In Soviet Russia, Art Make You!: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here

11/06/2013 4:00 AM |

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here
Directed by Amei Wallach

The Kabakovs are not your typical artist couple. First of all, they’re related: during a family-history excursion in Russia, we visit the courtyard that was once shared by Ilya Kabakov’s father and Emilia Kabakov’s grandmother, who were either cousins or siblings; it’s unclear. Secondly, their collaborative process is very starkly split: Ilya creates or conceives of all the artworks—massive installations drawn from Soviet life telling the playful and affectionate stories of fictional but semi-autobiographical characters—while Emilia acts as a kind of agent, assistant and spokesperson. Also, and this helps to elevate Enter Here beyond the artist-documentary niche, as Soviet-born American immigrants they have extremely personal and illuminating perspectives on Russian society and culture. Despite some muddled passages early on, Wallach manages to gather her subjects’ many facets into a cohesive narrative about conflicted nostalgia and the enduring neuroses of having grown up in the USSR.

The budding artist-documentary auteur—whose only previous credit is her invaluable 2008 Louise Bourgeois doc—seems at first to take on too much. The film’s narrative focus is the Kabakovs’s first major retrospective in Russia, which in 2008 launched art czarina Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center. As we follow preparations at their Long Island home-studio and in Russia, Wallach recaps Ilya’s career as an official artist and children’s book illustrator by day and elite member of the Moscow avant-garde at night, plus most of Soviet art history between 1917 and the late-1980s. That’s a lot to tackle, and a couple of tangents seem extraneous, but the Kabakovs eventually articulate and turn out to embody many of the peculiar conflicts and contradictions of contemporary Russian identity. The couple is endearing and very forthcoming, but their relationship lacks the tension that made films like Cutie and the Boxer or Eames: The Architect & The Painter so rich.

Meanwhile, Enter Here’s portrayal of modern-day Russia may be its greatest shortcoming. Filmed and edited before the Pussy Riot trial and the country’s passage of anti-gay legislation, Wallach’s Russia isn’t quite neutral, but seems conspicuously unproblematic. “It’s changing and it’s still the same,” Zhukova muses in the film’s most skeptical statement about post-Soviet Russia. “I guess it’ll always
be like that.”

Opens November 13 at Film Forum