This autumn Tate Modern stages the first in the UK major retrospective show of the works by artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Curated in close dialogue with the duo, and organised in collaboration with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the exhibition offers the opportunity to see some rarely seen works for the first time in the UK. Marina Maximova of Russian Art & Culture talked to Juliet Bingham, curator of the show, about the pioneering couple’s practice and their place within the international context of conceptual art.
MM: I am very excited about this show and I believe it to be a very important exhibition. From what I have seen so far, it feels like the show is dominated by several major total installations. I wondered how the selection was made and why these particular works were chosen?
JB: What we tried to do with this exhibition, which is the first retrospective of Ilya and Emiliya Kabakovs’ work in the UK, was to give an overview of 60 years’ worth of practice. I think for people, who are more familiar with associating their work with total installations, we are hoping that this exhibition will reveal more layers to the practice, particularly in reference to Ilya’s painting. The exhibition begins with a painting from 1959, the Soviet self-portrait, which has Cézanne-esque references, and moves through the albums into the early installations, which he made whilst still living in the Soviet Union. Then we progress to the very immersive works made together with Emilia in the United States, and then to his later paintings. We are looking at a variety of different practice aspects, and trying to pull out major strands and themes, which were running through the paintings, albums and installations. There are three larger scale installations on display: Labyrinth, 1990, Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future, 2001, and Three Nights, 1989. But we are also including smaller ones, such as The Man Who Flew into Space, 1988. Moreover, the artist perceives the whole exhibition as an installation, and an immersive experience from the beginning to end.
MM: Creation of such immersive environments ranks among the most interesting aspects of Kabakov’s work. Do you think that the curatorial element is an important part of his practice?
JB: I think he wears many hats. In his work, he adopts different personas, characters, different artists. I think, you can look at any of his works as very specific creations. Every single detail is very specifically constructed to provide an atmosphere for the viewer looking at the work and looking at the exhibition. We worked in a very close dialogue with the artists to create this exhibition together.
MM: What can you say about their duo? How did they manage to create such a productive collaboration? What was their secret?
JB: Well, I think it is their sense of humour and fantastic ideas. Emilia made a very interesting quote in the catalogue. She talked about Ilya living in his imagination and in a fantasy world. She somehow bridges a more pragmatic everyday life with this fantasy world. Together, with their combined potential, they are able to create reality they want to live in. This is definitely interesting, her perspective.
MM: You have mentioned that the work The Man Who Flew into Space was first shown in Kabakov’s studio in Soviet Moscow. What can you tell about that first presentation and its audience? How did the meaning of the work change when it was transported from this semi-private environment into the public space of a museum?
JB: If we look at the black and white photographs of the work in his studio in Moscow, we will see that there was an exterior box. You could walk around, outside the piece, but still you were able to peer into it. And once you peered in through the wooden panels, which were also included into this exhibition, you could see the same interior, as you do now. Formally, the interior was still exactly the same. But when it was first presented, clearly, Kabakov was not able to demonstrate the work to the wide audience. It was shown to people from his circle, the group of Moscow conceptualists, such as artists Oleg Vassiliev, Eric Bulatov, Dmitry Prigov, Andrei Monastyrsky, and Boris Groys, the theoretician of the group. They were all working in very particular circumstances, in what was essentially a very closed community.
So how was the work presented and received, when in was first shown in the States? It was shown not on its own, but within a context of Ten Characters. It was a story of the fictional characters, told through ten individual rooms, each of which focussed on life of a certain individual or a dreamer. And that was a much more immersive experience, because the whole gallery space was taken over by this recreation of a communal apartment. He was translating his work into a different Western context and creating immersive atmosphere for a viewer.
MM: Speaking about the Western context: Russian art history and the development of Russian art is often shown as considerably different from the West. How did the Kabakovs’ practice fit within the nascent artistic trends developing at the time, within the evolution of the installation art?
JB: I think their idea of total installation and focus on the relationship with the viewer are very important. The spectator becomes a very active participant in their work. I think, this is one of the most important aspects of total installation. It becomes almost a three dimensional painting, something you are actively involved in.
