Subversive Dreams under the Soviet Regime: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Robert Storr

‘Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov are singular figures in how big cultures, dominant cultures, are never the whole story.’ – Robert Storr

Dive into the fantastical world of the Kabakovs, an artist couple famous for creating immersive installations and fictional personas. For this duo, Russia’s most significant living artists, the use of storytelling was a way to undermine censorship experienced under the Soviet regime – ‘a way of talking about something without naming it’.

But in the Kabakov’s oeuvre, the spectator is a protagonist rather than a mere witness to their terrific tales. Join critic Robert Storr to explore some of these stories of oppression, overcoming and visions of the future. Their installations are testament to the power of imagination in the face of authoritarianism.

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

Emilia Kabakov: I think we always knew that one day we’ll be together. Ilya compared us to ‘Wandering Stars’ by Sholem Aleichem. If you know the story, they were in love, then they separated, then they moved to America – one of them – and he followed. And then they reunited. So more or less it’s the same story.

Ilya was the last person who took me to the train, I moved to America, and then many years later we reunited. Still there. We work together, we dream together, we travel together… we’re just simply together.

Robert Storr: The Kabakovs are one of the loudest, clearest, most inquisitive voices in what went on in Russia and the Eastern Bloc. Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov are singular figures in how big cultures, dominant cultures, are never the whole story. Ilya was making work from the early 1960s onwards. Starting in the 1980s and into the 1990s he worked collaboratively with Emilia Kabakov. She was in the United States already, she was an accomplished pianist. And when he came to the United States he met her again and they began to work together, and now they’ve worked for many, many years together.

Emilia Kabakov: People keep asking how we both work together. This is the kind of question we don’t answer. It’s a secret.

Robert Storr: If you look at the work itself, all the handwork, all the painting, all the drawing, is Ilya. If you look at the conceptual work, it’s very much shared. They discuss ideas, he puts things out, she discusses with him. It’s an amplification of a conversation he’s already having with himself.

Ilya Kabakov: It’s as if you asked a cook in a restaurant – a client is eating a chicken

Emilia Kabakov: Give us the recipe!

Ilya Kabakov: – He finds it delicious and asks the chef, ‘Tell me, how did you cook this? What size are the stoves you use?’ The chef answers: ‘So you enjoy the chicken?’, ‘Yes, very much’ ‘So just enjoy it’

Emilia Kabakov: Everybody has a past, and everybody’s life is based on their childhood and other culture, which is instilled in you when you are a child and growing up. And for us, in the beginning, it was limited to our Russian Soviet experience. And of course, a lot of material was about suffering under this totalitarian regime.

Robert Storr: Ilya Kabakov was born in the Ukraine in 1933. The Ukraine was one of the republics of Russia that was most devastated during the Stalinist era. 1933 was a crucial date because that’s when Stalinism, with its full force, hit Soviet society – it hit Soviet society for Jews like Ilya. It was a key date in Germany as well since ’32 was the year that Hitler came to power and the avant-gardes of Germany disappeared gradually, whereas in Russia they didn’t disappear gradually, they disappeared almost overnight. So, Ilya was born at a turning point in history.

Ilya had a kind of active imagination, and he didn’t want to be in a situation where he was under orders. He also knew the dangers of becoming visible in a society where being visible meant you could be easily targeted. He was trying to figure a way out to think big but act small, to do something that also in form didn’t compete with or emulate in any way the official art of the state. And so instead of becoming a painter of portraits or historical pictures, he became a book illustrator. And instead of illustrating books for adults about big things, he illustrated children’s stories.

One of the ways of looking at Ilya’s work is to think of him as being a writer who makes pictures and a picture-maker who thinks in writerly terms. In Ilya’s work this means that literally there are voices in his pieces. So, in the early days of his development, in his studio he would perform based on a series of albums that he made. Each of the albums is based on an individual character, and each one of the characters has a salient characteristic. For example, Komorov, who flies, levitates. Now Komorov is many things, he is the free figure, who is able to get off the earth at a time when just moving anywhere in Russia was terrible. And one can understand that the use of parable, the use of storytelling, is a way around censorship, is a way of talking about something without naming it.

