Excerpt from "The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away"

Ilya Kabakov

This is an excerpt from Kabakov's text, originally published in Moscow in 1977 and then in English with the exhibition Ilya Kabakov: Ten Characters at the ICA London in 1989. 

[…] For many years a plumber lived in our apartment. This was known to be a fact, although no one had ever seen him, but the children who misbehaved and ran screaming through the corridor were threatened that he would jump out at any moment and eat them. […] Once, when it had already got quite cold and it was necessary to check the heat, we were visited by three grease-covered men with wrenches in their hands who demanded that we tell them where the plumber was located. Uncle Misha, who was the chief tenant responsible for the apartment, pointed to the door where the plumber supposedly lived. The door was locked. The grease-covered men were on duty and they had to start up the heat, and since the chief tenants and witnesses were present, it was decided to break down the door, and this was done in an instant.

Newspaper spread from the Collyer brothers saga, c. 1947 (The New York Times, March 22, 1947).

There was no plumber in the room. The men with the wrenches had left, but all those who had entered with Uncle Misha couldn’t regain their wits for a long time and stood still, transfixed, looking around in amazement.

The entire room, from floor to ceiling, was filled with heaps of different types of garbage. But this wasn’t a disgusting, stinking junkyard like the one in our yard or in the large bins near the gates of our building, but rather a gigantic warehouse of the most varied things, arranged in a special, one might say carefully maintained, order. Flat things formed a pyramid in one corner, all types of containers and jars were placed in appropriate boxes along the walls. In between hanging bunches of garbage stood some sort of shelving upon which myriad boxes, rags and sticks were set out in strict order … Almost all the shelves where these things were placed were accurately labeled, and each item had a five- or six-digit number glued on it and a label attached to it from below. There were also lots of things – piles of paper, manuscripts – on a big table standing in the middle of the room, but these didn’t have any numbers or labels on them yet … Chief tenant Uncle Misha bent over one of the manuscripts and read ‘Garbage’ (an article):

Usually, everybody has heaps of accumulated piles of paper under their table and their desk, magazine and telephone notices which stream into our homes each day. Our home literally stands under a paper rain: magazines, letters, addresses, receipts, notes, envelopes, invitations, catalogues, programmes, telegrams, wrapping paper, and so forth. These streams, waterfalls of paper, we periodically sort and arrange into groups, and for every person, these groups are different: a group of valuable papers, a group for memory’s sake, a group of pleasant recollections, a group for every unforeseen occasion – every person has their own principle. The rest, of course, is thrown out on the rubbish heap. It is precisely this division of important papers from unimportant that is particularly difficult and tedious, but everyone knows it is necessary, and after the sorting everything is more or less in order until the next deluge. But if you don’t do these sortings, these purges, and you allow the flow of paper to engulf you, considering it impossible to sort the important from the unimportant – would that be insanity? When is that possible? It is possible when a person honestly doesn’t know which of these papers is important and which is not, why one principle of selection is better than another, and what distinguishes a pile of necessary papers from a pile of garbage.

A completely different correlation arises in his consciousness: should everything, without exception, before his eyes in the form of an enormous paper sea, be considered to be valuable or to be garbage, and then should it all be saved or thrown away? Given such a relationship, the vacillations in making such a choice become agonizing. A simple feeling speaks about the value, the importance of everything. This feeling is familiar to everyone who has looked through or rearranged his accumulated papers: this is the memory associated with all the events connected to each of these papers. To deprive ourselves of these paper symbols and testimonies is to deprive ourselves somewhat of our memories. In our memory everything becomes equally valuable and significant. All points of our recollections are tied to one another. They form chains and connections in our memory which ultimately comprise the story of our life.

To deprive ourselves of all this means to part with who we were in the past, and in a certain sense, it means to cease to exist.

But on the other hand, simple common sense tells us that, with the exception of important papers, memorable postcards and other letters which are dear to the heart, the rest is of no value and is simply rubbish […] But where does this view come from, cast from the sidelines onto our papers? Why must we agree with this detached view and allow it to determine the suitability or uselessness of these things? Why must we look at out past and not consider it our own, or what is worse, reproach or laugh at it?

Yes, but who can, who has the right to look at my life from the outside, even if that other is me? Why should common sense be stronger than my memories, stronger than all the moments of my life which are attached to these scraps of paper which now seem funny and useless?

Here, of course, one might object that these memories exist only for me, while for others who don’t know my memories, these papers are simply trash.

Yes, but why do I have to part with my memories, memories that are contained in such a state of scrap that externally resemble garbage?

I don’t understand this.

Grouped together, bound in folders, these papers comprise the single uninterrupted fabric of an entire life, the way it was in the past and the way it is now. And though inside these folders there appears to be an orderless heap of pulp, for me there is an awful lot in this garbage, almost everywhere. Moreover, strange as it seems, I feel that it is precisely the garbage, that very dirt where important papers and simple scraps are mixed and unsorted, that comprises the genuine and only real fabric of my life, no matter how ridiculous and absurd this may seem from the outside.

Uncle Misha raised his head, and, bewildered, looked around the small room. He saw his neighbors swarming in the diverse garbage. […]

Page from Merz 2 no. 7 (Hannover: January 1924); Kurt Schwitters, ed.

This is the second text in Pastelegram's seventh online issue, "French Leave," focused on the closet of artist Chuck Ramirez. The issue's central project is "Hot Ballotage."

Copyright © 2021 Pastelegram. All Rights Reserved