ARTS: EXHIBITIONS: From hell to utopia

Ilya Kabakov is Russia's leading conceptual artist. But he's never had a show there, and lives in the US. Rosanna de Lisle met him
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LITTLE WHITE MEN hover in limbo over lush green lawns, uncertain whether to reach for the sky or fall to earth. Ladders lead to nowhere. An oval platter of pink and green landscape is bifurcated by a blue river; a cage of fairy lights keeps the lid on its atmosphere. A globe is studded with solar panels, speared into its surface like cheese sticks into a pineapple at a Seventies key-party. An angel's feathers are waiting to spirit someone to the sky. Sharp, wintry sunlight stripes these funny, fabulous spectacles with butter-yellow rays. And, you wonder, are we in heaven or on earth?

Neither, exactly: we're in Mattituck, Long Island, one Sunday in January, wandering around the studio of the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov. For the past two years, Kabakov and his wife, Emilia, have been creating a "Palace of Projects". The angels and landscapes are just a few of these projects; the Roundhouse, in north London, will be the palace. All of which begs some questions, but the Kabakovs will deal with those later: first, there is the serious business of lunch.

Emilia brings borscht and Russian salad to the table. Ilya pours red wine. Seven of us sit down, and a cacophony of English and Russian breaks out. Vladimir puts on a tape of his wind music - he's a composer, and once collaborated with Ilya on an installation of cutlery hung in a gazebo on a lake. When the wind blew, the knives and forks clanged and chimed, and here, as if the Kabakovs' guests need accompaniment, is the proof.

The doorbell rings. Someone goes to see who's there, and comes back saying "Men in suits". Enter a youngish couple, not in suits, and an older man, in blazer, tie and Gauloise. It is Jan Hoet, Belgian curator and dedicated champion of Ilya Kabakov.

Decibels rise. In 1992, Hoet ( "Hoot") curated the international art forum "Documenta IX" in Kassel, Germany. While other artists nabbed the best spaces inside the gallery, Kabakov chose the non-descript area behind it. There he built The Toilet: a squat concrete public lavatory, with "Men" and "Women" written in Cyrillic. Inside were toilets - and a whole lot else. In the men's, a dining table, laid with mismatching crockery; in the women's, a tousled bed, clothes and clutter. Baffled visitors would ask: "Is it normal for Russians to live like this?" "We don't live in the loo," was the huffy response of one piece in the Russian press. Not in the loo, perhaps, but, during the time of Stalin and Brezhnev, in communal apartments where each person had an average living space of nine square metres, and shared a bathroom and kitchen with the neighbours. The Toilet recreated the communal apartment, complete with the dismal detritus of daily Soviet life.

Hoet bought The Toilet, and will put it in his new Museum of Ghent, due to open in 2000. "It's fantastic," he says, waving the Gauloise at a photograph of the installation. "Just fantastic."

The Toilet is typical of Kabakov's recent work. He calls it a "total installation", because "Installation is the work of art and at the same time its own exhibition. It is a world of its own."

At the Roundhouse, the experience will be even more "total": a magical mystery tour round more than 200 models, flown over from New York in 22 crates by the Artangel foundation and added to a giant structure built in Manchester. There will be extraordinary things to see, to touch, and to read; things to make you laugh, and things to make you think. "It's a memorial to utopia," says Kabakov.

"The world is full of utopias," Emilia translates. "Everybody dreams about different utopias; but the problem is that the moment a utopia is realised, sometimes there are catastrophic results. That moment when a utopia can become a dangerous thing ... probably this moment is a project." So does art, then, offer these ideas the possibility of fruition? "It's the perfect moment, yes. The art world is perfectly measured to catch this moment. If Hitler had been a better artist, he would have been able to realise his ideas - in art. If he had been part of an institution, with a collector or a gallery, we wouldn't have had a worldwide war. Probably."

Ilya Kabakov knows what happens when utopias go wrong. He was born in Dnepropetrovsk, in the Ukraine, in 1933, to Jewish parents. His father was rarely at home, as far as Ilya and his mother had a home: they scavenged a life at the margins of society, moving from room to room, sleeping on tables and chairs, eating very little. Somehow, Ilya managed to win a place (dim local officials failed to spot the Jewish origins of his name) at the Moscow Art School. There, he was given a classical, Russian training, and should have graduated a good Social Realist painter. Instead, he became a highly popular illustrator of children's books - by day. By night, he founded Moscow's conceptual-art movement, playing host to a circle of artists and writers who met at his studio on Stretensky Boulevard.

At first, in his "unofficial" art, Kabakov explored the gap between the visual arts and literature, making albums of drawings and texts, peopled by fictitious apartment-dwellers and animated by their fantasies. There was The Man Who Flew into Space, The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away and The Man Who Flew into His Picture. Later, Kabakov turned these conceits into installations, shown as "10 Characters" in London in 1989. The Man Who Flew into His Picture became a chair and a blank canvas bearing the merest trace of a silhouette. For works like these, the American curator Robert Storr calls Kabakov the anthropologist, archaeologist and chronicler of the Soviet Union, a sort of Russian Proust. "He is by special historical appointment the Soviet Union's last and most eloquent ambassador."

Kabakov, more simply, says of his years in the Soviet Union: "I had this enormous desire to depict this life in my work. I was a small particle of this everyday life, and I wanted to show it." But was he able to show his work? "No!" So who saw it? "Nobody. I was afraid somebody would come and see the installations, and that my work would be destroyed, and I would go to prison. I did The Man Who Flew into Space. But I would put it up, show it to friends, then take it down."

Kabakov is now famous the world over, but has yet to have a show in Moscow. Always a private subversive rather than a political dissident, he stayed in the Soviet Union until it began to fall apart in 1988. Then, he was invited to exhibit in Graz, Austria, was allowed to go to the show, and, while he was in Austria, applied for and got a visa to America. So, in 1990, he moved to New York. There he met Emilia Kanevsky, a pianist turned art dealer who had visited Kabakov's studio in Moscow in the Seventies, and who had gone West soon after. With a couple of marriages behind them each, they wed. Kabakov set up a studio in TriBeCa, and later they bought the clapboard house on Long Island. Not that they can spend much time there: since Ilya emigrated, the Kabakovs have been almost constantly peripatetic, travelling around the world from project to project.

The Soviet Union seems aeons ago, and Kabakov is reluctant to dwell on it. But it remains the inspiration for his work, even now, as his art grows bigger and bigger and its themes turn universal. "It's very difficult to explain that atmosphere now," he says of pre-Perestroika Russia. "Everybody was scared, but everybody was taking chances. There was a lot of camaderie. There's a paradise inside of hell: in order to survive you have to create this."

! Roundhouse, NW1 (0171 336 6803), Tues to 10 May.