Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, “Red Wagon” The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Bon voyage, red wagon! The generous gift to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg from Russia's leader in conceptual art, Ilya Kabakov, and his partner, the artist Emilia Kabakova, is now on display in the Hermitage.
The artistic union's career, which has spanned more than 50 years, has created the foundation of contemporary conceptual art. In museum funds, private art collections and in the art world in general, both of their names are equated with the driving force of the unofficial art movement in 20th century Russia, defining the direction of visual art, which is still only in its beginning phase.
The dawn of the career of Ilya Kabakov – art practician, theorist, painter, collector, curator of his own memories and fantasies – is found in 1950's Moscow, where he began his work as an illustrator of children's books. Emilia, on the other hand, is a trained pianist. In 2004 Ilya and Emilia became the first pair of artists in Russia whose work was exhibited at the Hermitage while both artists were still actively working.
In May of this year the Kabakov Family honored the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg by presenting their significant work of art – the installation “Red Wagon”, as a present for the museum's 250th anniversary campaign. This gesture, a notable stop along the way to the grand celebration itself in 2014, has enriched the museum's post-war contemporary art collection.
In 1991 the interactive sculpture was first exhibited in Kunsthalle, in Düsseldorf, where it received sharp criticism from German art experts. The controversy stemmed from the thematic aspect of the work, which reflected the reality and ideology of the Soviet regime in the discourse of the 20th century. The symbols, allusions and echos of an audience that are woven throughout the object aptly reflect the form of the chosen period, making the installation almost look as if it were a monument to the past, created in a journalistic way and based on political events.
In later years, Kabakov's installation “Red Wagon” was exhibited in the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Vienna, Austria, and currently the same version is on permanent display in Museum Wiesbaden, in Germany. In 2008 a second version of the object was on view in the Contemporary Culture Center “Garage”, in Moscow, as part of a creative retrospective of the artists.
One could possibly draw associative lines between the work of art and the political legacy of Stalin, Brezhnev or Juri Andropov, but as a type of artistic rendition of the constructionist Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) and the avant garde artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941), only Kabakov disqualifies the symbolism and turns the motif in the opposite direction. Meant to accelerate forward, the wagon is missing wheels and is permanently static; the steps convincingly lead upwards, toward a roof of accomplishments, but it ends up leading nowhere. Instead of inviting the viewer to look to the abstract horizon of a wonderful future, the propaganda on the inside of the wagon elicits feelings of nostalgia and yearning for a time that has been left behind.