The Kabakovs

The Kabakovs


Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are widely recognized as the premier artists to emerge from the Soviet Union and major figures on the international art scene. Audiences and critics habitually hail their exhibitions in leading museums around the world. In 2008 they were awarded the Praemium Imperiale, established by the Emperor of Japan to honor the fields that the Nobel Prize does not cover.

The Kabakovs have gone far to redefine the thrust and meaning of art in the 20th and 21st centuries. A larger understanding of where we have been and where we are going would be impossible without them.

Ilya Kabakov was born on September 30, 1933, in Dnepropetrovsk, in the Ukraine at a time when starvation was rampant there under the official policy of collectivization. Already language had been corrupted, and “famine” was a forbidden word.

Growing up, Kabakov experienced Stalin and his outrages as a kind of weather, like a downpour inundating everything even his own private miseries, of which there were many. As an artist in Moscow during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it was the despotism of bureaucracy that he lived, falling like a steady rain, dampening the hopes and routines of the everyday. The only kind of art that was officially recognized was Socialist Realism, a Pollyanna vision of a utopia that everyone who lived it knew was botched and ugly.

Beginning, in the 1960s, however, new groups of artists emerged, unofficial artists, known only to each other and a widening circle of friends. Away from official entanglements, in the privacy of their own studios and apartments, unofficial artists made art “for themselves,” out of their own integrity and their souls, they argued in intense kitchen table debates.

In his day job, Kabakov was an official artist – a highly successful, even famous, illustrator of children’s books. In every other way, he was an unofficial artist “for myself.” His quest to reconcile the two put him at the center of three generations of what came to be called “Moscow Conceptualists.” Harassed by the KGB during the Soviet period, Moscow Conceptualists are now honored as the second great Soviet Avant-Garde, worthy successors to the Suprematists and Constructivists of the first Avant-Garde in the teens of the 20th Century.

Kabakov’s achievement was to find a way to make art out of the materials at hand: the ubiquitous language of bureaucracy, which spilled over into the most intimate corners of life; the shabby shoddiness of private and public spaces; the prevalence of garbage and despair. First he made drawings that explored the disconnect between bureaucratic absurdity and everyday reality. These became paintings, which turned the language of Soviet placards and proclamations into deadpan rows of columns or empty voids on which words and images made nonsense of one another. Very often, the words became an inane form of dialogue, but dialogue nevertheless.

Kabakov has always been a teller of tales in the tradition of the great Russian novelists. By the early 1970s, he was collecting his drawings into albums, each of which comprised the tale of a crackpot visionary, an artist on the edges who saw a skewed world from an incongruous perspective. The album called Sitting-In-The-Closet Primakov is a send-up of Black Square by Malevich, an icon of the first Russian Avant-Garde who championed the Revolution in whose wreckage Kabakov lived. Generous Barmin is infected with an obsession for the meaningless lists and bar charts that Soviet society produced in such abundance. The Flying Kamarov flaunts the style of a preposterously ebullient May Day celebration, as everything, from carrots, to bureaus, to people, takes to the sky and flies off into the unattainable beyond.


Kabakov had built himself a studio on the roof of a once-grand building that now housed floor after floor of communal apartment. Before the Revolution, these had been one-family dwellings. Afterwards, they were sliced and diced to house as many as 12 extended families, all of whom shared a noisome bathroom and a kitchen that was the site of epic battles. Friends, artists, composers, poets, writers, and fellow artists would climb the filthy steps, smelling of cabbage, to the studio where Kabakov “performed” his albums by turning the pages and reading them aloud.

By the time I found my way to that studio in the fall of 1987, Kabakov’s impulse towards storytelling had turned three-dimensional. He had begun to construct spaces in which the audience became the actors, as they walked through, investigating the leavings of the characters the artist had created. Leaning against the walls of his studio that autumn day was the skeleton of what would become the 10 Characters installation with which he burst upon the New York art scene at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1988.

Kabakov was 55, bursting with pent-up ideas and heretofore unrealizable projects. 10 Characters was a massive undertaking, a virtual communal apartment. In separate rooms, each of the 10 characters had left behind the detritus of dreary daily lives and soured dreams. Viewers entered these rooms by roaming dirty communal corridors, dimly lit by bare lightbulbs. With irony, precision, and mysticism, Kabakov had constructed a magical space in which Western viewers could approach the world from the point of view of denizen of the failed Soviet experiment. With the communal apartment as his metaphor, Kabakov was able to present a complex, layered experience that drew on the memories and emotions of his audience to present a psychological portrait of Soviet daily life that raised deeper, more universal questions about the human condition.

