Fail better,” Samuel Beckett advised, and no space in the world invites artists to do so more flamboyantly than the 45-metre-high nave of glass and wrought iron at the Grand Palais in Paris, home to the now biennial Monumenta commission. Under its glazed Belle Époque domed roof, the biggest in Europe, everything gleams over-bright and too hot; difficulties of light as well as scale make Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall look a cosy doll’s house by comparison.
Formalists do best here – Richard Serra’s towering steel plates, Anish Kapoor’s inflated red “Leviathan”. But for its sixth edition, launched on May 10, Monumenta has invited Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who are baggy, informal, garrulous, and whose single obsessive theme has always been failure. Storytellers rather than sculptors, they scarcely engage with the architecture of the place; and yet, for almost entirely non-visual reasons, their installation is mesmerising.
I got lost – physically and metaphysically, in translation – within seconds of entering the labyrinth of streets, archways, temples and chapels that constitutes the Kabakov dream-world “L’étrange cité”. At the opening, a 24-tonne cupola turned on its side like a giant megaphone projects sounds and lights; beyond, seven pristine, white-painted wooden buildings enclose as many visions of failed Utopias, some modelled in wood and glass, others including paintings and drawings.
“Le centre de l’énergie cosmique” is a model of an ancient civilisation as excavated by technocrats in a steely scientific city, all silver towers and ziggurats evoking the up-thrust angularity of suprematism and Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealised “Monument to the Third International” from the 1920s. There is “Manas”, which fantastically imagines a Tibetan outpost on two levels, celestial and terrestrial: the earthly one is surrounded by mountains that its inhabitants must climb to achieve spiritual understanding, while in an identical heavenly city, constructed in a lighted dome, the peaks descend from the ceiling like stalactites. Elsewhere, “La chapelle blanche” is covered in white panels interspersed with mock-Soviet realist paintings of dappled orchards and happy workers in fading hues: a homage to oblivion and to Malevich’s “White on White” dream of infinity.
The rise and fall of communism; the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first modern society to disappear; how avant-garde aspiration from Moscow to Weimar to Barcelona was dashed by authoritarianism – it is easy to see why Ilya Kabakov became a darling of the west as soon as his installations hit the international stage in the 1980s.
Every work here expresses the fissured heart of Russian culture – its struggle between the materiality of an easily comprehensible realism and the immateriality of a Kandinsky or Malevich striving for cosmic transcendence – but also our own historical moment, as the 21st century grapples with the modernist legacy of the 20th.
Since Ilya left the Soviet Union in 1987, marrying his niece and collaborator Emilia and settling in New York in 1992, the couple’s dissections of frustrated hopes and mad ambitions have been wildly successful – the Kabakovs are the most expensive living Russian artists. To bring their project to Paris, cradle of the modernist experiment, was inspired.
But the Grand Palais, which ups the stakes for any artist, does more than cruelly expose their formal limitations and repetitive devices. “L’étrange cité” not only embodies the failures that are its theme: its vanity and sentimentality bring home how fast a global art economy can turn originality and national identity into a clichéd, niched export brand.
In “Comment rencontrer un ange?” a tiny figure has climbed atop a model constructivist scaffold to reach out, vainly, to a wooden angel dangling above. “An encounter with your angel in real life appears to be virtually impossible. But this is far from the truth . . . It is within our power to create the situation for such an encounter” reads a Kabakov text panel. A feeble sketch for this installation, of winged angels flying through rosy clouds above the Grand Palais’s crystalline roof, is the show’s poster and tote bag image, and recalls the saccharine pastel doodles of late Chagall. Parody, or product?
For more than a century, since Diaghilev brought the Ballets Russes to the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 1909, Russian art has been imported to Paris as exotic, mystic and soulful. Initially innovative, it diminished all too quickly, as artists became exiles no longer nourished by primary contact with their original sources of thought and feeling, into pastiche – Chagall was the classic example.
Ilya Kabakov, 81, has always made pastiche a conceptual strategy, but that has not saved his whimsical extravaganzas from turning oversweet, overblown and thuddingly obvious. “Les Portails”, for example: a large wooden door, open for the passage from life to death – a wall note defines it as “the memory about people which passed already through these gates and are gone forever” – surrounded by vapid abstract paintings in wan colours, symbolising morning and evening.
I went from this packaged mysticism to “La chapelle sombre”, where curator Jean-Hubert Martin was checking the installation of some five-metre-tall autobiographical paintings: Ilya receiving the Praemium Imperiale award in Japan; the couple with bespectacled Moscow gallerist Marat Gelman. Displayed on their side to achieve “distance”, Martin suggested, the paintings, in a neutral style derived from Soviet realism, are embarrassingly, winsomely bad.
More pastiche – of a baroque chapel covered in twisting figures, I assumed. But Martin had a different reading: Kabakov, he said, “has always used invented fictitious artists behind whom he hides” – in 2008 the Kabakovs’ “Alternative History of Art”, a 23-room gallery featuring work by three invented painters, inaugurated Moscow’s Garage Centre – “but here for the first time is Kabakov himself. This is the highlight of the whole exhibition.” I had got “La chapelle blanche” wrong too, it seemed: its fragmented canvases followed “in the line of the chapels of Giotto and Rothko”.
Vanity of vanities; quomodo sedet sola civitas – “how doth the city sit solitary”. “L’étrange cité” may muse on the failure of modernism, but the evaporation of authenticity and truth in our own age of commercial spectacle, where courts of flatterers fool expensive artists into delusions of grandeur, is the devastating subject of this Monumenta.
It left me longing for a shred of the spirit of the witty, absurdist, provisional pieces with which Kabakov made his name. “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment”, starring a fictitious hero who flew out of his flat, lined with roughly glued Soviet posters, into the cosmos – an individualist escaping the Soviet behemoth – typified the early makeshift, poetic approach. The finish at the Grand Palais, by contrast, is so slick that a Russian billionaire collector emerged to ask, enviously, who had constructed the installation. “A French company,” explained Emilia, whereupon he got down to business: “Give me the name, I want a house built!”
‘Monumenta 2014: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, L’étrange cité’, Grand Palais, Paris, until June 22 grandpalais.fr/en