Over the last two and a half decades, Kabakov installations and exhibitions have tended to confound critics and commentators both in the United States and elsewhere. I first became familiar with their work through a 2007 installation at the Tufts University Art Gallery called The Center of Cosmic Energy. An undergraduate tour guide there, I lead visiting students, faculty and parents through the couple’s “realized conceptual experiment” within which they claimed to have built a structure ideal for harnessing the site’s reservoir of “cosmic energy.” Visitors were first introduced to sketches, photographs and diagrams outlining the basic concept of cosmic energy and its various emergences throughout human history. They then entered the
Communication with the Cosmos Building, where they became a part of the scientific experiment determining whether or not cosmic energy could be harnessed and preserved. As a bright light beamed down on them at the appropriate sixty-degree angle, a voice from above informed them of the importance of the site they sat upon and warned that they might sense a proximity to the cosmos never felt before. Afterwards, the groups convened for discussions of the installation and its meaning. These discussions were always contentious. Some took the whole thing quite seriously while others clearly would have asked for their money back had they paid to begin with. In any case, most visitors had a lot to say, each reading the work through their own knowledge of related subjects and past experiences. It has been elaborate and puzzling projects such as these—some realized, others left on sketch boards, completely conceptual—that gained the Kabakovs their notoriety.
As I experienced in my limited tours of one of their works, the purpose behind their extravagant total installations, conjuring of fictional artists (as well as entirely made-up oeuvres) and incorporation of exhibition location has varied widely from person to person. Are they being serious or comedic? Idealistic or disparaging? Respectful of art history or critical of its institutionalization? Much has been made—perhaps in order to combat this ambiguity with definitude—of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Soviet background. Narrating their past— their struggle as “unofficial” artists, their 1987 immigration first to Western Europe and then the U.S., their rather nomadic lifestyle and their return to Russia in 2004 for their first official exhibition in their homeland—has provided historians, curators and critics a concreteness where upon more abstract ideas may be launched. Their work has been written and spoken about in regards to place, home, unsettlement, the avant-garde and the underground. Analogies have related their lives to those of past great artists—“Chagall went back; Kandinsky never did.” They, themselves, have contributed to this discussion. And yet, a primary focus of their talk on Wednesday May 19th at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art was their attempts to appeal to a diverse audience and stimulate universal, rather than culturally specific, utopian dreams.
The event, which was presented by Artspeaks at the University of Chicago in partnership with the MCA, consisted primarily of an hour-long discussion between the married artists and “interlocutor” art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson. Members of Chicago’s arts community—curators, artists, faculty and students—nearly filled the museum’s 300-seat auditorium to the brim. As Emilia, the more fluent English-speaker of the two, described some of their more recent projects and plans for the future, Professor Jackson used his laptop to scroll through related images on the large projection screen behind them on stage: a platform installation recently built mid-rice patty in Japan with translucent scrolls, glorifying the work of peasants in bright colors; a glowing spiral palace containing others’ creatively-rendered hopes for the future, leading to a raised view of the sky; a “tolerance ship” to be built in Chicago and utilized to bring together students from different neighborhoods and of different racial and economic backgrounds. If they were able to build a city, Emilia said, they would: “The bigger, the better.”
A translator joined the other three on stage, and Ilya began to dictate the conversation through him, and both Emilia and Professor Jackson both slipped in and out of Russian at times to maintain the dialogue. Describing themselves as romantics, the Kabakovs insisted that their work means to ask questions: How does one make one’s self better? How does one make the world better? While they made practical work in the utopian-driven Soviet Union—Ilya supported the family as a children’s book illustrator—they have committed to make utopian artwork in the more practicality-oriented United States. Furthermore, they claimed that, “the viewer is the most important artist in the process.” Each viewer brings an alternative background to the viewing process, drawing upon his or her educational, artistic and real-life knowledge. Because of this, each reads the work differently. And yet, there is usually a visual metaphor in place, an affect that is conjured and a common point through which all partake in the shared conversation. Everyone can relate to disappointment in the present—whether it be work-, family-, government- or society-related—and everyone can relate to hoping for a better future. There is a universal desire, according to the Kabakovs, for escape and meaning, and this ardor is what they hope to trigger in all audiences. They are not modernist artists, geniuses of alternate anthropological type delivering an incomprehensible message from on high. Instead, they employ a non-hierarchical means of communication that utilizes human discourse’s tools of irony and humor to an open and unforced effect. “The only people who take themselves completely seriously,” concluded Ilya, “are prophets. We are not prophets.”