Issue #142 A Soviet Engineer of Eternal Life

A Soviet Engineer of Eternal Life

Arseny Zhilyaev

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Center of Cosmic Energy, 2007. Installation, sketches on paper (prints). Installation: 293 × 62 × 96 cm; each print: 80 × 74 cm. Courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Photo: Power Station of Art.

Issue #142
February 2024

We see a dim corridor, then the facade of a house with a small extension. The windows are lit and, perhaps, something is happening inside. The camera shakes. We look through one of the windows. In the foreground is the corner of a kitchen table, a bowl of fruit, a glass, two books wrapped in plastic film (perhaps catalogs), the backs of chairs peeking out from the table’s edge. In the background are a large house plant and a wooden wall with a number of narrow, dark openings. Below the ceiling are two austere luminous hemispherical lamps, as in Soviet scientific institutions or libraries. Sitting at the table facing the viewer is the lonely figure of Ilya Iosifovich Kabakov. He wears a blue and white checkered shirt, his hand is stretched out a little on the table, his head is lowered. His face is not visible. The camera shakes. Perhaps the artist has fallen asleep or is depressed by something or is thinking hard. Then we hear, slightly startling, his voice off-screen: “It’s completely obvious to me that I have this cosmic … craving for cosmism, cosmos.” That’s how the film Poor Folk: Kabakovs, devoted to the life and creativity of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, begins.

Off-screen, Kabakov continues to reminisce. He tells us how in his youth he walked alone along the Black Sea coast from Yalta to Feodosia, having “crazy cosmic experiences.” One night, when he looked at the starry sky, it transformed in such a way that the artist felt surrounded by it: “Stars suddenly floated, the earth shrank terribly, and I felt myself uncertain on the surface of this small ball. I saw that space was coming up from behind me, together with my planet, and my brain began to explode from horror.” The same experience of cosmic horror is essential to the medium of total installation, with which the Kabakov name is so closely associated.

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1985).

Methodologically speaking, it might be said that all of the duo’s installations are in some way or another connected with a special structured experience of space, echoing the transformations of the starry sky. But there is one installation in which the sky also becomes the center of gravity. We are talking about perhaps their most famous installation, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, first shown in the Kabakovs’ Moscow studio in 1985. The viewer is presented with a room in a communal apartment that has been sealed off by investigators. The room’s resident has, with the help of a homemade device, escaped Soviet reality and is hiding in the sky.

This small living space—approximately two square meters—can be glimpsed through supposedly hastily assembled raw boards. The walls are plastered with Soviet propaganda posters. In the corner are drawings and sketches of trajectories, and beneath them a small model of the city and a diagram of a flight path. Across from where the viewer enters is a picture of Red Square. In the center of the room is a folding bed, two chairs with a board thrown across them, and a large rubber catapult attached by ropes to the walls. There’s a big hole in the ceiling and trash, debris, and litter on the floor. Next to the room is a vestibule painted in typical Soviet dirty-brown colors. On the wall is a small shelf, on which the neighbors’ texts are located, alongside a description of what happened.

According to the artist, the installation describes an escape to paradise, albeit one planned by a Soviet man raised on dialectical materialism and faith in the limitless possibilities of the mind. This means that the person who flew into space from his communal apartment did not believe either in the promises of religion or in Western propaganda. He also apparently did not have much faith in Soviet propaganda either, though clearly it had its uses as a springboard. This is very similar to how Nikolai Fedorov and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the founding fathers of Russian cosmism to whom Kabakov refers in his accompanying text, approached their goals. Fedorov argued that death is a technical problem, and the conquest of the cosmos an inevitable consequence of the need to resettle resurrected generations—only a matter of time. Tsiolkovsky went further, asserting that the death of a person is simply the release of atoms that are then free to form into more developed systems. Not only that, but it was possible to overcome earth’s gravity. All you needed was a jet engine.

