The Gentle Drill of Re-enchantment
A visit to the Kabakovs’ Palace of Projects
“This life provokes moments of joy, and that joy can propel ethics.” — Jane Bennett
Recently I accompanied my godchild Liesl on a visit to the German city of Essen. It was close to her milestone 18th birthday. Secondary school was behind her and she had just a few weeks left to decide in what direction she wanted to pursue her education. The day before we left Liesl received notice of having successfully passed the very competitive entry exam to medical studies. Still she felt quite unsure about the impending choice. It was in this mood of indecision that we got on the train and made our way to the Ruhr, Germany’s erstwhile industrial heartland. Today, this vast polycentric urban area is in a process of transition. The old industries have disappeared — the last coal mine closed late in 2018 — and the search is on for a development model that marries economic opportunities to quality of life and ecological sustainability.
Our main goal was the Zollverein, a huge, 100 ha former mining complex north of the city. Today the site functions as a vibrant cultural hub and is inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage. In a quiet corner of this estate there is a large former salt storage building that houses a unique artistic creation: The Palace of Projects, brainchild of the conceptual artist couple Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.
The Kabakovs conceived of this palace as a “museum of dreams, a museum of hypotheses and projects” designed to revitalise visitors’ fantasies, spark their creative imagination and prompt their desire for positive change. Ilya Kabakov writes:
“The installation displays and examines a seemingly commonly known and even trivial truth: the world consists of a multitude of projects, realised ones, half-realised ones, and not realised at all. Everything that we see around us, in the world surrounding us, everything that we discover in the past, that which possibly could comprise the future — all of this is a limitless world of projects.
But turning to oneself, thinking about one’s own life, we, as a rule are not sure about this, we do not discover in ourselves, so it seems to us, any special project, especially not a major one which captivates us entirely. We think that to have a ‘project’ is most likely the business of some other, special people and therefore they are standardly referred to as ‘creative’, or it is in general some sort of special, extreme state which requires a special resolve and special personality traits.
But we are convinced, and we will try to demonstrate this in our installation, that the only way and means to lead a worthy human life is to have one’s own project, to conceive it and to bring it to its realization. To have one’s own project, to realize it, perhaps, should be inherent in every person, the project is the concentration, the embodiment of the meaning of life, only thanks to it can she establish ‘who she is’, what she is capable of, can she receive ‘a name’. It is only from the moment of the determination of her project that her true ‘existence’ and not just ‘survival’ begins.”
Entering the hushed atmosphere of the cavernous hall, one is involuntarily seized by a feeling of reverence. We were alone. No other visitors. The Palace was immediately visible on one’s left. The whimsical construction, made of wood and a semi-transparant off-white fabric, gleamed beckoningly in the darkened ambience of its huge, unadorned hull. It triggered a flurry of associations: things that provide shelter in hostile conditions — a submarine, a spaceship, a snail’s shell — but also modernist gestures of defiance and aspiration, such as Vladimir Tatlin’s never built Monument to the Third International.
The Palace has a circular ground plan that indeed looks like a snail’s shell. The ground floor offers a sequence of rooms of different sizes and atmospheres. Some are bathed in a somewhat dull yellowish light, others offer a cosily nocturnal ambience. They segue into a monumental staircase that leads to the second floor where there are just a few rooms and a discreet staircase back to the exit. Each room of the Palace has multiple proposals for projects on display; there are altogether seventy of them. The setup of each room is similar throughout: each project is represented by a model; a table and a chair invite the visitor to settle down and leisurely read the accompanying descriptive text and savour the mood of the project.
According to the artists the projects can be grouped into three sections:
Projects aimed at perfecting oneself as an individual.
Projects concerning the improvement of the life of other people.
Projects stimulating the emergence of the projects themselves.
Here is a thumbnail sketch of one project in each of the categories:
Return to Happiness: the installation consists of a used mattress positioned flat on the ground and flush against a wall. It is surrounded on three sides by a bed-like, simple wooden partition. Six color illustration from a favourite children book are tacked to the wall, 25 cm above the floor and 3 cm apart. The idea is to temporarily flee from the burden of everyday worries by conjuring the atmosphere of distant, blissful childhood.
“You need to lay down on the mattress facing the wall and these pictures, and examine each of them carefully. (…) You used to lie in this position when you were a month-old infant and mama would put you to bed, you would remain alone in this blissful half-sleep oblivion and complete silence, warmth and maternal care. (…) the three boards will merely intensify the image of the bed from your distant childhood.”
Night Lighting of a City or Region: “In this proposal we are talking about a rather bright illumination not of individual streets or buildings, but of entire regions not only of cities, but of the surrounding rural areas as well. We are talking about artificially created light ‘arcs’ which will constantly stand in the sky at night at a great height above the earth. These ‘arcs’ are formed from shots by special rocket-charges, leaving brightly shining arcs of gleaming gas in the night sky …”
There are No Such Things as Unsuccessful Projects: the artifact is an object not unlike a pool table, with a series of light bulbs mounted under the raised edge. Everday junk is scattered on the table. “When you approach it and turn on the light, a metamorphosis occurs suddenly on it. The formless chaos lying on it quickly transforms into a richly and complexly established world which will immediately excite your imagination. If your brain is continually occupied with some problem, then it is not out of the question that you will find a solution to it in one of the corners of the table.”
