This Return to the Soviet Union is Wacky, Baffling and Utterly Riveting

By Mark Hudson
October 18th, 2017



Russia’s best-known contemporary artists are American citizens who haven’t lived in the motherland since the Eighties. Yet just about everything in their first major British exhibition (he’s84, she’s 72) refers back to the old Soviet Union: large conceptual paintings based on bureaucratic paperwork, painted mash-ups of socialist realism and the Old Masters, large-scale “total” installations in which old-school Soviet collective apartments become places of simultaneous bleakness and wonder.

Indeed, if you think of Russia under communism as a sort of Kafkaesque looking-glass world, where the individual is beset by arbitrary and apparently absurd strictures, that atmosphere pervades this show to the extent that some may find it utterly befuddling. You feel at times as though you’re on an intellectual assault course through a conceptually tricky, culturally alien landscape. Boring, though, it certainly isn’t.

Ilya Kabakov was already well-known as a dissident artist when he moved to America in 1988, marrying fellow-Russian Emilia Lekach, with whom he formed an artistic partnership that same year (they began jointly signing the works in 1989). While the exhibition is vague about the nature of their collaboration, you soon form the impression that Ilya is the artist, and Emilia the facilitator.

The contents of the first room are bewilderingly diverse, from a Cézannesque self-portrait to an early conceptual work featuring a papier-maché arm and an Old Master reproduction and parodies of socialist realism stuck, for no apparent reason, with sweet wrappers. Making sense of this is frustrated by a lack of basic information (typical of Tate’s current policy towards retrospective exhibitions) concerning who – if anybody – Kabakov was influenced by and working with. While we’re left with the impression of a completely isolated figure unrelated to official Soviet art, he was in fact a member of the artists’ union from 1965 – though admittedly as an illustrator – and a leading figure in at least two major avant-garde art movements.

It’s with the first of the “total” installations – detailed, quasi-fictional environments – for which the pair are best known, that the show hits its stride. In “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment” we see a room in a collective apartment block, with a hole in the ceiling where the resident has blasted himself into orbit using the Heath-Robinsonian contraption standing in the center. If the execution is a touch basic, the sense of fantasy amid banality is genuinely comic. Yet as with many of the works, nagging questions leave you wondering if you’re only partly getting the point: do the propaganda posters lining the room reflect the occupants’ interests, the standard decor of such an apartment or some more over-arching message?

Fictional texts by Kabakov and the attribution of his works to invented characters give his work a literary feel that is quite alien to Western notions of conceptual art. Works featuring “little white men”, tiny paper cut-outs representing “inhabitants of a parallel world”, according to Kabakov, provide a note of whimsical absurdism that feels very Russian.

The most powerful of the show’s six installations, Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), is the most straightforward. Having imagined his mother’s life under Stalinism as a “long and semi-dark corridor … illuminated by weak 40-watt light bulbs”, he has constructed a succession of claustrophobic passageways redolent of the apartment blocks in which he grew up, hung with panels contrasting holiday snaps taken by his uncle, with chunks of text in which his mother describes her unremittingly grim life. Progressing towards a central room, we hear Kabakov singing a folk-song. You only have to peruse a couple of panels to get the sense of fragile hope endlessly crushed by adversity, which hits the note of “universality” the Kabakovs are, we are told, aiming for.

If we understood Kabakov’s song we would, no doubt, be gaining another layer of meaning, but the fact that there are aspects of language and culture that can never be adequately translated is perhaps one of the lessons of this mind-bending exhibition. There are whole dimensions to the Kabakovs’ work that will defeat even the most patient and sympathetic of viewers. But even at its wackiest and most gratingly whimsical this show gives a sense of being taken to another place. It’s a journey well worth taking.

Until Jan 28. Tickets: 020 7887 8888