"I am not I and the horse is not mine, and the coachman is not me" – Kentridge chose this well-known Russian proverb for the title of his work. He created his 8-channel installation while selecting material for the production of the opera The Nose by Shostakovich written at the end of the 1920s. The visual accompaniment consisted of different art languages of the times, such as Constructivism of El Lisitsky, the expressive means of Gogol's story that was dramatized for the staging of the opera, and some early Soviet films.
Kentridge immerses the audience into a phantasmagoric action. An absurdist shadow theater is played out on several screens – people's silhouettes, like ghosts lost in time, are walking somewhere in a file following the standard-bearer; someone is dancing a dashing Ukrainian dance; Gogol's Nose dressed in a tutu comes dancing on the forefront; a stray horse is wandering about. On one of the screens we can see archival footage showing large-scale Soviet parades with subtitles from the speech of the noted Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin made in February 1937 at the plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in which he defends himself before his former associates from accusations of treason and sabotage. The language of absurdism becomes here a means of expression for a whole people's collective memory. Who will assume responsibility for what had happened to the country? Perhaps it is not the people who are to blame but the escaped Noses who have seized power? Has that all happened in reality or was it a bad dream and, as in the case of Collegiate Assessor Kovalev from Gogol's story, people just need to wake up and the horrors of the past will remain in their memory as nightmares?
Kentridge calls his work "an elegy to the avant-garde" despite the fact that the sound is loud and lively. This is an elegy to the formalist art language which fell into oblivion in the 1930s, and the expression of regret for crushed hopes to obtain new creative energy and accomplish positive changes promised by the revolution.
Kentridge addresses the country's historical memory, and moreover, his work is also topographically connected to the exhibition venue. It was from the Lubyanka prison, located closely to the exhibition hall, that in the spring of 1937, a year before his verdict and execution, Nikolai Bukharin was writing a letter to Stalin pleading for pardon. Stalin sent out the letter to the other members of the Politburo many of whom gave accusatory comments. Lazar Kaganovich wrote thus on his copy of the letter: "The same fraudulent song: I am not I and the horse is not mine."