Almost nothing of any use came from the village club of space enthusiasts set up by the eccentric teacher Tsiolkovsky. Their iron dirigibles did not take off, and their rockets returned to earth as fragments. If someone were to collect these remains and display them in a museum, the result would be an installation resembling The Man Who Flew …, with its debris from the “launch mechanism.” Nevertheless, despite these failures, Tsiolkovsky did not stop trying to find a rational solution to the problem of overcoming earth’s gravity. He inspired the first generation of Soviet space engineers who, a couple of decades later, put first a satellite and then a human into orbit.

The hero of Kabakov’s most famous installation also retains, despite the absurdity of his idea, the seriousness and ingenuity characteristic of eccentric, self-made Soviet inventors. In the artist’s own words:

The hero set himself the task of finding a technical solution to escape from a communal apartment, and not to anywhere, but immediately to heaven. That is, it is impossible to live in such conditions, but you can come up with a mechanism through which salvation will be possible … The dream of floating free in the air, of liberation from the burdens of earthly existence, has given rise to as many inventors as anything else. All those jumps from belltowers with canvas wings, [Nikolai] Kibalchich’s helicopters. And the great invention of the rocket by Tsiolkovsky, which was so useful to [Sergei] Korolev. And what is Letatlin if not the individual attempt to escape alone?1

According to his neighbor (in a text presented inside the installation), the man envisioned his flight as follows:

He imagined the entire Universe to be permeated by huge sheets of energy which “lead upward somewhere.” These gigantic upward streams he called “petals.” The plane of movement of the galaxies, stars, and planets does not correspond to the direction of the energy of these petals, but intersects them, periodically passing through them. Thus, the Earth together with the sun periodically crosses through one of these enormous “petals.” If you knew this precise moment, then you could jump from the orbit of the Earth onto this “petal”—i.e., you could enter, join, this powerful stream of energy and be whirled upward with it.

He told me that he knew, that he had calculated this moment. It only lasts a short time, about twelve minutes. He kept that day a secret. But to enter that stream you had to give your body an initial movement, momentum, so that a departing force would pick you up. For that initial thrust he counted on the energy of the field of the moon and two heavenly bodies—Sirius and Pluto—which at that very moment would add the necessary pull as a result of special cosmic cones.

For this transfer to the “petal,” he thought up his PROJECT. He realized it on April 14, 1982 in the middle of the night …

To realize his plan for departure, he decided to build a catapult in his room, which would give him the initial velocity at the moment of takeoff. By his calculations, it would propel him to a height of 40 meters above the Earth, where he would enter the sphere of action of the energy of a “petal.”

He fastened 4 extension wires made of thick rubber in the two corners and at both sides of the room. Stretching them, he attached the catapult to a hook screwed into the floor. The lock mechanisms on the hook were supposed to release the saddle of the catapult suddenly. But at the moment of takeoff, he also had to pass through the ceiling of the room, the attic and the roof of the building. For this he installed powder charges along the entire perimeter of the ceiling and roof, so that at the moment of takeoff the ceiling and part of the roof above the room would be ripped away by an explosion and thus release him into open space.2

We cannot gauge the results of this enterprise with any confidence. The artist is inclined to believe that they are quite positive. Boris Groys, Kabakov’s frequent interlocutor and interpreter, is of the same opinion. According to Groys, if in the end the body has disappeared, then, by analogy with the successful resurrection of Christ, we can confirm the success of the mission to launch an inhabitant of this communal apartment into space. This hypothesis is supported by the experience of cosmists and the life path of Ilya Kabakov himself: three years after the creation of The Man Who Flew …, in 1988, the artist successfully catapulted from his studio in a Moscow attic into the outer space of Western art. For this, he needed no less serious preparation than his hero, although Kabakov, as he remembers it, left without a suitcase.

Discussing the emigration of her husband, Emilia Kabakov emphasizes his willingness to adapt to new circumstances—to work in a foreign context, to refuse the flattery of friends, to be realistic about his (initially not unpromising) prospects in the Western art world. All of this is, in her opinion, rare among those people who left the Soviet Union having been feted as geniuses, an opinion formed by the consensus of colleagues within the circle of unofficial artists. Faced with the need to prove themselves in a new context, few were willing to relinquish their old status.

