Seat of Perception

Extra-cultural reviews by synaesthetes, symbolists, and strangers.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Leaving Dystopia

The Search for a Project That Feels Like a Home

“Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have been collaborating since 1989, 3 years before their marriage in 1992. Ilya was born in 1933 and spent years working as an artist prior to meeting Emilia, but the couple’s meeting sparked the installation practice that defined their aesthetic trajectory.” * (Sources below post.)  This article will deal with selected installations executed in the years between 1992 and 2007, very productive years for the artist team.

Ilya, The Transposition Cipher

In transposition ciphers, symbols or text elements are repositioned without any change in their identity. When the Berlin Wall fell, Ilya Kabakov authorized his wife (and co-collaborator) to speak on his behalf.   The relocation of Ilya’s public voice to Emilia’s mouth is a fantastic example of that strategy. The Kabakovs make thorough use of this technique in both their art and lives, and this thinly veiled refutation of soviet re-distribution principles serves not only as a socio-political trope, but also as a liminal way of communicating intimately with a community of viewers that spontaneously emerge in relation to their transitory participation in the projects.   The Kabakovs create installations for a community of strangers who converge in a strange place, and then inevitably disperse, hopefully to create their own projects.

Do Chomp on this, Duchamp

Ilya Kabakov, “The Toilet” (1992)

In 1992, the Kabakovs produced “The Toilet.”*   An inauspicious (deceptively so in this case) marker for newly weds, this installation reeks of desperation. Taking Duchamp’s “Fountain” to a new kind of extreme, instead of relocating a toilet into a museum, this piece relocates a family’s living space into a public bathroom, then puts the entire bathroom into a museum.  In “The Toilet”, the artists have set up a make-shift living space complete with a dining table and place settings. The drabness exuded by the delapidated walls imposes itself on the sense of domestic life conjured in this public space which was reallocated as private living space. The Kabakovs must have known that “The Toilet”, executed in Germany by Russian artists only 3 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, would be seen as a reflection of their experience of Soviet Russia. There is a casual quality to the distribution of objects in “The Toilet” that lends it plausibility. The domestic objects themselves are plain and do not suggest wealth, so in a sense they “fit” in the drab atmosphere of the public toilet, pushing the situation’s plausibility further. But it is this very plausibility that lends the work its surrealistic quality and its unease, for the artists have brought us to the brink of experiencing as possible that which we would normally find unimaginable.  Though the couple has spent much of the past 20 years working outside of Russia, Ilya’s formative years were spent living and working there during the Cold War, and the poverty and politics of his Soviet years figure heavily into Ilya and Emilia’s mature installation as do the symbols of religious and historical mythology.  “It is haunted by images of home and homeland, yet it also discloses some of the furtive pleasures of exile.”*

How Low

“Where is Our Place?” 2003, Venice Biennale, Quierini Stampalia Fondation, Venice. Photo Emilia Kabakov.

“Where is Our Place?” executed in 2003 at the Venice Biennale picks up on “The Toilet”s  sense of historical displacement. It too makes use of imagery from Soviet Russia but situates this imagery as a part of a much longer historical continuum stretching from the 19th century forward in time into an imagined future. The Soviet imagery comes in the form of photographs of people in Soviet-era garb paired with romantic poetry, suggesting a nostalgia entirely absent from “The Toilet.” The latter, executed as it was on the heels of the Empire’s decline, allows Surrealism free reign in the form of legs so large they are cropped at the knee by the ceiling. On the walls, their lower edges hanging above the Soviet-era pictures, are the oversized bottoms of 19th century gilt picture frames, also cropped by the ceiling. This shift in scale emphasizes the drastic changes time imposes on culture and thus on the individuals who experience this change. So imposing are these giant legs that it would be easy to miss the tiny landscape imagery running friezelike along the gallery’s baseboard. Here, unadorned nature symbolizes the blank slate of the future. Nature’s image produces a hopeful note (albeit a minor one in terms of scale) in this otherwise daunting installation.


In addition to being very small in comparison to the scale of the piece, there is an implication that it is their smallness that saved them from whatever disaster caused the ceiling* to collapse / cross-section the viewers (it is a challlenge not to read this as political) and chop off the big people above the knee, taking all but the lowest parts of the grand implied art off and away.  A foot is visible in the remains of one of the gilt frames, but the subject has been lost, along with its visual, historic and cultural context.  The room appears to have been divided with no regard for the content or life being severed (a truly communist space, reminiscent of Kafka’s use the raising of heads and the lowering of heads as a sociopolitical trope).  Luckily, for people of the viewers’ stature* there is no danger of losing a head or anything else.  For us, the original content of history has been lost, yes, but our place, low as it may be, remains unaltered by the collapse.

