During autumn 2018 and partly into winter 2018-2019 a unique exhibition could be seen, felt, walked through and fully experienced at Krymsky Val building of New Tretyakov Gallery. It was the first major exhibition of Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov including works of Kabakov himself (up to mid-1980s) and their collaborative projects after that time. Now the artists live in New York, USA, but their pasts and memories are linked to the Soviet time, and it seems that the exhibition is much focused on re-discovering and re-interpreting the Sovietness in each of us. It is a project done in collaboration with Tate Gallery and State Hermitage, so after travelling to London and returning to St Petersburg, it finds its final destination in Moscow.
One of the main intentions of Ilya Kabakov throughout the exhibition is to try to liberate us from the need and expectation to just absorb his works with inner freedom to interpet them in different ways. The works presented in the first two ‘Rooms’ (the exhibition is planned like a communal flat of a sort) – ‘Answers of experimental group’ (1970-1971), ‘By 25 December in our district…’ (1983) and ‘Schedule of Mokushansky family behaviour’ (1982) – are the ones which have a tounge-in-cheek attitude to any set rules of behaviour or any set possibility of answers. Kabakov is disillusioned by ‘homo sovieticus’ type of human behaviour and uncovers the double side of things that are supposed to have only one, in parralel showing the distance between the substance and the proclaimed. Thus, people in ‘Answers’ give very dogmatic (but very different) interpretations of a collage of a broom, toy train and a coat on a hanger, while the ‘Schedule’ gives a very proper and very gender-specific division of labour and rest in the family so characteristic of Soviet regulations. ’25 December’ shows that things proclaimed to have been achieved by a certan date in fact are nothing but unfinished rubble and dirt.
The next three installations in the Room 3 are organized around the theme of impossible, wondrous happenings in the seemingly predictable space of a communal apartment. It again challenges us to change our expectations of what is possible or not, and playfully introduces the idea of a possibility of escape from dreary routine of Soviet everyday life. Thus, in the installation ‘A Happening in a Corridor near the Kitchen’ (1989), all the pans and pots seem to have flown into the air (almost like in Tchukovsky’s ‘Moydodyr’), while a ‘documented witness account’ of the event is present to mockinly create the situation of a real event. The same paradoxical mechanism of treating the miracle as a normal given is presented in the installation ‘The Man who Flew into Space from his own Room’ (1985) where neighbours’s accounts of this man’s theory are presented in meticulous detail, while we can see an empty catapult and a hole in the ceiling of this man’s room. The room is full of Soviet memorabilia and posters – thus, the man escapes into the unknown from the world soaked up in the Sovietness.
In two later works presented in the Room 6 (they are relative small in scale) we see what might seem like stage set models. The first one is called ‘Vertical opera (Guggenheim) (1998/2008) and explores the theatricality of history and focuses on the vision that historical development could be presented not on the timeline (chronologically), but on a vertical scale. Thus, a famous rotunda of Guggenheim’s museum in New York becomes a caroussel-like stage where all periods of development of Soviet state (almost similar to Marx’s historical formations and evidently making parody of them) are presented, with people marching or walking in rounds on every respective level. Similarly, in ‘Where is our place?’ (2002/2007) we look into the art gallery where big feet of unknown figures (statues of leaders or gods perhaps, who actually turn out to be visitors of 19thcentury galleries) are surrounded by normal small modern visitors who look at modern exhibits. The giant figures are actually looking at some other – 19thcentury art that are too big to be seen in fullness. The installation plays with our eagerness to see everything in an expected format, where this mix brings constant confusion and uncertainty where to look.
Room 7 houses the installation that gives the whole exhibition its title: ‘Not everyone will be taken into the future’. It has a train that seemingly leaves and a strange shadowy room or railway hall before it full of forgotten or discarded works of arts, objects and books. One is reminded of 20thcentury futurist poets aiming to ‘throw Pushkin from the steamboat of history’ and of the quite subjective mechanisms that make us forget some works of art and remember the others. In this room one feels almost like a lost child that missed a train that took his or her friends to some unknown faraway lands of wonderful adventures, and is thus forced by Kabakov to ruminate about the shadow side of art itself – what does it mean to be forgotten, unrecognized, old-fashioned? It’s like Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ staged in reverse, from fame to nothingness.
Other types of dissociation of expectation and perceived reality is to be found in the installation ‘Empty Museum’ (1993) in the Room 8 and ‘Toilet’ (1992/2017) in the Room 9. Interestingly, I myself witnessed two visitors confusion when they were experiencing two of these installations. The first one has surronding of a proper grandiose museum with classical music played and light streaming out of big windows – the windows of light being the empty places for pictures themselves. A man and woman sat there, showing signs of apprehension, and then walked to ‘Toilet’ that suddenly shows the contents of two normal living rooms (with feminine and masculine attributes and objects respectively) in a building that looks like an old Soviet outdoor toilet with big letters ‘M’ and ‘F’ (МЖ)on each of them. These visitors did not want to distance themselves from their own expectations and found Kabakov’s conceptual art misleading and empty of purpose, and I did not argue with them, as the artists leaves exactly this freedom of perception, even including the negative one.
The installation that impressed me most of all (being an anthropologist focusing on life biographies) was Kabakov’s ‘Labyrinth: Album of my mother’ (1990), that actually has been purchased by Tate Modern. To enter this istallation, which is actually the biggest in the exhibition (occupying Room 12 which is at first not easy to find), you have to walk through a door and then continue your way along the winding corridor that seems (again) to be part of a communal apartment or a state communal residence (obschezhitiye). The labyrinth has continous extracts from Kabakov’s mother Berta Solodukhina’s biography typed on a type-writer and accompanied by some neutral and positive shots of the cities of Berdyansk and Moscow where the woman used to live. The obvious contrast is between the overall cheerfulness of this ‘Soviet people’s lives’ shots and an outstanding abnormality of the woman’s described life, including constant homelessness, states that verge on slavery and rape, constant care for her siblings and then for her son and continuous sufferings and self-sacrifice for others. The autobiography is void of any bitterness or self-pity, but through the passive tone you can feel the growing horror of witnessing what this woman lived through in the Soviet Union up till the late 1980s when she finishes her story. Thus, a ‘normal Soviet woman’ from the pictures above is again contrasted to the shadow side of Soviet existence where the most horrific states are lived through without complaint or rebellion.
The exhibition ends in Room 13 on a positive, almost mystical note – with an installation of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov with an inviting title that is in itself a parody of modern self-improvement books or user instructions – ‘How to meet the angel?’ The set consist of a big wooden model of a man who have followed the instructions and met his angel surrounded by posters with details of fulfilling the project and sketches of angels and men in other similar situations. Kabakovs invite us to always dream about ‘what if’ (as did the Man who Flew into Space) and always allow our creativity get the better of our fears, allowing us to fly up in the sky and break the glass ceiling of impossibility. Even contemplating doing this act liberates the mind, and one walks out of Tretyakov Gallery thinking about what would happen if indeed we challenged our routines and ‘normal’ ways of thinking and behaving on a daily basis.