Installation 4 (fragments)
Installation 4 is a small room containing twenty-eight objects, spread out on the floor in a checkered pattern. Visitors frequently list: a crimson (or purple) pillar candle; a light blue teakettle; a stuffed giraffe; a vinyl record without a sleeve; a red carnation (real or fake) in a small vase; a round mirror in an elaborate gilded frame; a small model of a sailboat. In some reports, some of these objects appear more than once. For example, three vinyl records turn up in one account, two mirrors in another, four stuffed giraffes in the third. Other items are reported as well, but less frequently: an edged piece of broken glass, a box of facial tissues, a blue plastic play chair, a pair of scissors, and so on.
Visitors speak of a little girl, lightly dressed in khaki and beige, moving among the objects on the floor. Swift, sober, she follows a row from object to object or skips objects and rows, sinking, popping up, drifting over; her bluish-black hair bouncing. When she crouches down visitors can see her straightening objects deftly on the floor. Some report hearing her whisper: “You’ll be alright right here, okay?” or, having made a little adjustment: “That’s better now… just like that.”
In other accounts, she weaves her way slowly through the rows. In her hands, she nestles an object, or, if it’s larger, clasps it in her arms. Now and then she pauses, squats or kneels, and makes an exchange. Up again, she walks on with the new object, looking for a better place for it to be. She stops, contemplates the floor, moves on, stops again, nods or mumbles to herself, kneels. Thus she makes her rounds for a long time, replacing one object with another, until she comes upon the original empty space and fills it. Here, she surveys the new arrangement and seems content. Visitors who stay on past this point, however, report that the satisfaction doesn’t last. Soon the girl begins to furrow her brow, to frown; then she is moving again, an object in her hands, an empty space behind her.
“Senseless shards of a shipwrecked world,” writes the art critic Oliver Lieber. “Does a vinyl record fit better to the left or to the right of the carnation in the vase? Directly by the little chair perhaps, or as far from it as possible? Does any arrangement here mean more than any other? Or even simply something else? Why not sweep it all to the side, pick out a few objects, set up a place for the girl to play? The plastic chair, the vase and the candle will make up a room; a giraffe will live in it. The mirror and (carefully!) the piece of broken glass, set across from each other, will release a play of reflections. But no, nobody dares. And so this shipwreck knows nothing of the shore, nor even of the bottom of the sea.”
In yet another version of Installation 4, a thick mist fills the room, submerging the objects, the girl and the visitors alike. The girl shimmers forth, cutting through the mist; her steps sound quick and hollow. Pausing or dipping to the floor, she vanishes and reemerges somewhere else. Objects momentarily appear in her wake. Visitors find it difficult to describe or even to identify them. This may account for some of the divergences in the list of objects provided above.
Installation 6 (midnight)
Visitors tell of a small room, almost a closet, housing Installation 6. A metal table for two folds out from the wall opposite the entrance. An aluminum fold-up chair stands by the table, sometimes facing right sometimes left, but never with its back to the visitors. A black clock radio sits on the table in most accounts, with the cord extending across its surface and vanishing in the air below. A tall, ample-bodied old woman with a broad, friendly face inhabits the room. She wears gray and brown, wool and felt: skirt, cardigan, and shawl.
Many visitors find the woman at the table, with her arms folded or hands interlocked. The clock radio faces her; she stares at its red digits, or beyond, or lowers her head down on her arms and rests. Now and then, she looks up sharply at the entrance with a glad, hopeful expression on her face. Meeting that gaze, a visitor might feel startled, as if it is somehow precisely him she’s expecting. But the expression quickly fades. She nods and makes a rounded, welcoming gesture with her arm. Gracious even in her disappointment, she seems to say: “Though you are not the one I’ve been expecting, you, too, are welcome here.”
Alternatively, the radio may be on, playing music: a man’s raspy voice at the piano, melodious and soulful. The woman listens with a smile on her lips, her booted foot joins in with the rhythm, then falls behind and fades. At the end of every song, she draws her smile in with a sigh and shakes her head, as if in wonder at how anyone can come up with something so nice. A long time passes; song follows upon song. She pays no attention to visitors.
Some reports speak of a dark, cold, unfurnished space; with time, it becomes possible to make out a chair and a table folded up against the far wall. The large old woman sits on the floor, with the clock radio before her, cordless, pulsating with static. A singing voice struggles to pull free of it, clear for a moment, then drowned out again by gusts of noise throbbing with the beat. Scraps of other voices break through: male, female, whispering or singing – it’s difficult to tell. The old woman looms over the clock, her face distorted with worry and pity. Now and then, as if unable to take it any longer, she lunges at it and speaks: “Hello? Hello?” The clock, stuck at 12:00 a.m., blinks its numbers at her; waves of static keep crashing.
