Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn with, ‘Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects’

Elaine A. King
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Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, ‘The Ship of Tolerance, Zug,’ 2016. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by Luis Eduardo Martinez Fuentes.

In May 1988 the New York Times critic John Russell wrote, “Ilya Kabakov is many things in one – a poet, a reporter, a storyteller in prose, a portraitist who never shows us his sitters directly, an environmental sculptor and an understated magician.” Having witnessed Ilya Kabakov’s ”Ten Characters,” at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, in 1988 and other constructions in Europe including the famed “Toliet” at Documenta, and “The Ship of Tolerance” at the Venice Biennale, I am in full agreement, that Kabakov is perhaps one of the most creative artists who continually expresses his humanist concerns through architectural quixotic realism, suggestive of the 19th century French utopian architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.

Similar to literature, Kabakov in his visual art combines character, plot, location, discourse and point of view that reconnoiter the potential of individual spaces to tell stories about life, death and tragedy. He is acknowledged today as the most significant Russian artist to have emerged in the late 20th century. His resourceful large-scale public art installations actualized with his wife/collaborator Emilia Kabakov since 1992 address essences about life in post-Stalinist Russia as well about the greater human condition. Although their work is deeply rooted in the Soviet social and cultural context in which the Kabakovs came of age, their work is continually evolving and delving into worldwide humankind issues.

Right: Portrait of lya and Emilia Kabakov in studio. Courtesy of the artists. Photo by Yuri Rost. 

Thanks to the foresight of Stephane Aquin, the Hirshhorn’s chief curator, who recognized the significance of these incredible diminutive models while visiting the Kabakov’s Long Island home in 2015, “The Utopian Projects”, is at this museum.  Despite the star assortment of global artists having exhibited at the Hirshhorn Museum over the past several years, this exhibition “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects” is perhaps the jewel in the crown of all the displays recently showcased.  It is oddly juxtaposed with the famed Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei whose countless Lego portraits of global political activists fill the floors of the interior galleries.  In contrast to Wei’s repetitious portrayal clusters that become tedious after visiting only a few rooms, each of the Kabakov’s miniature models, filling the outside circular hall galleries, is dramatically compelling, drawing the viewer into a micro-world construction as well as the stories disclosed on the exquisite wall cards that illustrate a particular international site.

Left: How to Meet an Angel, 1998 in Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by Cathy Carver.

It is a discreet display featuring twenty-two of the Kabakovs extraordinarily inventive, well-crafted small models realized in balsa wood and plywood that disclose monuments, allegorical narratives, architectural structures, and commissioned outdoor works. The exhibition provides viewers with an opportunity to witness an overview of the Kabakovs idiosyncratic works produced between 1985 to the present day—many actualized projects and unfortunately several only imagined nonetheless never built.  According to the Hirshhorn, the miniature models provide a unique and manageable overview of the Kabakovs large-scale public art projects. Aquin said, “You can sort of stage a retrospective of their work through models, whereas it’s almost impossible to do it in real size.” Over the past thirty years the Kabakovs have fabricated more than 300 ingenious global installations and no museum would have the floor space to accommodate this work. According to Emilia Kabakov they began making these small-scale versions of their works in the late 1990s.

Right:The Fallen Sky, 2010 in Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by Cathy Carver. 

Unlike many artists with a social/political disposition, the Kabakovs never preach or ascribe to a particular ideology—they have no tolerance for the school of negative whining!  Instead they create fantastic environments that the artists refer to as “total installations.”  Within each distinctive piece they arrange elements of the ordinary within an atmosphere of the unusual.  The Kabakovs in their public art strive to create a positive milieu that transcends specific cultures in hope to permeate the essence of human desires and fears that mold our present world.  Through their resourceful utopian fabrications they aspire to challenge viewers to pause and reflect on our shared humanity.

Left: The Large House of Humanity (Washington, D.C.), 1998. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York.

Among the four projects never actualized is the model of “The Large House of Humanity,” which was planned for a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C. in 1998.  Emilia Kabakov said “It would have consisted of a supersized white skeleton of a typical American home, with these words written on the roof in wire letters: “Since home we have but one, this Earth we live upon. With our home in constant motion we are striving toward the stars.” This linear looming, minimalist work could have sparked a dynamic presence in its envisioned location.

