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Giving a sense of secret lives

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov: The Palace of Projects At the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London NW1 until 10 May. Advance booking 0171 336 6803

Running through the history of twentieth-century art is the dichotomy between formalism and realism: whether art needs conceits and conventions to convey some meaning or emotion, or whether it really can be a seamless continuum with 'everyday' life. Nowhere was this division more hotly contested than in the Soviet Union, where a natural propensity for philosophising became embroiled with the contradictory revolutionary imperatives for art to be comprehensible and to shed its bourgeois traditions.

'The Palace of Projects', Ilya and Emilia Kabakov's exhibition organised by Artangel at the Roundhouse, is full of knowing references and a few subconscious echoes of this maelstrom.

The title recalls the Palace of the Soviets, a competition whose outcome - a piece of Stalinist baroque rather than Le Corbusier - ended starry-eyed hopes that the Soviet Union would back the avant-garde. And if stripped of its filmy walls, the circular installation might resemble Tatlin's tower.

Moving into the subconscious - where the most interesting territory of this exhibition lies - the most prevalent theme is a sense of the samizdat, of things not being quite as they seem: of secret lives. And if ever a building had a secret life, it is the Roundhouse.

Here boundaries blur between form and reality. A suite of rooms winds along the floor, before reaching a generous flight of steps. Once ascended, you exit by a tight spiral staircase, uncannily echoing the relationship between the grand and servants' staircases in a bourgeois home.

With its bare wood and simple furniture, the first space resembles an unfinished classroom or the trendier type of noodle bar; but rather than menus, the plastic sheets on the tables contain commentaries on the installations which are spread across the room.

These installations are ironic commentaries on the notion of progress, and the efficacy of creating order by diktat. They are, in a sense, a reaction to those endless pronouncements about improvements which were rescinded or contradicted even before it became apparent that they were unachievable. Titles like 'the world as one big family', 'control over the external world' and 'a universal system for depicting everything' are obvious in their relationship to totalitarianism and potential for ironic subversion.

There are 65 of them, so it is hardly possible to pay equal attention to all, although the incessant repetition and deliberately amateurish qualities of the models and installations reinforce an overall impression of the ghoulishly surreal.

Several which caught my eye are 'A room taking off in flight', 'Noosphere', and 'Plan of my life'. Each explores the notion of prescription, whether spatial or metaphysical. 'A room taking off in flight' is a small model of an interior, with 'things which you bump into without noticing it . . . remove the parquet . . . so that a deep hole downwards opens up . . . the bottomless pit'. It is, as P G Wodehouse wrote, 'like one of those Russian plays where the third footman appears in the second act to announce that Grandpapa has hanged himself in the drawing room'. That interplay between comedy and tragedy is a hallmark of Russian literature, and a rich source of ironic speculation .

'Noosphere', a discovery of Professor A Vernadsky, is a layer of the earth's atmosphere where all the ideas of all civilisations are preserved, waiting to be accessed by eager humans.

Buckminster Fuller and the Internet will never seem the same again. And this positivistic belief is summarised in 'Plan of my life', the potted CV of a successful scientist, outlining his studies, marriage, work and happy ret irement. For some people, the Soviet system evidently worked, but placing such a bald account in such a context inevitably subverts it.

Somewhere underlying this lurks the spectre of technology, a practice whose manifestations may recall Heath Robinson but which contributed greatly to the Holocaust.

One reading of this exhibition is as an insight into the world of the Soviet Union. The questions of existence faced there were not so far from those in the West, but the ways of posing them were certainly different.

But there is another more relevant reading. Somewhere else in London quite a lot of intelligent and talented people are also trying to cram various explorations of human life into one, overarching structure. They, too, draw on messianic pronouncements from politicians. And the Kabakovs' exhibition shows how irony might help us through simplistic Blairite presumptions.

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