Five Things to Know: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Meet the artist collaborators who pioneered installation art

Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future 2001

Private Collection courtesy of MAK –Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst

© Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Photo Courtesy of the Artists

1. The Kabakovs pioneered the ‘total installation’

The Kabakovs are best known for their ‘total’ installations, a type of immersive artwork that they pioneered. A ‘total installation’ completely immerses the viewer in a dramatic environment. They transform the gallery spaces they are displayed in, creating a new reality for the viewer to enter and experience. They often explore dark themes like power and control, oppression and destruction. Over their career, the Kabakovs have created almost two hundred total installations.

2. Their works feature a huge cast of characters

The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment

Ilya Kabakov The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment 1985

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art moderne/Centre de Création industrielle. Purchase, 1990

© Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

From utilitarian little white paper men who walk across sculptures, to fictional artists responsible for the artists’ paintings, the Kabakovs feature a host of fictional characters in their work. These characters are often used to reflect on history and personal memory as well as depicting different attitudes to Soviet society.

3. They are married

A painting covered in coloured balls of scrunched up paper

Ilya Kabakov Holiday #6 1987

Private Collection © Ilya Kabakov

Photo Courtesy of the Artists

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov were both born in Dnepropetrovsk in the former USSR, and both settled in the United States. Emilia emigrated to the USA in 1973 and was a professional musician, curator and art adviser. Ilya was a practicing artist in the Soviet Union until leaving in 1987 aged 54 to travel Europe and America. He eventually settled in New York. Ilya and Emilia started working together in the late 1980s and were married in 1992. They now live and work in Long Island, New York State.

4. Ilya has been both an ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ artist

A painted portrait of a man

Ilya Kabakov Self-Portrait 1962

Private collection

© Ilya Kabakov

Photo Courtesy of the Artists

In the Soviet Russia Ilya grew up and worked in, artists had to adhere to the official style of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism celebrated the state and the heroes and heroines of the revolution. Ilya had an ‘official’ role as a graphic artist and children’s book illustrator, working for the state publishing houses. But he led a double life. As an ‘unofficial’ artist, under the radar Ilya created works critical of society. These works could never exhibited freely in public, but were shown privately amongst artist friends.

The most interesting aspect of the 1960s was the special atmosphere of underground artistic life that was present, like a thick infusion, in all of the basement studios and tiny rooms of the artistic bohemia.

Ilya Kabakov, 1982–4

5. Their works bridge reality and fantasy

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Three Angels

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Three Angels

Private Collection © Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Photo Courtesy of the Artists

Ahead of their Tate Modern exhibition, Emilia reflected on the crossovers between the Kabakovs’ lives and work:

Ilya’s world and work are based and built on fantasy and on the history of art. I, on the other hand, very early in life, somehow learned to combine both reality and fantasy and to live in both. My fantasy world is always close to and coexists with reality. Our life is very much based on this combination: I am trying to make reality seem like the realization of fantasy, or, maybe, a continuation of fantasy, where there is no place for real, everyday situations and problems. Our life consists of our work, dreams and discussions.

Emilia Kabakov, 2017

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future is on at Tate Modern 18 October 2017 – 28 January 2018

Book now

We recomend