Ilya Kabakov began his career in Moscow in the 1950s as a children’s book illustrator and became one of the key members of a group of unofficial conceptual artists working there. As an unofficial artist working under the Soviet regime, he and his colleagues were under near-constant surveillance by the authorities. This overwhelming presence of the state prompted creative inventions to avoid censorship and interrogation, such as masking identity, and creating an artistic language that was subversive while remaining undetected as such by the authorities.
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These realities of the Soviet era have continuously informed Ilya Kabakov’s art. Kabakov was the first artist to effectively convey the unique atmosphere of his homeland on an international scale and yet his creations have always resonated on a universal level. Married since 1992, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov began working collaboratively as early as 1988. As pioneers of installation art, they have since created a massive body of work that is held in significant private and public collections across the globe including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
I travelled to the couple’s Long Island home to discuss their works being offered in our upcoming sale of Russian Art, the importance of their installations and how they view their history and their efforts to build a lasting presence.
In our upcoming sale of Russian Art, we will be offering Under the Snow # 18 from the eponymous series, which spans the years 2004-2006. The notion of ‘stillness’ immediately comes to mind in this beautiful painting — stillness in the idyllic sense, as famously defined by the German Romantic notion of ‘Ruhe’, but also as something negative, such as stagnancy perhaps.
Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933) and Emilia Kabakov (b. 1945), Under the snow #18, 2005. Pencil and oil on canvas. Archive number 518. 172.8 x 404 cm. Estimate: £180,000-250,000. This work is offered in the Russian Art sale on 30 November at Christie’s in London
Emilia Kabakov: Yes. For the last 25 years of Communism, from the Brezhnev era, it was stillness, stagnation, similar to when snow is covering the surface. Then perestroika happened — a thaw —and things started appearing slowly; images, memories. But, sometimes, what we think is a stagnation is actually something close to a paradise — because the idea of paradise is the idea of a kind of stability.
Ilya Kabakov: Under the snow is an image of snow thawing and you begin to see what is hidden beneath. It is comparable to the White Chapel in our installation The Strange City, which was recently exhibited in the Grand Palais (see below). There are fragments of reality coming through a white surface, and these are fragments of memories. These memories don’t come as a whole, but the more you look, the more you understand it as a global, total memory, and therefore as reality.
There are different stages. First comes enthusiasm, then reality, then pessimism, and then nothing, cosmic emptiness
These fragments from the past are also part of the images that are currently in the process of making. In this sense, there is no future: the future will only repeat the past. Every time there is going to be an attempt by some generation to make a jump, each jump will carry with it something that has already happened. The result will always be the same.
I am not of El Lissitzky’s generation, so I do not see the ‘future’ in the same way. But I really admire Lissitzky. He was an incredible dreamer, a fantasist. He left for Germany and together with Moholy-Nagy and others, worked to create an international constructivist school that was driven by a burning enthusiasm.
The drive was the same with Malevich. There are different stages. First comes enthusiasm, then reality, then pessimism, and then nothing, cosmic emptiness… and then the cycle begins again. ‘Cosmic thought’ is very pronounced in Russia — the ‘cosmos’ appears when the country goes into emptiness. When a country or a culture becomes empty, then someone like Malevich appears. We have to wait.
We are also offering an earlier work in this sale, Inna Gavrilovna Sycheva: Whose wings are these?, which is rooted in themes that have also appeared frequently in your oeuvre — varying characters, or alter egos, and different spaces such as the communal kitchens you created as part of your ‘total installations’. Is your vision and understanding of the world predominantly structured by your experience of Soviet Russia?
EK: In the very beginning, yes. In the beginning it was based on Russian reality, but, actually it’s not only reality — the trick here is that it is based on a fantasy about that reality. It is not a documentation of Soviet reality, but rather an idiosyncratic understanding and fear of reality — and thus an imaginary Russian reality.
Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933), Inna Gavrilovna Sycheva: Whose wings are these?, 1990. Pencil, ink and coloured pencil on paper. 22 x 28.2 cm. Estimate: £3,000-5,000. This work is offered in the Russian Art sale on 30 November at Christie’s in London
IK: Yes, it was a fantasy of reality. The question is how does one create and convey this context? There has to be an atmosphere, an aura — the Soviet object only has meaning when it is surrounded by an aura. The idea of the ‘total installation’ appeared for the first time in Moscow in 1984, and then was fully realised in New York 1988 at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts with 10 Characters.
The question was, how do you bring this aura into an American gallery so it does not disappear? The decision was made to construct a cell, a closed space, where the viewers enter and understand that they are no longer in America but in some weird, extraordinary space, which is unfamiliar, yet emotionally stimulating to them.
