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Ilya Kabakov – Obituary

mumok insider

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of Soviet communism, it was already possible to appreciate the great international quality of Ilya Kabakov's work in a 1988 exhibition in Graz–up to this point the artist had been a leading figure in the Russian underground scene. It was Peter Pakesch, gallery owner and head of the Graz artists' association, who invited him to Graz, thereby kicking off the rapid career of the artist in the West. As a representative of unofficial art that was critical of the system, Kabakov, who was born in Ukraine, had already gathered a circle of the like-minded. Their "Moscow conceptualism" differed fundamentally from or critically parodied the state propaganda art of socialist realism. Kabakov was thus understandably surprised that he was permitted to leave the Soviet Union to travel to Graz, and this reinforced his decision not to return but rather to emigrate to the USA with his wife and artistic partner Emilia Kabakov.

Thanks to both the political thaw with perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev, and the support of Western experts, Kabakov, whose work had always been shaped by the desire for freedom under repressive conditions, was able to now really work in freedom and to open the eyes of the Western art world for a more differentiated view of art and society in the Soviet Union. This freedom also meant that Kabakov could in every respect break out of the narrow confines that had been imposed upon him, and create his large-scale "total installations," operating artistically on the basis of everyday Soviet life and both its influence on his own person and on society as a whole. This exploration of personal and collective experience and the intention to both address and shake off history–as a form of emancipation–was enacted in the installation The Targets (1991), a key work of Kabakov's that the Austrian Ludwig Foundation already acquired for the mumok collection in 1992. This work looks at Kabakov's various homes during the Soviet period, which he arranged as pictures within an intentionally restrictive structure of wooden boards, and then subjected to the symbolic act of throwing screwed up paper, wooden sticks, and stones. He thus provided a pictorial and sculptural form for his own appeal: "I invite you–take stones, throw, throw, break, destroy everything that is connected to me and my life." Here the artist is also addressing an active role for the beholders of his work and rejecting art for passive consumption and mere decoration, which pays no attention to social reality. Kabakov retained this sense for the social responsibility of art, its makers and its recipients, in his thinking and art throughout his life, including his recent statements against the Russian war against Ukraine. With his death, it is thus not only the art world has lost a personality who was able to transform historical experience into artistic commitment and perspectives on society.

Rainer Fuchs