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Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

The first exhibition in Ireland of the work of the distinguished Russian installation artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Friday 20 November. The Children’s Hospital, which will see the Museum’s East Wing transformed into a children’s hospital ward, is the latest in a number of installations in leading international museums in which the artists have translated their experience of Soviet life into a sardonic, but often beguiling, metaphor for the human condition.

Using the existing gallery structure of eight rooms, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov will create individual wards, each with a hospital bed, chair and night table. In each room there will also be a mechanical model theatre telling an enchanting series of stories through words, music and the movement of puppets. In one room we hear the tale of Fifi the cat and the mice who live in a suitcase, in another the adventures of the Brazilian ballet-master Bigo and the famous ballerina Jolle who could execute 45 pirouettes “while never changing the happy expression on her face”. The stories, however, have no real ending and trail of enigmatically, reflecting the uncertain world in which they are set.

The artists see the absence of an occupant in each bed as creating space for the imagination of the visitor. “The visitor can sit in the chair next to each bed and watch the show. Perhaps these shows were created by the head doctor in the hospital in order to make the children’s time there a little bit nicer and easier, to distract them from their illness. Let the viewer believe that this really happened, let him believe in this ‘visual legend’. But even without this legend, the soft music, silence, tranquility, the simplicity of the architecture and the beautiful landscapes behind the windows of these rooms, all create an atmosphere which even for a ‘grown-up’ visitor will be good and ‘therapeutic’, will be just what he needs.”

Born in the USSR in 1933, Ilya Kabakov is one of the most compelling and influential artists to have emerged from the former Soviet Union. Since his arrival in the West in 1987 he has become a leading figure in installation art and art in public spaces. His practice combines drawings, paperworks, paintings and found objects in complex installations reflecting the social, historical and political forces which have shaped his life and work. These include his boyhood during Stalin’s regime, his obligatory career as a children’s book illustrator in the official Artists’ Union, his involvement in Moscow’s active underground avant-garde of artists and writers, and his more recent travels in the international art circuit. In all of his work Kabakov sees himself as essentially a “visual archaeologist” of people’s experience. He has built installations in such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Jewish Museum, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Kunsthalle, Bern; the Ludwig Museum, Cologne; Kunstalle, Cologne; Pompidou Centre, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt; the Venice Biennale; and Documenta IX in Kassel.

Since 1990 Kabakov has worked closely with his wife, Emilia Kabakov. They live in New York City, but travel extensively following the itinerary of their installations.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov : The Children’s Hospital continues until 11 April 1999.