Artists Interview Features France

Kabakovs go large in Paris

The Russian couple are showing across Europe this summer, and their Monumenta commission, opening this month, is their biggest challenge yet

Emilia Kabakov says the duo’s installation in Paris’s Grand Palais will address the “big problem” of living two lives, “one in reality and another on the internet”

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have been together for 25 years, living mainly in Long Island, New York, and creating installations that are shown in major museums and galleries around the globe. But they have known each other all their lives; Ilya is Emilia’s mother’s cousin. “We always knew each other; we were both living in Moscow,” says Emilia, a lively, warm-hearted, cheerful woman in her late sixties, as she sips an extra-large coffee the day after the opening of their exhibition “El Lissitzky—Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Utopia and Reality” at the Kunsthaus Graz, Austria. “We used to see each other all the time before I left Russia [in 1973]. I spent a lot of time in the studio with him; it was my paradise. I would go there and sit and read a book or listen to music.”

Back then, they could never have imagined the international acclaim they would receive during a quarter of a century living together in the West. And this month is as significant as any point in their recent history: they have three exhibitions in different European venues, including a major new installation in the Grand Palais in Paris, the latest in the hugely popular Monumenta series, which opens on 10 May.

Before that, they have “Utopia and Reality” (until 11 May), the fourth and final version of a show juxtaposing works by Lissitzky, the Russian avant-garde artist who believed in a new communist society in the heady days of the Revolution, and Ilya Kabakov, who initially worked alone as a key member of the underground Moscow Conceptualists, pouring into his creations the nightmarish daily reality of Soviet life, from communal kitchens to suffocating state control.

The show began in 2012 at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, which holds the largest collection of works by Lissitzky outside Russia, and the idea was to confront the artists’ distinct aesthetic, ethical and political views of the Soviet Union. “We had considerable doubts: Lissitzky belongs to a completely different generation and he is like an icon in Russia,” says Emilia, who speaks for the couple. “We felt uncomfortable and somehow inadequate.” But they accepted the challenge. “The more we looked at Lissitzky, the more we understood that he did believe in changing the world, creating the new communist man who would be adequate to live in that world,” she says.

The exhibition travelled from the Netherlands to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg last summer and to the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow at the end of last year. In the latest version, the Kabakovs have moved from juxtaposition to complete separation from Lissitzky’s take on political and social issues. “It’s true that from the creative point of view, many things are similar,” Emilia says. “He did posters for the Revolution; we did posters, but for art exhibitions. He suffered censorship, we suffered censorship. He did installations and we did too. He designed for the theatre and so did we. Politically, on the contrary, there are two totally opposite points of view. What for him was a dream was, for us, a tragedy.”

The show’s concept has fundamentally changed. “For Graz, we came up with a different concept: a back-to-back display. When Lissitzky is trying to say ‘we are building a new world’, we say ‘we are victims of your fantasies’.” Emilia denies that the Kabakovs’ view is pessimistic, but there is bitterness in her voice. “Lissitzky was a radical. We just have a realistic point of view of what they did to us. He was at the beginning of an experiment; we know how it ended,” she says.

Although it is a small museum, the Kunsthaus Graz is a fitting place for the couple’s work. Back in 1987, it was the museum director Peter Pakesch who invited Ilya to the West for a six-month artist-in-residence programme in the city’s Grazer Kunstverein; it was the first time Ilya had visited Western Europe, and he never returned home. Soon afterwards, he moved to Berlin, and then to France, before eventually relocating to the US. “Somebody wrote recently that [Russia] made a big mistake in letting Kabakov go,” Emilia says. “Somehow it was a miracle. He was the first artist who left Russia by himself—they just let him go. It was the beginning of Perestroika.”