“The point of no time,” writes the art critic Oliver Lieber, “as if a momentary power outage has just struck, not even a minute elapsing since. Now and forever, everything is only just about to begin. Everything here is disconnected, broken, turned off, put away—no place at all. Or the very pivot of place, from where every opening bursts forth. The voices in the radio, weaving in and out of each other, converge at the point beyond voice, the choral substratum of static. A glad haven, perhaps, for the old woman’s shy and desperate ‘hello’.”
Visitors report that the temperature inside this last version of the installation is so low they now and then catch a glimpse of their own breath. At least the woman is dressed appropriately for the cold, they note. Those who see other manifestations of the room, on the other hand, wonder whether she is dressed too warmly.
Installation 24 (mimesis)
The furniture in the room is glossy and pinkish-white: a small round table with two dining chairs next to it. An old woman occupies the chair facing the entrance; a little girl, of about five or six, sits to her right. Visitors describe the old woman as elegantly dressed in a white blouse and a gray wool skirt down to her ankles; but she seems to them to be somehow unwell. She is very thin, and her face, framed by bobbed, chestnut-dyed hair, looks ashen and worn. Her large dark eyes, with purple circles around them, are charged with nervous excitement. She perches on the edge of her seat, holds herself straight, as if perpetually ready to stand up. At times, succumbing to fatigue, she slumps down on the table and closes her eyes.
According to visitor accounts, the girl is more casually dressed in red flannel pants and a leopard-spotted t-shirt. Barefoot, she sits with her knees tucked under her, leaning on the table. Her hair, like the old woman’s, is brown and bobbed. Visitors dwell on her dark green eyes under thick lashes; like large, fluttering insects, some of them say. They tell of pebbles spread out on the table in front of her, of various sizes and shapes, solid and striped—bluish gray, glossy black, white: matte and translucent. She slides them on the surface of the table, cocking her head to listen to the sounds they make. The larger pebbles make a deeper, authoritative growl; the smaller ones glide with a thin murmur. Apparently, the expression on the girl’s face changes depending on the sound she hears. By turns, she seems impressed and her eyes widen, chafed and she grimaces, or sympathetic and a pitying expression appears on her lips.
Some visitors see the girl form a face out of pebbles. Leaning on the table, she makes it large or small, sad or smiling, with or without hair and ears. Sometimes, in order to make sure all the pebbles are used, she adds the outline of a neck. Visitors approach and look at what she is doing. Some complement the girl on her work, say, “that’s pretty!” or “good job!” Others watch silently and walk away. Attention seems to excite the girl and embarrass her at once. She suppresses a smile, leans deeper over the table and makes more noise with the pebbles. All along, the old woman beside her pays no attention.
When the girl is finished, she admires what she has done and seems pleased. She touches the old woman on the arm. “Look,” she says, “I made a face.” The old woman takes a moment to reply. Her body stays straight and still as she turns her head to the girl and looks down at the figure on the table. “I see, dear,” she says, “but whose face is it?” The girl shrugs: “Just a face.” The old woman tries again: “Is it maybe the face of someone you’ve seen?” The girl seems puzzled, glances around at the visitors in the room, then shakes her head, no. There is silence for a few moments; then, moved to justify herself, she adds: “I just like making faces sometimes.” The old woman nods with approval, as if this is what she’s been getting at all along and, in an exultant whisper, offers: “Maybe it’s of someone who hasn’t come in yet.”
Visitors report that at the end of such an exchange, the exact wording of which varies, the girl seems distressed. She sits still for several moments, taking it in. Then, in frustration, she scrambles the face of pebbles with both hands. The pebbles roll around, grate and grumble; one or two might even fall on the floor and bounce convulsively away (in which case the girl has to climb from her chair and go pick them up). The sudden noise and movement at her side startles the old woman. She turns to the girl and sees what she has done. “Oh,” she exclaims weakly, “why?”
The art critic Oliver Lieber writes: “A face of pebbles resembling a visitor yet to come. A premonition, a promise: primitive or schematic. Or ‘just a face’ to use up the allotted pebbles. A will to shape for its own sake. Both perhaps; but is such a convergence of attentions even possible? Or only a space of incomprehension opening up between them, reticent and mute.”
There is no answer from the girl. She rolls and glides the pebbles along the surface of the table: first with an obstinate expression on her face, later with indifference, later still with increasing attention to the sounds they make. Time goes by. Those visitors who stay in the room long enough speak of her putting together another face. Sometimes, she seems to play with particular effects, for example: where several pebbles in a row are white, the outline of the face melts into the surface of the table; where several in a row are black, it juts out.
Ilya Kliger teaches Russian literature in New York. The three installations are excerpted from a longer piece, entitled 28 Installations (a novel).