Right: Paintings on the Floor, 1990 in Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects at the Hirshhorn. Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by William Andrews.

Another noteworthy unrealized model is the Paintings on the Floor, 1990 in which huge reproductions of artworks from art history were to have been installed on the floor of Library of Seattle of the Bank of Seattle. The artists aimed to activate the architectural setting and present new ways of encountering art. This project imagined 27 years ago forecasts Wei Wei’s political floor portraits.

Left: The Largest Book in the World, 2015 in Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by Cathy Carver.

The Largest Book in the World is an amazing composition illustrating the inspirational scope of the Kabakovs.  Sadly it too was not realized because of practicality due to its enormous dimensions; the book’s size would have been twenty-one feet long and twelve and a half feet high. Undeniably the ambition of this work is a testament to the Kabakovs’ enduring attention to literature and storytelling. The fantasy world of the Brothers Grimm combines beautiful German calligraphy on one side of the sculpture and intriguing colorful illustrations on the opposite. The detail throughout this model is incredible as is its fine artistry.

Right: The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment, 1989. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by Emilia Kabakov, 2000.

The oldest model depicts a miniaturized version of the piece The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment, originally created in Ilya’s Moscow studio in 1985, however the maquette exhibited was newly constructed in 2015. One observes a tiny room of an isolated idealist who desires to flee his miserable life under Communism.  The floor is littered with pieces of plaster, there are all kinds of objects scattered about and in the ceiling here is an enormous hole through which a light is falling into the room and a blue sky is seen. The protagonist developed an impossible escape project by building a makeshift slingshot to find salvation by catapulting himself through the ceiling of his shabby room and vanishes into space.  In 1990, under the directorship of James T. Demetrion, a full-sized version of this piece was produced at the Hirshhorn for the Kabakov’s first U.S. museum retrospective, “Directions: Ilya Kabakov, Ten Characters.”  This stunning exhibition, comprised of a series of room-like environments alluding to 10 fictitious characters living in a communal Moscow apartment in its every last detail, distinctly demonstrates Kabakov’s imaginative resourcefulness.

Left: The Ship of Tolerance, Zug, 2016. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by Luis Eduardo Martinez Fuentes.

The model for the project, The Ship of Tolerance begun in 2005, represents perhaps one of their most celebrated installations.  It is a continuing global public artwork that aspires to educate and connect youth across multiple continents, cultures, and identities through interactive participation and the language of art. This work’s underlying focus is founded on a dialogue encompassing the theme of tolerance. The ship’s sails depict individual stitched-together drawings/paintings, created by schoolchildren in response to that dialogue.  The Kabakovs said, “The drawings are done by children in every country—after they talk about tolerance, about culture, about the importance of people to know each other, to not be afraid of each other.” The Ship serves as an invaluable lesson in tolerance and hope. First launched in Siwa, Egypt in 2005 and it was then created in Venice, Italy; San Moritz, Switzerland; Sharjah, UAE; Miami, FL; Havana; Cuba and Vatican City, Italy, 2017. In 2018 several variations of this piece are to appear in Oslo, Chicago and Detroit.

Right: The Five Steps of Life, 2010. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, Paris, Salzburg and Pace Gallery, New York. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Walking through the Kabakovs’ quirky mockups one senses innocent playfulness.  The very miniature size is evocative of toys and within each presentation a dreamy, child-like storytelling sensibility pervades that can certainly be comprehensible across all ages.  The whimsical maquettes are brought to life by the eccentric, imaginary cast of characters that inhabit each setting and invite visitors to explore their strange settings. Distinct pieces comment on the artists hardships encountered while growing up in the former Soviet Union yet others express pure the joy and whimsicality that contribute to the impact of this powerfully engaging exhibition. A contagious spirit of optimism and hopefulness for the future permeates the art of Ilya and Emilia.  They have set a high bar for other artists who desire to explore politics, cruelty and freedom because the Kabakovs have proven that imaginativeness, and humor goes a long way in grappling with humanity and its difficulties!

By: Elaine A. King, Contributing Art Critic

Ilya and Emelia Kabakov, The Utopian Projects

Through March 4, 2018

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Independence Avenue at 7th Street SW

Washington, DC 20560

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