Ilya Kabakov is a very major figure in Moscow Conceptualism, a member of the late generation of Soviet artists to have won worldwide recognition. He is famous for the creation of a new genre – the total installation, in which the work is not an individual object, but an entire integral space, within which viewers find themselves. In their works, the creative tandem of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov mythologize routine, everyday communal existence in the Soviet Union. The personages of their creations are romantics and forgotten artists – dreamers who live in the prosaic conditions of Soviet daily reality. The retrospective exhibition is intended to demonstrate the formation of the artist’s creative method and its evolution through the examples of installations, architectural models, paintings and works of graphic art. This large-scale project is the result of collaboration between the State Hermitage, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Tate Gallery London. It presents more than 100 works from art museums and private collections in Russia, Europe and the USA.
Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, said at the opening of the exhibition: “Today is an occasion for celebration – the Kabakovs have come back to us. We are very pleased. As you know, the return of the Kabakovs to Russia took place through the Hermitage. We are opening a major retrospective that is the result of international collaboration with the Tate Gallery and the Tretyakov Gallery – St Petersburg, Moscow and London – and in that way we are levelling the sometimes-mooted difference between Petersburg and Moscow. Today we are presenting a huge labyrinth in the city of Daniil Kharms. The huge halls of the General Staff are participating in the space of the exhibition. Visitors will look and slowly read the texts, while other visitors wait their turn – books should be read slowly. Today I was delighted to receive a letter saying that the International Economic Forum is organizing a discussion with the title ‘Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future’. I thank everyone who has made this exhibition possible.”
Emilia Kabakov, who was present at the opening ceremony in the General Staff building, stated: “Ilya is very happy as the exhibition has turned out to be tremendous. For us it is a great honour to be in the Hermitage. There are very few museums that show contemporary art in this way. If you are lucky, you’ll be taken into the future and be exhibited in the Hermitage.”
Ilya Kabakov was born on 30 September 1933, in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk. In 1943, while he was an evacuee in Samarkand in Central Asia, he entered the Art School attached to the Repin Institute of Arts, which had also been evacuated there from besieged Leningrad. After the war he studied at the Moscow Secondary School of Art and, from 1951, at the Moscow State Surikov Academic Art Institute attached to the Academy of Arts, graduating in 1957. From 1955 to 1987 he earned a living as an illustrator of children’s books working for the famous Detgiz publishing house and a number of children’s periodicals.
In that same period, he produced his first non-conformist series of graphic works, working on conceptual albums whose protagonists are “personages” divorced from reality and suffering from a variety of illusions. In 1987, thanks to a grant from the Grazer Kunstverein and the Austrian Ministry of Culture, Kabakov first gained the opportunity to travel abroad. In 1988 he moved to New York, where he met Emilia Lekakh, who soon became his wife.
Emilia Kabakova was born in Dnepropetrovsk in 1945. She studied at the Irkutsk Music College and graduated from the piano class of the Dnepropetrovsk Conservatory. She then studied Spanish for four years in the Foreign Languages Faculty of Moscow State University. She has worked together with Ilya Kabakov since the late 1980s and in 1992 the couple married.
“Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future” was an essay by Ilya Kabakov published in 1983 in the Paris-based magazine of non-conformist Russian art A–Ya. In it Kabakov reflected on the charismatic role of Kazimir Malevich, who carried a whole generation of Russian artists off after him into the future, and recalled his own personal experience from art school, where the children with the best marks were rewarded with a trip to a pioneer camp, while those who lagged behind were deprived of any chance of creative self-realization in the future. The essay ends with the thought that in just the same way the contemporary world records the names of some figures in the history of art, while others are consigned to oblivion.
In the 2001 installation with the same title, a train leaving a stop carries away those fortunate enough to have a place in the future, while the works scattered on the platform are a reminder of those who got left behind, who will be forgotten in the future. While the world is obsessed with suiting the present moment, Kabakov asks what will happen to art in the future. The demand to “live in the moment” suppresses concern about the subsequent fate of art in the minds of people today. Each decides in his own way the dilemma of what is more important: to have your achievements understood and appreciated today or for them to find a place in tomorrow’s world.
The exhibition curators are Dmitry Ozerkov, head of the State Hermitage’s Department of Contemporary Art, and Natela Tetruashvili, researcher in the Department of Contemporary Art. The exhibition is taking place as part of the Hermitage 20/21 project that aims to collect, exhibit and study art of the 20th and 21st centuries. The State Hermitage’s Youth Centre (headed by Sophia Kudriavtseva) has prepared an extensive educational programme for the exhibition, including an intellectual marathon, a series of lectures, master classes and discussions.
The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly illustrated catalogue edited by Juliet Bingham, Curator of International Art at the Tate Modern, London (Tretyakov Gallery Publishing House, Moscow, 2018). It has contributions from Juliet Bingham, Robert Storr, Matthew Jesse Jackson, Boris Groys, Kate Fowle, Rod Mengham, Dmitry Ozerkov and Katy Wan.
The exhibition design is by Andrei Sheliutto, Marina Chekmareva and Timofei Zhuravlev.
In his foreword to the catalogue, Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, observed that “the Hermitage is very pleased to be welcoming its old and loyal friends. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have exhibited more than once at the Hermitage. In 2005 there was “An Incident in the Museum and Other Installations” and in 2013 “Utopia and Reality. El Lissitzky, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov”. The Hermitage has a Kabakovs Hall, where the display includes, among other things, two celebrated installations, Cupboard and Toilet, while The Red Wagon, a generous gift from the artists is an iconic element of the permanent display in the General Staff building. It is pleasant that the Kabakovs’ art in particular has provided three famous museums – the Tate Gallery, Treyakov Gallery and Hermitage – with the opportunity to create a joint exhibition.”
In 2004 the first major exhibition of the Kabakovs’ works in Russia “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: An Incident in the Museum and Other Installations” was held successfully in the General Staff building, signalling the artists’ return to their homeland after their departure abroad in 1973/88. The exhibition was organized by the State Hermitage in conjunction with the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Stella Art Gallery, Moscow. In 2013, as part of a cross-cultural year between Russia and the Netherlands, the Winter Palace became the venue for the exhibition “Utopia and Reality. El Lissitzky, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov” arranged by the State Hermitage in collaboration with the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven.
“The exhibition ‘Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future’ in the State Hermitage is the couple’s first full-scale retrospective in Russia. For FGC UES participation in this project is important as it provides the Russian public with the opportunity to become acquainted with the oeuvre of some of the best exponents of contemporary art, including works that are kept abroad and in private collections,” Andrei Murov, chairman of the board of FGC UES, said.