Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future, Tate Modern, 18 October 2017 – 28 January 2018
Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution In Visual Culture, Tate Modern, 8 November 2017 – 18 February 2018
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We are born. It should be a start, but it is in fact a non-start; for we almost immediately have our full agency and autonomy as human beings robbed from us. We spend a lifetime trying to grasp it back from beneath a growing pile of rubble.
Rubble is literally at the center of Ilya Kabakov’s Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album). A large installation among many included in the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s work, it is a spiral of long hallways reminiscent of Soviet era communal apartment buildings. Dingy and dimly lit, we pass a series of pictures depicting Ilya’s late mother which chronicle her struggle to bring him up. The hallways wind in a double spiral, the center of which is a tiny room filled with discarded planks and crumbled plaster. A recording of Ilya singing faintly remembered songs from his childhood is heard.
Labyrinth is, as the exhibition’s text reminds us, Ilya Kabakov’s most personal work. But its most outstanding thematic feature, the winding path to recover some form of subjectivity in a wrecked life, runs through his and Emilia’s work. There is a hard chaos in the Kabakovs’ works, often enveloping an unquenchable desire for salvation of some sort.
What kind of salvation? This is not always clear. The Soviet Union in which Ilya lived when he started working was kept in check by stodgy diktats and bureaucratic demarcations. Plus the turgid dominance of socialist realism. Though he made his living as a children’s book illustrator throughout the late 1950s, his early conceptual works often skated the edge of legality; many of them he would create in his attic studio and only show to a few close friends. He was not permitted to leave the USSR until 1987, and it was while living abroad that he met Emilia, another Soviet artist who was to become his wife and collaborator.
Neither Ilya or Emilia have any living memory of the Soviet Union’s early days, being born at least a decade late. They clearly sensed that there was a deflected utopia at work in the machinations of Soviet society. Failed utopia is a common theme in the Kabakovs’ work (and in interviews they have made it a point to include both communism and capitalism in that purview).
It is with Ilya’s best-known installation, The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, that this becomes particularly pointed. Again, rubble is strewn through the cramped apartment bedroom, coming from the hole in the ceiling. What is easy to miss (and should therefore should have the most attention paid to it) is the arrangement of posters on the walls. They are stock Soviet propaganda posters. Images of Lenin, Stalin and idealized manual laborers peer back over the wreckage left behind by the man who escaped into fantasy.
The Kabakovs’ sense of a utopian future is, as these works show, as personal as it is easily problematized. Their ambivalence toward the old Soviet regime is clear, but they can ill afford to be dismissive of the magnetic ideological power that could be gleaned from its pretenses. The success of the Tate exhibition is in highlighting this ambivalence, allowing the viewer to fill the gaps while still being guided by a vivid sense of time opening up.
Two works exemplify the opposite ends of this contradiction. One massive and unforgiving, the other rendered on only a small scale. The first is the work for which the exhibition is named: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future. Its title is taken from an essay Ilya wrote for the dissident Russian art journal A-YA in 1983 on suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich. In the essay Malevich is imagined as charismatic and visionary, his art fulfilling it mystical intent and opening into a vast horizon of promise. Ilya contrasts this with his experience in art school, in which the “most deserving” students were selected to go to the Young Pioneer (communist youth group) camp. The rest of the pupils were left behind to do busy work.
The work itself is a massive room constructed into a cold and imposing train station. The “train” has already left, and we can see the back of its last car. The work’s title scrolls on the LED display: “Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future,” in both English and Russian. On the tracks are discarded canvases and works of art.
The contrast between Malevich’s work and Ilya’s own experiences in art school is telling. Ilya plays with the hypocrisy, the gap between what the great figures of Soviet modernism hoped to achieve and what the government was actually carrying out. He also feels a redemptive power in Malevich’s work, one that is worthy of being salvaged amidst what has been abandoned.
