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Sunday, 29 October 2017

the Kabakovs: Sometimes it's what you don't know...

The  Ilya and Emilia Kabakov exhibition at Tate Modern, is great, specifically the installation rooms which tell a story of the miseries of life in the Soviet Union in splendidly gloomy fashion.

The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment 1985 is an installation that makes complete visual sense once you have the title.

It's about a man who flew into space from his apartment. It's fictional and comes with supporting documentation ( Fontcuberta is very Kabakovian) so you can see how he did it and you can see the mess he made in the roof. And you know why he did it; where he is living is not very good. It's not so much an apartment as a scrappy room in a communal house with shared washing and cooking facilities. The rubbishness of communal living is a bit of theme in this exhibition.

You get that easily enough and it's great. What I don't get is what the rest of it means. I'm sure I could if I bought a Kabakov monograph and researched it some more. Then I could pretend I knew the cultural significance of a suit made of Companion Fabric, but where would the fun be in that. I don't have a clue. What do all the signifiers lost in translation to me, an ignorant Brit, mean? Signifiers that a Russian would have complete and instant access to including the fact that they might not have any significance whatsoever; the shoes, the bed, the belt, the jar of pickles.

Then there are the posters on the wall (put on instead of wallpaper to save the fictional space voyager money). There's Lenin, but who is everybody else? Are they anybody in particular? And when are the designs from - because there's quite a mixture in there with a whole range of printing processes employed. There could be somebody as familiar as Benny Hill or Shirley Bassey up there and I wouldn't have a clue. There could be the Soviet equivalent of Jimmy Saville doing a clunk click advert and I wouldn't know. I wonder how much I'm missing out on there.

The room next to the space voyager's is Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen, and it's from1989. Again, this is based on communal living spaces in the Soviet Union, and the shared kitchen. It's also a reference to flying cooking vessels which is something quite universal. That hooks you in, but what I'm really interested in is what I'm missing. I know I'm missing a lot, and most of it is quite obvious, but what is it? I can make some kind of guess - particular forms of domestic arguments and abuse, and the ways in which different cooking utensils are used, but beyond that?

The milk urn strikes a distant chord, but still remains a mystery to me. I like that sense of profound ignorance - of half knowing something, of having it half revealed and getting a phantom sense of what it must be like to live in these communal spaces but still remaining beyond the pale of the knowing. It's a rare ability to be able to communicate artistically using both a universal emotional language, while retaining a different visual and dimensional vocabulary for a different audience. And I get the feeling it's not an accident.

The flying pans also come in a book form which is a beautiful and simple gatefold design.

The following room is a collection of all the objects that Ilya Kabakov owns. It also comes with a book.

You get his belongings all lined up on tables and in vitrines and hanging from bit of string. And then you get these little sentences that you struggle to read - overheard snippets from neighbours and visitors to the communal rooms. There's a huge undertone of unhappiness, of dysfunction and abuse. They are not happy thoughts. It's not a happy place. And all these comments add a further depth to that combination of the transparent and the more opaque language that takes place in these rooms. We know what's happening because it is so universal, but the subtleties of the language, the circumstances in which they take place, the pressures that cause them elude us - unless we happen to be privy to the world which the Kabakovs are immersed in. And if that is the case, then you become part of that world and you are immersed in it. And the rest of us remain somewhat outside. 

In Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) 1990 the sense of distancing from understanding is even more apparent and even more distancing.

Labyrinth is a series of gloomy connected corridors in which 76 framed photographs are shown, all of which show pictures from Ilya Kabakov's uncle's album of touristic snapshots. Beneath each picture there's a passage of text that tells the story of Kabakov's mother's life in her own words.

But the text is in Russian so if you can't read Russian, you look at the English language notes that rest on top of the frame. There are 76 of them, they each have about 200 words on I'm guessing, and they are horribly lit. They're horribly lit because they are in a corridor that replicates the corridors of these communal living quarters. That's a different world already.

And the experience you have reading these notes in English is so different to that you have of reading the notes in the frames. It's such a struggle you don't look at the picture or anything else in the frame. So you miss the generic images that are such a disconnection from the words that you read.

In a way that doesn't matter because they are compelling words, a litany of sadness where neglect, abuse, and mean-spiritedness take place against a backdrop of pneumonia, starvation and infant mortality. Who said it was fun to be a Slav!

It's just awful and the longer you read the harder it gets to make out the words in a gloom that seems to deepen the further you get into the labyrinth. I stopped around the start of the Second Great Patriotic War, just because my eyes were hurting to much. I'm wonder if it was designed this way, with somebody going up and down the corridors working out pain barriers and legibility levels. I think it probably was.

So that's what I came out of the exhibition with, a multiplicity of meanings some of which are apparent, some of which are hidden - either accidentally or deliberately - in installations that are both fantastic but also very real.

I didn't understand half of what was happening, and I think I was deliberately not meant to. And that not understanding is somehow part of the work for a non-Russian/Soviet audience at least.

But then isn't not understanding half of what is going on a part of life as a whole. And that's the genius of the Kabakov's installations.

And to read more about Labyrinth, go here 

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