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Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future
Image Credit: Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933) and Emilia Kabakov (b. 1945) Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future 2001 MAK - Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, Vienna

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future

29 October 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

2017 marks the centenary of the Russian revolution. The Tate Modern are also marking this with two new shows, Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55, opening in November, and this new showstopper, featuring the work of Russia’s most famous artist couple.

Earlier in the year, the Royal Academy marked 100 years since the Bolshevik revolution with a huge exhibition of Russian art from 1917-1932, art made in the aftermath of the revolution and under the increasing repression of Stalin’s rule.  The Tate Modern's exhibition, Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future, focuses on the creative output of an artist working just after that time, Ilya Kabakov, including his early solo work and his later collaborative work with his wife Emilia. The exhibition covers five decades of work, from Ilya’s first explorations in painting from the later 1950s to the contemporary moment. The Kabakovs work across different media, and this exhibition showcases their wide range and malleability, including paintings, installations, drawings and collages. Throughout their work, the question of the individual is of central importance, relating to both national identity and individual personhood, ironised in the linking motif of the absent man.

The show gives an overview of Ilya’s early career in Russia, and his collaborative work with his wife, following his emigration to the US in 1987.  In his early career, Ilya was not a state approved artist, meaning that he did not subscribe to the official style of Socialist Realism.  This style exalts the life of the proletariat, showing the positive effects of communism. Because Ilya was suspicious of adhering to one generalised style, for many years, he worked as an illustrator for children’s books, but continued as an ‘unofficial artist’ in his attic studio.  The enduring effects of the state mandated style on Ilya’s life and his artistic production, are felt throughout this exhibition in his subversion of that style. In Tested (1981), for example, he takes the artwork of a forgotten socialist realist and repurposes an image of a woman whose loyalty is being questioned, with a positive message underneath. In a later room, there are several enormous canvases hung closely together.  These canvases are painted to look like large-scale collages containing various different images and artistic styles; these include scenes in the socialist realist style, statues of Lenin and street scenes.  Kabakov suggests that these have really been torn up and moved around, by painting these fragments and ripped sections as if they were paper. In these collages, he questions how an artist can confront their own history, through duplicating a now historical style and contrasting it to other historical or traditional images.  In the confusion of background/foreground, the viewer cannot place these images in a particular time or place.  These paintings, some dated from 2012, provoke questions about originality, historical contexts and how we may now feel about these images.


Image credit: The Appearance of the Collage #10 2012 Private collection © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

Though these satirical collages are interesting explorations into the state sanctioned style, the couple are most well known for their inventive and provocative installations. Room 3 has been made to look like a Soviet-style apartment; the viewer walks down the narrow room in which there are three different installations. In the first, The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1985), an even smaller apartment has been recreated, decorated with socialist posters, and covered in debris from a large hole left in the ceiling; a hole, we surmise, left by the man who has flown into space. The viewer looks into this miniscule room through a small space ripped into the wall; this troubles the boundaries of looking, asking us to consider issues of privacy and public space.  By placing the site of this unlikely space explorer in the home, Kabakov asks us to consider the individual figures within national conflicts.  Made in 1985, after the Cold War had ended, Ilya evokes the enduring clash of ideologies that emerged in the space race.

Their installation Not Everyone will be Taken Into the Future (2001), from which the exhibition takes its title, is immediately striking: the back of a train sits in the far end of the room, the phrase ‘Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future’ flashes across the top of the train in English and Russian. Paintings – one of which contains an image of a cyclist, an earlier work of Kabakovs - are strewn across the tracks on the floor, as if thrown from the back of the train. The installation asks questions about the role of the artist; how can the artist engage with the current moment? How can an artist stay relevant?

This exhibition has been atmospherically curated – moving through each room is like being transported into different places; in some, the viewer moves between different spaces, through narrow corridors, emerging into the full room installation of Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future. It is very affecting, as each new room feels like a new discovery; in this way, the whole exhibition feels rather labyrinthine, like one of Ilya’s best known installations Labryinth (My Mother’s Album) (1990).  In this piece, the viewer walks through a corridor starkly decorated in the style of soviet apartments. The walls show photographs and letters written by Ilya’s mother during the tumultuous period in early 20th century Russia.  As you move through the twists and turns of these corridors, the viewer hears with increasing volume the sound of a lone voice singing romantic and wistful Russian songs.  This is the voice of Ilya, singing songs half remembered from his childhood. When you reach the source of the voice, a broom cupboard functioning as the ‘heart’ of the labyrinth, it is both underwhelming and troubling.  This lone voice seems to speak to us of the past, reminding us of the lives of those living in turbulent times.

This is a truly remarkable show, offering the viewer the opportunity to spend time marvelling at some of the most challenging large scale installations of the 20th and 21st Century.
 
Ilya and Emilia: Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future runs at the Tate Modern until January 2018.
 

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