The second work is where one gets the sense that maybe the Kabakovs do, ultimately, resonate with some aspect of the socialist ideal if not the Soviet state. The Vertical Opera (Guggenheim) is a model of an as-yet unrealized installation that, if rendered, would take up the entirety of the Guggenheim museum in New York City.
Taking advantage of the building’s unique ascending spiral, it traces a history – level by level, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a pre-revolution Bolshevik propaganda poster – up through Perestroika. It is one of the few works on display in which Ilya’s urge for an escape to utopia seems to fuse with a relatively clear view of a future that is in some basic way both socialist and democratic. The ambivalence here takes on a different kind of power, in which the subjective becomes a way to resolve a broad and collective future. Soviet signifiers aren’t merely flotsam left behind, but are actively redefined, their meaning rediscovered and renewed.
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On the other end of the Tate Modern is the museum’s Red Star Over Russia exhibition. Taken from the collection of photographer David King (the largest collection of Soviet graphic memorabilia in the world by the time he died last year), the exhibition is a telling and undoubtedly useful primer to the “revolution in visual culture” ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution.
A primer it can only be, however. Documenting all the political, social and artistic twists of such a massive nation over the course of fifty years is no small task. The exhibition guides the viewer through the explosions in graphic art and poster-making that led up to and followed the overthrow of first the Czar then the provisional government, the flourishing of constructivism and other experimental schools, the calcification into socialist realism and through the aesthetic “Thaw” following Stalin’s death. As a basic map of what happened, it serves its purpose. Where it falls short is the why.
There have been countless observances of the Russian Revolution during its centenary year. Almost every major art gallery has cashed in. It is all made easier considering how much of the era’s dynamic art found its way into mass production. This was deliberate on the part of the new workers’ government; posters were cranked out by the hundreds of thousands, spurring on an imaginary that needed all the precious oxygen it could get for the revolution to thrive. Rodchenko and Mayakovsky’s agitprop posters, striking and magnetic graphics urging support for women and oppressed nationalities, Lissitzky’s iconic Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge; these were consciously reproduced and plastered across Russian city walls to the point that the mood of the city would shift, its denizens internalizing their aesthetic and spirit.
This wasn’t merely a matter of mobilizing the masses. It was that, but it ran much deeper in substance. If the point of socialism was (and is) the fulfillment and enrichment of every human as an individual, then it was crucial that each individual also see their personal development as inextricably entangled with a greater collective fate.
Here is the spiritual and aesthetic crux of socialist revolution. A crux that only seems paradoxical for the ways in which the ideological reproduction of capital pits the interests of the singular against that of the total mass. In the bourgeois gallery, the lone viewer envisions themselves pulled into the world of the artist. For the most part they remain alone and isolated even as they are transported. How can the viewer’s world be not just expanded but connected to those with whom they share a common interest?
These questions – those of the practical construction of utopia – are an afterthought in the Tate’s curation of the revolution’s early artistic artifacts. The dynamic between individual and collective is unexplored. Though the official adoption of socialist realism is seen as a jarring shift, and as hand-in-hand with the consolidation of Stalin’s rule, there is little that sheds light on the links between one and the other.
Further obscuring the exhibition’s through-line is the lack of insight into exactly what happened to allow Stalin’s rise to power. This is in no way an easy series of events to communicate in the text of an art exhibition. But it is a necessary component if one wants to understand the road to Stalinism for what it was: a dramatic fissure, a break with the direction in which the Russian Revolution had started traveling, and a roll-back of the mass democracy that ushered that revolution in from the factories to the concert halls.
The spread of this radical democratic spirit burst the barriers open to the experiments in collage, in shape, in photography that felt as if they themselves could break down the boundaries of culture and geography. The thrust of multitudinous cosmopolitanism in constant flux that Lissitzky and Senkin’s 1928 photomontages exemplify this spirit at its height. There is a keen intersubjectivity displayed here, a dizzying process undertaken in which the individual is swept up and yet also can reach out to guide in concert with their fellow human beings.
