Monday, November 6, 2017

Russian installation artists point out that "Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future"

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov have known about the left-behind people for a long time; in the case of the installation that is the title for this huge exhibition, it refers to some trashed abstract paintings left on a siding as a train takes the "good" Soviet artists, the realists, away to a summer holiday camp and away from their dingy surroundings. The Kabakovs are a partnership made in the common experience of living through the endless, dark days of the Soviet Union. They base their installations on films on the idea of freedom and escape, using the Kafaesque labyrinth of Soviet life and thought processes with which they grew up and are always present in their work.
It's a relief to go to a show that isn't based on money, desire or possession, there is nothing of the art market, the international art scene, there is nothing to sell and there is no hype involved in the huge exhibition at Tate Modern. The Kabakovs are true outsiders in their refusal to become a part of, or victims of, the Totalitarian regime in which they lived. They have relentless retained their independence and fantastical ideas to create work of such humanity and integrity, the like of which we rarely see any more.
One of the most moving works is indeed a labyrinth, a long, winding, badly lit passage with frmaed photos from Ilya's mother's albums on the walls; there are images of Soviet statues, impressive buildings, snowy parks and no portraits of people, no friends, no people laughing over shared meals, they are all "correct" shots of the worthy, the bleak and the faceless. These are accompanied by extracts form her autobiography describing the horrors of her life, trying to bring up a child alone in a cruel and judgemental society. At the end of this walk, as the photos start to repeat themselves, is an empty broom cupboard with an unseen man, Ilya, singing in an endless loop on the other side of the door.
Ilya worked in secret in a studio in Moscow for thirty years; he was not an official artist and therefore had to scrounge his materials; with nowhere to display is work, he and a small group of friends used to meet occasionally to discuss their work in secret in their apartments. He supported himself as a children's book illustrator while he worked in an attic studio, alone for all those years. I have never been moved to tears by an exhibition but the thought of an artist working in complete isolation for such a long time, while living in mind destroying and appalling circumstances, but all the while maintaining the hope of escape, made me weep.
Several of the instillations are about life in Moscow's communal housing blocks; one model in particular stands out, a ladies and gents toilet fitted out as apartments with lamps, bed, table, chairs, all the knick knacks of a life in miniature to make the point that life in  a communal apartment block was like living in a toilet.
The man who Flew into Space From his Apartment is an installation about a man who did get away; a bed in a small, dusty room, walls covered in Soviet hero posters, a harness of straps and springs lying empty on the bed and a huge hole in the plaster ceiling where our man has blasted himself out into the stratosphere, and freedom.
One of the rooms in the exhibition is a series of albums made up of drawings, each album revolves around an imaginary character, often lonely and isolated artists, with their imaginary friends. They live in brightly lit, well decorated apartments, completely the opposite of life in Moscow at that time. They tell their stories and of the fantastical ways they have invented to survive their circumstances, in much the same way that Ilya did.
It's not surprising that in their ideas of freedom the Kabakovs have made angels central to their escape fantasies; the last room depicts people at the top of very tall, unattached ladders, holding up their arms to be picked up and rescued by angles. Angels and flying are their perfect metaphors: they are stateless beings, free and without borders. Emilia emigrated to the US in 1973, Ilya followed in the late '80's, so that in the end they both followed their dream of escaping the rigours of Soviet life and became free to express themselves how, where and when they wished.
"Ou life consists of our work, dreams and discussions. We are lucky: we manage to transform reality into fantasy and permanently stay there" Emilia Kabakov

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