by Egor Buimister
Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
18 October 2017 — 28 January 2018
The 100 years anniversary of the Russian Revolution appeared a great chance to talk about art and artists from the USSR and beyond. Much of this art bears imprint of fear and oppression, but who is actually the most frightening figure in the world of the contemporary post-Soviet culture? Is it the notorious far-right philosopher Alexander Dugin, or maybe almost inhumanly selfless performance artist Pavel Pavlensky (currently under indefinitely prolonged detention in France), or painter Alexey Belyaev-Gintovt, winner of the state “Innovatsiya” prize for contemporary art and glorifier of Stalinist & generally imperialist aesthetics? None: after visiting “Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future” in Tate Modern, it turns out that all these grown-up enfants terribles cannot compete with Ilya Kabakov, the founder of Moscow Conceptualism, the most expensive Russian artist living and bearer of all the possible regalia and etceteras.
Ilya Kabakov The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment 1985
The form here is frightening, the room seems endless and impression of Kabakov making his mother recall every moment of her (not-so-happy) life in the smallest details is definitely cruel.
Ever noticed how in most of his photos Kabakov has the face that seems to combine just that everyone grandpa’s friendliness with slyness of a self-aware erudite? His exhibition leaves fairly similar impression in anyone with heritage from both sides of the ex-Iron Curtain. What common nerve has been grasped by this show, overfilled with Soviet imagery and context that by all means supposed to be perceived differently by those who lived under communism and those lucky enough who did not?
This paradox solution can be found in the fact that Kabakov’s exhibition’s pathos is not primarily aimed at critique of the communist dictatorship, but at tragedy of the wise man in search of his childhood. Personal past is the prism through which he treats every other theme in the show. The best example would be “My Mother’s Album”, a huge, almost too clearly metaphoric labyrinth-installation where the individual story frames the epoch. The form here is frightening, the room seems endless and impression of Kabakov making his mother recall every moment of her (not-so-happy) life in the smallest details is definitely cruel. However, preservation of memory and journeys in its labyrinths are rarely pleasant, but always necessary.
Ilya Kabakov Holiday #1 1987
Another room that’s crucial to interpreting the exhibition contains train installation that gave title to the whole show, and just like the Paradise lies on the edges of spears (quoting Russian poet Aleksandr Nepomnyashchiy), the Future lies on the edge of this carriage which emits devilishly red light, getting ready to crash into a pile of paintings on the tracks. After facing this scene, even the most die-hard progressivist would have to admit that Kabakov’s future is something to be afraid of. But what type of future do we fear? Only death. Death uncovers frailty of artworks, importance of memory and explains passive voice in the exhibition’s title. And “Not everyone will be taken” part is clearly illustrated by installations like “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment”, “How to Meet an Angel” or the already mentioned “Mother’s Album”: the way out of inevitably linear time that hits us like a high-speed train is either outside of earthly coordinates or in memory. Space and angels’ realms don’t have time per se, and labyrinths of memory posthumously preserve those who were nonetheless taken into the future — Kabakov’s collage paintings exhibited here also work with memory, but show instability of things remembered by eye, these falsely joyful socrealism scenes, unlike to the written fact of his mother’s life full of hardships.
Ilya Kabakov The Collage of Spaces # 6 2010
Although it is challenging to even list all types of artistic media exhibited, exactly this great variety takes us back to the beginning and the declared scariness of Ilya Kabakov. People who know him almost unanimously recall his humanism and incredible conceptual mind, but at once his mysteriousness and habit of never telling the whole truth. Such description relates him with another master of labyrinths, explorer of memory and great conceptual mind: Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Both arise the same fear: how can someone be so smart and masterful that he is basically above human realms and simultaneously talk so seriously about worldly nostalgia, childhood and pain, totalitarianism and (physical and meta-physical) liberation?
In other words, what if Kabakov’s exhibitions consists merely of formal experiments and slyness of genius? A case where I’d love to be wrong.