Many perceive these installations to be negative; but it is because we wanted to create the air of Soviet life, and that was a frightening life
We created this by building a space with a ceiling, a floor, rooms, where the viewer encounters a very specific environment, and then all of the objects come alive in this space. Because this space influenced all the senses and emotions, we called it a ‘total installation’.
Here the viewer is surrounded on all sides by the installation, and loses his or her freedom, feels trapped and becomes its victim. Many perceive these installations to be negative; but it is because we wanted to create the air of Soviet life, and that was a frightening life. It is a life of gulags, communal flats, the police.
Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1984. Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
We created a lot of those spaces — communal apartments and kitchens, and many others. All of these spaces shared one quality: they influence the viewer in a total way. From the very first step into the installation, after the first door, the viewer found him or herself in a very specific atmosphere.
Later, non-Soviet installations that we created, about life in general — whether ironic or profoundly emotional — still follow the same creative process in order to have the forceful impact of a ‘total installation’.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Strange City, Grand Palais, 2014. Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
Throughout your career, there have been different personalities that not only appear as characters in your works, but alter egos that you seem to take on; for example, you were at some point ’Charles Rosenthal’, you were/are ‘Ilya and Emilia’, ‘Spivakov’, ‘Ilya Kabakov’, ‘Stepan Yakovlevich Koselev’ and so on.
EK: You have a point. This allows for a certain freedom, and a certain escape. At some point in everyone’s lives we all want to escape from reality anywhere, somewhere. Very often our character of the ‘little man’ is compared to Gogol’s ‘little man’, but in our case, it is not just about better clothes, or a better job, as all these ‘little men’ want in the literary tradition, but an escape towards utopia, which is absolutely disconnected from reality.
IK: The problem lies in man’s fate, of being born into a specific environment and, for example, experiencing the horror of finding yourself in a world of savagery; when you are not in a human world but in the world filled with wildness. I always compare this to the life of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Ship of Tolerance, New York, 2013. Photo by Jenia Fridlyand
Mowgli doesn’t remember that he is a human; he has been an animal for a long time because he was brought up surrounded by animals, but one day he finds the ruins of some city, palaces, and begins to remember that once upon a time he was a human. This image of a person who begins to remember that he is a human being but who is still surrounded by the animal world is vital.
In the Soviet Union there were some sorts of little islands, or oases in the middle of the wildness — four places: the conservatory, theatre, museum, and library. When you came to these places you felt like you were in a cultural environment, where culture thrives, not wildness. These were the last remains of culture, which for some reason were preserved. To see these remains was very important for people who thought that everything was over. It became essential, then, to be a part of these little islands, these cultural remains.
At some point in Amei Wallach’s documentary Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here, you mention that the ideal space for exhibiting art is the Museum — the Metropolitan Museum of Art being the archetypal example; that there is something in that space that intensifies the presence of works of art and traces of all civilizations…
EK: Because it’s a kind of validation, a validation of eternity. The museum is like a treasury, a protective castle. There is a permanence there.
IK: This was an important notion for unofficial artists in Moscow. I had a fantasy that all of my paintings will hang in museums and that they will always be in a museum. There have been many fantasies about the fate of paintings among artists such as Pavel Filonov and the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who also only envisioned their art in museums. Mikhail Shwartsman, like Vasily Kandinsky before him, created spiritual symphonies.
It’s a Russian tradition to picture your paintings not on the wall above the couch but in a temple. And I also have this crazy idea, only I don’t want to see my art in the temple; I’d like to see my work within the History of Art.
Artists have two time periods: a short one, on average about two to four years, but there is also the chance you will remain in the historical culture
It is very important for an artist to reflect his or her epoch. Just like an actor who performs on stage, you have only a limited amount of time and a little stage, and it is your stage and your time. You have a program to fulfil. If you succeed in performing on this stage, then it is safe to say that your job as an artist is meaningful. If you just stand there without performing, then you haven’t fulfilled your program.
That’s it. It’s quite simple — artists have two time periods: a short one, on average about two to four years, but there is also the chance for a long time period, to remain in your epoch for a long time, and if you are lucky you will remain in the historical culture.
In your upcoming exhibition, which will open at the Pace Gallery in New York on 11 December, you will be showing some of your most recent work, which continues the thread of memory...
IK: This work depicts the collision of two time periods, two images; the main past is composed of images, typical for classical paintings. That is the total past. This is covered with fragmented memories of the Soviet era.
There is a concentration on classical painting because I feel that today we need to reincorporate the Baroque into the present day. Sometimes in order to move forward, one has to look back— just as Michelangelo looked back to ancient Roman sculpture, and gave it new life — this is the true meaning of the ‘Renaissance’. This is my intuition. If this works, we can move forward.
Main image at top: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in their studio, 2013. Jason Schmidt / Trunk Archive. The Russian Art department would like to thank Anastasia Troitskaya for her assistance in preparing this interview.
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