It immediately hit a nerve with audiences. Very soon that installation had traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris had acquired the most theatrical of the rooms, The Man Who Flew Into Space.

By then, Kabakov had re-united with Emilia Kanevsky, whom he had known since she was a child in the Soviet Union. They had grown up in the same town of Dnepropetrovsk, though 12 years apart. Emilia, born in 1945, had studied piano at the Music College in Irkutsk, and Spanish language and literature at the Moscow University. In Moscow, she was a frequent visitor to Kabakov and his studio, and when she immigrated to Israel in 1973, she begged him to come with her. However, he had a family and would not be ready to leave the Soviet Union for another 14 years. By the time they reencountered one another in Europe, she was a curator and art dealer living in New York. They were married in 1992

Ilya Kabakov has always lived within his art. The actual details of getting through a day often escape him. Emilia Kabakov has the organizational gifts of CEO and an ability to get what she wants. With her there to make things happen, the Kabakovs began to realize larger and larger installations in museums around the world.

Between 1988 and 2000 alone, they mounted 165 installations in 148 museums in 30 countries. Outstanding among them was Life of Flies, (Cologne, Germany), an unsettling parallel universe in which flies were posited as the explanation of everything malevolent that had occurred in Russia; School # 6 (Marfa, Texas), a deserted schoolhouse built around an empty yard just at the moment when the Soviet Union was disintegrating; The Palace of Projects (London, England; New York, NY; Essen Germany), the glowing white tower that Tatlin never realized filled with do-it-yourself utopian projects. In haunting parables the Kabakovs traced a universal trajectory of failed dreams, collapsed civilizations, and the unquenchable lure of illusion in every society.


While the language of garbage and the everyday remains at the heart of the art, the Kabakovs have increasingly subsumed into their installations and permanent public sculptures a sense of the meaning of place. The ironic language learned in Soviet Moscow, it transpires, is as apt a tool for deciphering our time and place as any other.

Ilya Kabakov had found himself a home amidst the traveling tribe of artists in the international art world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the utopia that Kabakov critiqued was the one about which he could once only dream – the great river of art history which each successive generation of contemporary artist aspires to join.


Starting in the late 1990s, he invented a Russian painter named Charles Rosenthal and painted more than 60 paintings in Rosenthal’s name, all of which questioned the doctrinaire reading of 20th century art as a progression from realism to abstraction. Kabakov’s Rosenthal, born into the generation of Revolution, died in 1933, the year Ilya Kabakov was born. So the next painter he invented to paint his paintings was Ilya Kabakov, heir to the failures of Rosenthal’s optimism. And then he invented Igor Spivak, whose entire career took place after the fall of the Soviet Union, which the callow painter looked back upon with nostalgia.

Characteristically, Kabakov’s description of the three stages of utopian history they represented is in dialogue:

Rosenthal: It will be paradise.

Kabakov: This is hell.

Spivak: It was paradise.

Through it all, however, Ilya Kabakov avoided a return to Moscow. The closest he came was to become the first living Russian artist to exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2005. Even that was too close. Once he arrived in Russia, he locked himself in his hotel room for days, unable to venture into the streets, and then did so only with anxiety and trepidation. On his return to his home on Long Island, he was still so distressed that he fell and broke his wrist.

But in 2008, Dasha (Daria) Zhukova invited the Kabakovs to inaugurate the Garage, a huge art space she was creating out of a Moscow bus garage designed by the Constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov in 1927. Once the Kabakovs had agreed, they enlarged the project to six installations in five venues, including the Pushkin Museum. The centerpiece of the exhibition was “Alternative History of Art: Rosenthal, Kabakov, Spivak” at the Garage. For this installation, the Kabakovs built a mini version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a kind of instruction to Muscovites of what a great museum could be.

The framework of the film is their massive effort to realize the Moscow projects and the historic event that their homecoming visit became.




Amei Wallach, director and producer, Ken Kobland, editor, and Kipjaz Savoie, co-producer, are the creative team behind Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: ENTER HERE, with cinematography by Mead Hunt and Ken Kobland. All four worked together to make the widely praised film Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine.

