Incident at the Museum, or Water Music, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Incident at the Museum, or Water Music [Incidente no Museu ou Música de Água], Ronald Feldman Gallery, Nova Iorque, 1992

The exhibit consists of two large galleries of an old, respectable museum with a very good reputation, similar to the Louvre or to London’s National Gallery. The walls of one of the halls are painted a dark claret color; the walls of the other hall are a noble pale green. Under the ceiling is a white moulding like a ribbon; at the bottom, the walls are separated by dark wooden panels. Along the walls, more than a dozen classical dark, very good paintings, 120 x 170 cm, are hanging in gold or dark black frames.* The lighting, as is customary in old museums, is dull, subtle. The light is concentrated on the ‘masterpieces’ that are hanging around the room. In the center of both rooms are chairs and couches for intense, tranquil contemplation of the art.

It is very unfortunate, but that morning an extremely unpleasant incident occurred at the museum. When the employees undid the sealed doors and were getting ready to open the doors for visitors, they saw that the entire floor in both halls was covered with water, and that water was streaming down from the ceiling in various places. Either the roof didn’t withstand a strong downpour, or else the neighbors upstairs didn’t turn off the water, but the soaked ceiling was threatening to cave in, and the sparklingly polished floor could swell up and warp at any minute.

This is all to say nothing of how terrible it is to think about what might have happened in such a situation to the works of art hanging in the museum. Initial ‘fire’ measures are taken. ‘Circles’ are arranged out of the chairs around particularly dangerous places. A plastic film is stretched over the chairs and a hole is punched in its middle so that the water could run into the bucket placed under it. There, where the streams of water were smaller, jars are placed, troughs, everything that could be found at the moment.

And the quiet of museum halls is suddenly transformed into a strange music, a music of falling water. Streams and drops in various ends of the halls form a complex, multi-voiced polyphony, where in contemplated combinations the low ‘voices’ of the streams, beating the stretched plastic like a drum, combine with the ‘bells’ of the droplets which are falling into the metal buckets, with the ‘staccato’ of the glass jars and the slow, rhythmic blows in the large, metal trough.

The floor is wiped up, the employees have left. A few chance visitors, who in the commotion managed to enter the museum, wander amongst the strange and incomprehensible ‘objects’ that are placed here and there. Only a few of them, those who suddenly were able to appreciate the combination of the high ceremoniousness of the surroundings and the magical, unusual sounds, take the free chairs, place them around the ‘musical instruments’ in such a way that, just like in the conservatory, they can engross themselves in the world of the slightly sad, but at the same time, high and flourishing harmony that is so unexpectedly resounding here.


The concept of this work, as it seems, is quite simple. A catastrophe, destruction, turns into construction, and contemplation with the sudden shift in point of view. Water, as the image of the all-destructive flood, self-propelling, turns into the image of a different flood – of the allconsuming element of music. The destruction of one artistic situation (the inability to ‘contemplate’ the works of art tranquilly and pensively) leads unexpectedly to the creation of a new, no less artistic, situation – the sudden appearance of a concert hall with ‘performers’ and ‘listeners.’ Everything receives its own ‘turn around,’ its reverse side.

The chance extraneous objects – buckets, jars – which don’t make sense and are un – thinkable in a museum, form a well organized ensemble of wonderful sounding instruments. Water is transformed from the tool of destruction to the main musical means. In its musical transformation, the water’s falling downward, like a sign of ruin, turns into a symbol of harmony that is escaping upward … But, of course, none of this could have happened, there wouldn’t be any Water Music, if three important conditions hadn’t been met.

1. This ‘transformation’ could occur only in the high, tense atmosphere of the museum space, where everything is like it is in a temple (and today’s museums are in fact such temples), which prepares the soul for an extraordinary elevated experience.

2. Inside of this space there turned out to be people who were capable of hearing such music, i.e., there are not very many of them who have this absolute internal musical ear, who were ready to make sense of this and who were able to renounce the impressions of the chaos reigning around them and hear the harmony of sounds that were suddenly ringing out. (But this couldn’t have occurred in a shelter under an awning where a chance passer-by took cover from the rain, although in principle, why couldn’t this happen there also?)

3. This attentive listener, capable of this sort of switching off of consciousness, had to have already wittingly possessed that reserve of cultural musical memory which would allow him to connect the sounds of water dripping into buckets with the ‘conversations of drops’ of marble chalices in Arabic palaces, with the splash of fountains and water cascades of French parks that are well calculated in a musical sense, and perhaps even with Handel’s Water Music.

In this entirely ‘fabricated’ installation, there is one element that was made ‘in all seriousness,’ composed without any joking whatsoever. That is the musical score, composed and arranged from the water sound by the composer Vladimir Tarasov. Having spent a long time balancing these sounds precisely and carefully, he created an entirely independent musical score. In the first, ‘red’ hall, it sounds lively, in major tones, creating a very active overall mood. And, what is most interesting, it develops spatially. The viewer-listener, moving from one group of ‘musical’ instruments to another, begins to hear a new ‘score,’ and the previous one, in correlation with his moving away from it, becomes a harmonious accompaniment to it. The listening to the music, hence, turns out to be connected with the movement throughout the entire space of the installation, and is organically connected with the viewing of all of its parts. In this way, the music can be heard in two ways: both in the immobile state of standing in one place, and while moving: the score is harmonized in all points of the space of the dwelling.

In the ‘small,’ ‘green’ hall of the installation, the water music carries a different, we might say, chamber quality, and there are fewer instruments here. Drops resound in various corners of the room at long intervals, the sound of the tiny droplets on the plastic provide soft, tense accompaniment, and the whole space is filled with ‘resounding silence’ – everything together creates an elevated, meditative mood.

This combination of the sound in the two halls, forte in the first and piano in the second, unites the entire installation in a musical sense into a single whole, creating for the viewer the impression of tension and release, build up and subsequent calming.

Ilya Kabakov (Dnipropetrovsk, República Socialista Soviética da Ucrânia, 1933) artista…


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