May 24 – September 16
Having emigrated to the West from the Soviet Union in 1988, Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933) enchanted the world with his album series Ten Characters. It was already a mature artist who arrived in the West. With his “total installations” he found a medium that suited him ideally. Kabakov’s art bears witness to a life and a society that he has felt compelled never to forget nor to conceal.
Since arriving in the West, Kabakov has created nearly two hundred installations, generally in collaboration with his wife Emilia Kabakov. He stands today as what the American art historian Robert Storr has called the secret anthropologist and archaeologist of Soviet society: “He is, in all his guises, the preeminent explorer of Russia’s interior spaces and the most important link to its longstanding visionary tradition … A poet of facts; a spinner of tales, who’s aims are narrative, but who’s means are pictorial.”
Kabakov in transformation
Now that Kabakov is approaching his eightieth birthday, it is interesting to note how his artistic idiom has changed. What preoccupies him now is no longer the large-scale installation but the painting as an independent object. This should come as no surprise. For he began his artistic career as a painter and is now returning to his point of departure. Painting has always been one of his most important tools, even if for many years it merely served as an element in his installations. A review of Kabakov’s use of painting provides an insight into his entire output. His 2008 catalogue of works included more than six hundred paintings, since when he has added even more. The exhibition at Henie Onstad Art Centre presents some fifty-odd works that reflect the main themes in his use of paint, with particular emphasis on his recent work.
The Man who Describes his Life through Personages, the eighth figure in Kabakov’s album series Ten Characters, may well be the closest we get to Ilya Kabakov himself. Throughout his life Kabakov has created roles that he describes as his “personages”. Each of them is part himself and part someone else at the same time. But where does that leave the viewer? The confusion that arises is part of Kabakov’s strategy. It functions both as a kind of survival mechanism and as a way of lifting the situation out of its social context and onto a more universal plane. For Kabakov, painting serves as an occasional medium for his various “personages”, many of whom he has given names, so as to clarify the duality of his position and to facilitate “dialogue” with them. In this exhibition we will meet a number of these personages.
In this video the curator of the exhibtion Karin Hellandsjø and Professor Robert Storr, Dean at the Yale University School of Arts, talks about the exhibition Ilya Kabakov - A Return to Painting 1961 - 2011 at Henie Onstad Art Centre, Høvikodden, Norway.
After finishing his training in the late 1950s, Kabakov did like many of his fellow students: he immersed himself in painting – despite having qualified as a graphic artist. For many years he made a living as an illustrator of children’s books. His role-playing began in the early 60s with a Cézanne-inspired painter. This personage was followed by a constructivist, after which it was concept art that caught Kabakov’s interest. Evidently he was inspired by Moscow’s experimental art scene, of which he himself later became one of the figureheads. Today we see clear parallels between those circles and the Fluxus movement that was growing around the same time in Europe and America. Both made use of a wide variety of media, and both experimented with crossovers between music, theatre, poetry and visual art. Kabakov insists that his art was never that of a dissident or meant as protest, but was rather the product of an observer reproducing reality. With absurdity as one of its major devices, his art of this period and later clearly references both surrealism and Dadaism.
Kabakov developed a new personage for his paintings, Shek, the invisible bureaucrat of the Soviet state. The “voices” that speak through these pictures make this character special and indicate an important new departure in Kabakov’s practice: the introduction of literature and text into his work. Narrative structures thus became an important tool in his descriptions of Soviet society. The processes in Russia that culminated in the Soviet period also resulted in words being stripped of their meaning. On the one hand there were the countless posters and propaganda tracts of the ruling party that presented an idealised image of something that did not exist for the average citizen. On the other, this was something that could not be talked about. At times of famine it could be fatal to mention one’s hunger. Kabakov saw the absurdity in this situation. He wanted to give his work a new dimension by adding dialogue to his pictures – dialogue about the pictures that involved the viewer as a third voice.
Kabakov himself has stressed that this was not a new phenomenon but part of the Russian heritage. In Russia, visual culture does not have the status it enjoys in the West. The driving force of Russian culture has always been literature, which is where the nation’s soul resides. Kabakov’s art functions on many levels. Always rooted in history, it also contains references to the artist’s own life. At the same time, art tackles the human aspects of events and situations, which is what makes it universal. Although he still creates installations, Kabakov’s interest in this kind of art has waned in recent years. Since the turn of the millennium, he has become increasingly preoccupied with painting and the image as object, and he now signs his works with his own name rather than that of some fictional character. In 2002 he began work on a number of picture series that he is still developing today: Under the Snow, Canon, Flying, Collage Paintings, and others. This exhibition draws in particular on the series Flying, Paintings with Black Points, Paintings with Door and They are Looking. With his return to painting, Kabakov has closed the circle. His focus is on the life that has been central to his production and which he has so generously shared time and time again. Kabakov’s work can never be viewed exclusively from the outside. The viewer tends to end up inside the work, in dialogue with it. The invariably powerful, almost magical atmosphere creates an impression of strength, sensitivity and intimacy. These feelings are not tied exclusively to the social and political circumstances of the former Soviet Union. They also derive from a universal, human dimension of relevance to us all.
• In collaboration with the Sprengel Museum Hanover, Henie Onstad Art Centre presents the first retrospective of paintings by Ilya Kabakov.
•The exhibition is curated by Ulrich Krempel and Karin Hellandsjø in collaboration with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.
•The exhibition opens at the Sprengel Museum Hanover before moving on to Henie Onstad Art Centre and several other venues.
• The exhibition presents some fifty works, with an emphasis on Kabakov’s earliest and latest periods
•Although best known for his so-called “total installations”, Ilya Kabakov has always employed painting as one of his principal tools.
• Reviewing Kabakov’s work as a painter provides an insight into his entire artistic production.
• An English/German catalogue will be published by Kerber Forlag in conjunction with the exhibition