Emilia and Ilya Kabakov are a wife and husband collaborative who have been working side by side since 1989. They married in 1992 and their first jointly signed work was The Palace of Projects (1997). The title of this work anticipated their increasingly ambitious and multifaceted artistic trajectory. Today, with so much emphasis within contemporary criticism on “platforms and projects” versus single, autonomous artworks, the Kabakovs (whose achievements have earned them significant acclaim in Russia, Japan and Europe) are beginning to gain visibility in United States (they joined Pace in 2012.) The Kabakov’s identify themselves foremost as conceptual artists, and their shape-shifting practice includes, installation, painting, graphic design and film. Their current exhibition at Pace includes two new bodies of work, The Two Times (2014–15) and Six Paintings about the Temporary Loss of Eyesight (2015) in which the Kabakovs test, through paintings that employ juxtaposition, pattern and transcription as stratagem, the legibility (and reliability) of images of modernity against those of more distant pasts.
ERIC SUTPHIN: How does collaboration function in relation to Modernism’s emphasis on the autonomy of the artist?
EMILIA AND ILYA KABAKOV: This is a very interesting question, especially considering that there are more and more artists working in pairs. Obviously there are reasons why in some cases a collaborative process can be better than those made in a solitary process. We can say that the personality of each artist, working in collaboration with the other reveals much more than when he/she works by his or herself.
One of your aims has been to restore painting’s tension, or its potential for rupture. One strategy for you is figuration, in particular, looking back to Baroque painting. What is it about figurative painting that contains the possibility for difficulty or conflict?
The return to painting and a Baroque approach has two sides: there are some elements that are working on rupture and others which are uniting everything on the canvas.
The first is a collage of all the elements of the painting, the fragmentary nature. This is the special technique that we use for such paintings in order to unite these elements. The elements of collage can consist of images from different times, but the wholeness is created by using one artistic approach for these elements stemming from different eras, in our case the style of Pierre Bonnard.
It seems that the increasing scale and ambition of your work — in particular the evolution from the 1995 Pompidou exhibition to the 2014 Monumenta presentation — has a direct correlation to an ever-expanding global art market. How has increasing globalization and decentralization of the “art world” affected your practice?
We come from a country where the art market did not exist and it is very easy to continue to disregard it. If this is about the art market, this is already such a covered territory that we are afraid to even start such a discussion. The same goes for globalization. In some aspects it does work very well, but in others it creates a catastrophe for artists, especially younger ones.
The scale of our work increases depending on the ideas and concepts and has nothing to do with the market, globalization or decentralization. The scale of the installation at the Pompidou in 1995 was in consideration of the idea we presented and the space that was available to us, the same as the project in 2014 at Monumenta.
How has the role of institutions affected the scope and scale of your projects?
That was the main factor of influence on our projects, both in museums and other art institutions. We do make a distinction between an exhibition at a museum and an exhibition at a gallery. A gallery can limit your scale and imagination, and in many cases takes an already existing work with the intention to sell. The museum, kunsthalle, kunstverein, or public space has a very specific aura and atmosphere. This stimulates your imagination and fantasy, giving you the freedom that comes with space. Unfortunately the only limit is the budget.
What scope do you hope to reach and how does ambition and scale relate to your notion of the art world as a utopian fantasy?
The most ideal result of what we are trying reach and achieve is our last exhibition at The Grand Palais for the 2014 Monumenta presentation. The Grand Palais was a utopian project, a glass palace from the end of the 19th century. For us the possibility to realize a utopian, grandiose project in this superb space was and is the best, ideal project in the art world.
Do you see your work as nostalgic for a time when recognizable imagery had more currency than it may hold today?
The interest in painting is definitely a nostalgic interest, but at the same time there is always a hidden hope that the life of your paintings will belong to the future.
Can you discuss the ways in which representational painting functions as a conceptual, rather than purely narrative, device within your practice.
EMILIA: All the paintings are done on a project basis, as a concept as well as a narrative. Even if the narrative is used, there is a concept. But we should say that Russian conceptualism is built on narrative.
ILYA: All of my paintings are conceptual works. This means that those paintings are not only a method of explaining and representing myself as a traditional artist and painter who spends all his life working in one medium or one “visual corridor,” but rather presenting different projects which come to mind all the time. These appear not rationally, like any self-respecting artist would do, but spontaneously — one after another, or simultaneously.
Who are some artists who have been important to you?
ILYA: In the 1960s through the 1980s I did belong to a group of Moscow Conceptual artists and because of the complete isolation of the Soviet art world, I had very little knowledge of what was going on in the Western art world. In our circle the art works were always connected to a specific project. I did paintings or objects that were connected to either a Soviet bureaucratic design, a parody of official Soviet artworks, or paintings that appeared to be done by different artistic personae including characters such as the “untalented artist.”
The paintings now on view at Pace belong to the same kind of design but with a different context that we are interested in now. The concept of these paintings is to presume that there is now movement or new developments in contemporary art. As in the time of the Renaissance, we have to look back and start using the achievements of the past, remembering that the Renaissance artists used the achievements of the ancient Greeks.