Conceptual Exports

“Ship of Siwa” Project by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, with the children of Siwa, Egypt (sails) and highschool students from Manchester, England (shipbuilding). Inaugrated 6 June, 2007.

The latent optimism of “Where is Our Place” is notably expanded in “Ship of Siwa” (2007). It is a boat with sails built as an art project by children working from readings provided by the artists. The methodolgy of this project seems to stem from conceptual art practices that began in the 60s and priviledged the idea of an artwork over its acutal execution, allowing artists to devote themselves to planning while the manual work is exported. On another level, the work seems to play into a mythology the Kabakovs are teasing out in all of their installation. Whereas the two installations discussed above reaveal an earthbound weariness about them, the one contending with poverty, the other with history, “Ship of Siwa” is light as a feather. The colors of the children’s drawings that compose the sail are exuberant and bold. The ship appears well made and though it may not in fact be sea worthy, it certainly does not threaten an existential sinking. “Ship of Siwa” can be interpreted as an ark, an old testament symbol of hope and redemption after the deluge.  Instead of animals, of course, this ship carries dreams of past ships.  It is a cultural arc, laden with art inspired by Egypt’s history of the skill that one could use to build the vessels that would transport people through turbulent waters.  The art is made by children, so the information it carries is more the data of dreams than anything useful.  If this boat was found, only the thing itself could tell people much about boats.  The art on the sail speaks of imagined histories, as dreamed by youth, but the project itself allowed for the creation of a communitas, so the dreams built a vessel separate from that of the ship itself.

Like children, the ship is not meant to stray far from its home.  While the installation displays a violent severence from the grandiloquence of literal history and livable life, this ship posits a look at history through the eyes of young children: a perspective equally sparse of information, but more optimistic and significantly less insidious.  Of course the fact that the ship itself was built by Manchurian craftsmen, then adorned with a sail made by creatures too young to realize that when each of their pieces were put together, there would be gaps between them that would prevent the sail from functioning in anything other than a symbolic way.  The community that the Kabakovs so often reference in their work is shown here making an unusable thing of beauty collaboratively, but even this joyous vessel near the oasis in Siwa cannot escape its history or the laws of physics.  It cannot leave port without toppling….

Angels and Archetypes

“20 ways to get an apple, listening to the music of Mozart”, 2000, Museum of Fine Arts, Colubus,Ohio. Photo by Emilia Kabakov.

Several earlier installations by the Kabakovs lend further credence to the above-inferred biblical dimension of “Ship of Siwa.” One is a last supper of sorts, first executed in 1997. Out of reach at the center of a set table is an apple. At each place setting are instructions as to how to get the apple. The room is white as is the table cloth. Mozart is playing. The apple and the music are the two distinctive feature of the room – the only sources of color – and are thus conflated as objects of desire. Here we have ourselves precariously situated before the fall with the object of knowledge just out of reach, but in this case the “snake”, the thing trying to get us to take the apple is information (the tool of knowledge itself), so the implication, like that in The Wizard of Oz, is that we may already have what we are looking for.

Sitting at the table, viewers read information and ideas about how to attain the symbolic fruit by means of the tree of knowledge replacement (a.k.a. papers with data/ writing).  This brings up a tension between information and knowledge.

This is not simply a piece about insemination of desire, tactics, and redundancy.  It is also a discussion. It asks many questions: If people are all positioned around one object, and given text explaining how one might attain that object, does it become an object of desire?  What if we already have the thing we seek?  Ilya always wanted to get out of the Soviet Union to make art, but once he got out, I think he found that in many ways he had always been gone.  There may be one apple all the people at the table were meant to focus on, but there are many different kinds of apples. Some real, some drawn, some rotten.

As mythologically versed viewers, we know that the presence of the apple is intended to symbolically precipitate our own fall, but can the viewing participants allow ourselves to undergo the implied metaphoric descent while surrounded by a community of symbolic competitors?  Can this be prevented by mediating our relationships with culturally instilled desire?

More on Falling

“How to meet an Angel”, 2003.

A similar sense of being thwarted pervades “How to Meet an Angel” (2003) a work in which an elaborately intertwined group of wooden ladders elevates a dummy (of the plastic kind) to a noticeably dangerous (were it not a dummy) height. The dummy is positioned, hovering over a 30 ft. fall, arms outstretched as though preparing for a hug. Dummy is the operative word, for anyone actually attempting to climb this sculpture would be designated just so. The sculpture points to its own absurdity with a further nod toward the general absurdity of artistic struggle. In addition to honing a skeptical edge to the Kabakov’s engagement with Christian mythology, the deadpan humor of “How to Meet an Angel” underscores the artists’ debt to Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades. Like all of the Kabakov’s work, “How to meet an Angel” has a distinct utilitarian flavor to it. The artists never use more than they need to generate the desired effect and they do not tend to dress their materials up. Duchamp’s readymades inaugarated this approach to sculpture and also invited consideration of any and all objects as objets d’art.