MM: I find this idea of a viewer’s participation really fascinating. I wonder if you can comment on how Kabakov’s understanding of a spectator’s role shifted with his move to the West? His earlier works produced in Russia addressed his viewers, and in many cases were about the viewers, but those viewers were imaginary. While living in the USS, his works hardly ever reached wide audience. Did his practice change after he left that bubble of Moscow conceptual art and faced the real audience in the States?
JB: This is an interesting point. The viewer has always been important. For example, the albums were something that was performed by him in his studio to the closed group of friends. As you were mentioning earlier, many works included texts, but these texts did not function only as story-writing. It was also a dialogue, either between tenants, or between the members of the experimental group. And it can be imagined that a spectator was part of that conversation. And this is the aspect which continued throughout the artist’s work, whether in the Soviet Union or later in partnership with Emilia.
What definitely changed was the scale of the works, which shifted dramatically. Look at the huge projects, such as The Strange City in the Grand Palais, 2014, or his installation at the Venice Biennale, 2003, or Toilet, 1992, mounted for the Dokumenta.
MM: What was your experience as a curator working with total installations? Were there any difficulties for Tate when staging the exhibition of this kind? I suppose, working with the Kabakovs might have been very different, partly due to their involvement into the preparation of this show, and partly because of their approach towards the exhibition as an immersive environment.
JB: It is a different journey for the artists as well, because it is a survey exhibition and they are reflecting on 60 years of their work. The Tate exhibition combines the retrospective look on their practice with creating total environments. Usually, the projects they are making are different. For example, their project for Monumenta was a total installation displayed at the Grand Palais. Similarly, in the Garage museum in 2008, Alternative History of Art was a total installation including 25 rooms. The Palace of Projects, 1998, which was shown here in London in the Roundhouse, was once again an installation, which despite involving manyfold projects, was still perceived as a unified whole.
So, I think now, it is a slightly different approach, which included recreating some of the installations, initially shown in very different settings. For example, Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future is on permanent display at MAC Tower, a very particular type of space. We worked very closely together with artists to recreate that environment. Obviously it had to take a different form, we had to adapt it to the show for this building and for our audience, and to make it accessible to all viewers. It is an incredible opportunity to bring together works, which have not been previously seen displayed together in one exhibition.
MM: And I think it is equally important that they are shown next to his paintings and drawings and reveal the whole diversity of his practice.
JB: Yes, and it allows one to see some thematic threads. For example, ideas of disappearance, or transcendence, or of an escape, which you are going see in the albums, in the Man Who Flew into the Space, can also be found very early on in his works depicting a fly. Fly is associated with detritus, but also with freedom. So, I hope that audience will see these different threads and strands running through the show.
MM: Speaking about the audience, do you think Russian audience will have a different perception of the works? Do you think of the Kabakovs as Russian or Soviet artists? Or perhaps, these labels grew no longer relevant?
JB: It is a difficult question. They grew up in the Soviet Union, in a particular period of time, in an entity which is no longer existent. They have lived in the States since the late 1980s, and they are American citizens, Soviet born American citizens. Ilya matured as an artist in the Soviet Union, working and living in Moscow. His work is obviously inflected by everything he experienced and by that context. But equally the next 30 years of his life were spent in the West. So I think it is a very interesting situation to look at the work from all those different viewpoints. Of course, people who experienced the same upbringing as Ilya, will bring their own experience to that, and those who did not have the same upbringing, will bring their experience.
Actually, many references in the works are universal. Think about fear, or hope, or utopia, or dreams, they are not rooted in one’s political or social circumstances. They transcend them. I think every viewer will bring something different. Of course, you bring a specific memory. If you know Russian romance songs, which are part of Labyrinth, and the time when they came back into fashion, you will bring your knowledge of that.
We have tried our best to translate all texts in the exhibition, even fragments of the texts, which appear in the paintings, in order to give a better insight into the topics and the discussions that are included in the work. We are trying to make it accessible for everyone.
MM: If you were to pick a work or a part of the show, which one would you name as the most interesting or the most powerful one?
JB: This is difficult to say. I think, Labyrinth brings together many different strands of experience. It is a total installation. Its content spans over the whole 20th century. It narrates the life of the artist and the life of the artist’s mother. It represents women in the Soviet society. So, I think it is a very emblematic work. But of course, one of the most iconic works in the show is the Man Who Flew into Space. And we are very fortunate to bring all these works together.