An edgy Look Back at the Grim Future that was the USSR

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She was born in 1902 and died in 1987. She lived through the Russian revolution, the civil war and the famine of 1921-22 that killed her father. Then there was the second world war, and finally glasnost and perestroika. Her name was Bertha Urievna Solodukhina and her life was a constant struggle. She endured antisemitic abuse, homelessness and a string of precarious jobs as she tried to raise a son alone.

That son would preserve her memory in a unique work of art. In fact, in llya Kabakov’s 1990 installation Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), he can be heard singing sad songs from his childhood. Yet it is his mother’s voice that is preserved in the most moving way by this masterpiece of modem art. A few years before she died, Kabakov persuaded her to write a memoir. As you explore this seemingly endless installation, excerpts from her harrowing autobiography grip your attention.

It is like being lost in time. Labyrinth is a work that immerses you so totally it is frightening. Will you ever get out?

llya Kabakov, born in 1933, spent much of his life in the same dim corridor that, for him, is an image of life in the USSR. He made a living as an illustrator while showing his subversive art to friends. One of the most powerful examples, his 1981 painting Tested, is based on a socialist realist picture from 1936 in which a woman investigated by the party is handed back her membership card. It takes a minute to get the grim joke. People were not “tested” fairly during Stalin’s Great Terror. They were subjected to show trials and shot.

Kabakov had to escape. In 1985 he created, while still in Russia, The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment. You peep through a smashed wooden door into a tiny flat entirely papered with communist propaganda posters. The vanished inhabitant has left his designs for a one-man space mission in which he planned to launch himself through the ceiling and catch a current that would take him into space. Above the catapult, a hole has been blasted in the ceiling.

Why would you want to immerse yourself in the Kabakovs’ art of memory now the USSR has vanished? The Soviet Union is gone, but the millions who lived and died through it deserve some monument.

llya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future is at Tate Modern, London, until 28 January. Box office: 020-7887 8888.
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