Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects at the Hirshhorn by Kerr Houston

Surely a gentle utopianism, a love of mythology and allegory, and a wry, whimsical humor are not the first things that come to mind when you think of Washington DC these days. But perhaps that’s precisely why a recently opened exhibition of models by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden proves to be so charming. Both in form and spirit, the work on display embodies a willingness to reimagine the world that is both touching and disarming.

The show requires a little bit of explanation. Ilya Kabakov, of course, has been relatively well known since leaving the Soviet Union in 1987. Indeed, within a year of his relocation he had his first New York gallery show, which included The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (now widely recognized as a seminal example of installation art) and which later traveled to the Hirshhorn. Four years after that, he married Emilia, and in the years since the couple has produced a large number of proposals for installations and public projects. Typically, they produce models of those projects, and the current show includes 22 examples.

The result, then, is an archive of intentions, developing ideas and explorations – only some of which were ever realized. And, because most of the models took shape during the design process (a minority, it’s worth pointing out, were constructed after projects were built, in an effort to create a complete archive), they’re often characterized by a giddy sense of freedom and a bald disregard for practicality.

The moving How to Meet An Angel, for instance, proposes a ladder reaching 3,300 feet in the sky. The model involves a rickety contraption that soars above a snaking river and tiny fields; at its very peak, a tiny, foolhardy climber, understandably daunted, reaches out in a plea for help – only to be greeted by a sympathetic angel.

Detail of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, model for How to Meet An Angel

The project has actually been realized, in abbreviated forms, at three European sites. But those concrete versions, of course, had to concern themselves with mundane questions about safety, scale, and structural integrity. The model, by contrast, simply embraces the impossible: it’s an idea, embodied.

In this sense, the models can recall Old Master drawings, which can also seem to prioritize a fervid creativity above all else. And in fact the Kabakovs regularly execute concept sketches, several of which are included in the exhibition’s supplemental materials. But the models on display are also notable for their particular materiality. Made in large part out of balsa wood, plywood, and paper, they are characterized by a basic fragility. Certainly, the craftsmanship is diligent, and several of the models feature carefully assembled moving parts. But, like all of the details in the models, that machinery is miniscule and delicate – and evinces, as a result, a certain tenderness. The works aren’t cute, exactly, but they do feel contingent, with all of the vulnerability of an idea.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, model for The Largest Book in the World

At least, that’s one way of putting it. The Kabakovs, to be fair, sometimes speak of the scale of their models in a slightly different way. “It’s going back to childhood,” Ilya has said, “when you like to play with little things, maybe because we feel bigger and little things are under our power. We can move them, destroy them, do whatever we want.”

For the artists, then, the models seem to offer a nostalgic sense of agency. Regardless, enchanting details abound. In the model for The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, for instance, we peer into a tiny room and see a cluttered desk, on which sits a model of a landscape: a maquette within a maquette, that is, that evokes the diminutive furnishings of a child’s dollhouse.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, model for Five Steps

Childhood, angels, playing with little things: clearly, there is a strain of escapism discernible here. Or perhaps more than a strain. In The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, for instance, a makeshift slingshot and a yawning hole in the ceiling constitute the aftermath of a fantastic escape. As we take in those details, and the red posters on the walls, we realize that that specific escape was conceived in very particular circumstances: Ilya was still in the Soviet Union, watching the crumbling regime and weighing his options. It is impossible, then, to avoid reading such a piece as a meditation on political flight, among other things: an emotional cousin, say, of the similarly wishful escapism of Milan Kundera.

Still, it would be wrong to read all of the models as a response to the oppressiveness of life in the Soviet era. Most of them, after all, were made well after the Kabakovs relocated to New York, and while enclosures and vast heights are recurring motifs, the models seem above all to address the general possibility of transcending ordinary experience. “At some point in everyone’s lives,” Ilya has said, “we all want to escape from reality anywhere, somewhere.” (Emilia echoed the sentiment at the press preview: “Our work is about people trying to escape from reality.”) And so a piece like 1998’s How Can One Change Oneself?, in which the Kabakovs suggest that users fashion a pair of wings made of tulle and leather straps and then don them daily is fundamentally rooted in a desire to re-see both oneself and one’s life.

Detail of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, How Can One Change Oneself?

Ultimately, then, these models are never merely escapist; they also suggest a vague sense of destination, and a yearning for something. Perhaps the most popular piece in the show is Toilet on the Mountain, a 1992 model that was then realized in France, in 1996. At the apex of a considerable cliff, we see a modest wooden outhouse – and no other trace of any human presence.

Detail of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, model for Toilet on the Mountain, with wall text

It is at once a ludicrous and affecting proposal. Undeniably, there is a sublime aspect to it: the spectacular implied view and the insinuation that, in Shelley’s famous phrasing, nothing beside remains. At the same time, the model also recalls traditional East Asian aesthetic discourses, from Chinese meditation pavilions to Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s celebration of the subtle appeal of his outhouse. Finally, there is also a basic tension between the proposal’s self-conscious absurdity (who would ever build such a thing?) and its fundamental spirit of accommodating generosity (it might, after all, be just what a traveler needs).

Regardless: the diminutive toilet sits there, awaiting anyone willing to attain the summit and the view that it offers. “One of the most fascinating endeavors and states,” Ilya once proclaimed, “is the following: to be alive, but yet to not really be living – not to participate in all of life, in all of its upheavals, but rather to be living as though ‘later’ and to see this whole life of yours somehow from the sidelines, from some height and even, if possible, even as though it had already been lived.”

The Kabakovs’ models offer a chance to experience just such a state: to re-see our lives from a distance, and to imagine a world that is perhaps less harsh and oppressive and somehow more richly poetic.


Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects runs through March 4, 2018 at The Hirshhorn.

Photographs by Kerr Houston and The Hirshhorn

Top Image: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, model for The Ship of Tolerance