Midway through Amei Wallach’s sparkling new documentary “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here,” an art historian is explaining the workings of one of Ilya’s museum installations. The center of the room is filled with large tables, forcing museumgoers to walk close to the walls on which various paintings are hung. “The center is already occupied, and you are forced into the margins,” the interviewee says.
That would seem to be an excellent description of how the Kabakovs — husband and wife — survived as artists and Jews in the Soviet Union. Today, Ilya is considered one of the world’s great living artists and, at the outset of Wallach’s film, which opens on Nov. 13, the couple is back in Moscow in 2008 with his first public showing in the Russian capital since a one-day event at the Bluebird Café in the 1980s. The plan is mind-bogglingly ambitious, involving three huge installations in separate spaces across the city, each of them a monumental undertaking in its own right. A tall order for an artist who is 75 at the time of the shows, albeit a robust 75.
Although the opening of the film posits this event as a make-or-break moment for Ilya, his equanimity is equaled only by his raffish charm. If life as an independent – i.e., underground – artist in the Krushchev/Brezhnev days didn’t crush his spirit, the prospect of bad reviews at this point in his life probably holds no terrors either.
Of course, “Enter Here” isn’t really about suspense. It’s about the pursuit of creativity in the face of massive opposition. Perhaps Kabakov was fortunate to have been born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, in 1933; if he had started out in either Moscow or St. Petersburg, he would have been on the radar of the authorities early in his career. His mother wasn’t as fortunate; she lived through the Stalin-created famine in Ukraine and watched her father die of slow starvation, her mother of cholera. Those events are at the heart of a journal she wrote at her son’s request in the 1980s, the centerpiece of one his most elaborate and personal art pieces. Later in the film, Emilia, his wife and collaborator, shows the filmmakers a town register in which her Jewishness is noted and her movements assiduously tracked.
Kabakov’s own artistic career has been aided by a certain serendipity. He managed to get himself admitted to a prestigious art school that had been uprooted and, like his mother and him, transported to Samarkand as a safe haven from the Nazi invasion. The story, which he tells with a self-deprecating wit, involves his 11-year-old self looking at pictures of naked life models and a brash assertion to the school’s director that he has a portfolio of drawings to show.
Of course, serendipity will only take you so far. You also need talent, which Kabakov has in abundance, coupled to a scathing satiric wit. Whether it is his drawings for his old Soviet day job as a children’s book illustrator or his deconstruction of socialist realism, bordering on an oddly affectionate surrealism, Kabakov’s work is marked by brilliant craft, humor and critical intelligence. When he moves on to the massive installation pieces that have become his trademark, he is more than ready to take on the Soviets, the post-Soviets and anything else life can throw at him.
In that respect, he is immeasurably aided by Emilia, an ex-musician he knew as a child in Dnepropetrovsk. She is a hard-nosed negotiator and able administrator who serves as a Sancho Panza to his windmill-tilting Don Quixote. In fact, it was she who first emigrated from Russia, going to Israel in the early 1970s, and it is she who seems primed for their return to Moscow at the film’s outset. Her role in the art itself has grown to the extent that she has been credited as co-creator since in 1996.
Like her current subject, Wallach brings a marvelous blend of wit, craft and intelligence to the film. (Her name may be familiar from her excellent work as the art critic at Newsday and her earlier film on Louise Bourgeois.) Sequence by sequence she builds the work rhythmically in graceful counterpoint to the altered spaces the Kabakovs create.
At one point, Ilya is describing the effect on the viewer of one of his most labyrinthine, maze-like constructions. After walking through 25 rooms filled with art pieces, he says with a twinkle in his eye, “You will say, ‘I’m stuck here forever.’” Perhaps that is supposed to be a reflection on the Jewish and artistic experience of the Soviet Union, but being stuck with the Kabakovs is much more stimulating and entertaining than that.
“Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here,” directed by Amei Wallach, shot and edited by Ken Kobland, opened Wednesday, Nov. 13 for a two-week run at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.); for information call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org. Recent work by the artists will be on display at the Pace Gallery (32 E. 57th St.) through Dec. 21.