The Six Paintings about the Temporary Loss of Eyesight (They are Painting the Boat), 2015
This survey of the Russian creative duo’s work launches the viewer into the strangely unnerving world of a Soviet dream that never existed
“Not everyone will be taken into the future”, reads the LED sign on the vanishing metro. Even as visitors step into the gallery they find themselves stranded on an empty platform watching the train as it draws away from them, disappearing through the tunnel of a gallery wall. A few discarded paintings are left, tumbled, on the tracks behind it; abandoned, along with you, are some old plastic sheeting and a cheese grater.
This is only one of the six “total” (or whole room) installations that you will find at Tate Modern as it opens its first significant survey of the work of the Russian creative duo Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (he is the creator, she the facilitator). As the world commemorates the centenary of the Russian Revolution, theirs is a vision that exposes its haunting aftermath. It launches the viewer into a strangely unnerving world of a Soviet dream that never existed. Stark reality meets sentimental nostalgia; an eerie sense of optimism meets a worn-out hopelessness.
The show, titled Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future, spans Ilya Kabakov’s career from the 1960s, when he was still living in Russia, working officially as an illustrator, but clandestinely making more controversial pieces, to when, having left Russia in 1987, he teamed up with a distant cousin, Emilia (first as artistic collaborators and then as man and wife). The Kabakovs’ signature (and usually site-specific) installations are snapped up by such collectors as Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich for millions of pounds.
It is easy to understand why. To walk through this show feels a bit like becoming a character from a Dostoevsky novel. You follow the lives of fictional characters through a frequently discombobulating world, peeping into the rooms that they once inhabited, following them down the mazes of their lives. Scale is subverted. Perspective is skewed. And the farther you go into the lands of their lives and their circumstances, their hopes and memories, their dreams and facts, the more densely layered and complex their narratives grow.
A story that starts out in Soviet Russia turns into a far bigger story about humanity and our fundamental yearning to find a way for the spirit to fly free. It’s all very simple. It is probably all the more moving for that.
The exhibition runs to January 28