Among Duchamp’s many whipping posts were exhibition spaces themselves. He famously covered in string one exhibition in which he was invited to pariticpate. He filled another with sandbags. In “The Empty Museum” (first shown 1993) the Kabakovs created a space consecrated to the display of artwork in which no artworks are ever displayed. It is dimly lit, and in the place of paintings, spotlights shine ghostly circles at regular intervals along the walls. The Kabakovs have altered a Duchampian concept and imbued it with an eerie poignancy that allows the work to function more as an existential evaluation of what a world without art might feel like rather than an institutional critique or contrarian statement. In addition, the work conjures a sense of purgatory and situates us once more within the political and religious narratives of installations such as “The Toilet.” Both installations share an uneasy sense of coping with privation cut with a Bechet-like fascination with stagnancy.

Trickster and His Ghosts

The Empty Museum

Ilya, of course, trickster that he is, claimed that this was a hopeful scene for him: one in which possibility is key.  He claims that looking at actual paintings is limiting, but that when he sits in the empty museum, all of art history is summoned into the room, along with future paintings that have not yet been made.  To be fair, Ilya spent much of his young life thinking he was no good at painting, so there is a hint of self-deprecation in this work, but also a sign of hope.  Here is a place for no specific paintings, but any and all paintings, which do not have a place without the presence of a viewer. A precursor to “Where Is Our Place”, this installation establishes an interior home for a fugitive art, in the mind of the equally fugitive viewer. The ambient light is a dim, inner-body red, reiterating the human as the wall upon which the art hangs.  Somewhere between the physical space of the installation and Ilya’s unusual perspective as an expatriate from post-Stalin U.S.S.R., a samizdat narrative begins to emerge.  Ilya has found a way to reproduce every controversial painting that ever has been or will be made, without the possibility of capture or political repercussions, because the copy has been smuggled directly into the mind of the viewer.

Utopia Anthrosophia

* * *

Among the Kabakovs’ most compelling and beautiful invocations of historical consciousness and old-testament lore is their “Palace of Projects.” It is a nautilus shaped structure made from thin white fabric stretched over a wooden frame and containing over 65 projects created by fictional Soviet citizens, whose goals were to improve themselves, their communities, and the world around them.  The utopian projects proposed within are presented along with instructions, and cover diverse topics such as methods for attracting clouds to the earth for future use, how to be a better person, and how to discover mystery in mundane objects. The Palace glows alluringly when lit from the inside, but its upward spiral ends abruptly, signaling danger in two wooden supports jutting out over thin air. The projects are elaborately detailed within the Palace and its ascending form clearly alludes to that of the Tower of Babel (with strong references to Borges’s Library of Babel as well).  The symmetry is not merely formal. Babel was allegedly built, climbing into the clouds, to reach heaven’s gates. God, in apparent displeasure at humankind’s haughtiness, struck the tower down and, so the story goes, scattered humans geographically and linguistically by dividing their language and making them incomprehensible to one another. “Palace of Projects” reimagines Soviet ambitions and failures in ancient, religious terms closely intertwined with Russian culture. Although the sense of futility triggered by the architectural references to Babel isn’t the most hopeful shell for a series of proposed projects, it could be seen as a defense for the project of working collectively toward an ambitious project’s fruition. Ilya is notoriously well read, and the texts accompanying this space indicate a sly defense of the builders of Babel here.  This ascending installation suggests that even if the projects are not all realized (or rational), it is having a project (and a community of projects) that gives life meaning.

Old habits die hard. In 2007, the Kabakovs built “Manas, an installation based on a fictitional utopian city in Tibet. According to the Kabakovs, the city “…existed on two levels; on the level of the banal, everyday life that is occurring on the earth; and on the level of contact with a loftier world, primarily with the cosmos.” It consists of a series of raised observatories overlooking a basin meant for collecting dreams and solar energy and for communicating with aliens. (Ilya himself spent a large portion of his life as an alien, since he left home in 1988 and didn’t stop travelling…) Here, for the first time, the Kabakovs flirt with science fiction and, without abandoning the cultural concerns that have driven their art for decades, open a portal to an extra dimension of meaning: a universality transcending political boundaries.

“It is haunted by images of home and homeland, yet it also discloses some of the furtive pleasures of exile.”*

The Palace of Projects. June 15 – July 10, 2000. 69th Regiment Armory, Lexington Avenue at 26th Street.

