In 2015, Hirshhorn chief curator Stephane Aquin visited the Long Island home of Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. As the artists showed Aquin around their studio, the curator was floored by what he saw: dozens of perfect little models representing the huge, whimsical installations the couple have become famous for erecting all over the world.
“I was just stunned, and I came back and discussed it with [Hirshhorn director] Melissa [Chiu] and said, ‘These are just fantastic things. We have to show them,’ ” Aquin recalls.
Chiu agreed, and the resulting exhibit, “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects,” opened at the museum last week.
The Kabakovs, who have been making large installations together since 1988, started making small-scale versions of their works around eight years later, Emilia Kabakov says.
“We wanted to make a museum of unrealized projects,” she says. “Over the years, we started making models of the realized projects too, so that when people come to the studio they could experience the projects in three-dimensional form.”
One of the models on display at the Hirshhorn, “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment,” is a miniaturized version of a piece that Ilya first created in his Moscow studio in 1985. It depicts the dingy Soviet dwelling of a man who apparently built a catapult and launched himself through his ceiling and out of his dismal existence.
“It’s both very humorous and pretty dramatic, because it gives you a sense of how desperate people could find themselves under the Soviet regime,” Aquin says.
Like the character in his Moscow installation, Ilya also dreamed of leaving the Soviet Union. His job as a children’s book illustrator left him unfulfilled, so he worked in secret and risked arrest by creating unsanctioned art, which he showed only to close friends. He escaped to Austria in 1987, where he would soon meet up with Emilia, a distant relative. Ilya was the last person Emilia saw when she left the Soviet Union in 1973, heading first to Israel, then to New York.
“He took me to the train station, put me on the train and gave me [some of] his drawings, saying, ‘If you ever need money, sell them,’ ” Emilia says.
The two married in 1992.
Together, they’ve created more than 300 installations all over the world. That includes large-scale creations, such as a contraption that spans a small island in a lake in Germany. The piece, “The Project for the Preservation of Natural Resources,” consists of a series of windmill-powered conveyer belts and buckets, and is represented in the Hirshhorn exhibit by a battery-powered version about the length and width of a large beach towel.
The models on display at the Hirshhorn provide a unique — and manageable — overview of the Kabakovs’ large-scale installations, Aquin says. “You can sort of stage a retrospective of their work through models, whereas it’s almost impossible to do it in real size,” he says.
The show also gives viewers a chance to see projects imagined by the Kabakovs that were never built. Among them is a model of “The Large House of Humanity,” which was supposed to go in a poor neighborhood in D.C. in 1998 but never came to fruition, Emilia says. It would have consisted of a supersized skeleton of a typical American home, with these words written on the roof in wire letters: “Since home we have but one, this Earth we live upon. With our home in constant motion we are striving toward the stars.”
“It would have been wonderful,” Emilia says. “At least we have the model.”
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; through March 4, free.