The glare is almost blinding as the midday sun bounces off the snow, packed thick on the ground. Deer tracks make a delicate outline around the large, shingled house, which sits on a cliff on Long Island’s North Fork. Inside, lunch is waiting and Ilya Kabakov pads into the kitchen from his studio in paint-spattered clothes. He and his wife Emilia eat, sleep and wake according to a strict schedule. “It’s a very organised household,” Emilia says as she dishes up a beef and vegetable soup. “It’s much easier to work this way.”
That work consists of making art, and it’s all that matters around here. “He doesn’t know anything else,” says Emilia, a short, fine-featured woman of 67. “No vacation,” pipes up Ilya, in an accent that does not muffle the 55 years he lived in the Soviet Union, his birthplace. “No weekend.”
Emilia frowns disapprovingly. “It’s not a good thing,” she says in more confident English. But Ilya, who is 79, rosy-cheeked and with a shock of white hair, just smiles. “Work is pleasure. Work is vacation,” he declares, adding with a gleam in his eye, “Not to Emilia. To me.”
Husband and wife aren’t entirely of the same mind when it comes to their address, either. They moved to the rocky coastline here 18 years ago. Before that they lived in Tribeca, but Ilya says the neighbourhood was “like a permanent performance, permanent party”, and he found it difficult to focus on his work. Emilia misses Manhattan. “I’m a city person, not a country person,” she says.
But Emilia is not merely the doting wife acceding to her husband’s wishes. She is the chief facilitator of his art, at his side since he left the Soviet Union behind for the west – or, more specifically, for the international art world – 25 years ago. When he lapses into Russian, she translates. When he wants to build a sprawling art installation, she picks up the phone and makes it happen. When he paints too late into the evening, making sleep hard, she convinces him to put down his brush.
The Kabakovs have forged a potent partnership: her name now appears alongside his as co-author of the works. With Ilya as the seer and Emilia as his intellectual sounding board and masterful organiser, they have created a succession of deeply affecting immersive environments that take as their subject, in the words of the eminent US curator Robert Storr, the “failure of utopia and the aspiration nonetheless that survives. It’s the tension between the utter loss of illusions and the irrepressible desire to invent them – and that’s a pretty good summation of the 20th century.”
Over the past decade, the Kabakovs’ critical acclaim has translated into financial success. Ilya Kabakov holds the position of Russia’s most expensive living artist, after one of his paintings from 1982 sold at auction in 2008 for $5.8m. In January, it was revealed that Roman Abramovich and his partner Dasha Zhukova had acquired a substantial group of the Kabakovs’ works from a longtime collector for a reported $60m.
Still, though the Kabakovs are celebrated in Russia and much of Europe, they have not shown as much in the UK and the US and remain less known to the public there. The Kabakovs’ “total installations,” as they’re called, unabashedly impart a narrative that is often lacking in the more conceptual art of the west. In “The Toilet”, for instance, shown in Germany at Documenta IX in 1992, the couple constructed an apartment – complete with a made bed, a child’s playpen and a table set with plates and a teapot – in the confines of a shabby, outdated public restroom. With its implication that Russians were living in a toilet, the piece proved not only engrossing but understandably controversial.
Their installation “The Happiest Man”, which opens in London at the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery at the end of this month, contemplates what Ilya calls the “stupid mentality” of romanticising the past, an all-too-common but dangerous Russian trait. The installation recreates an old-fashioned cinema, with theatre seats where viewers can sit while a loop of Soviet propaganda films from the 1930s and 1940s – think smiling, happy peasants – plays on the big screen.
Michael Mazière, the Ambika gallery’s curator, describes the couple’s approach as “poetic”. “It’s the idea of metaphor,” he says. “There’s a sort of innocence, but it’s very clever. The audience is kind of lured into it.”
Those who have seen the couple in action tend to describe Ilya, widely recognised as the most important artist to come out of post-Stalinist Russia, as the conceptual genius behind the art and Emilia as the interpreter, or, in Mazière’s words, the “siphon”. “One knows exactly what the other means without saying anything,” says Katharine Heron, director of Ambika P3. “It’s a very warming sight to see them working closely.”
Emilia describes their collaborative method as a “tennis game”, with continuous back and forth. Her home office is adjacent to his studio, but mostly, she says, “We talk a lot at night, and then we can’t sleep.” His job, it seems, is to paint and draw. Hers is everything else.
However, the Kabakovs have not always been a team. Until he was well into middle age, Ilya worked alone – almost in isolation, his only audience the closely knit community of “unofficial” Muscovite artists. He made his living as a children’s book illustrator, which enabled him to acquire the otherwise hard-to-obtain materials he needed to make his own art. Ilya created some 120 books, but he detested the job. “It was complete censorship,” he says. Every aspect was state controlled, including what children – and even dogs – should look like.
