Homecoming for the Kabakovs

The first Russian retrospective of the country’s most celebrated living artists opens this month at three sites in the capital

This month, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Russia’s most critically acclaimed contemporary artists, open their first major exhibition in their native country since Ilya left the Soviet Union just over 20 years ago in 1987. Since 1996 the couple have been based in Long Island, New York. They have collaborated since 1989 and are celebrated for creating works charting the social history of 20th-century Russia. Ilya, who turns 75 on 30 September, declined to be interviewed, but we spoke to Emilia about their upcoming Russian retrospective.

The exhibition will be held at three locations: the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; CCC Moscow in the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, a new gallery set up by Daria Zhukova which opens this month; and the M&J Guelman Gallery at the main exhibition hall of the Winzavod Contemporary Arts Centre. The shows open over three consecutive days starting on 15 September. According to Joseph Backstein, the director of the Moscow Biennale and curator of the Kabakov retrospective, the total cost of the three shows will be $3m with $250,000 coming from the Russian Ministry of Culture and $300,000 from the Artmedia communications company. The rest of the funding will come from Ms Zhukova’s partner Roman Abramovich and the Iris Foundation, a new non-profit organisation founded by Ms Zhukova.

The Art Newspaper: What is going on show in your Moscow retrospective?

Emilia Kabakov: There will be a total of six installations—three at Winzavod: Life of Flies (1992); Tennis Game (1995); and The Toilet, first shown in Documenta 9 (1993). The Pushkin Museum will have The Gates (2008), which has been made specifically for the exhibition. CCC Moscow will have a specially made copy of the Red Wagon (1992) and Alternative History of Art (1997). These installations will be housed in a small state-of-the-art “museum” erected for the show [inside CCC Moscow].

We don’t want to show anything made before 1992 because everyone in Russia knows what the Kabakovs do. They think it’s the [works based on] the communal apartment, installations that explore the concept of shared spaces by recreating the types of dwellings that were common in Soviet Russia. We want to break that mould. This is not a real retrospective. It’s a thematic show, based on a few concepts, so the old works simply are not included because they don’t fit into the theme.

The show is about utopia, it’s about lost dreams and the concept of “the artist”. The Toilet is about life and existence. It’s saying, we live in a toilet, but it’s still our home. Many people take The Toilet to be literal, that we are saying all Russians live in a toilet. But that is not so. Every country has a period when life is terrible and people don’t like their country. But it is still home. Life in the toilet can be very comfortable, very personal.

TAN: How did you discover the Bakhmetevsky bus garage? And how did Daria Zhukova and Roman Abramovich become involved?

EK: Joseph Backstein brought this building to our attention in around 2004. We were looking all over Moscow, and we couldn’t find the right space for our exhibition. As soon as we saw the garage, we knew immediately it was an incredible space in an historic modern monument. But the place was an absolute mess: no windows, broken walls, no floors, no doors. Nobody had been using it for quite a long time and there were plans to tear it down, until the [Moscow Hasidic] Jewish Community leased it from the government, for 49 years.

About 18 months ago, the Moscow Biennale and the Culture Ministry made an agreement with the Jewish community to use the garage for our show, and we began fundraising. But at the end of 2007, we got a call from Backstein saying the garage had been rented to Dasha (Daria) Zhukova and Roman Abramovich for a cultural project. At first we were scared that our plans would be ruined, but Dasha came to us immediately with her ideas. She struck me immediately as a sharp and focused person. At the beginning she and Abramovich agreed to help with some of the finances, but only a small amount. Then we had some problems with the Prokhorov Foundation [in June, billionaire sponsor Mikhail Prokhorov withdrew his $2m funding for the exhibition], but then Roman, Dasha and her Iris Foundation agreed to become the main sponsors.

The original idea was to make a Museum of Tolerance, which the Jewish community still plan to do. Dasha is helping to restore the building, but eventually she will move out, although no-one knows when. For now, she and the Jewish community are helping each other out. As far as Dasha and Roman are concerned, they have made a serious long-term commitment to art. They have very competent advisors who are running their programme. It is important for them to be in Moscow, and to give this city a serious, international contemporary art centre, and to put Moscow on the map of the global contemporary art scene. Roman owns a few of our works. Not many, so far. Dasha also owns some works as well.

TAN: Why is this retrospective taking place now and not earlier?

EK: The artist has to be ready and the country has to be ready for you. Ilya didn’t want to come to Moscow, even when he had an exhibition at the Hermitage in St Petersburg in 2004. But Nic Iljine of the Guggenheim Foundation explained to us that things are changing in Russia and that we should do an exhibition because Ilya is becoming a mythological figure whose works few Russians have seen.

TAN: Where does the show go after Moscow?

EK: It will continue in a different configuration because we never do the same thing twice. We will go to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, maybe in 2010, and we will also have an event in New York, but I won’t say where, except that it will be in a major museum. Then we will probably go to Washington, DC.

TAN: Was the possibility of censorship in Russia an obstacle for you?

EK: There has been no pressure and no problems from the authorities. I can’t comment on the general situation in Russia, but I can say that we would never allow anybody to censor us. If that happened we would just leave. We made that very clear from the beginning.

TAN: What are Ilya’s major periods?

EK: It’s difficult to describe. But to simplify, he began as a young man with abstract experiments, such as Cézannism, then moved to conceptual art where the narrative was very important. Then in the late 1970s and 1980s there was a period of installations, about 18 years, especially on Soviet themes. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ilya took on big public projects all around the world, for instance in Japan, Germany and Spain. Now, he is again making paintings with a concept; it’s a full circle back to the 1970s.

TAN: Which Russians collect your work?

EK: We are careful when selling to Russians because we worry that they will turn around and resell the works. The top Russian collectors include Alexander Smuzikov. He has a lot

of works, in fact, I think his is the biggest Kabakov collection in Russian hands. Delya Allakhverdova of the Contemporary City Foundation has some paintings and some drawings, from the 1980s. They both bought directly from us. Vyacheslav Kantor [billionaire and president of the Russian Jewish Congress] has quite a few pieces.

TAN: What does Russia need to do to improve its contemporary art scene?

EK: We recently met the new Russian Culture Minister, Alexander Avdeyev, and the first thing that he asked us was our thoughts on how to bring contemporary Russian art to the highest level. We told him that it’s necessary to be like America—giving rich people incentives to buy and then donate to museums. He said that the tax authorities won’t like that kind of idea. We also said that the Russian government needs to do more to support young artists and the artistic community. It has to be serious art; art which is not made to make money. When an artist starts creating for money they are finished.

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