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Das boot

Personal history steers The Boat of My Life

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This year, rather than providing the centerpiece for the annual ArtParty at the Contemporary, art served as a quiet backdrop (if you could get to the backdrop through the more than 3,000 revelers). The quiet and reflective exhibition that opened the night might have puzzled party-goers, who in past years entered the gallery in droves to explore the history of the Atlanta area music scene, to see artists' visions of love and lust and to speculate on the body as commodity. That weak connection between art and party might have occurred partly because a committee rather than Contemporary staffers runs the event these days, lifting a big load off the staff's shoulders. The effect appears to have distanced the fund-raiser from a celebration of art and made it feel more like just another humongous party. Crowded equals happening, and the fact that all the food was gone by 9:15 p.m. didn't seem to matter to most. Especially since organizers brought in a surprise burst of pizza at midnight. It also didn't seem important that the 5,000-square-foot dance floor was essentially used for standing room.

Oh yes, the art. The idea for the party, called "Paradise," was to spin off some ideas within The Boat of My Life by Russian expatriate artist Ilya Kabakov. But instead of a hedonistic experience á la ArtParty, Kabakov's work requires time and thought. The installation is a meditation on life and his search for meaning and happiness.

The Boat recounts the personal history of the once dissident, now internationally renowned artist. Enclosed behind a high fence, a 53-foot-long open wood boat is filled with more than 20 cardboard boxes loaded with thrift-store clothes and occasional toys, baby shoes and blankets. In each box, atop those objects, are sheets of cardboard covered in a scrapbook fashion.

His story begins at birth, Sept. 30, 1933, in Dnepropetrovsk. Above each brief typed notation is adhered visual attachments -- photo prints and old magazine photos -- along with flotsam and jetsam like buttons, bits of cloth, a tassel, a bobbin, a broken pencil, pottery shards, gum wrappers, bottle caps, broken clothes pins.

Each chapter in his could-be-a-book exhibit is labeled at the top with notes like "Mama," "First Installations. Desperation," "Spring 1989." Dated factual observations about bombings, death, unpleasant living conditions and early artwork later give way to emotional phrases ("I am lonely." "I am quietly perishing.") and psychological speculation ("There is an extremely strong desire not to drown, to float to the top, perhaps to keep myself on the surface.").

The massive vessel and its shabby artifacts create the numbing sensation that might accompany displacement. The Boat reminds viewers of how incidental objects can trigger important personal recollections, how memory becomes fragmented and disordered, how the emotion of a moment might be repressed or drain away with time.

Two other artists on view -- Corinne Colarusso and James Castle -- share ideas about "memory, archiving and collecting within your environment," says curator Teresa Bramlette. Kabakov's language-based aesthetic finds its counterpoint in the self-taught art of Castle and the fantastical nature-inspired drawings of Colarusso.

The late Castle, a deaf artist from Idaho, made wordless drawings and books from butcher paper, matchbook covers, cardboard and mail order catalogues. Appropriating materials similar to those of the Kabakov in his work, Castle created empathetic figures and simple scenes that reflected his rural surroundings. Less than 10 of more than 1,000 works made in his lifetime figure in this exhibition.

In her recent artmaking, Atlantan Colarusso waxes most lyrical on depot order forms. Her doodled birds, fantastic patterns and floral designs constitute a language of their own. "Free wandering" is a term she uses to describe her automatic drawings. Repeated fine-lined images from the natural world allow the viewer to wander into the artist's own vision of paradise. Looking into her loose styled painting of Gaze Island makes one long for a small boat and a paddle.

The Boat of My Life continues through Oct. 21 at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. 404-688-1970.

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