Often the art of people who live with deprivation, and with persecution, isn’t funny at all. But Ilya is very funny. One of the weapons against oppression is humour.

What does one make of paintings of Ilya, for example, where he appears in a kind of Rembrandt-esque self-portrait wearing an aviator’s hat. Ilya’s ambivalence towards traditional media and towards traditional ideologies of art, the genius artist, the master painter and so on, is both a kind of humorous dismissal and tentative embrace. And that particular painting is wonderful because it shows you the young Ilya trying to be the kind of painter that he should have wanted to be in the old Soviet system, but doing it with tongue deeply buried in cheek, and is also the artist-genius painting himself as an astronaut.

[Archive news footage] “Hail to the hero of the cosmos, it was an unforgettable day. At Vnukovo Airport in Moscow, Communist Party and Soviet Government leaders, and thousands of Muscovites, greeted true son of his country, Yuri Gagarin. There he is, the Soviet soldier who was the first man in history to trip into outer space.”

The cult of Yuri Gagarin, who was the first cosmonaut, and of flight and modernity and technology in Russia was huge. And a number of key installations by Ilya are related to this as well as paintings. What this man did is sat in his room and dreamed of the glory of space flight. The viewer gets a glimpse into the mania. It’s like walking onto a television set, or walking onto a movie set or stage set, you know you’re not in reality, but it comes very, very close. When he came to the United States, the first thing he did was take the graphic albums he had made and turn them into full-scale installations.

Ilya Kabakov: My installations come from a different conception. It’s completely from the evolution of painting. It’s the same as the plot in the book ‘Alice in Wonderland’. She enters the painting and she stays there. This is the return to painting, which was made in the tradition of Renaissance to Realism. There is reality outside of the frame.

Ilya’s idea of spectatorship is that the spectator’s a protagonist, not a passive viewer, and that the spectator animates what they find. So, as you walk into his installations you almost feel like walking into an Egyptian tomb. You’re discovering, as best you can, what life went on there before you got there, but in discovering you become the participant-observer so you also affect the environment.

The thing not to forget is, the Kabakovs’ art is, for all its humour, for all of its critical qualities and so on, essentially a very melancholy art, there is always this sort of haunting sense that everything is left over from a great dream which failed.

At the same time, Ilya and Emilia’s work is full of characters who strive for meaning, who strive for transcendence. So, you see for example, unabashedly in a way one would not expect in most modern art, angels. One sees the character inventing a ladder to reach the heavens, and if the cosmonaut, the man who flew into space is based on the cosmonauts, the cosmonauts were after all kind of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ kind of characters, using technology to get up to the heavens.

So, there is a metaphysical longing built into this work, which is also connected to a metaphysical despair. And there’s a constant back-and-forth between the two.

Emilia Kabakov: It’s about human suffering. And it’s all around you. It’s all around the world. As human beings, we’re all the same, we have the same fears. We’re afraid of the unknown. Like a child you’re afraid of something coming at you from the corners: different religions, different races. We work with these fears, we trying to eliminate them, we trying to understand them. And we try to make people understand that there’s nothing to be afraid… because with communication through culture and art, you don’t even need language. You just have to be tolerant and able to communicate.

With thanks to…

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
Fine Art Biblio
Sprovieri Gallery

 

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo
Critical Past
Getty Images
Pond5
Shutterstock

 

Music

Audio Network

 

Full list of artworks:

The Flying Komarov, from Album #6 from the 10 Characters Series (41 works)
Ilya Kabakov, 1970-74
Private Collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Model for Where is Our Place?
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 2002/2017
Private Collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

The Flying Komarov, from Album #6 from the 10 Characters Series (41 works)
Ilya Kabakov, 1970-74
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Photographs of Emilia and Ilya Kabakov
Courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Photograph of Emilia and Ilya Kabakov
Courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Not Everyone Will be Taken into the Future
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 2001
MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Art / Contemporary Art. LHG 1948 / 2001 – permanent loan Geyer & Geyer Collection, Vienna
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Photograph of Ilya Kabakov
Courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Photograph of Ilya Kabakov in Moscow studio
Photograph by Igor Makarevich
Courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, ‘Vertical Paintings and Other Works’
Ivory Press, 2013
Reproduced with permission of Fine Art Biblio

