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July 8, 2014updated 11 Jan 2016 2:52pm

We meet the Kabakovs, Ukrainian emigré artists fighting for peace

By Spear's

‘The harder I practise, the luckier I get’ has long been a popular mantra in golfing circles. Well, the life of a great artist is constant practice, so they can get lucky too. Monumenta, the not-quite-annual Paris exhibition, has been commissioning installations for Le Grand Palais since 2007.

It’s a giant space so they tap artists with Big Ideas — Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Christian Boltanski, Anish Kapoor, Daniel Buren — and brought Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (pictured top) on board three years ago. L’Etrange Cité (The Strange City) has as I write just gone up. And the artists’ luck? We’ll get to that. But first, the Kabakovs.

In Soviet times, Ilya Kabakov (born 1933) had been a central figure in a minuscule Muscovite group of ‘unofficial’ artists, who were no longer under threat of the gulag, as under Stalin, but were denied support and were constantly under surveillance. Kabakov made paintings but owed his dominance in his circle to his installation works, the three-dimensional environments he began making in 1984, still unaware that artists were working in this form in the West.

Kabakov had put bread on the table by illustrating children’s books. Being steeped in Tenniel’s Alice drawings and the like as a child, I take a warm and fuzzy view of this calling and told Kabakov so on our first meeting, an interview for The Paris Review. The artist, a wise, friendly man with a crinkly smile, made it clear he did not share my enthusiasm.

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Pictured above: L’étrange cité at Monumenta

‘I started doing it when I was in the art institute in 1955. But it doesn’t mean that I love children’s books or that I love children,’ he said. ‘Artists had to live a double life. One main part of our life was for yourself and your friends and the other was to make a living.’ It was living with the censors. ‘The censorship was not only on the text but also on the images. You had to work according to standards. Have you seen a rabbit perform in the circus? It doesn’t mean the rabbit loves to perform in the circus.’

Perestroika began when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the mid-Eighties. Kabakov was allowed to leave for the West, and he arrived in New York in 1988, meeting up with Emilia, who had been there since 1975. They were first cousins and had grown up in the same house in Ukraine. He had been in love with her, but it was unspoken. ‘Because we were same family,’ Emilia says. They married and started working together the following year, Emilia as a dealer. Their first collaboration was The Palace of Projects in 1996. They have been working together ever since.

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A while back I spent a weekend with the Kabakovs on Long Island, enveloped in their world. A Soviet-inflected text on my bedroom mirror read: ‘My Own Reflection Does Not Deceive Me.’ Framed drawings included one of a bespectacled elephant holding a spare pair of specs. Lunch was soup, salmon, melon, cake. Down to the beach. Pebbles, shells, whooping gulls, the circus of Southampton pulsing silently across the bay. ‘There is no social life here. It is good,’ Emilia said contentedly.

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Pictured above: La coupole above the exhibition

It’s all art-making here. And art talk. Ilya is tranquil, but obdurate as a rock. ‘Those drips, they are physiological,’ he said of Pollock. ‘Like pipi or an erection. Where is the head?’

He sees American art as highly personal. ‘Russian art is objective. It is not all Me! Me!’ Well, the usual take on Russian art is that much of it is given to a kind of inner-ness. What about the more mystical, I asked. ‘That too,’ he said firmly.

Luncheon over, they walked me into the studio, to see new projects under way. ‘This is The Monument to the Eternal Immigrant,’ Ilya said. ‘He tries to climb the wall and he gets stuck. For ever.’ Dry humour. ‘This is a monument to Icarus. He did not know he was supposed to use the trampoline.’ There are 75 projects in all.

‘The models are never for sale,’ Emilia says. ‘This piece is a permanent piece in Seville… here is how it is when a man looks at a woman. He becomes a donkey… This is a permanent piece in Munster, Germany. They bought it from the drawing. The text was signed “Goethe”. I said, “No, this is Kabakov!” They said, “Oh, we thought it was Goethe…”‘


Spaced out

The Kabakovs were aware that, pre-Stalin, the Soviets had shown art by their great utopians, the Constructivists, in the Grand Palais and they had fancied making a show that might be a kind of a bridge. An optimistic vision, you might say. But their working schedule, as always, involved hefty air mileage and much museum-hopping, and that project… altered.

‘Suddenly everything started changing so rapidly,’ Emilia says. ‘It moved to purely artistic things about what art is, how people see museum spaces, because today museums are like airports. They don’t look like museums any more, they don’t feel like museums any more. When you go to the Louvre or a museum of Contemporary art anywhere, there are thousands of people there. It’s noisy. Sometimes you smell food! It’s not the same feeling, like it’s a sacred art space. You come to talk to your friends, you come to be together and in the middle of these activities you are going to see some art.

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Pictured above: Peinture avec tache noire No 2

‘So our Strange City is about purity and tranquillity. And it’s about the idea of space which is dedicated to art, where you can talk about the human condition, and you can talk about our fantasies and our desires for a better future. But in general what we want to do — and we hope to achieve this in the Grand Palais — is when people walk in they shut off their telephones, they don’t talk, they kind of feel a different atmosphere, the sacred atmosphere of church. But not a religious church — the church of art. We are not against people looking at art; in a democracy a lot of people look at art. But we would like them to feel the difference between the rush of an airport and what you sense while you are standing here.’


War zone

It is too early to say whether the Kabakovs have created an art zone, free of fast food, smartphones and selfies, but it is not too early to say that the show is, willy-nilly, on the front of a new art world war. For a couple of decades two visions of the Contemporary artscape have dominated. In the first it is, finally, an industry that produces luxury goods, with über-artists and vaulting prices at its tippy-top. Here the presiding genius is Larry Gagosian. In the second vision the art world is the upper end of the entertainment industry, the prophet here being Jeffrey Deitch.

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Pictured above: Comment rencontrer un ange

So to the luck factor. The Strange City, a show three years in the making, plays an emblematic part in a suddenly emerging argument. The latest skirmish is the destruction by New York’s Museum of Modern Art of an admired work of Modernist architecture, the Folk Art Museum, as part of its expansionist programme, which has caused an eruption of angry criticism, much of it aimed at its long-time director, Glenn Lowry.

‘There are a number of us on the board who don’t want to see the museum become a mere entertainment centre,’ Agnes Gund, a former president of MoMA, told The New York Times in April. Jerry Saltz, the New York magazine art critic, wrote that the scheme ‘irretrievably dooms MoMA to being a business-driven carnival’, while Robert Storr, who left MoMA for the School of Art at Yale, said: ‘I fear some of the damage done is nearly irreversible.’

In this emerging context, the wish of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov to create a major museum art show that is a meditative, indeed spiritual experience, isolated from both the market and the hubbub of competing entertainment systems, seems at once touchingly retro and fiercely radical.


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