PARIS — Beneath the bombastic Beaux-Arts dome of the Grand Palais in Paris, artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have installed an explorable city of white arches and curious pavilions dedicated to attempts and failures to reach a mystical plane. Called L’Étrange Cité, or The Strange City, the exhibition opened this month as part of the ongoing Monumenta series, which has brought high-profile artists like Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer, and Richard Serra to work in the Grand Palais’s 16,000 square feet.
Emilia Kabakov is the first woman invited to participate in Monumenta for this sixth edition of the series, with her husband, Ilya. The Russian-born, Long Island–based couple have taken a different approach from previous artists by not directly interacting with the grandness of the space, but rather using its size to contain an ambitious project. It’s not always successful, but then a big component of their work over the years has been failure, much of it in response to the Soviet Union. Here, in The Strange City, people build ladders to try to reach angels and construct architecture to communicate with cosmic energy. The ideas are represented in sculptures, paintings, installations, and drawings in white-walled pavilions.
Visitors use maps to navigate the “utopian and mysterious city” and are encouraged to interact with the space (although no selfies are allowed, per the exhibition rules). The day of my visit was rather gloomy, with rain pattering on the glass ceiling and the sturdily built city cast in a gray pall. I imagine on sunnier days that the architecture of the installation might gleam as if on the Cycladic coast. Starting with the radar-shaped “Dome,” which mimics the Grand Palais’s own roof and pulses in different colors while playing corresponding tones, you wind through a maze of rooms centered on dreams of transcendence that end in failure. Alongside depictions of people aiming to better themselves through angelic encounters are drawings of angels crumpled heaps on the ground. In “The White Chapel,” fragments of Soviet propaganda dot the walls like the remains of a disassembled puzzle.
Context is unfortunately necessary for much of the installation; even as you’re invited to wander, you’re often forced to rely on textual guides for a narrative. And that can border on the insipid, such as in “The Gates,” an installation of two open doors between a ring of paintings referencing Impressionism and Modernism, where the text states that the “transition from life to the beyond takes place via the gate bathed in a uniform ambiance that blurs distinction.”
Perhaps if the small models of towers reaching to the stars or the Tibetan mountains with their “devices that enable a heightened consciousness” had been built on a larger scale out in the Grand Palais itself, beyond the installation walls, some of the same meaning of human desire to always want more could have been evoked more strongly. The Grand Palais itself was buit for the 1900 World’s Fair, a grandiose event that strove for utopia as much as the figures in the Kabakovs’ work. Yet in The Strange City there’s a disconnect from this greater narrative of the installation’s powerful place.
Monumenta 2014: L’Étrange Cité by Ily and Emilia Kabakov continues at the Grand Palais (3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, Paris) through June 22.