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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee