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Ilya and Emilia Kabakov to Show Rarely Seen ‘Whimsical Models’ at the Hirshhorn Museum

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Children’s Hospital (Extraordinary Pirouettes), 1998-2000.COURTESY THE ARTISTS

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Children’s Hospital (Extraordinary Pirouettes), 1998-2000.


Maquettes for enigmatic installations and architectural imaginings by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov will appear in a rare communal display this fall in “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Utopian Projects” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Focusing on 22 “whimsical models” for works (and ideas for works as yet unrealized) dating back to 1985, the exhibition—to open September 7 and run into March 2018—will precede a Kabakov retrospective at Tate Modern in London by six weeks. It also returns the couple to the site of their first major U.S. exhibition, in 1990, when the Hirshhorn hosted “Directions: Ilya Kabakov, Ten Characters.”

“Installations are not always installed, so in the beginning we decided we were going to do our own museum for unrealized projects,” Emilia Kabakov told ARTnews of the models’ genesis. “Eventually some of the projects were realized, and then we decided to backtrack and actually build models for projects that we did.”

Maquettes for 16 executed projects will appear in the show, including the fantastical shack-like installation The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1985) and The Ship of Tolerance, an ongoing work for which sailboats are built in different cities with the aid of local schoolchildren. Six more models will represent projects that have not yet been built.

llya and Emilia Kabakov in their studio.YURI ROST

llya and Emilia Kabakov in their studio.


“It’s going back to childhood when you like to play with little things, maybe because we feel bigger and little things are under our power,” Kabakov said. “We can move them, destroy them, do whatever we want.”

“The maquettes are ways to get insights into their practice,” Melissa Chiu, the Hirshorn’s director, said. “I almost see them like drawings, and seeing them en masse is really something else. While we may be familiar with their installations and public sculptures, this shows an intentionality toward grand gestures. Some of the pieces are very philosophical, some are tangible, some are performances—what they show is [the artists’] process and great range of ideas.”

Emilia Kabakov, who has worked closely with her husband Ilya for nearly 30 years, described a commonality of purpose between their models and their larger works. She was on the phone from Rome, where she is prepping a version of The Ship of Tolerance to be unveiled at the Vatican on May 25. The Pope was supposed to be there that day, but impending European travel by U.S. president Donald Trump has made for uncertainty. “Some people have a tendency to disrupt things,” Kabakov said, with a resigned laugh.

In any case, the spirit behind The Ship of Tolerance is the same that informs other work by the Kabakovs, with its mixture of hardened optimism and melancholic nostalgia seeded by growing up in the Soviet Union.

“The main message is that we can communicate and we shouldn’t be afraid of each other,” Kabakov said. “We live in a very difficult time when continents are shifting, so we have to learn how to live together. If we don’t start right now, we’re going to be lost. Art and music are the best way of communicating—because you don’t have to talk.”

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