The Whimsical World of Russia’s Most Important Contemporary Artists

New exhibitions in London and D.C. showcase Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s prolific careers—and the power of art in the face of adversity

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, *The Ship of Tolerance, Zug*, 2016.
Photo: Zug Tourismus/Fotografie Daniel
Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov together in their studio; they’ve been collaborating since 1988. Photo: Courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

When I first met Emilia Kabakov, she was in the midst of a month-long London stay, assembling her new show at the Tate Modern museum. It was a much longer time, she said, than most artists would generally spend preparing for an exhibition. Yet, “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future,” which opened on October 18, required a particularly elaborate set-up. The Kabakovs’ first major U.K. museum exhibition will feature three major installations of grand scale and intricate detail, in addition to other works from their prolific career, from the 1960s through the present.

As Russia’s most important living artists, the Kabakovs fuse elements of the everyday with those of the conceptual through painting, etching, and installation. Ilya and Emilia—both born in the Soviet Union in 1933 and 1945, respectively—have been collaborating for the past three decades.

The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, 1989, is on view at London’s Tate Modern. Photo: Emilia Kabakov, 2000. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York

The issues they raise about Soviet politics and the future of art are major concerns within the duo’s practice. At the Tate, Emilia and Ilya are showing The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1985), Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) (1990), and Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future (2001). The first consists of a large room with Communist posters and paraphernalia. In the center sits a empty pair of shoes, and a giant tear in the ceiling suggests that the man who once inhabited them did, indeed, fly into space. The second is a maze-like series of corridors that leads to a small room filled simply with wood and debris. In the third, the artists set up a fence, a bridge, rolled up paintings and drawings, and the back of a train car that seems poised for imminent departure. Taken together, the three installations suggest inventive, alternate worlds and the idiosyncratic characters who might once have inhabited them.

The Five Steps of Life, 2010. Photo: Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York Photo courtesy of the artists

For those unable to travel to London, the Kabakovs have an exhibition stateside as well, at D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum. There, “The Utopian Projects” (which runs through March 4, 2018) displays over twenty of the pair’s maquettes and models for projects both realized and unrealized. “We had a problem,” Emilia says. “We do a lot of installations… and we were thinking that people are not going to see them maybe ever.”

Here, in one space, viewers can look at the miniatures (many rigged with light, sound, and motion that responds to their presence) and imagine the full-blown versions. While the experience isn’t quite as immersive as seeing the real deal, it allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the artists’ processes and concepts. Additionally, says Emilia, “people do love little things.”

The Children’s Hospital (Extraordinary Pirouettes), 1998. Photo: Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York Photo courtesy of the artists

One of the featured projects includes The Ship of Tolerance, a barge whose sail is composed of stitched-together children’s paintings and drawings, all responding to the idea of “tolerance.” The Kabakovs first launched their hopeful vessel in Egypt in 2005 and have since crafted iterations in Cuba, Switzerland, Italy, and Brooklyn.

The duo now lives together on Long Island, dreaming up works rooted both in a fraught Soviet past and optimism for the future. About their still unrealized projects, she says, “we always plan to realize things in the future. We are very hopeful… never say never.”

The Fallen Sky, 2010. Photo: Cathy Carver. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects,” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through March 4, 2018.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future,” is on view at the Tate Modern through January 28, 2018.

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