It has been more than 30 years since Ilya Kabakov left the Soviet Union, and 45 since his wife Emilia’s family emigrated, and much of their work is inspired by memories and symbols of the old Soviet life. Russians under 30 will not remember the Soviet Union the conceptual artists’ installations portray, nor the daydreams of escape they inspired, but even the early art remains stubbornly relevant. It reflects the little heavens we make in our larger hells, as Emilia describes it.
But then, it was never really about the Soviet Union, was it?
“It is universal. It is about suffering, fear, the tragedy of man,” says Emilia, sitting in a marbled atrium of the capital’s Metropol Hotel. “One half of the artist,” as she calls herself, has made the long trip to Moscow to prepare the retrospective at Moscow’s Tretyakov gallery. Her husband Ilya, 85, has stayed at their home in Mattituck, Long Island.
Take the toilet, for instance.
“Russians do get offended and say ‘Why are you saying we live in a toilet?’” Kabakov says as piano music wafts up from the lobby. “And I say: it’s not about you. It’s a metaphor for life. For instance, we live in America. We have a president who is a laughing stock for the whole world. It’s a toilet. But in every toilet you can make yourself comfortable. And we live comfortably.”
Not that it was easy. By the time he left the Soviet Union, Ilya was already 55. “He took all his baggage with him, the cultural stuff that rooted him in the country,” Emilia says. “What saves Ilya is his magnificent imagination. All of his work is based on fantasy, whether he’s in America, France or Russia.”
The Kabakovs are arguably the country’s most important living artists, part of an elite set of Soviet émigrés that includes Joseph Brodksy or Mikhail Baryshnikov. They are known to educated Russians and collector oligarchs, but their status may not be as vaunted as it is in the west. There are attempts to change that. Besides the current retrospective, a new film, Poor Folk, about the artist couple will also premiere on 6 September at Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
Anton Zhelnov, a Moscow-based journalist and the film’s director said: “They are free and not stuffy. Kabakov is an ideal hero [for the film]. He’s not political like Brodsky, but he’s also a kind of outcast who found his place there and made himself into what he is today.”
Since moving to the United States, the Kabakovs have sought to reinvent their art, increasingly focusing on public art and installations in cities across the world.
“Emilia has said that they don’t just want to be associated with communal apartments,” Zhelnov said.
Russians also celebrate the pair’s art for its narrative aspects, as in Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), a maze lined with texts from the tragic memoirs of Ilya’s mother. “The texts are written in a classic Russian language that follows Gogol’s Little Man, Chekhov or Dostoevsky, and it flows through all of his work,” said Tamara Vekhova, a Moscow gallery owner who consulted on the film.
The Moscow exhibition concludes a retrospective cycle titled Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future that was at the Hermitage in St Petersburg and Tate Modern in London.
Over the past decade, the Kabakovs have also built a travelling project called The Ship of Tolerance, an expanding series of events that moves from city to city across the world with the idea of uniting communities around art. “Everyone takes part,” Emilia says excitedly. “White, green, black, red, everyone.”
Why tolerance? For Emilia, the first thing that comes to mind is the strife in her adopted homeland. “Instead of the United States of America, we’re getting the American states,” she says. “Everyone lives by himself. And that’s not what I came for. I came to a different country.”
• Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future is at Trebyakov Gallery, Moscow, 7 September-13 January.