For more information about the Kabakovs, see their website:


1, 3, 6* Quotes are excerpts from On Diasporic Intimacy: Ilya Kabakov’s Installations and Immigrant Homes by Svetlana Boym. Svetlana Boym is professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Harvard University. She is the author of Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (1994), Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet (1991), and of the play and film The woman Who Shot Lenin.

2*”The Toilet” was produced for Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany.

4* The multiple interpretations of the ‘ceiling’ all apply: the economic, temporal, spatial, historic, sheltering, and cultural ceilings, et cetera.

5* …vertically challenged, relative to the giants…

Works Cited

Barry, Schwabsky. “Ilya Kabakov,” Contemporary. No. 64, Autumn 2004, pp.54-57.

Boym, Svetlana. On Diasporic Intimacy: Ilya Kabakov’s Installations and Immigrant Homes,  Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 2, Intimacy (Winter, 1998), pp. 498-524.

Budick, Ariella. “The Low-Profile Masters,” New York City Newsday, February 26, 2004, Cover Story.

“cipher.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 20 Apr. 2009 <>.

De la Torre, Monica, “New York Reviews: Ilya Kabakov,” ARTnews, May 2003, p.153.

Douglas, Sarah. “Kabakov + Kabakov”, Art + Auction, September 2008, pp. 76-84.

Fels, Sophie, “Reviews: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov,” Time Out New York, May 18-24, 2006. p.78.

Grosz, David. “Rejecting Modernism’s Pieties,” The New York Sun. 11 May 2006. p. 18.

Hurwitz, Laurie. “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov,” ARTnews, April, 2003, pp. 133, 144.

Johnson, Ken, “The Listings,” The New York Times, Friday, May 26, 2006, p. E21.

Kabakov, Ilya, Catalogue Raisonné, Richter Verlag and Bern Kunstmuseum, 2003

Kabakov, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Palace of Projects (German/English), Verlag Klaus Richter and Kokerei Zollverein, Essen, Germany, 2001

Kabakov, Ilya, The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression (German/English), Oktagon Verlag, 2001

Kabakov, Ilya, Public Projects or The Spirit of a Place (English/Italian), Charta/ Antonio Ratti Foundation, 2001

Kabakov, Ilya, The Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal, two volumes, Art Tower Mito, Japan, 1999

Kabakov, Ilya, texts by Boris Groys, David M. Ross, Iwona Blazwick, Phaidon Press, London, 1997

Kabakov, Ilya,/Installations 1983–1995, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1995

Kabakov, Ilya, Total Installation (English/German/Russian), Cantz, 1995

Kamenev, Marina. “Art Attack”, The St. Petersburg Times, Friday October 3, 2008.

Kilston, Lyra & Quinn Latimer, “Field Guide”, Modern Painters Magazine, September 2008.

Mengham, Rod, “Inner Visions: Kabakov, Bourgeois, Whiteread”, Tate, Issue 23, Winter 2000.

Mengham, Rod, “Spatial Utopias,” ArtReview, Volume LVII, October 2005, pp. 106-109.

Myers, Steven Lee. “Emphasizing Creativity, Not Collectivity.” The New York Times, February 5, 2005: B7, B13.

Princenthal, Nancy, “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Sean Kelly and Sculpture Center,” Art in America, December 2004, p. 138.

Schwabsky, Barry. “Ilya Kabakov,” Contemporary, issue 64, 2004, p. 54-57.

Tsai, Eugenie, “Art Reviews,” Time Out New York, February 5-12, 2004, p.60.

Tupitsyn, Margarita. “Art and Soviet Objecthood.” Bookforum, Feb./Mar., 2005, p.21.

Varoli, John, “Fake Kabakov Works Offered for Sale: Russian Artists Fear More,”, Oct. 17, 2008.

Varoli, John, “Homecoming for the Kabakovs”, The Art Newspaper, September 2008, p.35.

Wallach, Amei, “Ilya Kabakov Flies Into His Picture,” Art in America, November 2000, p. 144-153.

Wallach, Amei, The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, Abrams, New York, 1996

Wallach, Amei, The Return of the Prodigal Trickster-Artist,” The New York Times, August 1, 2004, p. AR-28.

Wei, Lilly. “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Sean Kelly and Sculpture Center,” ArtNews, April 2004, p.111.

Woodward, Richard B. “Ilya Kabakov: Children’s Books and Related Drawings”, Art on Paper,

Wright, Karen, “Estate Sales and Fairy Tales: Life After Death with the Kabakovs,” Modern Painters, September 2005, pp. 78-81.
April, 2003, pp.64-65.


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This entry was posted on October 12, 2012 by in Reviews, Visual Art and tagged , , , .

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