Sailing with the Kabakovs · December 22, 2011 ·  by Nora FitzGerald

The artist duo has launched a project, for and by schoolchildren, to promote tolerance and diversity

The Ship of Tolerance, the first in a series of installations by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, was launched in 2005 on a saltwater lake in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt.

The Kabakovs picked Siwa, on the border of the Libyan Desert, for many reasons, among them its ancient mythology and modern isolation. The site of Cleopatra’s fabled pool and home of the Siwan Oracle visited by Alexander the Great, it is today a secluded town of date farmers. The Kabakovs, who are Jewish, gave lessons in drawing to the schoolchildren involved in the project, most of whom had never taken an art class—nor had they ever met foreigners or seen a boat before, because Siwa is far from the ocean and no one tries to sail on the brackish lake.

“For us, the project is more than visual,” says Emilia Kabakov. “It was important to us that the children understood the concept of tolerance.”

At each port where a ship is launched (they have included Venice; St. Moritz, Switzerland; Manchester, England; and Sharjah, United Arab Emirates), local schoolchildren take part in discussions of tolerance and diversity and create the drawings that will hang from the boat’s mast. A new Ship of Tolerance will appear this month on Watson Island in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, and another is planned for New York City next June. “Afterward, we hope to move the ship to the United Nations conference on tolerance,” Emilia says. About 300 children are involved in the Miami project.

“Why the ship?” Ilya Kabakov asks rhetorically. “The main point is a connection to the romantic past. The goal of course is the connection to other cultures, and the ship is the symbol. The children are very sensitive to this. Other symbols are the wind, the message in the bottle, freedom of the sea. The children have to know that their message will be heard.”

David Harold, a carpentry instructor in Manchester, first worked with the Kabakovs on the “Palace of Projects” installation of the late 1990s. He brought a group of his students to Siwa to build the ship out of bamboo and reed, modeled after ancient Egyptian vessels. Like the children of Siwa, the Manchester teens had never met people from outside their own country.

The trip “was one of the best experiences in my life,” Manchester carpentry student Adam O’Connor wrote in his journal. “I was so grateful for being picked. . . . Building the ship was not as easy as I thought it would be.”

Ilya Kabakov, now 78 years old, designs each ship and tells Harold how the sail—made of children’s drawings on canvas—will look. Then about 100 drawings are selected and attached to the mast. The boat is sometimes launched in an evening ceremony, its mast lit by lanterns, with the children watching, before it is put on exhibition.

A strong thread runs from Kabakov’s children’s-book illustrations and drawings made in the Soviet Union through the paintings and installations he has created in the past two decades with Emilia. Fantasy and utopia, nostalgic longing, and flights from reality all were and remain central to the work.

One of the most acclaimed artists of the late 20th century and a leader among the Russian nonconformists in stature and at auction, Ilya never exhibited his work in the Soviet Union. “Illustration for children’s books was fairly safe,” he recalled in a recent interview, “and I could make a living and at the same time dedicate myself to my work.”

The Kabakovs discussed their ongoing projects at Hemphill Fine Arts, a Washington, D.C., gallery that recently showed an eclectic selection of their work. (A 70-inch scale model of the Siwa ship sells for $150,000.) Together, the couple reminisced about their first years in the United States after they immigrated, Emilia to New York in 1975 after two years in Israel, and Ilya in 1987. They married in 1992.

“I never had an exhibition in the USSR,” Ilya recalled. “When I came here, I felt I was given a piece of paradise. I was drunk from happiness,” because he was able to work freely as an artist.

Asked if they still felt this way, they both laughed and said, almost in unison, “We got used to it.”

“So many things in his work are about escape,” says Asher Edelman, director of Edelman Arts in New York, where an exhibition of Ilya’s drawings is on view through December 23. “I think the ship is certainly an extension of that.”

Called “The Study of Kabakov,” the show at Edelman Arts features 32 drawings from 1960 to 1985. Some are from an ironic fable called Ten Characters, about the inhabitants of a Soviet communal apartment, and Kabakov mischievously shows how some of these eccentric individuals—“Sitting-in-the-Closet Primakov” and “The Flying Komarov”—might interact with the world.

In June, the Ship of Tolerance will come to the Bronx in cooperation with the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The New York project will most likely involve P.S. 73, which has an existing partnership with the museum. There will be a New York launch of the ship, but an exact location has yet to be determined.

“In the Bronx,” says Holly Block, executive director of the Bronx Museum, “our kids tend to be more isolated. There are a lot of cutbacks, and these are not students who generally go downtown for other cultural activities.” Working on the project, she says, will give the children a rare opportunity to participate with other children in an international project.

Unlike some Kabakov installations, this one is completely without irony. “It’s about dreams,” says Emilia, “and it’s about utopia.”

Nora Fitzgerald is a freelance writer and editor and former Moscow correspondent for ARTnews.