Bringing Utopian Visions Back to the Armory


The Armory at 26th Street is illustrious in both art and military history as the home of the 1913 exhibition that brought European modernism to America and of New York’s 69th Regiment. This dual past is echoed in The Palace of Projects, a haunting and visionary installation by the great Russian conceptualist Ilya Kabakov and his wife, Emilia, and sponsored by the Public Art Fund. A monumental sculpture and a work of proliferating narrative dimensions, The Palace is an immense spiral-shaped structure made of translucent white fabric stretched across a wooden frame, whose form recalls the protective cover of a nautilus shell or a moth’s cocoon and the dreamlike towers of Brueghel and Tatlin.

Its multichambered interior is filled with wooden chairs and tables, where viewers can peruse written descriptions of 65 projects by imaginary Soviet citizens, aiming at the improvement of the individual, art, and society. Beside the desks are models of each contributor’s vision. They offer suggestions ranging from what to do with discarded household objects (create a memorial to the past in your apartment) to plans for ideal prisons and cloud management. The ground floor resembles a science fair run amok, or a melancholy parody of those innumerable Soviet Palaces to Art and Industry. Ascending a spiral staircase, the projects become more vast, including a fictional fourth-grader’s “Plan of My Life” and another student’s “Universal System for Depicting Everything.”

The utopian impulse which fueled art for much of the 20th century also gave rise to its greatest atrocities, including the gulags and death camps. With gentle irony, The Palace links these vast historical tragedies to the pathetic daily efforts we all make to improve ourselves and our environment. Their imaginary realization is our refuge; their failure, our salvation.

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