Ilya & Emilia Kabakov: Tomorrow We Fly
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov worked together as an artist duo in their Long Island, New York home from 1989 until Ilya's passing in May 2023 at the age of 89.
The Kabakovs are best known for their ambitious total installations—autonomous "sets" installed in museum halls, comprising architectural elements and paintings. Surrounding their visitors with visual and auditory stimuli, they furnish them with a direct, unmediated experience with another reality, largely drawn from everyday life in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.
Ilya Kabakov, considered the father of Russian conceptual art, was born in 1933 in Dnipropetrovsk, FSU (now Dnipro, Ukraine). From the very outset of his career he explored the individual's social status in the complex reality of a totalitarian regime which restricts personal freedom. Artistic practice in this context is imbued with a sweeping utopian spirit, as a refuge from everyday life.
The installations created by Kabakov later on in collaboration with his wife Emilia (also born in Dnipropetrovsk, in 1945), narrate situations of domination and oppression, reflecting the failure of the Communist Utopia. They raise fundamental questions about the status of past traditions in a revolutionary society, the power of artistic values to influence the individual's life and their chances to survive in the race to the future. As allegorical capsules, these questions surpass the realms of art, and are addressed to all human beings.
Emilia, a pianist by profession, emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1973, settled in New York, and worked as a curator and an art consultant. Ilya lived in the Soviet Union until 1987, the year he first travelled to the West at the age of 54. Since 1989 he has been creating in collaboration with Emilia. They married in 1992.
Until the early 1990s, artists in the Soviet Union were obliged to create exclusively in the official style of Socialist Realism, which was introduced back in the days of Stalin's regime in the early 1930s. Between 1955 and 1987 Kabakov earned a livelihood illustrating children's books in the sanctioned official style. Simultaneously, he worked secretly in his Moscow attic as an "unofficial" artist and was a key figure in the underground Moscow Conceptual Circle that formed in the beginning of the 1970s. His early works were albums that combined illustration and text, centered on fictitious characters from Ilya's imagination. The ideas formulated in these albums served as a point of departure for the installations he created later along the way with Emilia, and installation became the central medium of the Kabakovs' work in the West.
The transition from illustration and painting to installation gave rise to immersive environments that engulf the viewer, enabling complete absorption in the experience and a mental transition to an imaginary reality. The immediate reference point of these conceptual installations is indeed the Soviet utopia and its dissolution, but at the same time they touch on universal human themes. Using humor and irony and oscillating between banality and pathos and between routine and dream, the theatrical scenes staged in them elicit a profound human response.
* The Audio guide is available in Russian language only.