The atrophy and deliberate quashing of this democracy is found in the prosaic heroism of Alexander Deineka’s Stakhanovites, painted in 1937 as part of the Soviet exhibition at the Paris World’s Fair. This is a painting of good behavior, prosperous pre-ordained futures and upstanding moral triumphalism. It is an iron individualism that, in a manner as deliberate as it is ironic, squeezes out the space for the subject. Be that subject revolutionary or otherwise.
Almost absent entirely in Red Star Over Russia are images of Vladimir Tatlin’s famous tower, his Monument to the Third International. Designed but infamously never built, its upward spiraling double helix wasn’t merely an innovation in graphic and architectural design, but fit the sweeping ontological direction of what a communist world might aim for. The geometrically disparate, gaining momentum, are drawn closer and closer together as they travel upward. The individual becomes first collective, then one. Not through coercion, but through a dialectical process of struggle that naturally and organically ends in convergence. The singular top of the spiral is impossible without the spinning human process that urges it upward.
When Viktor Shklovsky mused that the tower would be built from “glass, steel, and revolution,” he was also illustrating how the crude, immobile and objective are only given life by the entry of humans into history. And that, in short, is what is missing from the curation of Red Star Over Russia.
It is here that we should bluntly remind ourselves of the postmodern haze that continues to hide in plain sight in the contemporary art gallery. Ideology works in subtle and circumstantial ways. If late capitalism’s great fault is its inability to imagine itself a future, then is it difficult to understand how it can be so flummoxed by the notion of agency, the necessary human factor in the act of constructing or deconstructing utopia? What if the vague linearity of Red Star’s story is denying us the plasticity and urgency of the revolution’s aesthetic explosions? And what if, in doing so, it bolsters the notion of artistic expression as phantasmagorical gift rather than democratic right?
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We live. We hope that it means something. It isn’t the uncertainty of the future that makes this meaning an unsure prospect. Rather, it is the increasing certainty of bleakness, the growing surety that very few of us will have much of a future.
When councils of ordinary working people overthrew a weak Russian Provisional Government, they did so in the bleakest of circumstances. War and disastrous social disintegration were tearing their lives apart. There was hope burning in people’s stomachs that day, but also the threat of starvation; the imperative to seize the vision of a wonderful future from the jaws of Hell.
This is what gets lost when revolutionaries and Marxists are pigeonholed as dry, stern atheists. Or, as so often happens, when we start to ape the stereotype. When we talk of working people’s spiritual lives, we don’t do so in any kind of religious sense. That is certainly not the sense in which the Rodchenkos or Mayakovskys meant it. Nor was it for Leon Trotsky in his own writings on socialism and art. For them, for any effective revolutionary and artist, the spiritual self, the ontological self, the self that longs for fulfillment and purpose, that lunges toward even the most remote mirage of leaving a mark on history; all of this is a cornerstone of socialism’s necessity.
The final room of the Kabakov exhibition contains the work Model For How to Meet an Angel. Some fifteen feet tall, it is mostly a wooden scaffolding that appears to be in the process of tipping over. At the top, a small human leaps blindly into the air. An angel flies toward them from the other direction. We hope in order to catch them. From a certain angle, the scaffold, tipping and growing thinner as it travels up, resembles Tatlin’s tower. Whether this is deliberate on the part of the Kabakovs isn’t clear. Neither would be surprising, and the resemblance is there.
Flight is a recurring theme for the Kabakovs. The angel, as the exhibition’s text reminds us, “is a stateless being, free from earthly and bureaucratic constraints.” None of us will ever be free from the constraints of the Earth of course. That doesn’t negate our desire. Any redemptive history is built on it.
This review appears in our fourth issue, “Echoes of 1917.” Order a copy at wedge shop.
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Georgia Blank writes, muses, and fails to exist outside of history.