Review of The Strange City, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at The Monumenta, Grand Palais, Paris

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov had set their Strange City under the glass-and-steel passages of Grand Palais. Commissioned by the Monumenta, the exhibition proposes a double total installation: these are already known to Kabakov’s viewers and are situated in featureless pavilions of a total city installation formed under the cupola of the Grand Palais. It is explicitly echoed in the forms of The Dome, positioned at the entrance of the city. Inspiration for this soaring colour-changing installation takes its roots from the theory of the Russian musician, Alexander Scriabin, who created a colour organ, “‪clavier à lumières”, appropriated the synesthetic system, and who was influenced by Newton’s Opticks and theosophical theories of Jean Delville and Helena Blavatsky.

Having passed by gates, a ruin, and a triumphal entrance, the visitor is free to follow the dazzling white labyrinths. They may pass by The Empty Museum, where paintings are replaced by pools of light that become the only exhibits in solemn hall together with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passacaglia.

Manas and The Centre of Cosmic Energy are displayed as installations accompanied with sketches which are an inseparable element of Kabakov’s heritage, a space where the protagonists and subjects exit his drawings from albums and step into installations. Manas is a reconstruction of a mystical Tibetian city, existing, as artists suppose, on two levels – the mundane and the celestial, and surrounded by mountains, which makes communication with other worlds possible.

The Centre of Cosmic Energy presumes to be a laboratory for communication with the noosphere, Earth’s mental sheath, and appropriates the principle of construction, implemented in the Tower of Babel, the pyramids of Giza, Tatlin’s Tower, and El Lissitzky orator’s platform. The utopian spirit of these installations ideologically prompts the romanticism of Soviet science fiction, as this by Strugatsky brothers, whose characters could be imaginable inhabitants of Kabakov’s installations. However, the textual component is meaningful to artists’ creations: sketches and drawings accompanying installations which display individual texts – poetical descriptions – that were unfortunately not understandable to non-Russian speakers.

The Strange City displays Kabakovs’ canonic installation How to Meet an Angel, a recipe for moral improvement, and ends by two chapels – the White and the Dark. The latter exposes fresco paintings, a captured autobiographical image: artists are depicted with the Praemium Imperiale, an award from the emperor of Japan, thus a descendant of the Sun. The White Chapel’s walls are selectively covered with images in social realism’s visual tradition.

The pieces of this mosaic, show off everyday scenes and landscapes of the Soviet era, and are separated by white spots. It goes without saying that the colour white is a tool of importance in Kabakov’s work. At the end of 1960s and beginning of 1970s he followed the interest in transcendental and irrational questions, Russian theosophy of 19th and 20th centuries. Moscow and Leningrad artistic communities were gripped by the thought of art as a medium of purely religious and philosophical ideas, and at that time Kabakov started his series of white paintings, where an artwork becomes a screen for transcendental light projection. White is an allegory of silence and the highest potential for visual art, and as in a suprematism’s visual paradigm of white conceived ideal geometries, Kabakov’s white generates some incidental everyday elements, soiling the divine white. In the meantime, this white, as a religious symbol, incorporates two sides of a universal process: a birth as a death: ideas and images depicted in white are also slain. At this point the labyrinth of the white Strange City comes to an end.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Strange City / The Monumenta, until 22 June 2014, Grand Palais, 3, avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris.

Ekaterina Shcherbakova

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1.Monumenta (2014) Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Strange City. Photo: Didier Plowy for la Réunion des musées nationaux, Grand Palais