I was pretty excited by at the time is that Kabakov started off as an illustrator/cartoonist. That was his official profession granted to him by the State, and which gave him access to art materials and the free time in which to make his more personal unofficial work (which he is most famous for). His earliest unofficial works are series of narrative drawings, very much in the vein of picture books. Based on this evidence, it’s not surprising to be able to find the correlation between comics and his installation work — he already well understood how isolated pieces were connected in the mind. Through developing his body of work, he was able to pare down to the simplest elements until finally he was able to tell vastly complex stories with a single installation set up. It is exactly this kind of compression of meaning that continues to excite me so much in his work and others like it.
I ended up making a little 20-page book for my BFA presentation. After all the big and overly complex work I had made through the years, I thought it was a good test for myself to make something more manageable. It was also a real test to see if I could actually achieve some of that compression of meaning that I was always going for (and that I still strive for). I handled the oral presentation well enough, but when it came towards the end, it became clear that I hadn’t spent as much time thinking about the actual drawing style. But it was at the final question where I really got tripped up. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it had to do with the significance of the cover images. The front cover showed a single blade of grass growing up out of the sand with a wide blue sky above it. The back cover showed this same blade of grass, but with the view rotated 180° around, so we see behind it a dark cave taking up the rest of the page. What did it mean that we had this wide open expanse on the front and then on the back, at the end of the book, that same scene is overwhelmed by darkness? And finally, how was anyone supposed to figure out what that meant? I wasn’t able to put it all together at the time, left tongue-tied. But it was obvious, and it was something I have been thinking about for years — the answer had to do with reading images.