It may be far from St Petersburg, but in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution London’s museums and galleries have offered some excellent exhibitions. From the visual arts at the Royal Academy to the documentary material at the British Library and, perhaps most intriguingly, the Design Museum’s fascinating display of the Soviet plans for Moscow that were conceived in high idealism and destined to remain unfulfilled as the Communist Party’s focus shifted to the realities of power, both in its maintenance and its insecurities.
Tate Modern has been saving its own Revolutionary exhibition for later, preparing as it now is to stage what will surely be a superb display of propaganda posters in November. Interwoven with that, though, it now offers a retrospective of the work of Russian conceptual and installation artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov that powerfully and beautifully captures the traces of where the idealism of 1917 may have gone when the reality of Soviet society ossified in its place.
Rejecting the official doctrines for the visual arts, Ilya Kabakov (his collaboration with Emilia begins in the late-1980s) produced most of his early works in the knowledge that they were not for public display. In several of these pieces it seems, oddly then, as though we are actually looking at standard works of Socialist Realism. Large-scale paintings show a woman being given back her Party card after an internal inquiry, a construction site, or a series of stereotypical images ostensibly found in storage after their fictional Socialist Realist creator fell from favour. Only on closer inspection do the cracks in this surface reality become visible, revealing other realities beneath – a building site where none of the projects is remotely on schedule, or a painting adorned with sweet wrappers in a failed attempt to assert its ‘brightness’ to the required Socialist standard.
The slippage between real and ideal continues throughout the exhibition. In of the larger rooms the installation work ‘Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future’ draws upon Kabakov’s childhood experience of Soviet Youth camps and the fear of being left behind by progress but merges this with the artistic legacy of the Suprematist Kasimir Malevich to capture a sense of a potential aesthetic, political, and social future always out of reach. One wall of the room is taken up by a mock-up of a carriage from the Moscow Metro, heading (or so it seems) into the wall while the work’s title runs like a destination on its LED screen. Discarded canvases litter the tracks over which the train has just run, indicating that many will be discarded en route to Utopia if, indeed, Utopia itself exists.
It more recent works, both Kabakovs have returned to oil painting, although the ‘Two Times’ and ‘Vertical Painting’ series both have the illusion of collage: scraps of images that could have been torn from the Socialist Realist canon now pasted over and alongside other similar scenes or, in a deliberate attempt to defamiliarise what we see, over 17th century artworks. After the USSR’s collapse, they force us to ask, how are we to regard such images? The carefully staged happiness continues to look false, but if more recent history has produced little that is better a strange sense of nostalgia remains. It was a lie, perhaps, but the smiles on the faces remain, even in fragmented form.
Nostalgia – that longing both for time and place – permeates the exhibition, but challenges the viewer to think that the Soviet past may itself be the object of those longing backward glances. At the centre of the display space is Ilya’s 1990 work ‘Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)’ in which we walk along dimly-lit corridors intended to evoke a communal housing apartment, reading framed sections of his mother’s life-story accompanied by faded photographs and the faint but always audible sound of Ilya’s recorded voice singing songs remembered from childhood. As the segments of a life accumulate, we find hardships balanced with moments of pride: reminders of purpose and identity and an almost timeless Russian fatalism that simultaneously recognises the shortcomings of its Soviet life but questions whether alternatives were ever really possible in any case.
The dream of the Revolution, the exhibition suggests, was only ever going to be that: a yearning for something ‘other’ now exposed as a fake by an age trapped in its own matrix of manufactured truth. The installation that provides the image for the Tate’s poster, ‘The Man who Flew into Space from his Apartment’ (1985) captures this perfectly. Primed for what we see by a range of supporting ‘documents’ that record the testimonies of his neighbours in a communal apartment block, we peer through the doorway of a boarded-up room and see, amidst the debris, a large elastic spring suspended beneath a hole in the ceiling. From this spot, we are told, the room’s inhabitant launched himself skywards in the hope of being taken up in one of the ‘energy streams’ that circle the Earth. Too poor to furnish his room more fully, we learn that he used old Soviet posters in lieu of wallpaper, and they remain covering the walls as though representative both of the idealism that this amateur Gagarin brought to his mission and the prosaic reality from which he made so spectacular an escape. No indication is given as to whether this space flight was successful: an empty pair of shoes denote where the man once stood, but our scepticism as to his ability to transcend his surroundings as hoped is itself challenged by his absence and the large hole blown in the roof by his exit. Did he succeed after all? Not everyone, we are reminded by the exhibition’s title, was going to be allowed into the glorious future the Revolution promised. As we stand ready to dismiss its failures, Kabakov suggests that for all of our superiority we may, perhaps, be the ones left behind after all.
Ilya and Emila Kabakov, ‘Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future’ is at Tate Modern, London, until 28th January 2018. For more details see http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ilya-and-emilia-kabakov