Like the work of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, this feature-length documentary conveys the sweep of a Russian novel and the intimacy of someone singing alone in the dark. With Ken Kobland as editor and Kipjaz Savoie as co-producer, this film is the work of the same team that created the highly acclaimed film Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine. As with the Bourgeois film, scene by stirring scene, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: ENTER HERE delves deep into the meaning of the artists’ lives and their work, which the camera beautifully reveals. The film’s dynamic style, mixing the personal with the historical, art with storytelling, illuminates the Kabakovs’ art.
By focusing so closely on artists who have made it a life’s work to probe the most individual implications of the society in which they were born and the one to which they immigrated, the film journeys from Stalin’s Soviet Union to the shores of Long Island, to the Ukraine of their childhood, and back to Putin’s Russia. Their artwork was filmed in such places as Moscow; Marfa, Texas; Vienna; Singen, Germany; and Strasbourg, France. The Kabakovs’ lives and work provide a unique opportunity for a close-up, personal, and nuanced view of a cataclysmic history, touched by irony, wit, and a master’s gift for storytelling. As Ilya Kabakov says,
My mentality is Soviet, but it is irony. Irony. The Soviet mentality is also the old European. It is like a sandwich, because the education in the Soviet is beautiful. And the mentality is like a sandwich of the classical European education, reflections of Soviet ideas, and dreams of Western art. What I say is ironical. It is not possible for me to talk real. The real for me is idiotic. I’m Soviet, I’m Russian, and it is not possible to talk simply. That is stupid. Irony is a reflection about life. You can never talk in a real way about this. If you talk simple, it is not a sandwich, but bread. That is a catastrophe.
The framing narrative follows the Kabakovs as they prepare for what will be the first real exhibition in Moscow for Ilya Kabakov, who was not permitted to show there in Soviet times. On sites in far-flung sections of the city that are reachable only in the new Moscow’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, the Kabakovs work against great odds to construct six installations in two months for their massive event in five venues, including the Pushkin Museum. The filmmakers were given unparalleled access to the artists. The couples relationship emerges as he measures, climbs, paints, and worries; and she charms, exhorts, and deals with crises face-to-face and on her BlackBerry.
But it is a letter that Ilya Kabakov’s mother, Bertha Ulievna Solodukhina, wrote when she was 80 that is most revealing of the ways in which the art emerges out of Kabakov’s memories and his life.
The camera tours the dingy corridors of his installation Labyrinth, My Mother’s Album, as in voice-over we hear the details of his mother’s homelessness in the Soviet system. Then Ilya Kabakov faces the camera with a searing recollection of how the banal horrors of his mother’s life continue to affect him.
Emilia Kabakov takes us to the town in the Ukraine where both she and Ilya Kabakov spent their childhoods. There she discovers a journal in which some spy in the house had been secretly recording for the authorities everyone’s comings and goings and identifying her each time as “Jew.”
His friends, the artists Oleg Vassiliev, Igor Makarevich, and Andrei Monastyrsky, recount the story of their and his development. Commentators such as Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, and Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, give insights into Kabakov’s art and life. Matthew Jesse Jackson, scholar of Kabakov and his circle, describes the ways in which the characters that Ilya Kabakov has invented tell his ironic stories of alienation and catastrophe so that the everyday deprivations of Soviet life are exposed. As the camera tours his magical labyrinthine installations, these characters are given voice and form, and the Kabakovs and their friends chime in.
The film illuminates what it is like to meditate on his paintings or to walk through those installations; to become an actor in the dramas that the Kabakovs stage, absorbed in one’s own memories, hopes, and the universal inevitability of disappointment. This is as true of the haunting parables of Soviet subjects as of more recent works, which trace the lure of illusion in every society.
Then frenzy breaks loose. It is the madness of the Moscow opening, pronounced on the spot a historic event, with government officials, paparazzi, jostling throngs, and the white mop of Kabakov’s head spotlighted for the television cameras as he and Emilia move through the crowd.
By the time the camera glides through Alternative History of Art, the most ambitious of the completed works at Moscow’s new contemporary art space, the Garage, there is an urgent sense of what it means to have this exhibition at this moment in this place.
Back in his Long Island studio, Ilya Kabakov advances a tragic vision of the Russia they have just left and questions his identity. Already he is working on a painting even more challenging, elaborate, and profound than those he showed in Moscow.