Ilya Kabakov

30 September 1933, Dnepropetrovsk

Ilya Kabakov was born in a Jewish family; his father was a metalworker and his mother a bookkeeper. With the start of the war, he was evacuated to the North Caucasus and then to Samarkand, where in 1943 entered the school of the Leningrad Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. He spent his entire childhood in communal flats or in the boarding school for especially gifted children, the Moscow Middle Art School. In 1957, Kabakov graduated from the Surikov Art Institute with a degree as “artist-illustrator.” He began working with great success as an illustrator for a children’s book publisher in 1956. In 1965 he began taking part in exhibitions and also joined the Union of Artists USSR. In 1967 he rented a studio in the Rossiya building (Sretensky Boulevard, house 6/1), which became a key location for the unofficial cultural life of Moscow.  The most important exhibitions and discussions took place there.  At present the Institute of the Problems of Contemporary Art is housed in the studio. Kabakov entered the international art arena in the early 1980s. He has been a frequent participant in the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel. He moved to New York in 1989, where he works in co-authorship with his wife, Emilia Kabakova. ICA in London held his personal exhibition in 1989. In 1998 the Roundhouse in London was the site for the Kabakovs’ gigantic total installation, The Palace of Projects, which entered history as one of the most fundamental art statements on the theme of Utopia.

His works are in the collections of the Zimmerli Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Centre Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Hermitage, and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, among others.

Kabakov was the founder and leader of Moscow Conceptualism. In the mid-1960s his first absurdist sculptural objects appeared (“Machine Gun and Baby Chicks”), inspired by the reality of everyday life. In the early 1970s, Kabakov was one of the first to turn to the problem of studying the local cultural context and Soviet mentality and the division of life into “for them” and “for myself.” From the time of the creation of the graphic albums “Ten Characters” (1970-1974), the use of “personages” became a feature of his work, and often his works have a direct connection to his biography. He created a unique archaeology of Homo sovieticus, based on parodic deconstruction. In 1978, in the character of designer, he created a series, stylistically rather close to Sots Art, using the faceless stylistics of posters and instructions. As a rule, the works of this period are dedicated not so much to the passionate language of Soviet totalitarianism, which is usually parodied by Sots Art painters, but rather to the actually existing reverse side of the formal façade—chaos, absurdity, and ruin. In 1982, Kabakov began designing his first installation, and in 1987 came to the creation of what he called “total installations.” The most famous and now a classic, “The Man Who Flew Into the Space from His Apartment,” is a reconstruction of an exceptionally poor room, its walls covered with pages from Soviet magazines.  The hole in the ceiling and the primitive means of overcoming gravity suggest that its inhabitant managed to escape from his miserable world into another reality and at the same time raise doubts about the feasibility of this event. Another installation, “Monument to a Lost Civilization” (1999), crystallized the idea of dystopia, which is characteristic of practically all of Kabakov’s works. His works are called on to prove that any project on a private or world scale that is based on the authoritarian will to power has the potential probability of collapse and failure.