According to Emilia, for an artist formed outside the context in which English is the lingua franca it is difficult to “learn to use your national language and culture, expressing them in international language.” Most of those who left the USSR could not understand this, each finding their own reason why it was not possible to succeed abroad. However, the Kabakovs are another story. They calculated the challenges that needed to be overcome. They considered the exact date on which to leave, when the flow of cosmic energy would permeate space. They employed the dominant language of conceptualism to guarantee the accuracy of their projections. They covered the walls of a communal apartment with inspiring posters and built a catapult in it. They left no one in any doubt: all that was needed was the right impetus.

Other evidence of this “inventive” approach to reality can be found in the artist’s revelations. One of the memories of Ilya Kabakov’s mother featured in the installation Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) (1990) tells the story of their evacuation to Samarkand during World War II. The artist’s mother insisted that her child, despite the relocation and difficult living conditions, continue to go to school. We know that children can be intolerant of strangers, and this intolerance is even worse when national difference is involved. Kabakov was not accepted, indeed was beaten so badly that he refused to continue going to school. But his mother persevered, saying that Kabakov should handle the situation on his own. And a solution was found with much the same efficacy as in the case of the Western public after Kabakov’s later emigration. Having taken his first steps in visual literacy, the artist began to draw horses and then to give drawings to his offenders. His status instantly changed. The stranger came into his own.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Center of Cosmic Energy (detail), 2007. Installation, sketches on paper (prints). Installation: 293 × 62 × 96 cm; each print: 80 × 74 cm. Courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

Kabakov describes the organization of his life in the USSR very pragmatically, almost as if he were an engineer or an avant-garde artist sent out to the countryside. There were two main problems: first, where to find a “hole to hide and be alone,” and second, how to earn a living without arousing suspicion of loitering. Fortunately, the death of Stalin provided an opportunity to solve the first problem. The authorities did not pay close attention to unofficial artistic life as long as it did not enter the public realm. The means for solving the second problem were more varied. Many artists of that time, opposed to the official system of artistic unions (which ensured the distribution of commissions for artists and, therefore, earnings), consciously took a position on the margins of Soviet society. Thanks to them, the janitor is a familiar character in the biographies of nonconformist cultural figures in the USSR. But Kabakov and his circle chose another path. Kabakov also refused to take painting commissions (mainly of an ideological nature), but the path of the marginal martyr did not appeal to him. So, in the official system of Soviet art he became a children’s book illustrator. This occupation brought decent money and contributed to the formation of the artist’s special relationship with text as part of the work of art.

Soviet reality was permeated by fear, but everyone had their own reaction to it. And if a person is shaped by how he responds to reality, then it might be said that Kabakov, despite his hostility to Sovietness, took from it the most valuable thing: a materialist approach to business and an idealistic vision of what was possible. His position was very different from that of artists like Mikhail Schwartzman, who went from everyday horror to the mystical dimensions of “art for art’s sake,” or dissident heroes like Oscar Rabin, who put ethics above creativity. Kabakov, having chosen the role of a “double agent” (official work as an illustrator alongside underground conceptual experiments with Soviet reality), was “trembling with fear” until he left the USSR. But this condition made him extremely sensitive to the challenges of reality and extremely pragmatic in developing answers to them.

The same pragmatic engineer’s approach is apparent in the paintings made by Kabakov in the first decade of this century. The decision of one of the inventors of total installation to move his focus to painting might, at first glance, seem surprising. After all, Kabakov once said that, unlike many of his colleagues, he was never simply interested in “good painting.” For a person immersed in everyday Soviet communalism, lofty abstract canvases, with their aspirations to transcendence, were impossible. Perhaps the medium of painting itself, with its sacred centuries-old history, seemed completely unsuitable to express the hustle of everyday life in the USSR.

