Their installation “The Happiest Man”, which opens in London at the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery at the end of this month, contemplates what Ilya calls the “stupid mentality” of romanticising the past, an all-too-common but dangerous Russian trait. The installation recreates an old-fashioned cinema, with theatre seats where viewers can sit while a loop of Soviet propaganda films from the 1930s and 1940s – think smiling, happy peasants – plays on the big screen.
Michael Mazière, the Ambika gallery’s curator, describes the couple’s approach as “poetic”. “It’s the idea of metaphor,” he says. “There’s a sort of innocence, but it’s very clever. The audience is kind of lured into it.”
Those who have seen the couple in action tend to describe Ilya, widely recognised as the most important artist to come out of post-Stalinist Russia, as the conceptual genius behind the art and Emilia as the interpreter, or, in Mazière’s words, the “siphon”. “One knows exactly what the other means without saying anything,” says Katharine Heron, director of Ambika P3. “It’s a very warming sight to see them working closely.”
Emilia describes their collaborative method as a “tennis game”, with continuous back and forth. Her home office is adjacent to his studio, but mostly, she says, “We talk a lot at night, and then we can’t sleep.” His job, it seems, is to paint and draw. Hers is everything else.
However, the Kabakovs have not always been a team. Until he was well into middle age, Ilya worked alone – almost in isolation, his only audience the closely knit community of “unofficial” Muscovite artists. He made his living as a children’s book illustrator, which enabled him to acquire the otherwise hard-toobtain materials he needed to make his own art. Ilya created some 120 books, but he detested the job. “It was complete censorship,” he says. Every aspect was state controlled, including what children – and even dogs – should look like.
Though he is quick to say that the oppression did not compare to the Stalinist terror, he lived in constant fear: “I never answered the phone. I didn’t open the door unless I knew who was coming. You had to watch what you were doing, what you were saying. In a way everyone had a double life.” Since Ilya was not an official fine artist – his works lacked the appropriate heroic optimism – he was forbidden from exhibiting publicly in the USSR. For the most part, the authorities left him alone. But when his “Shower” series of drawings, depicting a man standing under a shower but unable to get wet, was shown in Italy in 1965, prompting outcries that he was lampooning the Soviet Union’s failures, he was banned from illustration jobs for four years.
A limited number of trusted friends were welcome in his studio. “No public, no exhibitions. It was hermetically closed,” he says. “The good part was it was idealistic – no money involved.” All he and his fellow artists hoped for was to make art.