18th October 2017 - 28th January 2018
Adult Price: £13.30
Concessions Price: £11
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are the Master and Margarita of conceptualism. “Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future”, currently on display at the Tate Modern, is their first retrospective, compiling six decades of the artists’ work. Pioneers of installation art and the use of imaginary personas, the Kabakovs explore themes such as utopia, escapism and the role of the artist in society by reinterpreting elements of Socialist realism and translating them into a universal language of hope and fear, fantasy and freedom. The word “pioneers” could not be better suited: after all, the exhibition takes us back to the USSR where all children are “pioneers” by default, as they join the Pioneer Movement throughout their school years. The exhibition also coincides with the centenary of the Russian Revolution, provoking us to revisit its ideals and lessons.
'Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future' but Everyone Will Be Taken into the Apartment of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
The ten rooms of the exhibition are like ten rooms of an apartment. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov create their own private Macondo: much like in Marquez’s fictional world where various objects have their names written on them, in the Kabakovs’ “apartment” artworks in all forms of media come attached with stories and absent characters. “The apartment” is also inhabited by tiny white men, hiding in plain sight, which could be understood as the artists’ soul.
The first two rooms tell the story of Ilya leading a double life in the Soviet Union as children’s book illustrator by day and subversive artist by night. This duplicity is present in each of the artworks, from his self-portrait from 1959 in which he is wearing a flight helmet, to a bright blue painting of a soccer player - or rather the absence of a soccer player, or the presence of a fly in several of his works, signifying both disgust and the ideal of flight. His early works anticipate his extensive use of fictional personas in his installations and introduce him as a masterful storyteller of real human emotions hiding in the shadows of absurd Soviet utopias.
“The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment”, constructed in Ilya’s studio in Moscow in 1985, is the first total installation of the exhibition. We find ourselves in a communal apartment in the aftermath of a strange incident, which we soon discover as we peek through the wood boards supposed to restrict our entrance: a man has propelled himself out of his room, which is covered in bright Soviet propaganda posters of unfulfilled promises, escaping into the great unknown. The neighbours’ accounts of the events are also presented, as well as their impressions of our escapist who “as he told me, wasn’t quite an inhabitant of Earth”, as one character tells us; “Maybe he really did fly away, that sort of thing happens”, suggests another. Perhaps the “lonely inhabitant of this room” is none other than Major Tom, of whom David Bowie sings, perhaps he is someone who, much like the artists, felt the desperate need to escape an oppressive society, or perhaps he is just anyone who dreams of vanishing away from everyday reality.
In the hallway of the communal apartment, which is painted the exact tender green as the originals, Emilia Kabakov herself is being interviewed. Trained as a classical pianist and a Soviet emigrant herself, she encountered Ilya in 1987 when they began their uninterrupted collaboration. Lit from above, Emilia seems to be “the artist who flew from space into her exhibition”. Her voice is low yet unmistakably strong; she speaks of the universal language of feelings, of escape as a necessity for soul survival against Soviet oppression and of how Russian art, especially that based on Russian literature, tells the story of humanity, its fears and desires, its hopes and dreams.
“Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future”, another installation which also lends its title to the exhibition, is both a warning and an explanation. A train has just left and we are all helplessly watching it from the wooden platform; our faces are illuminated by the dooming red light of a message which informs us we are not among the chosen ones. Abandoned canvases on the rail tracks pose questions about the fate the artist in an ever-changing, uncertain society.
At the anatomical heart of the exhibition lies an installation called “Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)” (1990). This is one of the few autobiographical works of the artist, as it tells the story of his mother and her struggles in the Soviet Union. We are again in the dimly lit, creaking corridors of a communal apartment throughout which his mother’s memoir unfolds accompanied by photographs taken by his uncle. At the center of the labyrinth is an audio recording of Ilya singing half-remembered songs from his childhood in an almost empty storage room – “this is all that is left behind”, it seems to tell us.
Moments of Soviet life stitched together into collages, imaginary homes, vanishing fictional characters, paintings as windows into other worlds, precise instruction manuals regarding the proper use of wings... Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, I believe, are the Real Soviet Realists. Life in a rotten utopia happens not inside of it, but beyond it: people truly live by projecting themselves as “tiny white men” through its cracks into imaginary places. And it is these fictional refuges that the Kabokovs depict so well in they work. But their work transcends the enclosed universe of life in the USSR, and appeals to everyone, regardless of social context: they are, above all, storytellers of the greatest human asset – imagination.