Painting was always presented as part of Kabakov’s installations, but was subordinate to them. Discussing its status in contemporary art with Boris Groys in 1991, Kabakov said that he did not agree with Western colleagues who completely rejected painting:

Another thought: if the parents have grown old and are about to disappear from the world, they should not be thrown out onto the street or put into a home for the elderly. Good children leave a room for mom somewhere in the corner, near the toilet, everyone sits at the table, life is full, together with mother, although everyone understands that she is very old. But it’s still indecent to send my mother away and to cut her out of my life altogether. That is to say, if we are talking about paintings, that I can find and organize my own place in the new: not too big, but not too small.3

Four years later, in 1995, in a cycle of lectures on the subject of total installation, Kabakov corrects what was said earlier, significantly improving the position of painting. However, it remains secondary in his oeuvre to installation:

A little about painting, the closest relative of installation or rather, its mother. (Unlike theater, architecture, literature, exhibition art, which can also claim close kinship, but in the roles of uncles, aunt, cousins, etc.) The installation is extremely friendly to the mother. This follows the ideal of a good daughter or son who does not abandon their parents for their own home but, as is proper in a good patriarchal family, allocates to mother a large bright room, the best place in the house.4

From the second half of the 2000s, painting begins to play a key role in the Kabakovs’ work. It seems that mom outlived her children, and now she owns not only the room by the toilet, and not only the biggest and brightest room, but the entire apartment. The answer to the question of how this happened can be found at the end of Poor Folk: Kabakov, as the artist openly discusses the new problem of his life and attempts to solve it. Kabakov says that the main trend of his thoughts is the desire to stay on earth after the end of his own life, the “unconscious craving for immortality.” For him, this comes from the preservation of his works in museums and histories of art: “For some reason, it is very important for me to stay … well, after life, as it were. To make something that has survived … a very important museum existence, it is like an image of immortality on this earth.”

But installation is among the most difficult-to-conserve mediums of contemporary art, especially if it is a total installation in the style of the Kabakovs. After all, all the details are important to them: the indescribable creak of worn floorboards, the particular smell of old furniture, etc. But as a rule, even major museums, after purchasing an installation, keep only parts of it in storage. Usually these are the parts that conform to the conventional art-world understanding of art, such as images or texts created by the artist’s hand. Everything else is thrown away and recreated for each new exhibition. “Installations won’t save you. They will be destroyed,” said Kabakov. Paintings, according to the artist, are preserved best. Nonetheless, “this is a sad compensation for the fact that, if the installations don’t work out, I will at least be remembered as a ‘picture maker.’”5

This project to attain immortality might look to the common person as absurd as attempting to fly into space from a communal apartment. But the grandeur of this project does not mean that the cosmist should negate a rational approach to implementing it. And even if this approach now requires paint on canvas, it’s not about “good art.” It’s about a catapult affixed to the walls of the room of one who storms heaven.


Ilya Kabakov, Texts / Library of Moscow Conceptualism (German Titov, 2010), 188.


From the exhibition catalog to “Ilya & Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future,” Tate Modern, London, October 18, 2017–January 28, 2018 .


Ilya Kabakov interviewed by Boris Groys, in Boris Groys: Dialogues (German Titov, 2010), 98.


Ilya Kabakov, “On Total Installation,” in Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (Berghahn Books, 1999), 24.


Here Kabakov ironically uses the slang word “kartinshik” (literally a person who makes “kartini”—“paintings” or “pictures”), which in the context of the Soviet underground carries the negative connotation of a commercial artist.

Contemporary Art, Installation
Cosmism, Soviet Union, Conceptual & Post-Conceptual Art
Return to Issue #142

Arseny Zhilyaev (b. 1984, Voronezh, USSR) is an artist based in Venice. His projects speculate on possible future histories of art, using the museum as a medium. Zhilyaev plays roles in the Institute for the Mastering of Time and the Institute of the Cosmos, while following the reflections of the Museum of Museums in the lagoon.


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