 

Photograph of Emilia and Ilya Kabakov
Courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Photograph of Emilia and Ilya Kabakov
Courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Clip from Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. ‘Vertical Paintings and Other Works’
Ivory Press, 2013
Reproduced with permission of Fine Art Biblio

 

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, ‘The Appearance of Collage’
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, 2012
Reproduced with permission of Fine Art Biblio

 

Holiday Series
Ilya Kabakov, 1987
Private Collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 1989
Melissa Schiff Soros and Private Collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Objects of his Life
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 2005
Private Collection © Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)
Ilya Kabakov, 1990
State Hermitage Museum (St Petersburg, Russia)
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

The Collage of Spaces # 6
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 2010
Private Collection © Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

The Four Paintings about the Sun # 4
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, 2013
Private collection. Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London – Paris – Salzburg
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Ilya Kabakov in the Studio
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

‘Amusing Guests’ illustrated by Ilya Kabakov
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

‘Charcoal’, illustrated by Ilya Kabakov
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

‘Grain’, illustrated by Ilya Kabakov
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Osia and his Friend’s, Ilya Kabakov
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

How to Meet an Angel
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov
c.1997
Private collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

How to Meet an Angel # 2
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov
c.1997
Private collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Five Albums Vol. I
Ilya Kabakov, 1994
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

The Boy
Ilya Kabakov, 2000
Private Collection, Moscow / Regina Gallery, Moscow
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Machine Gun and Chickens
Ilya Kabakov, 1966
Tretyakov Gallery
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Hand and Ruisdael’s Reproduction
Ilya Kabakov, 1965
Private collection
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Soccer Player
Ilya Kabakov, 1964
Private collection
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Portrait of Ilya Kabakov, 2008
Hulton Archive
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

 

Self-Portrait
Ilya Kabakov, 1962
Oil paint on canvas
Private collection
© Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

 

Ilya Kabakov c.1956
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

 

MAN ENTERS SPACE
The Hunstville Times Wednesday April 12 1961
Accessed via Flickr, Source: NASA
CC Public Domain Mark 1.0
https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

 

Sketch for The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment
for Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, 1985,
Collection Ilya & Emilia Kabakov,
© Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

 

Sketch for The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment
for Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, 1985,
Collection Ilya & Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

 

Ilya Kabakov gives instructions for the installation of
‘The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment’
Photograph by Perry van Duijnhoven
Accessed from Wikicommons
CC BY 2.0
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment
Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, 1985
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
Stephen Chung / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Painting with Door # 4
Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, 1985
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Wings #4
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, 2014
Private collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Sketch for the House of Dreams
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 2005
Collection of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

How Can One Change Oneself?
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, 1998
Private collection.
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London – Paris – Salzburg

 

Model for The Three Angels
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, 2012
Private collection.
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

The Angel Over The City
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, 1998
Private collection. Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London – Paris – Salzburg

 

Model for How to Meet an Angel
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, 1998 / 2002
Private collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

How to Meet an Angel
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, c.1997
Private collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Fallen Angel #3
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, c.2014
Private collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

The Fallen Angel
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, 2002
Collection of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Wings #5
Ilya Kabakov and Emilia Kabakov, 2014
Private collection
© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

 

Two Times #11
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 2015
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
Collection of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

 

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in Palermo
Photo courtesy of Emilia Kabakov
© Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

Brian Clarke: The Art of Light

Brian Clarke: The Art of Light 13:02 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

A portrait of pioneering architectural artist Brian Clarke.

Gerhard Richter: Doubt

Gerhard Richter: Doubt 12:00 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

‘He disturbed my sense of what art should be.’ — Robert Storr on Gerhard Richter

Zaha Hadid: Sketching the Future

Zaha Hadid: Sketching the Future 12:53 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Hans Ulrich Obrist traces how Zaha Hadid’s futuristic architecture evolved from ‘superfluid’ sketches.