Though he is quick to say that the oppression did not compare to the Stalinist terror, he lived in constant fear: “I never answered the phone. I didn’t open the door unless I knew who was coming. You had to watch what you were doing, what you were saying. In a way everyone had a double life.”
Since Ilya was not an official fine artist – his works lacked the appropriate heroic optimism – he was forbidden from exhibiting publicly in the USSR. For the most part, the authorities left him alone. But when his “Shower” series of drawings, depicting a man standing under a shower but unable to get wet, was shown in Italy in 1965, prompting outcries that he was lampooning the Soviet Union’s failures, he was banned from illustration jobs for four years.
A limited number of trusted friends were welcome in his studio. “No public, no exhibitions. It was hermetically closed,” he says. “The good part was it was idealistic – no money involved.” All he and his fellow artists hoped for was to make art.
In Ilya’s case, that art was heavily influenced by the rich Russian literary tradition. Like the great novels of the 19th and 20th centuries, Ilya’s paintings and drawings revolved around fully realised characters. Most markedly, in the early 1970s, he created a series of “Albums”, each a compilation of pencil drawings and text on loose-leaf paper with a downtrodden artist as the protagonist. Zhukova notes that much of his oeuvre “stems from Gogol’s concept of ‘little man’, a man who is minimised by worldly circumstances, yet prevails despite all odds. It’s a story – not unique to Russia – that transcends cultures as a universal myth.”
One of his recurring and most compelling metaphors was the communal apartment – that dreaded mainstay of Soviet life. In his 1980 painting “Carrying Out the Slop Pail” he composed a six-year schedule for the inhabitants of one such apartment to take out the garbage.
His work is often described as autobiographical, but Emilia warns against taking it too literally. He did not, for example, live in a communal apartment. “It’s a fantasy about a fantasy of real life,” she says. Ilya prefers to describe his art as an “understanding of life”. He also notes that while the west is consumed with the “personal mind”, in the east there is more acceptance of the “collective mind”. He tells a joke about a “friend” who, walking around the Hermitage, grew tired. Seeing an empty chair in a gallery, he went to sit, only to have a guard scream at him, “This chair is not for you – it’s for everybody!” Ilya laughs. “It’s a paradox.”
In the early 1980s Ilya began to feel his paintings needed a context, and he turned to installations. “He put all his previous work inside installations,” Emilia says. “It was pretty radical, but at the same time, how radical could it be? Nobody could see it.”
Ilya says he knew little to nothing of what was going on in the art world beyond the Iron Curtain. “That was one of the tragedies of living in a closed society,” he says. “We didn’t have any information. If we were able to get any, it was fragmentary.” He got by, he says, on “fantasies of western art”. Word was getting out about Ilya, however, as foreign curators and museum directors slowly began showing up at his studio. “Western curators were very polite,” he says. “They were trying to be very nice.”
Ilya is being modest. Amei Wallach, the critic and film-maker, who is completing a documentary on the couple, first met him in 1987 in Moscow, where she was reporting on the effects of glasnost and perestroika. Many artists, she says, were “totally terrified” of their new-found freedom. Not Ilya. “It was very clear to me he was a major, major artist,” she says. “His own work was riveting.”
A Swiss diplomat brought some of Ilya’s works home, which led to the artist’s first solo shows in Paris and Bern, in 1985. Ilya was unable to attend. “Nobody could go outside,” he says. “The first time I went was 1987. I was 54.” That trip was to accept an artist residency in Graz, Austria. Even then he resisted any urge to see what his foreign peers were up to. Fuelled by an “enormous desire” to share his work in public, he says, “I was more concerned with making what I wanted to make than seeing any other art.”
His return to Moscow was brief. In 1988 he emigrated. That spring Ilya had his first solo show in the US, at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York. It had been 10 years in the making. With a meticulously created environment, “Ten Characters” imagined the residents of a depressingly carved-up communal apartment, from the mediocre artist and the hoarder to “The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment,” whose tiny hovel had a hole in the ceiling. The New York Times’ rave review called “Ten Characters” “an amazing experience” and described Ilya as “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”.
It was the first time most influential curators, including Robert Storr, had witnessed Ilya’s work, but it was all they needed to see. “As soon as I had the chance to act, I did,” says Storr, who acquired Kabakov works for the Museum of Modern Art when he became a curator there and put pieces in group exhibitions at both MoMA and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
Emilia, herself an émigré, had helped usher “Ten Characters” to completion. As Ilya’s visions grew increasingly complicated to orchestrate, Emilia proved herself invaluable when it came to pulling them off. “Ilya would not have been able to do the work without Emilia,” says Wallach, “because she is really the one who makes it happen.”
Emilia downplays her role: “In the beginning mostly I was an assistant, I would say – a very expensive assistant.” Even today, she adds, “more or less he still works on his own – because I don’t paint, and he paints. His connection with painting, that’s chemical.”
