Spirituality and science

In an installation of cosmic proportion, artists will create a realized utopia

Ilya Kabakov survived decades of artistic repression in the Soviet Union. Working by day as a respected children’s book illustrator, he was also the leader of an underground, avant-garde conceptualist movement. By the time he left the USSR in 1989, he was regarded throughout the art world as one of the most significant artists of the time.

To fund this fall’s mega-installation at the University Art Gallery, signed, limited-edition prints of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s “The Communication with the Cosmos Building” are now on sale.

While the Soviet system retarded the development of Kabakov’s art—forcing him to work with substandard materials in inadequate studio space and denying him the opportunity to exhibit in public—his vision was, sometimes quite literally, of sweeping proportions. Since he emigrated to the West, he has created installations such as “The Boat of My Life,” a 17-meter wooden boat loaded with cardboard crates that illustrate various episodes in his life; “On the Roof,” in which visitors walk a plank across a fabricated rooftop, peering into various “rooms” as they do so; and numerous outdoor projects in public spaces.

This fall, Kabakov—called one of the world’s “10 best living artists” by ArtNews magazine—will realize one of his long-envisioned projects across two floors at the Tisch and Koppelman galleries at Tufts University. Titled “The Communication with the Cosmos Building,” the installation is the physical manifestation of a segment of a larger, hypothetical world called “The Center of Cosmic Energy,” imagined by Kabakov and his wife and collaborator, Emilia. The installation marks the first time the Kabakovs have exhibited in the Boston area and that one of their works has been commissioned in New England.

In the minds of the Kabakovs, the “Center of Cosmic Energy” is a research facility, loosely based on the physical layout of an existing industrial site in Essen, Germany. The Kabakovs have created a detailed history for the site, mixing real and imagined historical events and real and pseudo-scientific theories.

“ ‘The Center of Cosmic Energy’ was conceived as a utopian project—a realized utopia,” says Amy Ingrid Schlegel, Tufts’ director of galleries and collections. “That is seemingly contradictory. The USSR was supposedly a realized utopia, and any Soviet citizen could have told you there was a huge disconnect between lived reality and the propaganda the Soviet regime was building. So how [former] Soviet artists think about utopia is fascinating.”

Hailing the cosmos
The Kabakovs’ fictional story surrounding the Communication Building involves the alleged discovery of some early cave drawings and archeological artifacts “in the slopes of Walnut Hill, near the Mystic River.” Scientists, so the story goes, then proceed to build a structure on the spot, to help communicate with and harness the energy of the cosmos.

A “re-creation” of the archeological site will occupy the lower-level Koppelman Gallery. Upstairs, in the Tisch Gallery, there will be a physical model of the “Communication with the Cosmos Building,” including a 22-seat amphitheatre set inside a cylindrical shaft perched at a 60-degree angle. Inside the auditorium, visitors can take a seat and tune in to a 10-minute recorded “lecture” on how to become receptive to cosmic energy sources.

In addition to the theme of real or failed utopias, the installation and its accompanying story touch on many other topics: Russian history; techniques of Russian avant-garde art; pseudo-science and the making of scientific theory; sacred architectural structures such as pyramids or ziggurats; structural engineering and the ideology of making buildings.

Artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov will create their first commissioned work in New England at Tufts University this fall.

The piece “poses provocative questions about how individuals come to understand themselves as part of a larger cosmic entity or universe, about the connection between spirituality and science and about the nature of consciousness and intuition,” Schlegel said.

It is hoped that the eclectic and participatory nature of the installation will attract new audiences, said Jeanne Koles, gallery outreach coordinator. “There will be a high degree of illusion and theatricality. There will be a degree of question, whether it’s a true scientific theory being tested, or just a concept. We want there to be some mystery.” They also hope it will attract visitors from the fields of science and engineering.

Aesthetics of deprivation
Ilya Kabakov was born in 1933 in Ukraine. He began studying art at the age of 10, attended art schools and worked quite successfully as a children’s book illustrator, with more than 100 books to his credit. “In the USSR, [a children’s illustrator] was well paid, very well-respected,” said Schlegel. “He was able to support himself, his mother and his family quite well.

“However, the trade-off was that it was still a third-tier or fourth-tier profession for a fine artist,” she said. “Yes, he had access to artistic materials. But they were substandard materials—the cheap, the cast-off, the re-purposed. He used whatever he had at hand to create his artwork.” Even in his post-Soviet career, one of the hallmarks of Kabakov’s work has been “the aesthetics of deprivation,” Schlegel said.

The officially sanctioned form of art in the USSR was Socialist Realism (think of images glorifying hearty farmers or factory workers). As an artist who operated outside the system, Kabakov was subject to government policy, or whim: He received permission to maintain a studio, for instance, but was denied permission to exhibit publicly.

During the ’70s and ’80s, he became the leader of the Moscow Conceptualists Circle, a salon of like-minded artists that was technically illegal, yet minimally tolerated by the government. But Kabakov never saw himself as a dissident, nor was he regarded as such, Schlegel said. “His work was not overtly political,” she said.

“His ideas remained very small scale, hypothetical, all conceptual. He was not able to realize all his ideas on a monumental scale until he emigrated and started to participate in museum exhibitions and the commercial gallery system,” Schlegel said.

A public opening reception for “Communication with the Cosmos Building” is scheduled for September 6, and the exhibit will run through November 11.

To help fund the construction costs of the installation, the Tufts University Art Gallery is offering a limited-edition, five-color serigraph print based on a conceptual drawing by the Kabakovs of “The Communication with the Cosmos Building.” Each print has been signed, editioned and dated 2007 by the artists, and published by Mike Karsten Graphics of Munich, the Kabakovs’ preferred printer. For more information about purchasing a print, go to http://ase.tufts.edu/gallery/shows/kabakov.html.

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu. This story ran in the June 2007 Tufts Journal.