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine

Press Coverage for the U.S. Release

“The uncommonly elegant and evocative portrait…reveals much about this haunting and haunted master while leaving intact what Georges Braque once wrote was the only thing that mattered about art: the thing you cannot explain.”
The New York Times

“A work of art in itself”; included on “best of 2008″ list

“A remarkable achievement! As intimate a portrayal of a living artist as one could ask for.”
The Houston Chronicle

“A fascinating documentary…pulls you into a world that is not soon forgotten.”
Chicago Sun Times

“A deeply affecting and compelling portrait of the artist.”
The Art Newspaper

“Yes, yes, yes. That’s the answer you should give yourself if you are wondering: ‘Should I go see that new Louise Bourgeois documentary?’”
The Seattle Times

Time Magazine

The Filmmakers

The Filmmakers


Amei Wallach was co-director and co-producer, with Marion Cajori, of Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine. Marion Cajori died in 2006, before editing could begin, and it became Wallach’s task to shape the film as a journey into the art and the psyche of an icon of American art. Amei Wallach is an award-winning art critic, journalist and curator. In 1987, she journeyed to the Soviet Union to produce a fivepart series on the effects of perestroika on the arts. There she encountered Ilya Kabakov and recognized his stature immediately. In 1995, she published the first artistic biography of the artist, Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away (New York: Abrams). Her articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, Smithsonian, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Architectural Digest, Art in America and ARTnews. She was chief art critic for New York Newsday and on-air arts commentator for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. She has written or contributed to 11 books. She won a 2006 Best Show award from the International Art Critics Association/USA for her exhibition Neo-Sincerity: The Difference Between the Comic and the Cosmic Is a Single Letter.


Ken Kobland was editor of Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine. Since 1975, he has produced independent film, video and media art works, including a number of performance/media pieces for theatrical presentation in collaboration with The Wooster Group, New York based experimental theater. His work has been included in numerous film and video festivals such as: Ann Arbor, CinemaTexas, Bellevue, Sinking Creek, Athens (Ohio), Atlanta Film Festival, American Film Festival (Film-as-Art), San Francisco Film Festival (Golden Gate Awards), Black Maria Film/Video Festival, Montreal, Oberhausen (West Germany), Hyeres (France), Melbourne (Australia), Montbeliard (France), Rotterdam, Video Week (Geneva), World-Wide (Holland), Lucarno (Switzerland), VideoKunst (Karlsruhe), the New York Video and Film Festival, and at the Berlin Film Festival – International Forum. He was fine cut editor and post-production producer for Marion Cajori’s film Chuck Close.


Kipjaz Savoie was line producer for Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine. He has worked in nearly all aspects of documentary production since leaving pastoral New England for New York City over a decade ago. In recent years, he has acted primarily as a producer and cinematographer, with additional credits as a multimedia creative director. While focusing on documentary film, his work has taken him from Panama to Pakistan and has been featured on PBS, HBO, Discovery, Bravo, A&E, and the BBC among others.


Mead Hunt was cinematographer on Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine. He has been working as a cinematographer in the documentary field for over 25 years. Primarily shooting documentaries on cultural subjects, he has worked on many award winning programs including “Toth,” the Academy Award-winning short, and the Emmy winning series “Broadway: The American Musical.”



Ilya Bankshot
Ilya and Emilia
Garage Flash
Ilya and Father
Ilya in studio, 2009

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The Story

The Story

Ilya Bankshot

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.

Ilya and Father

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.

Ilya in studio, 2009

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.

Garage Flash

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.

Ilya and Emilia

The Film

The Film



Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: ENTER HERE is a double portrait in film of the lives and work of Russia’s most celebrated international artists, now American citizens, as they come to terms with their global lives and the new Russia. Two decades after he fled the Soviet Union, Ilya Kabakov overcomes his fears to install six walk-through installations in venues, including the Pushkin Museum, throughout Moscow, where he was once forbidden to exhibit his art. Amidst the cacophony of a city and a country in dizzying transition, he comes face to face with the memories that have made him who he is.

Through the eyes, work, and lives of artists who experienced Stalin’s tyranny, through the rich underground art life during Brezhnev’s stagnation and the rootlessness of immigration, the film bridges much of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

Its emotional heart is a letter which Ilya Kabakov’s mother wrote him when she was 80, detailing the everyday horrors of her life in the Russia of revolution and after. The letter emerges in the art, in archival footage, and in voice-over.

With unparalleled access to the artists and to a global community of their friends and observers by acclaimed director Amei Wallach, who was Ilya Kabakov’s first biographer, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: ENTER HERE explores the ways in which art can outwit oppression, illuminate what comes next, and transcend its time, resonating with repressed societies today.

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