The eyes of sports fans around the world are fixed on Ukraine this June, but a little corner of that country can also be seen on a Paris wall. A seemingly clandestine plaque commemorating the life of a Ukranian named Urgus Tabarovitch is fixed to the staircase on the Avenue de Camoens in the 16th arrondissement, but did this person ever really exist?
‘Urgus Tabarovitch, 1932-1952’, reads the plaque, followed by a quotation in Russian (Ukranian?). Translated to French, but partially torn away, all we can see is an enigmatic “C’est l’irrésistible besoin de savoir” (it’s the irresistible need to know) - perhaps a message aimed directly at those attempting to hunt down this mysterious character.
A biography for Tabarovitch does exist on the internet, but unsubstantiated online sources are notoriously unreliable. The story though is a fascinating one.
Tabarovitch was always something of an outsider. As a young boy he once said to his mother that he “would have liked to have been a bird, to fly, escape and get away from everything”. He developed a passion for art, but with his creations being restricted by a repressive regime, he chose to retreat further towards the margins of society. Flying remained his dream, but he also wondered how flight could somehow be mixed with art.
At the age of 19 he designed and built his own biplane, nicknamed turkey, and was delighted when he managed to get it flying in 1952. Although this gave him more freedom, he was still unfulfilled artistically until he began experimenting with his creations in ‘aerial destructuration’. This consisted of a cow’s bladder, inflated with a mixture of paint and gas, that he attached to his flying machines. As he flew, he released the mixture in order to create ephemeral coloured skies, always covering the same space of 4 square kilometres.
He continued doing this, producing dozens of variations, until one day in 1982 when his machine crashed in a field near Kiev. During his lifetime he remained unknown – ‘except to his neighbours’ – but his name began to circulate amongst contemporary artists following research into the archives of the ex-Soviet Union by a young Russian student.
The story reads a little like an elaborate surrealist hoax, and this sentiment is further heightened by the existence of a micro-blog on the artist’s life. Here we discover (in only four posts) that he was an insomniac throughout his life and rarely slept ‘more than two hours a night’ (when he wasn’t stitching cow bladders), and that he made herbal potions to help him get high and relax. His sleeping problems surely weren’t helped either by the fact that he slept in a bed that was 160cm long, despite measuring 198cm himself!
Interestingly, the last post on the blog links to an article that supposedly appeared in French current affairs magazine ‘Le Point’ (dated January 2010), suggesting that a plaque would soon be placed on a wall in Paris, in agreement with the city authorities and a mysterious organisation called the ‘Cercle des poetes disparus’.
Why this would happen is not explained. If Tabarovitch did exist, he certainly had no links to Paris, and no particular reason to be celebrated in the city. There seems to be no logical reason either why it would be placed in the 16th near the Trocadero, when the magazine article mentions a possible spot in the Latin Quarter.
If Tabarovitch did exist, it is certainly a life that deserves further investigation and celebration. If he didn't, I would like to know who invented him and why!