When I told my friend Karima about our visit to the Palace, she responded “Oh, that sounds like a Palace of Nia”. Nia (or niyyah) is an Islamic concept that points to the intention in one’s heart to do an act for the sake of God. In Judaism kavanah captures a similar meaning of ‘sincere feeling, direction of the heart’. Nia and kavanah imbue the act of ritual prayer with genuine significance. They manifest themselves in a reverent state of mind while communing with the divine.
Karima’s hunch was very apposite: while moving through the Palace we felt how that sequence of endearing projects mellowed us, coaxed us out of our uptight, rationalist mindset into a disposition to surrender and to dream. Medieval rabbis activated kavanah by counting bricks or contemplating complicated legal puzzles; the Kabakovs, however, operate through a gentle strategy of enchantment.
Enchantment! To be enchanted is to participate in a state of wonder. One is spellbound, transfixed, captivated in a moment of pure presence. Wonder resonates with playfulness and innocence. Quite literally, it is a state of ‘being in love’. Not necessarily with a person, but with existence as such, mediated through any artifact or phenomenon that is able to joyfully transport us into a state of attunedness to the beauty of our lives and world.
These are indeed projects for a better world, but not one that can be manufactured. One might think of another emblematic palace, the Crystal Palace, erected to triumphantly display the achievements of the Industrial Revolution at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Peter Sloterdijk characterised the latter as ‘a palace of complete enclosure’, reflecting the modern ambition to construct a man-made habitat from which one might never leave. The Kabakovs’ Palace does the opposite. It provides an ironic and poetic counter-statement to that grand narrative. It helps us to escape from the lure of control and predictability.
There is an ethical corollary to that. Jane Bennett has argued that enchantment is vital in coaxing us into an ethics of generosity: “If popular psychological wisdom has it that you have to love yourself before you can love another, I suggest that you have to love life before you can care about anything. The wager is that, to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.” The dominant cultural narrative today is a story of disenchantment. But it is hard to drop one’s posture of desperation and victimisation faced with the prospect of an alienated existence on a dead planet.
The Palace of Projects re-poeticises our everyday world. It speaks to our desire for communion and beauty; it seduces us to transcend our deepest fears — of darkness, of uncertainty, of each other — in reaching out for what we truly yearn for. The Palace is a temple erected to celebrate, and to let oneself inebriated by an ‘aesthetics of delight’. It enhances our capacity for enchantment by resisting the story of disenchantment of modernity.
We drifted in and out of the rooms. Sometimes we were in sync, sometimes we lost track of each other’s presence and of time. I took advantage of the tranquil atmosphere to put my earbuds in and to cocoon in Nils Frahm’s velvety, barely audible piano tracks on Empty. After two hours we found our way to the exit, thirsty and starry-eyed. The attendant was thrilled. Most visitors breezed through in fifteen minutes, he said. But there are rumours that the Palace will be dismantled after being hosted for 20 years by the Stiftung Industriedenkmalpflege und Geschichtskultur at the Zollverein. High time to travel to Essen to submit to the gentle drill of re-enchantment offered by The Palace of Projects, designed and curated by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.
The day after, on our way back, somewhere between Cologne and Liège, Liesl quietly announced: “I think I have made my choice. I am going to be a medical doctor.”
The Palace of Projects
I would have liked
to stay in that luminous shell
To lie down in a cot
And cradle long-lost
Hint: subject yourself
To the gentle drill
To mindlessly arrange
Clusters of coloured dots
On plain white paper.
Invite: Submit yourself
To the quiet lure of
To beat time and
Rescue the ensemble
In n-dimensional polyphony.
Suggestion: lose yourself
In the promise of
To mount a giant ladder
And shake hands in
Counsel: recharge yourself in
Luminous projections of
To publicly set forth
On the mundane miracle
Of a lost woman’s glove.
Advice: atune yourself
To the latent stirrings of
To whisper nonsense to
A skittish horse
Stranded on a landing.
Warning: resign yourself
To the flotsam of
Ilya/Emilia Kabakov, 2001, The Palace of Projects, Kokerei Zollverein, Stiftung Industriedenkmalpflege und Geschichtskultur, Dortmund, Richter Verlag, Düsseldorf.
Jane Bennet, 2001, The Enchantment of Modern Life. Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, Princeton University Press.
Philip Fisher, 1999, Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, Harvard University Press.
Peter Sloterdijk, 2013, In the World Interior of Capital: Towards a Philosophical Theory of Globalization, Polity Press.
All images by the author.