Skip to Content
Enter Here: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov    cover photo

Enter Here: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov 2013

Highly Recommended

Distributed by First Run Features, 630 Ninth Avenue, Suite 1213, New York, NY 10036; 212-243-0600
Produced by Amei Wallach
Directed by Amei Wallach
, color, 88 min.



General Adult
Art

Date Entered: 05/04/2015

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

This documentary tells the story of the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov. For Kabakov and many other Soviet artists in the late-Soviet era, artistic freedom and opposition to the officially approved art became a life mission. From 1957 to 1987 Ilya Kabakov, along with many graduates from Soviet art academies, led the life of an underground artist, producing art for himself, knowing he would have few opportunities to find buyers and exhibit his work. He supported himself by illustrating children’s books, making enough money in the official art scene after three months to fund the remaining nine months of his life in the unofficial art world. That double, Janus-faced life is a constant in Kabakov’s life and work and a theme of this excellent documentary.

Subjected to constant surveillance, Kabakov, like many of his colleagues, dreamed of an artistic life without censorship, yet that dream, in some cases, was shattered by an equally discouraging realization: in emigration or in post-Soviet Russia the exalted meaning of art – important enough to be persecuted for – had disappeared, replaced by market logic and public indifference. Freedom, it seemed, only existed in places where the artistic stakes were so low.

But Kabakov was highly and exceptionally adaptable. Emigrating to the West in 1987, Kabakov insinuated himself into the artistic avant-garde, enjoying fame and enough wealth to sustain a comfortable life in Germany and the United States. His return to Moscow in 2008, his first since emigrating, was both a triumphal homecoming and a constant reminder of the things that had tormented him in his previous life.

Kabakov works in the medium of total installations. The Germans call this total art “Gesamtkunstwerk.” It is infused with the Promethean desire to remake the entire world according to the vision of the artist. A dictator of his own realm – in contrast to his powerlessness outside that realm -- Kabakov muses on the contrast between the intense utopian dreams of the Russian revolution and everyday reality.

The documentary unfolds slowly, shifting between memories of Kabakov’s Soviet youth and the fears and angsts associated with finishing the installations in Moscow in 2008. For Ilya Kabakov, the memories of the Soviet past are mostly haunting ones, making him fear the presence of spies and listening devices. Using Soviet bric-a-brac gathered from antique shops in Moscow, Kabakov fused nostalgic and ironic visions of his own Soviet youth. One of those installations was a Soviet toilet – named simply “The Toilet” -- which some visitors mistook for the real thing, turned away by security as they looked for a place to relieve themselves. Inside the toilet Kabakov had built a Soviet apartment interior, circa 1975 or so. As it turns out, Kabakov’s fantastic vision was based on the real story of his mother, who lived illegally in a toilet that no longer functioned during World War II, supporting him while he studied art in Moscow.

Another installation features flies hung on fishing line hung from the ceiling in the form of a church cupola, which he called the “Life of Flies.” Kabakov identifies with the fly: a being that has a unique visual perspective of the world from all angles, but also a melancholic creature whose point is merely to survive, often feeding off of dirt and human refuse. Rather than communist brotherhood and a land of socialist milk and honey, as depicted in the official art of the Soviet period, Kabakov provides an alternative, fly’s-eye view of the Soviet past. It is at once a humorous and melancholy vision, encapsulating the hopes and dashed dreams of a revolutionary dreamer and artist.