Ilya and Emilia Kabakov - Tate Modern

By Rachel Campbell-Johnston
October 18th, 2017



“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 old plastic sheeting and a cheese grater.

This is only one of the six “total” (or whole room) installations 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 we commemorate 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.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future spans Ilya Kabakov’s career from the 1960s, when he was working in Russia as an illustrator, to when, having left in 1987, he teamed up with a distant cousin, Emilia (first as artistic collaborators, then as man and wife). The Kabakovs’ signature (and usually site-specific) installations nowadays are snapped up by collectors for millions of pounds.

It’s 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. The 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 Jan 28th, 2018