The Necessary Angel

Thoughts on a Documentary Film about Artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

By Seph Rodney

The motif that filmmaker Amei Wallach uses to lead viewers into her film Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here is the Kabakovs’ anxiety. She shoots them in staccato glimpses among a scattering of camera angles, cowed and uncertain while paparazzi and patrons press them on all sides with cameras flashing. We see Ilya and Emilia led by their handlers through Daria Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow at the 2008 opening of their exhibition there. Like bewildered dignitaries they seem to have just escaped an assassination attempt. The camera leads me with them, wondering how they will survive.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Retrospective, Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow (2008)
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Retrospective, Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow (2008)

This scaremongering raises my threat level gauge, and I identify with Ilya and Emilia. But this is only the first stage of Wallach’s narrative launch vehicle, providing enough thrust to lead me to ask what in the lives of these Russian-born artists—in their artistic development, in their political and social history—led to this fraught homecoming.

Wallach, a good though conventional storyteller, offers the stakes: three simultaneous, high-profile exhibitions of the Kabakovs’ work: at the Pushkin, a museum of international art in Moscow; The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a state museum containing the largest collection of paintings in the world; and the second exhibition for the Garage Center, which was completely transformed for the construction of the Kabakovs’ huge and theatrical installation, Alternative History of Art, an invented art historical narrative.[1]

The film’s emotional payoff comes as Wallach unpeels layers of the Kabakovs’ lives. Through interviews with other artists and critics with Emilia and Ilya, and through shadowing the Kabakovs as they revisit the places they had willingly abandoned, Wallach ably shows the sources (mostly Ilya’s) of despair, self-loathing, and guilt. At one point, Ilya talks about how he sees himself as a loser, a deeply personal conviction that for him is separate from the status of a human born in his place and time, in Soviet Russia, a place indifferent to human suffering, that, he says, confers its own taint of failure.

But this back story only indicates where the Kabakovs enter their practice, not how or why they flourish. To consider these questions, one has to look to Ilya’s character and his ability to signify through art a power of psychic transmutation. His wife Emilia enters the trajectory of Ilya’s career in 1988 as Emilia Kanevsky, then art dealer, who would become his business and artistic partner. Since then, Emilia claims they have produced “only a modest output” of 200 installations and about 700 paintings.[2]

The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment First realized in Kabakov's Moscow studio 1986, now in the collection of the Centre George Pompidou, Paris
The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment
First realized in Kabakov’s Moscow studio 1986, now in the collection of the Centre George Pompidou, Paris

The installations Ilya and Emilia create are the obverse of their deprivation in their native Russia. Their practice is a kind of alchemy: turning grief, guilt, and anger into fictive plots and mischievous narrative entanglements—each piece at its core about transport. Each installation featured in the film spins an alternative reality convincing enough, for themselves and for the viewer to generate a suspension of disbelief . As Ilya says in the film, he wants to get the visitor “to leave with him to another world.” Here, the narrative insertion of the discovery of Ilya’s Jewish ancestry, which occurs through Emilia’s investigation of their past, adds heft to these conceits: one consistent theme in his work has been flight in the face of oppression, as in one of his most famous early works, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment (1985),  anticipating the real-life necessity to leave Soviet Russia and adopt the United States as a new homeland. Simultaneously the work shows that Ilya exceeds his particularist histories; in a sense it reveals Ilya to be a citizen of the world, that is, a storyteller.

I escape with Ilya and Emilia, as I imagine myself in place of the human figure perched atop rickety, cantilevered wooden ladders that bear him up thirty feet into the sky.[3] In this piece, How to Meet an Angel (2003), the ridiculousness of the contraption relieves the feeling of danger of falling, and mitigates the poignancy of the figure’s outstretched arms that grasp at empty sky. Without this structural absurdity the piece might feel like a eulogy for unfulfilled desires.

In a similar way, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment gives me a whiff of a storyline, with a soupçon of grief. There are several rooms to the installation. In one is the indexical aftermath of the protagonist’s departure: a catapult-like contraption, designs and diagrams that hint at the cosmonaut’s plans, and a telling, gaping hole in the ceiling. There are also written accounts of those who knew the escapee, accounts that more or less obfuscate his thinking, as if to say that in his madness or genius he escapes more than his house—he escapes authoritative explication.

