Ilya Kabakov

(b. 1933)

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(1933– )

Russian installation artist, born in Djnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. In 1939 his family moved to Moscow. He worked as an illustrator for children's books to gain himself some independence while building up his reputation as an unofficial artist and was one of a group of artists who were involved in what was known as ‘Romantic Conceptualism’. These artists produced a kind of parallel to Western Pop, but worked from the drab paraphernalia of Soviet life in the post-Khrushchev years. He said subsequently: ‘In the 1970s we lived like Robinsons, discovering the world through our art.’ In the 1980s Kabakov became known in the West through the New York dealer Ronald Feldman, who had developed contacts with the Russian underground. It was at Feldman's gallery in 1988 that Kabakov mounted the installation that was to be pivotal to his career. Entitled Ten Characters, it consisted of a series of rooms supposedly in a communal apartment block, each occupied by an idiosyncratic and obsessive character. For instance, ‘The Man who collects the Opinions of Others’ believes all opinions are arranged in circles. His collection technique is to place an object in the corridor, wait unnoticed for someone to come, and record the response. Kabakov writes, ‘If it were possible to see him from the side, then he usually reminded me of a fisherman, tense and alert, waiting with his rod in his hand.’

After 1987 Kabakov worked in the West, but he continued for some years, even after the breakup of the Soviet Union, to describe himself as a ‘Soviet artist’, not out of any loyalty to that political system, but as an acknowledgement of the culture from which his work sprang. The distance between his practice and that of Western modernism was underlined by his contribution to documenta 9 in 1992. This consisted of a reconstruction of a row of Russian-style public toilets, some of which had been given interior decoration as though they were living spaces. On one level this was a reference to Duchamp's famous gesture of exhibiting a urinal as Fountain, but, unlike Duchamp's ready-made, Kabakov's installation derives its power not from being distanced from its context but by its inclusion of the details of everyday life. Kabakov was asked by an attendant how many Russians actually lived in toilets. The playing with tantalizing fictions is very much part of his art, but this led to an outcry in the Russian press, which accused the artist of showing the Western public things that should not be aired outside the country. Following this controversy, Kabakov decided to move to the West permanently. He now works in collaboration with his wife, Emilia Kabakov.

Further Reading

P. Suchin, ‘Ilya Kabakov and Contemporary Russian Art’, Art & Design, profile no. 35, Special issue, ‘New Art from Eastern Europe’ (1994)

http://www.artmargins.com/content/feature/boym2.html S. Boym, ‘Ilya Kabakov: The Soviet Toilet and the Palace of Utopias’, on the Art Margins website.

Subjects: Art.

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