Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern, Review: Up, Up and Away in the USSR

The Appearance of the Collage #10, 2012

October 18th, 2017

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Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future, Tate Modern’s Ilya and Emilia Kabakov exhibition, opens with a self-portrait of Ilya dressed as an airman and closes with models and drawings of angels. Fantasies of flight, freedom, and weightlessness permeate the show. Look through a monocular lens and you can see tiny men in space; peer in through a boarded-up doorway and you will discover that a Muscovite has apparently ejected himself into the stratosphere through his apartment roof; there are winged harnesses with sets of instructions, and fables of flight illustrated like everyday school books. All are, in some way, counterweights to the claustrophobia, abjection, and self-policing that characterized the artists’ experience of life in the USSR. Ilya’s self-portrait in a flying helmet was painted in 1962, the year after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Kabakov was 28, married with a baby daughter, and working officially as an illustrator of children’s books. He had already, for some years, been involved in the production of clandestine ‘unofficial’ artworks that deviated from the Soviet Realist style.

Fantasies of flight, freedom, and weightlessness permeate the show… Counterweights to the claustrophobia, abjection, and self-policing that characterized the artists’ life in the USSR

From small drawings that played with abstraction, or which prioritized lowly subjects, he progressed onto ‘object paintings’ – such as the relief composed of a section of pipe, and modeled stick, ball and fly – a response, in part, to second-hand reports of Pop art and the Arte Povera movement. Among these unofficial works were ten albums of drawings and text, each of which feature a fantastical alter ego, among them The Joker Gorokhov (1972) The Flying Komarov (1970) and Sitting-in-the-Closet Primakov (1972). In these, Kabakov marries his skills as an illustrator to experiments in language and image, and the relationship between the two. Kabakov shared these albums with a close group of artists and intellectuals in Moscow, presenting them at private, performed readings. At Tate they are displayed at a group of school desks, allowing visitors to immerse themselves at leisure.

Kabakov later explained that survival in the Soviet system rested on the ability to adopt multiple personas – one for work, one for social encounters, one for family, one for friends – “like a theatre in which you played many roles.” It was not until 1987 that he left the Soviet Union for the first time. Shortly afterward, Ilya commences a romantic and working partnership with Emilia, a distant relative from his father’s side who was then based in New York. “In the end, as long as I was living in the Soviet Union I didn’t know who I was. Even when I left I was still playing these characters until Emilia gave me the possibility to be who I am,” he explained in an interview last year. As a collaborative partnership, the Kabakovs became known in Europe and US-America for total installations on a massive scale, among them the Palace of Projects, staged at the Roundhouse in London in 1998. With works ranging from tiny sketches and miniature models to installations the size of substantial buildings, they are a technically challenging subject for the exhibition. While a few total installations are included here, sheer scale prohibits the inclusion of many of them, though a few are presented as models at a doll’s house size.

“In the end, as long as I was living in the Soviet Union I didn’t know who I was. Even when I left I was still playing these characters, until Emilia gave me the possibility to be who I am.”Ilya Kabakov

The first total installation displayed here – The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment – was constructed in Kabakov’s Moscow studio in 1985. Faithfully reproduced right down to the prescribed paint colors of the external walls, the installation places the viewer in the role of a nosey neighbor, peering between slats loosely hammered over the doorway to examine the plans and contraptions of a man who supposedly propelled himself through the roof on a spring-mounted seat. The wall opposite the entrance carries matter of fact accounts of the event: “Maybe he really did fly away, that sort of thing happens” suggests one neighbor, optimistically.

The heart of the exhibition and it’s darkest and most personal work is Labyrinth, My Mother’s Album (1990), which again takes its aesthetic language from a shabby Soviet apartment block. Along walls painted utilitarian oxblood red and sanitary blue are hung framed portions of brown patterned wallpaper, each stuck with a black and white photograph and a fragment of text. The corridor is ill-lit, and the texts difficult to read, inviting one to ignore them and walk past. For those who take the time, they offer the story of Kabakov’s mother, Solodukhina, who was born in the first years of the twentieth century, and lived through the First World War, the 1917 Revolution, the Second World War, and saw out the Soviet Union almost until its end. It was a life full of incident and setbacks. In the 1920s Solodukhina survived a famine that killed her parents and left her looking after four starving siblings; she undertook a succession of ill-paid jobs, ‘married’ her lodger (Ilya’s father) somewhat by default, and suffered long periods of appalling privation.

Every turn in the corridor offers not an escape route but more corridor: equally dismal, and with no apparent end. Propelling yourself through the roof starts to feel like a good option.

As with the story itself, every turn in the corridor offers not an escape route but more corridor: equally dismal, and with no apparent end. Propelling yourself through the roof starts to feel like a good option, but instead, Kabakov’s mother kept going and did all she could to support her talented son, even living for a while in a disused lavatory block so that he could attend the right school. The exhibition takes its title from an installation showing the end of a departing train, which displays the scrolling motto ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future’. We’re left on a platform empty but for tumbling Kabakov paintings. We didn’t make it, and neither, it seems, did some of the artworks.

‘The future’ is often explored in the Kabakovs’ paintings through looking back to a superannuated Soviet-era utopianism: the better tomorrow that was never to come as the reward for hard work today. In the Under the Snow series, an obscuring blanket of white melts away in places to show fragments of scenes rendered in the Soviet Realist style. The blanked out canvas (or the covering Russian snow, depending on how you wish to read it) performs an act of censorship, offering us partial representation, literally preventing us from seeing the whole picture. Other paintings portray collages of torn images united uncomfortably in the same pictorial space or offer obedient sunny-banal official artworks redecorated with rosettes made of sweet wrappers or grids of grey dots. All undermine the idea that the pictures they present are anything other than a construct: the painted groups of smiling children and pristine homes do not represent the ‘real’ any more than the dots or candy wrappers.

We’re left on a platform empty but for tumbling Kabakov paintings. We didn’t make it, and neither, it seems, did some of the artworks

The final gallery of this show, dominated by a large model for the monumental work How to Meet an Angel (2002), is a leap in both style and subject. Seen alongside installations that deal with earthly detritus, injustice, and melancholy, these angel works feel jarringly sentimental and pristine. As the ultimate conclusion to the Kabakovs’ dreams of flight and stories of survival against the odds, however, the angels occupy a congruent position in the artists’ cosmology. Cynic that I am, I can’t really begrudge them. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future, Tate Modern, London, 18 October to 28 January (020 7887 8888)

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