The Kabakovs also have an exhibition in Switzerland this summer. “I’m Beginning to Forget” (25 May-17 August), at the Kunsthaus Zug, will show works from various private Swiss collections that were made by Ilya between the 1960s and the 1990s. The country hosted his first three solo exhibitions in Western Europe, when it was dangerous for dissidents under communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the USSR to communicate with the Western world. They were able to get works out of the country for exhibitions almost exclusively through diplomatic channels, but there is little trace of these delicate undertakings having taken place. In those years of the slow implosion of the Soviet Union, Ilya met one of the most influential diplomats of the era: the late Paul Jolles, known as “the Swiss Kissinger”, was also an art collector and the president of the Kunsthalle Bern.

Shedding French light

Another friend from those difficult years is overseeing perhaps the most significant—and certainly the biggest—exhibition in the Kabakovs’ career so far. Before he left the Soviet Union, Ilya liaised with the French curator Jean-Hubert Martin, an expert in Russian art and then the director of the Kunsthalle Bern, where he organised Ilya’s first solo show in 1985. Now, Martin is overseeing “The Strange City”, the Kabakovs’ installation for Monumenta. Emilia says that it is “certainly a challenge, not only because of the enormous dimensions of the space, but because there’s also tremendous natural light. Our intention is not merely filling the space, but working with it; offering the visitors a narrative thread, contemplation and an experience.” She is typically tight-lipped about the exact nature of the work, but reveals that it includes The Center of Cosmic Energy, 2007. She also hints at its wider themes. “Today’s world is very technological. We live one life in reality and another on the internet and that is a big problem. So we’d like people to think about how we live today, what we want from tomorrow and what we do in this world,” she says.

The Kabakovs have been billed as a duo since they married in 1992. Ilya struggled as an under-the-radar artist in Moscow until the late 1980s, but Emilia had lived in the US since the 1970s. Born into a family with Jewish roots that left Poland when Hitler invaded, she had a difficult childhood. “After Stalin died in 1953, my parents were arrested while trying to leave the country,” she recalls. “My father spent 10 years in jail, my mother three. My sister and I were with my grandparents after that.” In Moscow, she began a career as a pianist. “I was on stage from the age of six, but when I was around 20, I overplayed and my career stopped,” she says. She started studying Spanish literature at Moscow State University before emigrating to Israel, aged 28, with her daughter in 1973. She spent just six months there. “People were very nice to me,” she says with a smile, “but it was a bit like the Soviet Union—very provincial.”

So she headed for the US. “I had an antique business—silver—and then I went into paintings. Many of my friends were artists and I decided to represent them; I became an adviser to a private group of collectors. Then Ilya came to the West in 1987 and we reconnected. He was the last of the family who came out.” It was no coincidence that they met again. “The moment I heard he had come out of Russia, I went to Paris,” she says.

How does their artistic partnership work? “Ilya paints; I’m more into architecture and space,” Emilia says. “I constantly hear music in my head, but at the same time I hear words, poetry, stories. I can’t draw, but I always want to create something. Ilya, he draws all the time—it’s his life. He brings a lot of fantasy. We are very much the same, in a way: we imagine things.”

Their days in Long Island are unspectacular, she says. “I get up at five and start work because there are lots of things that have to be arranged. Contacts, shipments and publications, cooking, everyday life—everything is on me. When we sit at breakfast we talk, and ideas come out. If there is a project, we define the concept and the details. Then Ilya goes to his studio and paints, and we get together again for lunch. We work until 4pm, and then we go for a walk or read or talk.”

Emilia seems satisfied with her life, but would she change anything? “Well, if I had a second chance, first of all I’d still be a pianist, because that was what I was thinking I would be in my life,” she says. “Secondly, I would marry Ilya much earlier. It’s a stupid thing we didn’t do it earlier; we wasted a lot of time.”

“El Lissitzky—Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Utopia and Reality”, Kunsthaus Graz, Austria (until 11 May); “The Strange City”, Monumenta, Grand Palais, Paris (10 May-22 June); “I'm Beginning to Forget”, Kunsthaus Zug, Switzerland (25 May-17 August)

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