What do we do when things get worse than we can stand? Or better yet, what do we do when things have been worse than we could stand? Some of us crumple. Some of us lash out, and in so doing, may make things more horrific for ourselves. Many of us, though, choose a much more complicated response: we create, we do things, we act. The creation of art as a sublimation of pain or suffering is not a new concept, but it comes close to being made new in the work of Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, born and raised in Soviet Russia, an American expatriate for nearly 25 years. In one of his sculptures, a pair of booted legs descends from the ceiling, soles firmly planted on the ground. The work’s title is “What Is Our Place?” In one of his installations, we see a room papered with all kinds of wild, colorful posters; the ceiling of the room contains a gaping hole, plaster from the ceiling hanging down, along with peeling paint. The work’s title? “The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment.” Amei Wallach’s Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here is less a documentary than a study of the ways we react to tragedy, to trauma, to past suffering–in Kabakov’s case, the trauma was the time he spent living under Soviet rule, from 1933 to 1987. And yet, miraculously, these works never seem overburdened by the past behind them: they are always guided by the urge to narrate, to tell a story. You might feel, bumping up against one of his installations, that you’ve been dropped into the middle of a surreal novel. The works suggest that for Kabakov, the telling of a story provides the means for one to leave suffering, to fly into space.

It is significant, then, that the documentary concerns itself with a trip Ilya and Emilia Kabakov took in 2008, back to Moscow, which they had not visited in 20 years (they currently live in Long Island, outside New York City), for a vast retrospective of Kabakov’s work–well-deserved, given that Ilya is one of the most widely-known Russian artists now living. The film shows little of Moscow itself, but the little it does show, along with the references made to it in the film, are enough to communicate the essence: raw, oppressive, intense, unhappy, dark. The artist’s acquaintances–fellow artists, patrons, scholars–establish that Ilya’s time in Soviet Russia, illustrating children’s books for survival while also secretly making work which would certainly have earned him punishment by the government, was quite difficult, even soul-destroying. 

Kabakov’s work itself displays this same sort of truculence, only in a quieter, more inventive manner. The exhibition described in the film occurred in three different locations; the most elaborate and eccentric of these exhibits was staged in a former bus garage–in fact, the site of Dziga Vertov’s famous 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera–now the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. One part of the exhibit was called the “museum”; in this museum hung rows and rows of paintings, meant to emulate the Soviet-approved artwork that permeated Kabakov’s youth, filled with false happiness: happy workers returning home from their (dreary) jobs; cheerful, rosy-cheeked families eating dinner together; delighted children playing in the snow. As we watch Kabakov setting up this exhibition, we notice things one might not normally notice in a documentary about an artist who has worked his way, literally, out of years of oppression: his masterful walk, the strangely humble expression on his face, his grace when instructing workers about where to place parts of the display. He resembles nothing less than a little Prospero, exercising magical powers when necessary to keep the island of his sensibility in order. His wife is a presence here too; a frequent collaborator with Kabakov, she most resembles a guide for her extremely intense husband.

My own first experience with Kabokov’s work was in 1993, at the Whitney Biennial. Young as I was, I harbored incredibly jaded, cynical feelings as I walked through much of the exhibition. The works I saw, with their loud colors, their video loops, their larger-than-life signage, were more than I could digest at one time, or perhaps more than I could stomach. Only two artists paused my arrogant 23-year-old’s wandering eye–Ida Applebroog, with her storied, direct approach to her subject, seemingly antiquated in this context, and Kabakov. The work on display was an installation, a small crowded, cluttered room, with numerous tiny, human figures arranged on the floor. My immediate response was wonder: how did these figures get here? What was I to think? And it is this same sense of wonder that drives Enter Here. One wonders out of what recesses in his imagination Ilya Kabakov is able to pull the concept for his works–and beyond that, how he is able to keep producing them. In the presence of his work, we all become like those small figures, dropped down into alien territory, trying to make sense of it all, and yet feeling, at the same time, as if the scenarios we witness are strangely familiar.           

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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