From totalitarianism, to total installation

When artist Ilya Kabakov left Soviet Russia, he found a soulmate. Now their art makes millions

It was only after Ilya Kabakov's departure from Soviet Russia to the West, at the age of 55, that he moved away from painting – a medium which had earned him an eminent reputation in Moscow – and began constructing installations that took up entire rooms and engulfed the viewer on entry. Until this shift, he had worked as a painter and children's book illustrator. It was the same year – 1988 – that he was reunited with Emilia, a childhood family friend who had moved to the West some years earlier, and began a life-changing relationship with her, both romantically and artistically.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov married in 1992 and are now celebrated as pioneers of a monumental form of installation art. Ever since 1988, they have been creating "total installations". Their works feature in museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Gallery in London. They are the first living artists to have their work bought by the Hermitage museum in Russia, and billionaire international art collectors, Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova among them, buy their pieces for millions of pounds. In 2008, one of Ilya Kabakov's paintings alone sold at auction for $5.8m.

In their most recent installation, The Happiest Man, which can currently be seen at Ambika P3 gallery (the University of Westminster's art space), and is on sale for $1.5m, we enter a room in which a reel of "happy" films are running along a wall. We can view the film from inside a smaller room representing a house, and from here, we become "the happiest man" of the title, looking out at the escapist images of the film from the comfort of his home.

Speaking from their adoptive American homeland in Long Island, Emilia explains the reason for Ilya's shift in art medium. In the early 1980s, still in the Soviet Union, he began to grow dissatisfied with the limits of the canvas, but it was not until he left for the West that another more encompassing and multi-dimensional mode of art became necessary for him.

He turned to installation art because he feared that his new audience in the West would not understand the effects of living under the Soviet regime unless they were placed inside it. The effect of the "total installation" was to manufacture art that was "felt" by his viewer.

"By the time he decided to go to the West, Ilya was full of feelings of hate for Soviet power and the situation in which the government suppresses you. He thought it would not be enough to show in a painting and wanted to explain the atmosphere. He feared that people wouldn't understand what it 'felt' like to live in the Soviet state. It was very important for him to create the atmosphere so that people could be immersed in it," explains Emilia.

"With a total installation, there is no divide between the artist and the audience. In a way, you create a painting and you allow the viewer inside the painting, which has become three-dimensional instead of one-dimensional."

So audiences are typically saturated by the stories that the Kabakovs tell through their monumental works. They become the characters in the art that is taking place all around them. For example, in The Toilet (originally erected for Documenta IX in 1992) viewers stand at the corner of a house in which they hear intermittent singing coming out of a toilet. Niccolo Sprovieri, who has known the Kabakovs for two decades and showcased their work at his gallery in London 14 years ago, reflects on this powerful work: "You are by the toilet in the corner of a room. You hear the voice of someone, sometimes singing, sometimes laughing. The idea is that everyone has shared rooms in this house and there is only one room in which you can be alone, a place where you can express yourself without fear of being judged."

In I Sleep in the Orchard, viewers enter a woman's bedroom, complete with fake plants and a painting of the countryside. A text accompanying the work reveals that this woman moved from the country to the city in hope of improving her fortunes but suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalised. The picture on her wall is an effort to recreate her countryside childhood idyll.

In Palace of Projects, an Artangel project that was exhibited at the Roundhouse in London, viewers walk in spirals and encounter different imaginary characters. These works typically reflect the Kabakovs' strong desire to tell a story through their art.

Emilia says the audience's response to such works is invariably a powerful one. "When they enter a total installation, they go into a different dimension in a way. The atmosphere takes over and people come out completely astonished. I remember in 1993 a South American who saw The Toilet came out crying. He said 'that's exactly how my grandmother lived'. He had never been to the Soviet Union. The effect is universal, very intimate and personal".

Ilya is now aged 79, and Emilia is 67, yet they continue to work at a furious pace. Their numerous plans for next year include exhibitions at the Pace gallery in New York and the Grand Palais in Paris. Both wake up at 6am and work seven days a week, with one assistant to help them construct sometimes vast pieces.

Michael Mazière, curator of Ambika P3, says the couple are internationally respected as pioneers of large-scale installations. "They are the reference point for large, immersive installations that construct entire worlds. And their work has a more metaphorical point of view than the traditional Western point of view," he says.

The legacy of Soviet Russia is discernible in their work. Even The Happiest Man has a double-edged significance. While the screen of utopian images of happy people in green fields taps into a universal human desire for escapism through film and cinema, the footage the Kabakovs used is Soviet propaganda.

"At the beginning, we wanted to use a film from 1930s Hollywood, which was [essentially] a Cinderella story. But we compared it to a film from 1930s Soviet Union which was about the happiness for all – the people in the film are simple people and they're all happy. It's a true utopia because everyone is happy."

What's more, the footage still carries a contemporary significance in Russia today, adds Emilia. "Some people in Russia have started thinking that Soviet times were utopian. Someone asked some children what they thought of Stalin and they said 'he was a great leader'. [Soviet times] have been transformed into movie fiction. A lot of people think like this – they think that paradise was created and it is now destroyed."

The Happiest Man, Ambika P3, London NW1 (020 7911 5876) to 21 April. Two Mountains, Sprovieri Gallery, London W1 (020 7734 2066) to 11 May

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week