World-renowned artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov live quietly in Mattituck. But they are forces to be reckoned with on the global cultural stage.
The Russian-American couple, who once lived under Soviet oppression, focus their art on themes of tolerance and humanity, values that every day elude much of the adult world. That’s why they give kids — the ultimate victims of adult folly — a say.
Their latest installation, “The Ship of Tolerance,” is a child-oriented art project that’s traveled the globe since 2005.
The U.S. installation opened earlier this month in Miami Beach, Fla., in conjunction with the famed Miami-Basel Art Fair. The Miami Children’s Museum on Watson Island, far from the boisterous hub where international glitz meets moneyed glamour, served as the venue. The museum helped plan and execute the event.
“This was a very personal project,” Ms. Kabakov explained. “My niece, who wanted to make the world a better place, died at age 19.
We decided to do a ship with children … perhaps they can learn to do things better; learn that respect and knowledge are the most important things and that all people are the same.”
The lives of these two artists are steeped heavily in these sentiments. Ilya Kabakov, born in the Ukraine in 1933, earned his living in Russia as an illustrator of children’s books. All the while, his memory archived the scenes of inhumanity he witnessed, intermingling them with centuries of Russian folklore and myth.
Humor, he learned, made survival possible. His prodigious output of installations, paintings, sculpture and drawings was not possible in communist Russia. The world did not discover his genius until the 1980s, when he was living in the United States.
Making public art happen is a feat unto itself that demands near-superhuman creative imagination and energy. Since 1989, Ukrainian-born Emilia Kabakov has collaborated with her husband on public works that, she said, “deal with ordinary people who must face extraordinary situations.”
It’s a phenomenal partnership. In 2004, the Kabakovs became the first living Russian artists to have their work exhibited at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Kabakovs designed “The Ship of Tolerance” to replicate an Egyptian sailing vessel. A master builder from Manchester, England, traveled to each port of call with a team of students to supervise the on-site construction.
The vessel is built anew in each participating country, using local materials. The Kabakovs invited local children to create images that express understanding and a sense of community, some of which were used to decorate the ship and form its sails. Waterproof paint and sail fabric were provided by the couple.
“We went to different countries with specific challenges,” said Ms. Kabakov. She worked with schools and other learning organizations to develop curricula about tolerance and humanity. In the ancient city of Siwa, Egypt, the site of a 2005 installation, a remote tribal community sitting on an oasis in the Libyan desert, children don’t have art classes.
Many had never seen a boat, so the idea of a journey by water provided a unique way to trigger their imaginations.
Divisive immigration issues consume Venice, Italy, the home of a 2009 exhibit. The fear of war overwhelms St. Moritz, Switzerland, and complex cultural restrictions collide with artistic freedom in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. The couple mounted exhibits in both locations last year.
“Miami was a perfect North American venue for this project,” said Deborah Spiegelman, executive director of the Miami Children’s Museum, which runs a charter school in addition to offering numerous art classes and programs.
“Miami has one of the most diverse populations in the country,” she added. “People from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands; Latinos from Guatemala and Mexico; South Americans; a huge population of Cuban émigrés; Asians; and Americans representing every conceivable ethnic identity and religious background. More than 67 languages are spoken here.”
The children who participated in “The Ship of Tolerance” represent the broad socioeconomic spectrum, from the poorest to the most affluent populations of the city. Ms. Spiegelman emphasized the importance of having two renowned artists bring the Miami art fair to the many who could not afford to attend.
And then, the “Aha!” moment. At dusk, as mariachi bands serenaded the setting sun, youngsters and their parents crowded around the ship as crewmen raised the 150 vividly painted sails.
Which of the 300 drawings had been selected for the mast? No one knew, though every child’s work was displayed somewhere, perhaps inside the museum or at one of the many hotels and restaurants catering to the thousands who congregated for the four-day extravaganza of art shows, parties and performances.
The delicate sails slowly unfurled to the squeals and yelps of mesmerized youngsters. A 3-year-old and his parents burst into tears as the child’s flag billowed in the Biscayne Bay breeze. Eight-year-old Signa Dijurick pointed to her flag, which featured an image of Earth with a boat sailing across the sea flanked by the Norwegian flag, a flag with a heart and one with a peace sign.
“Someone set off a bomb in Norway and I want peace there,” she said, explaining the image’s symbolism.
Representatives of the North Fork community played a part in the Kabakov effort.
Former Greenport mayor Dave Kapell navigated the politics of Miami, helping to find a venue for the project. Working with the Kabakovs’ representatives in Miami, he helped arrange the connection with the children’s museum. Amei Wallach of Mattituck, an art critic, writer and filmmaker who is in the final stages of completing a documentary film about the Kabakovs, was on hand for the Miami opening. Times/Review Newsgroup corporate officer Troy Gustavson was there, too, to record this chapter in North Fork art history.
The journey of “The Ship of Tolerance” is ongoing and, metaphorically, won’t end until the world is at peace.
The next port of call? Top secret.