The first large exhibition of the groundbreaking Russian-born, American-based artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, opened this week at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, some six weeks after Ilya’s death.
Considered to be the most famous artists of their generation to have emerged from the Soviet Union, the couple had wanted to have an exhibition in Israel for a long time, said curator Shahar Molcho, who worked with the Kabakovs on this exhibition for the last two years.
“They are both Jewish and have family and friends here. Emilia lived in Israel for a short while after leaving Russia and before moving to New York. Ilya’s parents are buried here. For the Kabakovs, and certainly for us, their show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is a huge event,” Molcho said.
Born in 1933 in Dnepropetrovsk, then part of the Soviet Union, Ilya was part of a group of conceptual artists in Moscow who worked outside the official Soviet art system. In 1985, he had his first solo exhibition at the Dina Vierny Gallery in Paris. He moved to the West two years later.
Emilia Kabakov (née Lekach) was born in 1945. She attended the Music College in Irkutsk, in addition to studying Spanish language and literature at Moscow University. She immigrated to Israel in 1973 and moved to New York in 1975, where she worked as a curator and art dealer.
Emilia has worked side-by-side with Ilya since 1989. In 1992, the couple married. From that point on, all their work was collaborative, in varying proportions according to the project involved.
“Ilya’s works changed when he moved to the West,” Molcho said. “When he began working with Emilia, they started doing their installations, which were completely new and very different from what other artists were doing. They became well known and began having huge exhibitions in major venues across the globe.
“Ilya had to make changes to his work in order to make it more accessible, universal. Suddenly, the installations spoke in a language that related to different people from different backgrounds.”
Prior to creating the installations for which the Kabakovs are known worldwide, Ilya created about 50 fictional albums. Each album is a story about one character who is often able to overcome the banality of everyday existence.
“In Russia, Ilya had a small studio, so he started making albums with illustrations and texts, and he would perform the albums for his friends. Later, these albums became installations. Ilya uses humor and sarcasm, and like a good storyteller, he offers his viewers many moments of laughter, thought, and confusion. This is Emilia and Ilya’s way of looking at life, at the reality,” Molcho observed.
“Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are best known for their ‘total installations,’ a type of immersive artwork that they pioneered,” Molcho continued.
THE EXHIBITION explores art’s political, cultural, and generational influence, and its potential to change and improve the world, particularly in times of crisis. Through evocative contrasts between past, present, and future, as well as challenges to hierarchies, narratives, and categories of knowledge, the Kabakovs’ perceptive and groundbreaking total installations invite the spectator to become an active participant and performer, and punctuate the importance of critical awareness.
“There’s a lot to be said about the works of the Kabakovs and their exhibitions, especially since they are known for their monumental installations,” the curator said. “Their exhibitions are very large and ambitious. The subjects often deal with life in the Soviet Union, both in the text and the subtext, which could also apply to other places in the world.”
The exhibition features some of the Kabakovs’ most iconic installations, as well as paintings. The display facilitates a fascinating encounter between the audience and the artistic practice of this dynamic duo.
One of the major installations in the exhibition is “Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future” (2001), which poses fundamental questions regarding the relationship to the past, the artist’s place in society, the value of art, and the future reception of an artist’s work.
“The installations are at the heart of the exhibition,” Molcho said. “These are installations that were exhibited in major shows, such as the Venice Biennale, and important museums and galleries.
“Ilya Kabakov was primarily a conceptual artist, but he was a fantastic painter too. He also wrote very beautiful texts, some of which are included in the exhibition. For me, he was the epitome of the philosopher-artist,” Molcho marveled.
Included in the exhibition are some early works that Kabakov painted while still in the former Soviet Union, next to his last works, which Molcho saw in the Kabakovs’ studio in Long Island. The beautiful painting is almost nine meters long. “It is almost a mural,” Molcho said.
ILYA KABAKOV lived in Soviet Russia until he was in his fifties. Officially, he was a children’s books illustrator, adhering to the official style of socialist realism, which celebrated the state and the heroes of the Russian Revolution.
“Ilya was always thinking of Kazimir Malevich [a Russian avant-garde artist and art theorist, whose pioneering work and writing influenced the development of abstract art in the 20th century], whom he admired.
“In his works, he asks who decides what good art is, what makes modern art contemporary? He loves talking about art history, and he loves quoting art, often his own. Surely, art lovers will be able to go deep and reach the more intellectual part of the work and recognize quotes from art history.
“However, as is true of very good art, the primal experience of his art speaks to everyone. I am sure that different people will experience the exhibition differently. And obviously, people who lived in Soviet Russia will recognize the references and nuances that others may miss,” Molcho said.
Ilya is recognized as one of the most important Russian artists to have emerged in the late 20th century. The Kabakovs’ installations speak as much about conditions in post-Stalinist Russia as they do about the universal human condition.
“I was interested in the allegorical side of the Kabakovs’ installations, which can touch everyone,” Molcho explained. “There are moments in life when you can take a step back and look at it from a distance. There are moments when the boundaries between life and art blur. Ilya’s fantastic ability to tie art with life experiences amazes me,” Molcho enthused.
Only one month after his departure, and two weeks before the opening of their exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Emilia came here to work on the final details of the exhibition.
“We had many exhibitions,” she said, one day before the opening in Tel Aviv. “We had hundreds of exhibitions, maybe more than any other living artist. I was often asked why we have so many exhibitions, and my answer is: why does a musician play in so many concerts? An actor perform so many times on the stage? Because they love it. We love having exhibitions,” she declared.
“Each exhibition is different and we need to choose the right works, and the right way to exhibit them. This exhibition is very special and I am happy to be here.”
‘Tomorrow We Fly,’ by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, is being exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art from July 18, 2023 to January 20, 2024.