Theirs is an unusual love story. Ilya’s and Emilia’s lives have been intertwined since birth. They are “from the same family … the same house,” as Emilia puts it – cousins. Both had painful childhoods. Ilya’s was interrupted by war. While his father went off to fight, Ilya and his mother were evacuated from their home in the Ukrainian town of Dnepropetrovsk to Samarkand, where, serendipitously, the Leningrad Art Academy had also been relocated. Ilya was admitted, and for the remainder of his childhood his mother moved wherever was best for her son’s art education – even when she had to do so furtively because she lacked the necessary residency papers.
Emilia’s parents were imprisoned for years after they applied for exit papers, and she was raised by her grandparents. She studied classical piano, but her parents’ status prevented her from attending a top conservatory. She went instead to Siberia.
Ilya married and divorced twice and had a daughter, who now lives in Paris. Emilia married as well, had a daughter and applied to emigrate to Israel in 1971. Two years later her request was granted, but she was given just five days to get out. It was Ilya who took her to the train station. “When I was leaving, he told me he loved me,” she recalls. “I was in love with him, but it was very complicated. I am very strong-minded. It took me a while to understand how to live with another person.”
She moved to Belgium, where she had another daughter, and finally to New York, where she divorced and fashioned a career as an art adviser and curator. When Ilya left the Soviet Union in 1988, they reunited. Wallach recalls having plans with them one evening in 1992. “We were going to the theatre and dinner together,” she says. “We met, and they said, ‘We just got married.’”
Ilya does not like to discuss his private life, or talk about representing his homeland in the 1993 Venice Biennale and being lauded in the country where he once could not hang a picture in a gallery.
“He’s got the face of cheer and sweetness,” says Wallach. “He doesn’t want to show his anguish.” He has rarely returned to Russia. He went back when his mother died in 1988, then stayed away until 2004, when he had an exhibition at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In 2008 his was the inaugural show at Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow.
While some Soviet artists lost their bearings after communism fell, Ilya did not. Asked how inextricable his art is from Russian culture, Emilia insists, “His work never was Russian. It was always universal, because it’s very humanistic.” But Ilya offers a more tempered response: “As a rule, an artist believes in the national traditions where he grew up.” To be an artist with a major reputation, however, requires balance. “You have to be able to speak your national language, but sometimes be on an international level.”
“The Happiest Man” is a prime example of the Kabakovs’ balancing act. The underlying narrative, as Emilia explains it, tells of a “person trying to escape from the reality of life. He does what we all do – go to the movie theatre.” Unlike the rest of us, his desire is so strong that he undertakes to stay there, erecting an apartment right in the middle of the theatre. A window offers a view of the screen, where Stalinist films depict a utopia that is tragically, brutally make-believe. “If there was a field of wheat, it is golden. All the women have beautiful faces. They’re working in the field, but so clean! Singing and dancing! It is a paradise,” Emilia says. “You know it’s a movie, you know it’s not real, but you want to believe.”
Their art can transport viewers – and it can also leave them scratching their heads. When they exhibited “The Happiest Man” at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2000, Emilia acknowledges that plenty of people didn’t understand what the apartment was, or that they could enter it. Ilya recalls a friend coming up to him at another exhibition in Paris and saying, “Ilya, I know you have an installation at the Pompidou. Where is it?” He was standing in it.
Ilya laughs at the memory – he does not seem bothered by a little confusion. He is acutely concerned, however, that his work will take its rightful place in the history of art. “There is an endless line of artworks that already exist, and my work is one small point on this line,” he says. “The scariest thing is not to survive this context. It’s scary to think the educated viewer might pass this work and say, ‘Take it down. It doesn’t belong here.’”
This autumn will see an 80th birthday celebration for Ilya, with an exhibition and a big party in Moscow, as well as a show at the Pace Gallery in New York. The Kabakovs’ schedule is overflowing with exhibitions and projects, such as their Ship of Tolerance, a vessel whose sail has been made by schoolchildren. Emilia jokes that she and Ilya call the second floor of another building on their property the “museum of unrealised projects” because it is full of rejected proposals. A third cavernous building houses some of Ilya’s recent paintings – towering, multi-panel canvases up to five metres tall. Some day the Kabakovs’ foundation will use it as an exhibition space.
Though his legal residence has long been in the US, Emilia says Ilya’s physical location matters little. “He didn’t adjust to life in the west. He lives in between,” she says. “I don’t remember the last time Ilya went to the store. He doesn’t know where he is.” Ilya concedes that he prefers his life in the US because there he is no longer afraid. Otherwise, he says, before heading off to paint, “It doesn’t matter – as long as I have a place to work.”
‘The Happiest Man’ is at Ambika P3, 35 Marylebone Rd, London NW1, from March 27 to April 21; www.p3exhibitions.com. ‘Two Mountains’, a new series of paintings and watercolours by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, is at Sprovieri Gallery, London W1, from March 27 to May 11; www.sprovieri.com