Ilya Kabakov’s studio smells from wooden easels and is illuminated by soft, white light filtered through the windows. He is a man of few words as he sits over his desk, which is covered with pencil sketches, rulers and art supplies — tools in which he constructs future projects.
Russian is his preferred language, so he leaves the communicating to his wife and collaborator, Emilia, a short, lively woman with a thick Russian accent who radiates maternal warmth and imagination — a perfect balance to the quiet, introspective Ilya.
The Kabakovs are a husband-and-wife team who have been pioneers of “total installation” art since the 1980s. Total installations, Emilia describes, are pieces of art that can take up entire rooms or buildings, encompassing the viewer by engaging all of the senses to form a complete emotional experience.
For example, “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment,” an Ilya Kabakov installation from 1984, takes the viewer to an apartment decorated with Soviet propaganda, where a man has constructed a slingshot that had sent him into space. With a gaping hole in the ceiling, it is apparent to the viewer that the man had left recently.
Both Soviet-born, but now living in Mattituck, the couple’s shared career has taken them all over the world, exploring the depths of human character and social consciousness.
“They both have very different strengths,” said curator Lance Fung of Fung Collaboratives, who has worked with the couple since 2005. “When they both utilize these strengths, they become formidable.”
Ilya was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, in 1933. His career spans more than five decades — while in the Soviet Union he worked as a children’s book illustrator and was a prominent figure among underground conceptual art circles not recognized by the Soviet regime.
Emilia, a distant cousin of Ilya, moved to the United States in 1975, working as an art dealer and curator. In 1988, the two met again in the United States and began to collaborate on installation projects.
They were married in 1992 — Emilia is Ilya’s third wife and both have children from other marriages. With Emilia as the overseer of Ilya’s work, the two have become so intertwined that their projects are regarded as joint endeavors.
“The Toilet,” a 1992 installation constructed for Documenta IX, an exhibition in Kassel, Germany, takes the viewer into a Soviet public toilet that has taken on the characteristics of an apartment. As viewers walk through the scene, there is a presence of life — it is apparent that people live there, living, as the literal metaphor suggests, in a toilet.
“You become an actor. The difference is in the theater you are separated from the stage,” Emilia said. “This is your stage, this is your show because your memories, your knowledge, your cultural background, your everyday background, is involved.”
While the Kabakovs are well-known in Europe, their installations have not touched down as prominently in the United States, mainly due to lack of funding and space for their large-scale projects. The Kabakovs’ first American-based commission came only last year, with the launch of ARTlantic, a public art project in Atlantic City, N.J. For the project, the couple produced an interactive pirate ship, dubbed the “Devil’s Rage,” inspired by the lore of downed vessels that surround the Jersey Shore.
The Kabakovs explore this concept in the Ship of Tolerance, a large, fully functional wooden ship that incorporates sails designed by children, inspired by their concept of tolerance. Since the project launched in 2005, the ship has visited five other countries and will sail at the DUMBO Arts Festival in Brooklyn in September.
“The vision of doing something international, where children can explore aspects of their personality, I think, is a very worldly approach,” said Robin Holden, a master teaching artist with the New York City public school system’s Studio in a School program, who worked with New York City elementary school students on the DUMBO Ship of Tolerance.
The couple is constantly working — they are currently planning to attend exhibit openings at the Pace gallery in New York City as well as openings in Moscow and at the Grand Palais museum in Paris.
Their home, however, is quiet, complete with a large warehouse that is home to a personal workshop and museum dedicated to models of their past projects and future creations. It is a retreat that juxtaposes their worldly lifestyle, an escape, and a reflection of the privacy they seek comfort in.
“When we describe reality, it’s not a real reality. I am connected to reality because I have to be, somebody has to run all this,” Emilia said. “Of course we discuss reality, we discuss politics, we discuss what’s going on in the world, we watch the news, but everyday reality, we’re both trying to ignore.”
See examples of their art at ilya-emilia-kabakov.com.