Nick Hackworth

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Amazing Technicolor Dreamboat

Essays & Reviews The Telegraph

By any measure, it was a strange affair. Last month, a large group of people gathered on the shore of a small salt lake in Siwa, a remote oasis in the Sahara desert, to witness the maiden voyage of a 20ft sailboat made from reeds and palm leaves.

More than 300km from the nearest river, this modest stretch of water in Egypt has never before been graced by a vessel of any kind. Not that this boat could float. Buoyed by inflatable pontoons hidden beneath the surface, the ship was a work by Russia's most famous and influential living artists, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

Mixed in among the crowd of several hundred schoolchildren from the local Berber community was a select group of wealthy, international art collectors and their young families. Siwan children clustered around the Western adults, fascinated by the men's expensive cameras and the women's elegant clothes.

A team of teenage trainee engineers from Manchester had been drafted in to build the boat. One Mancunian, proudly sporting a Manchester United tattoo on his chest, warily eyed an Egyptian boy wearing a spanking-new Arsenal T-shirt with "Henry" stencilled on the back.

After an hour or so, attention shifted to the ship, slowly pulled through the shallow water from one shore to the other by a team of men. Once there, the boat was decorated by children - a mix of locals, many of whom had never seen a boat, and Western kids, some of whom had flown in with their parents on Lear jets.

They all painted squares of fabric to make the patchwork sail - hoisted as a finale to a flurry of appreciative hand-pointing and a chorus of happy noises from the crowd.

Wandering among the kids, Emilia Kabakov seemed equally delighted. "The children are wonderful and so talented," she said. "They make this project worthwhile.

"Emilia, who is in her early sixties and has lived and worked with Ilya since 1989, has taken on the task of speaking for the duo. It's a role that 72-year-old Ilya, who complains of a poor command of English, is willing to forego.

"This work is about dreams," explained Emilia, who argues that this is a piece of installation art. "Installation is the oldest art form in the world. A church is an installation in a way, an atmosphere, a total created environment. Now we have art instead of religion.

Installation is a kind of game that uses four dimensions, and the fourth dimension is what we didn't think we possessed within us - our memories, subconscious feelings, knowledge we forgot we had."

The Kabakovs believe in the universal application of the power of dreams. "The average Russian feels that Earth is the wrong place to live," Ilya once wrote.

"His thoughts revolve around the cosmos and consequently his only opportunities on Earth lie in art, in the realisation of his personal fantasies, projects and dreams."

When he was an artist working in isolation in Soviet Russia, much of Ilya's work was about the dream of escape. The Kabakovs' current show at London's Serpentine Gallery (they are also exhibiting at the Albion gallery in Battersea) essentially consists of a series of beds. It's an invitation to sleep and dream.

After saying goodbye to their new-found Western friends, the Siwans headed towards nearby buses that would take them off to their daily lessons. The two men responsible for bringing avant-garde art to the desert were watching proceedings: Egyptian Mounier Namattal and British gallerist Michael Hue-Williams.

A long-time expert in sustainable development, Namattal founded Adrère Amellal, an eco-tourist lodge at the edge of the oasis, six years ago. The hotel, which has no electricity, is a collection of attractive, organically shaped structures built from chunks of salt rock and mud. It became an instant hit with wealthy, independent-minded travellers.

Thinking that works of "environmental art" would complement his business enterprise, he approached Hue-Williams, founder of the Albion gallery. Hue-Williams visited and liked the place so much that he had a house built, now nearing completion.

He began a series of ephemeral projects involving the local children, starting in 2003 with a spectacular piece using painted kites and fireworks by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.

Will the projects continue? Hue-Williams is confident they will. "We're planning to do something every two years," he says, but is reluctant to give too much away about the plans for 2007.

"All I want to say is that it will be like something out of Shelley's Ozymandias, a hugely ambitious work that will eventually be covered up by the desert sands. I like the idea of that impermanence. After all, the last thing we want to do is impose anything on the local community. They've been here for millennia doing just fine without us."