The strange city

"L’étrange cité", a monumental artwork created by the Kabakovs at Paris' Grand Palais, is an utopian city summing up the philosophy of the artist's pair.

Kabakov, "L’étrange cité", Grand Palais
2007 was the year former President Nicolas Sarkozy began the Grand Paris project to relaunch Paris as a global metropolis and it was also the year of the first Monumenta, an annual event that invites an international artist to create a work for the huge nave of the Grand Palais.
In 2013, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, in collaboration with Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum, chose Ilya and Emilia Kabakov who developed The Strange City, but a funding shortfall meant it had to be put back a year. Now, it is curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and sponsored by Novatek, Russia’s second-largest gas producer, and French oil company Total, among others.
Kabakov, "L’étrange cité", Grand Palais, Parigi
Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, "L’étrange cité", Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi

In testing times for relations between Europe and Putin’s Russia, the main drive behind the huge changes in progress – from the crisis in Ukraine (where the Kabakovs come from) to the historic agreement to supply energy to China, which will impact on global financial and geopolitical strategies in the coming years –, their reflection on monumentality assumes a new cultural and political centrality.

The Kabakovs, however, do not see monumentality in terms of earthly and worldly life but in relation to the force of cosmic energy and the superiority of the celestial world, to which we are bound by the constant rise and fall of the human condition – and of which the artist is a cultural missionary. Artists must use their works to provide a code that gives access to the human genre, with a view to changing the way we live and think.

Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, L’étrange cité, Le Musée vide, Monumenta 2014
Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, L’étrange cité, Le Musée vide, Monumenta 2014

The “infinite cultural process” of which the Kabakovs are the bearers originates in the past and in the line that, via art and culture, can connect us to our origins, tracing life from beginning to end; it is along this line that The Strange City develops.

Once inside, the view of the large nave is blocked by one of the city’s long white walls, which actually seems to be illustrating its construction in progress and turns us into little people that populate the construction of the large Maquette. The music of Russian pianist and composer Alexander Scriabin, a mystic of ecstasy, steers us towards The Entrance to the City, a modern ruin reminiscent of a triumphal arch, in this case the threshold marking our passage from the human to the holy sphere.

Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, "L’étrange cité", Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi
Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, "L’étrange cité", Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi

The music emanates from the Dome via a huge gramophone 13.50 metres in diameter which, by means of its structure and the synesthesia of sound and colour, establishes an aesthetic and temporal dialogue with the Grand Palais. The music is the only work exhibited in the first “city” space accessed: the Empty Museum, a traditional museum in which painted works are replaced by ovals of light, to be observed listening to Bach’s Passacaglia.

The museum is like an antechamber preparing us for the passage through the central space, that of the sphere composed of four micro-worlds: Manas, Centre for Cosmic Energy, How to Meet an Angel and The Gates.

Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, <i>Le Centre de l’énergie cosmique</i>, Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi
Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, Le Centre de l’énergie cosmique, Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi
Manas is the reconstruction of an ancient city in Northern Tibet that existed on two levels (a lower one of everyday life and a higher celestial one), comprising eight towers-mountains like those of the sacred Lake Manasarovar; on their tops are installed ancient antennas and apparatus designed to capture signals from the cosmos, the Celestial Gardens and the Noosphere which – according to Vladimir Vernadsky, one of the founders of modern geochemistry, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, palaeontologist, Jesuit and philosopher who tried to make Darwin’s theory theologically plausible – is the sphere of human thought that comes after the geosphere and the biosphere.
According to de Chardin, because of their consciousness, human beings are like the neurons of a large “global brain”, which is why Emilia Kabakov describes the Strange City as a “collective oneiric space”, activated in the Centre for Cosmic Energy, formed of the ancient energy reserve (descending on Earth at an angle of 60°, the same used to construct the Tower of Babel, the Pyramid of Giza, Tatlin’s Tower and El Lissitzky’s orator’s platforms), the Centre and the laboratory for communicating with the Noosphere – all to forge relations with the past and distant worlds.
Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, L’étrange cité, Comment rencontrer un ange?
Ilya et Emilia Kabakov, L’étrange cité, Comment rencontrer un ange?, Monumenta 2014

