Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****

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Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

I know it is not easy to make out but take a good peer at the image above. This is an installation created in 1985 by Russian conceptual artist, Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment. he created it in his studio and it was his first full room, “total” installation. It tells the story of a man living in a communal apartment in Russia who hatches a plan to escape from his oppressive, mundane reality. A suspended catapult chair, a hole in the roof, remnants of the construction, propaganda posters, carefully orchestrated lighting. There are workings from the imagined escape and the testimonies of neighbours. It is both very funny and very sad. Tragi-comic, absurdist biting satire. One man pursuing the Soviet dream of conquering space. Or escaping his miserable reality. Which is the well from which so much art of the C19 and C20, (and into the C21), has drawn from in Russia.

I found the installations of the Kabakovs, (Ilya was joined by wife Emilia in his 60s), absolutely compelling. I left nothing like enough time to fully absorb them, which is really bloody annoying. I blame the complementary Red Star Over Russia exhibition also on at Tate Modern, which was much more interesting than I had bargained for (Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****), as well as my own woeful lack of planning. And now this exhibition is about to end, (once again this numbnut waited until near the end of the run to see it), and I won’t have time to return. You’d think I would learn.

Anyway what I have learnt about is a pair of brilliantly inventive artists to add to the list, and yet more perspectives on the relationship between art and society in Russia, and indeed beyond. Ilya Kabakov was an unofficial artist which meant his work was not exhibited, was made largely in secret, and often required him to create pseudonyms. He made money from being a children’s book illustrator. Only close friends saw his early work.

A lot of installation art suffers from what I term the “I can’t be bothered” trope. The concept or idea is all, the making subsidiary. A few “found” objects, a bit of cardboard, some wire and some gaffer tape, and, hey presto, an installation, accompanied by some pretentious guff that make no sense even after three or for readings. I am fully aware how Daily Mail, philistine twat this makes me sound. Trust me that isn’t true. The more conceptual and contemporary art installations I see the more I think I understand and the more I am drawn in. But I still want to see that some thought and effort has been put in. The Kabakovs could never be accused of slapdashery. The ideas are clearly expressed, the detail is rich, the craft breathtaking. They tell intricate stories that pull you up, make you smirk and make you think.

The exhibition kicks off with Ilya’s early conceptual works, across an array of artistic styles and, given his status, utilising whatever materials he could lay his hands on. The ideas are sharp from the off and, using fictional characters, parody Soviet achievement. I was particularly struck by Holiday, where banal images have been revisited by their purported artist, and covered with flowers which are in reality sweet wrappers.  Room 2 shows the way in which Illya Kabakov mocked the cliches of Socialist Realism, most effectively in Tested! which purports to be a work by a forgotten artist from the 1930s showing a “celebration” of a woman having her Party membership card returned. It took me a bit of time to realise the blindingly obvious that this, obviously, would never have happened.

Following on from the early installations, including Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen with its flying  pans, are works that play with perspective and scale and incorporate tiny, cardboard cut out figures, which, to me, again suggest the struggle of individuals to find meaning and recognition in a social world. The next room has a rather less satisfactory installation where we are invited to look at “nocturnal” paintings through monoculars trained on apertures. The little white figures pop up again. For Ilya this work contrasts the contrast between the experienced and learnt knowledge which is the subject of epistemology, and the mystical revelations which cannot be explained. Hmmm.

The large installation which doubles up as the title of the exhibition, Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future, from 2001, imagines a train leaving a platform, carrying art and artists selected to be part of the future, and leaving behind discarded canvases that represent the work of the forgotten, unpalatable or banned. So a meditation on the history of art, but again, with a distinctive swipe at the Soviet Union. This investigation continues in Room 7 which contains a collection of paintings showing seems from Russian and Soviet history conjoined or layered over each other, or with areas whited out. Interesting but not as memorable as the installations. The model which pretends that apartments have been created out of public toilets was especially cutting however.

Next door is a fascinating installation, Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), from 1990, which documents the everyday struggle of his mother, Bertha Urievna Solodukhina, to survive and to raise Ilya. A dimly lit, grubby, winding corridor is lined with photographs taken by his uncle alongside disturbing memoirs from his clearly remarkable mother. Revolution, famine, repression, hate, homelessness, all are revealed. At its centre is a recording of Ilya singing songs from his childhood. Whilst this clearly explores the questions raised elsewhere in the work of the Kabanovs the impact is greater because it is so personal and devastating. I didn’t have enough time to read much of the testimony which was a great shame.

Room 9 takes us back to the intimate and hidden, with Ten Characters, a series of narrative drawings, displayed in a room reminiscent of classroom, which documents the lives of solitary, lonely artists in a totalitarian state. It was first exhibited in 1988 after the Kabakovs had themselves emigrated to New York where they now work. Finally there are a series of works which explore the idea of flight or escape with angels as the recurring motif. Angels, obviously, are about as commonplace as it comes in the history of art but here represent a life free from the grind of bureaucracy and routine. As with everything on display here the narratives are enthralling, the ideas provocative and the commentary acerbic.

These works take the personal and specific, artists working in secret under the Soviet regime, and turn them into something universal. And that despite missing, as I am sure I did, the majority of the meaning displayed her.

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