Inside the Kabokovs' ‘Strange City’

The art world is changing—museums are getting bigger and artists are taking on more “outside” projects. For their Monumenta exhibit, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov explore the good old days.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov worked on The Strange City, their installation for the more-or-less annual Paris show, Monumenta, in Le Grand Palais for three years. It’s a mighty space, so previous recipients of a Monumenta commission—among them Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, and Anish Kapoor—had appropriately sizeable ambitions. So, too, the Kabakovs.

This is a time of expanding bigness in the art world, of noise, of numbers, of uber-artists, mixed-media, mega-collectors. In the museum culture in New York alone, the Whitney’s brand-new building is near done, the Met and MOMA are planning new spaces, and even that genteel relique of the (last) Robber Baron-Era, the Frick, hopes to gobble the Eat Me! cake and pump up six stories. It is at just such a time that the Kabakovs have set out to take the art world—or at least the museum section of it—back to where it once belonged.

Emilia Kabakov arrived in New York from the USSR in 1975. Ilya, her first cousin, with whom she grew up in the Ukraine, had been at the center of a tiny group of “unofficial” artists called the Moscow Conceptualists. It was post-Stalin, and they were unthreatened by the gulag, but censored and surveilled. Ilya had survived in Moscow by illustrating children’s books. Then came Perestroika. Ilya followed Emilia to the U.S. in 1988, where they began working together the following year, with Emilia administering Ilya’s career.

“I know every museum director in the world. My faxes are famous,” Emilia told me some years ago. “We need tickets…this is our fee…the project will cost this” Oh, and don’t try to bother her with regulations.

The first piece on which the Kabakovs, now married, put their joint names was The Palace of Projects, in 1996. “There are three of us,” she told me of such art couples. “Coosje [van Bruggen] and Claes [Oldenburg]…the Christos…us.” The art world tends to be routinely cynical about such dual acts. Coosje and Jeanne-Claude, Christo’s wife, are now gone. I barely knew Coosje, but I knew the Christos well since the 60s and Jeanne-Claude’s role in their artistic partnership was absolutely crucial. As for Emilia Kabakov? Like her husband, she is low on shows of ego but resolute. “Some of the ideas are mine,” she said. She adds that she can see when something is “wrong” with an installation.

Entering The Strange City is an immersion in the Kabakov’s fantastical world. The eight structures the Kabakovs have built within Le Grand Palais resonate with pictorial stories, hauntingly told, that range from references to the utopian dreams of Early Modernism to baroque Borgesian riffs, like The Empty Museum. Many revisit themes they explored in earlier works. “How to Meet an Angel” was, for instance, previously built in Germany and Amsterdam. “You have to be desperate … at the end of your patience…completely broken…you build a ladder, you go up, and an angel will come to meet you,” Emilia says.

“And in Amsterdam there was a big debate,” she continues. “Is it about suicide? Or is it about hope? Regular people said it’s about suicide. And the patients of the mental institutions said no, it’s about hope.”

The Strange City both memorializes Ilya and Emilia’s long trip through the art world and offers a sharp critique of what it has become. “There is a lot of infusion of different medias, which before was completely unconnected to the art world,” Emilia says. “They had their own venues, their own space in the world. Like fashion, music. Now everything is considered art. If you make design for a car you are an artist, if you make design for clothes, you are an artist.”

Emilia says that she had mentioned to her husband that such-and-such an Art Star had been paid half-a-million dollars for designing a handbag.

“He’s a very famous artist” Ilya had responded, unperturbed.

“Would you design a handbag for half a million dollars?” she asked.


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The changes that bothered them most, though, have been in the museum culture—and the Kabakovs, like most successful artists, are tireless global museum-trotters, going from show to show. “Today people come to museums to be entertained,” Emilia says. “The first time I paid attention to this was when curators start asking: how are people going to interact with your artwork? Why are they supposed to interact? It is not physical. I don’t have to touch paintings in order to understand them. I think it’s because cultural values change. Museums want visitors. So they are willing to lower the level of quality of art and what they do in order to get more public.”

Emilia compares today’s museums to airports, noisy, smelling of food, and filled with crowds who see the art as a background to their selfies. “They don’t have the same feeling like it’s a sacred art space,” she says. “You come to talk to your friends, you come to be together, and in the middle of these activities you are going to see some art.” Strange City was to be the antidote. As she puts it, a “church of art.”

Good luck with that, I thought, when she first told me. So how is it working out since the Grand Palais opening on May 10?

“It is doing very well,” Emilia says. “And there [are] a lot of people, lines of people. And the catalog is sold out, the first catalog. And we have a lot of letters and a lot of emails. People writing this light[s] up our life…this change[s] the direction of life…like opening their minds to different possibilities, the goals of life, the meaning of life…and elevating them to a different level of consciousness. They think about religion, about life and death, about parents and children. And we have these letters from all over the world, from Australia, from Japan…a lot of people say they are going there three or four times because once is not enough.”

And the munchers, the talkers, the selfies? “Everybody is astonished that there is no noise…no cellphones…It is surprising that people are not taking selfies…they are sending photographs of the installations, of different objects…of friends, just people walking in the installations, but not of themselves. Of course, they take [photos of] themselves, but not openly. They are saying this: by not talking, by not talking on the phone, by not thinking of what kind of pictures I am going to take of myself anywhere, they can actually more concentrate on the work, the art.”