We could, in the silence of our own rooms, do our bit with an exercise that teaches us How to Meet an Angel; this consists in making and wearing, every two hours on a daily basis for approximately three weeks, two white tulle wings and a structure that fastens them to our chests, staying alone in our rooms for 5–10 minutes and then conserving the wings inside a wardrobe with a mirror.

The Kabakovs created the exercise in 2009 for the La Maison aux Personnages installation (2009), in which one of the seven residents wore the wings every evening and projected photos of their life onto the wall of their room so as to fall asleep happy. In the Strange City, however, the specular and introspective action becomes strongly theatrical, universal and didactic, an experience linked to personal memory and dramatic life events, as conveyed by the image of a man trying to reach his angel on a ladder; each and every one of us, believer or non-, identifies fleetingly with him.

The fourth space in the sphere at the centre of the city called The Gates symbolises the passage from the private to the social sphere and, indeed, marks the passage to the vision of humans in the Kabakovs’ work: from the sensitive experience of the Communal Kitchen (1991), where everyone, surrounded by everyday objects and actions, developed their own thoughts on society, to the sensorial and all-embracing experience of the Strange City; from The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1981–1988) to the man on Earth in a state of suspended time and constantly drawn upwards; from the Man Under the Shower (1965) waiting for water that will never come to the certainty of human transcendental regeneration.
Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, Les Portails, Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi
Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, Les Portails, Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi

Utopia is an overused term, says Emilia Kabakov, which is why they decided to describe their city as strange (étrange). But the Strange City is the epitome of the utopian city: it was generated by an experience of imprisonment and is based on a pedagogic mission.

The circular corridors surrounding the spaces in the central sphere are dotted with drawings, sketches, paintings and maquettes illustrating and narrating the creation process behind the four micro-worlds, in a sort of ABC of “universal knowledge” to which young conceptual artists that met in secret in Stalin’s Russia aspired; the universal encyclopaedia painted on the walls of Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) springs to mind.

Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, La Chapelle blanche, Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi
Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, La Chapelle blanche, Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi
The double life lived during the years of Soviet totalitarianism, the imposed reality and the image of reality that dissident artists had to construct to create another type of existence, seems to be a structural feature of the Strange City and of the combined presence of opposites: on the one hand, the artistic indications of a rejection of the dogmatism of Soviet realism; on the other, the affirmation of the transcendental nature of human life and the, not only Wagnerian, concept of “total installation”; on the one hand, works from the 1970s and 1980s asserting the historic importance of the ordinary man and his ordinary life; on the other, a path of initiation intended to make us think about “the great visions of progress, science and human elevation that may lead to the brink of disaster”; on the one hand, the need to shape real life that was impossible in the Soviet Union; on the other, the inviolable nature of the city.
Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, La Chapelle sombre, Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi
Ilya ed Emilia Kabakov, La Chapelle sombre, Monumenta 2014, Grand Palais, Parigi

At the exit of the Grand Palais, you have a sense of having passed through a spiritual testament, particularly strong in the two chapels in the proportions of a Renaissance church that end the route through the city. In the White Chapel, fragments of painted memory disrupt the geometry of a white and hypnotic space, a sort of Modernist sanatorium that engulfs the past, where a large black stain fills the space of the Last Judgement and the fresco fragments are replaced by fragments of scenes painted from everyday life.

To the right, the Dark Chapel evokes an artist’s studio, decorated with panels that summarise the Kabakovs’ story via images of Soviet stereotypes and baroque citations, reversed and aligned with the central line directed towards the exit which, described by Ilya Kabakov as his “personal psychosis”, indicates a return of the “depth of the image to the world and to a collective portrayal.”


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