Art Review: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Tate Modern ‘The Great Makes Up for the Bad’

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The Tate Modern has taken a very different spin on commemorating the centenary of the Russian October Revolution of 1917 with this survey of the works of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who are among the most celebrated artists of their generation, and famed for their installations that examine the betrayal of the utopian dream in the Soviet Union, and the crushing of the individual spirit.

Impressively, six of their installations have been recreated here, and they are terrific. The Man Who Flew into Space From His Apartment, 1985, takes the Soviet obsession with the space race and captures this in a piece that explores freedom. We are allowed to peek into a room where a man once lived (as the story behind this work goes). He was fascinated with space, his walls smothered in posters of rockets and cosmonauts. Only, one day, his neighbours awoke to an explosion and found the man’s room empty save for evidence of an explosion that had ripped open a hole in the ceiling. Had the man finally escaped?

There’s something magical in the hope that the man finally left behind his dreary and disappoitning ordinary life for one of his dreams, just as there’s magic in Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen, 1989, where pots and pans seem to be suspended mid-air, as if cast under a spell.

And I was mesmerised by 16 Ropes, 1984/1994, where washing lines cover the ceiling of a room filled with found objects, and where quotes and fragments of conversation from everyday life have been clipped on to the lines above our heads. All the world we know, and all we experience, in one room. It’s very poetic.

But there’s also darkness too. In Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future, 2001, the back of a metro train hurtles into a dark void with only the neon words of its title readily discernible in the dimness. And the recreation of Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), 1990, is terrific. A dimly-lit corridor (almost) without end winds its way through the gallery. Its close walls feel almost claustrophobic. All that lures you on is the faint sound of a man humming Russian childhood songs and a thread of old photographs framed on the walls.

A dreary path without respite; this is the reality of the failed Soviet dream. The dank corridors of the vast apartment blocks that defined communal living across Russia are what this installation is based upon, but it is also focused on utopia as cramped living conditions, the crushing of the human spirit, and an existence of limited horizons.    

It’s a sobering examination of a past reality, yes, but I’m increasingly obsessed with seeing these works also as a forewarning for our future too. With all the signs that the way we live will be drastically affected by climate change, overpopulation, shrinking food supplies and limited utilities, who is to say this will not become how we all will live in the future? History is always repeating itself.

That’s not to say that all the rooms in this exhibition are as exciting and as thought-provoking as the installations. Few of the paintings, which comprise half the exhibits, hit the high notes.

In them, the Soviet Union passing from living memory as the older generations who lived and suffered under the CPSU die off is a recurring motif. Familiar images of statues of Lenin, and idealised depictions of peasants and workers, can be seen through gaps in the canvas or exposed parts of the painting, as if they are steadily being wallpapered over, or smothered out by thick drifts of snow. The past being obliterated from memory.

I did weigh up whether there was anything deeper being said here – after all, in Putin Russia has found itself with another dictator – but no, there was no sleight or shade being thrown specifically at the new ‘Iron Man of Russia’ here. Rather, the warning that one utopian vision will only seek to replace the broken ones that have gone before, and that this new utopian dream will also corrupt, wither and die – history always repeating itself – is clear.

For these, I felt the idea was very much more impressive than the result. The idea is a good one but, repeated more than a dozen times, on canvases whichever way you look, the impression is quite numbing. Add to that, the execution isn’t particularly skilful and these do become rooms you tend to pass through relatively quickly rather than linger in.

An exception to this were the artworks around angels in the final room. Whether it be in the soft feathered wings fixed to a corset, or the wooden model of How to Meet an Angel, 2002, where we are urged to construct a ladder over a thousand metres high for the opportunity to meet one of these celestial beings. The desire for escape and the longing of being free from the hell of life on earth is obvious, and touching.

This isn’t a consistent show, and I’ve a feeling this won’t be one that everyone “gets”, but I genuinely found this one of the most thought-provoking shows of the year. Yes, there’s the obvious challenge to what we consider art to be and its purpose, but I have found myself returning often to its examination of the crushing of the utopian dream, and the antagonism between individual expression versus the “greater good.” For all its interrogation of the past – and a very specific period at that – I see so much in these works from Ilya and Emilia Kabakov that is resonant and relevant for our future.

Tate Modern, London, to January 28, 2018
Admission £11.30 (concessions available)
All installation images by me.

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