With the installation Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen (1989), one can see how profound (and funny) Ilya’s work becomes when it deploys similar strategies while utilizing a fully internalized art history. His deep knowledge allows him to invent alternative modernist trajectories, grafting them onto old stories. The painting on the wall of the kitchen here seemingly produces from itself pans and pots that continue to migrate out and away into the gallery space to become a hanging garden of cookery. This reminds me of Rauschenberg in his “combines” phase, but in delirium mode.

However, here a contrast shows up between a Russian version of conceptualism and the American sort more celebrated in the Western art canon. In a Q&A following the film with Emilia, she proposed that in the former, the opinion the Russian artist has about the object is what is important, and not the object itself; therefore, Russian conceptualism is more narrative. Emilia went on to say that their (conceptual) work was very influenced by Russian literature[4] This is the surprise: that their work, though grown in that same soil does not succumb to existentialist fatalism or moral nihilism. Their story is not a story of simple transcendence, but of immanent alteration, beginning with Ilya’s biography.

Ilya’s capacity to alchemize the raw materials of his childhood and his early artistic marginalization are astonishing because the raw materials are so base.

How to Meet An Angel, 2003, permanent installation, Gutspark Böckel, Germany
How to Meet An Angel, 2003, permanent installation, Gutspark Böckel, Germany

Born in Dnepropetrovsk, USSR, Ilya and his mother were abandoned early on by his abusive father. When war came, and the Germans invaded their town, they were evacuated to Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan. In a stroke of luck, the Leningrad art school was also relocated to Samarkand in an attempt to escape the German invasion; Ilya literally stumbled into the school while looking for a hiding place while playing with a friend and was accepted after showing the teachers his drawings. This luck was double edged: it brought with it severe privations for his mother, who followed Ilya back to Moscow when the school returned to its grounds. She took a series of menial jobs and occasionally fell into homelessness while keeping Ilya in art school. His mother’s commitment to him seemed to have created a massive deficit of obligation, which lacking any other currency Ilya paid with guilt. Eventually, he found a job as an illustrator of children’s books and was able to provide his mother with a stable home.

Still, his life continued to seesaw. Though active within a community of artists and able to explore his practice via painting, performance, and object making, his art was not state-approved, so he essentially lived in hiding. His studio was located in an abandoned building, where he gained access by traversing planks over open ceiling girders. All the while as he worked, his painting practice grew in its facility with distinct visual vocabularies: Russian Constructivism, European Expressionism, Conceptualism, and Soviet Utopian Realism. In the years between 1957 and 1979, he only publicly showed his work twice, and on each occasion only for a few hours at an evening salon. Artist friends secreted his work out of the country so that he could be shown internationally. This precarious existence stabilized only upon coming to America in 1988.

Since then, with his partner Emilia, almost all the works the Kabakovs have produced are rooted in a large and complicated social and political history, now revealed in the film to also include Ilya’s Jewish ancestry. This last fact was easy to miss in the mesmerizing swirl of their installation work in which the created is more enthralling than the inherited.

For the complete installation Alternative History of Art, Ilya developed 33 rooms filled with paintings and constructed a chronological account of dialogue among three fictitious transgenerational artists. This installation is very much a critique aimed at several quarries: the idealism of socialist realism, the utopian fantasies of modernist abstraction, the era of the avant-garde, representations of the provincial artist, the nature of the museum retrospective, and more. However, the Kabakovs’ body of work consists of more than arguments to be waged, or thought experiments to be run. It invokes a sense of climbing ladders into a place beyond this place, an invented section of sky, a separate and personal magisterium in which immutable historical facts are transformed into poetic fictions.

Emilia and Ilya Kabakov in the studio, 2013. Photo: Jacques De Melo
Emilia and Ilya Kabakov in the studio, 2013. Photo: Jacques De Melo

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here directed by Amei Wallach premiered in November 2013 at the New York Film Forum.

Seph Rodney is an author, arts writer and editor living in New York City. He has a PhD in Museum and Visitor Studies from Birkbeck College, University of London.

[1] Their first return to Russia to accompany an exhibition of their work had occurred at the Hermitage several years previous, in 2005 where he was the first living Russian artist exhibited there.

[2] Film Forum cinema in New York on Sunday, November 24, 2013, Question and Answer period.

[3] This piece exists in at least two versions, one of which is dated 1999 and is contained in Plexiglass and comprised of small wood and ceramic figures, including the putative angel, who is missing from the larger outdoor installation completed years later.

[4] This was communicated in response to a response to my question at the Film Forum cinema Q&A.