A terrifying trip to the USSR's dark heart – Ilya and Emilia Kabakov review

Tate Modern, London
With its harrowing echoes of repression, deprivation and murder, the Kabakovs’ art is a magnificent, moving monument to the millions crushed by communism

She was born in 1902 and died in 1987. She lived through the Russian revolution, the civil war that followed and the famine of 1921-22 that killed her father. Then there was the second world war and finally, at the end of her life, glasnost and perestroika. Her name was Bertha Urievna Solodukhina and her life was a constant struggle, just to survive. In what was supposed to be an equal society, she endured antisemitic abuse, homelessness and a string of precarious jobs as she tried to raise a son alone.

That son would preserve her memory in a unique work of art. In fact, in Ilya Kabakov’s 1990 installation Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), he can be heard singing sad old songs from his childhood. Yet it is the voice of his mother that is preserved in the most moving way by this masterpiece of modern art. A few years before she died, Kabakov persuaded her to write a memoir. As you explore this seemingly endless installation, turning one corner then another, only to find yet another corridor, typewritten excerpts from her harrowing autobiography grip your attention.

It is like being lost in time. Labyrinth is a work that immerses you so totally it is frightening. Will you ever get out? Entered by a nondescript doorway, it occupies a much larger space than seems possible, as history takes on physical form. The only relief comes in reading the fragments of autobiography, even as they suck you deeper into its author’s grim world.

Ilya Kabakov, born in 1933, spent much of his life in the same dimly lit corridor that, for him, is an image of life in the USSR. He made a living as a children’s illustrator while showing his subversive, “unofficial” art to friends. One of the most powerful examples, his 1981 painting Tested, is based on a socialist realist picture dating from 1936 in which a woman who has been investigated by the party is handed back her membership card before a cheering audience. It takes a minute to get the grim joke. People were not “tested” fairly during Stalin’s Great Terror. They were subjected to show trials and shot.

Another painting depicts a muddy building site under a bleak sky. Two real shovels are fixed to it. A manifesto written on it promises to build all manner of facilities including “five kindergartens”, “two stadiums”, a library and a hospital. These are promised “By 25 December 1979”. The painting is dated 1983 – it is a mordant comment on a society that was barely working at all by the 1980s.

Kabakov had to escape. In 1985 he created, while still in Russia, The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment, blowing off the constraints not just of socialist realism but painting itself. You peep through a smashed wooden door into a tiny apartment entirely papered with communist propaganda posters. The vanished inhabitant of the flat has left his designs for a one-man space mission in which he planned to launch himself through the ceiling and catch a current that would take him into space. The catapult he built hangs in the middle of his tiny home. Above it, a hole has been blasted in the ceiling. Did he make it? Testimonies of neighbours and police reveal that no trace of him was ever found.

Why would you want to immerse yourself in the Kabakovs’ art of memory now the USSR has vanished? They themselves appear worried that history can cruelly overtake art. Their installation Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future (also the title of this show) is a sinister underground station where a train is about to crush paintings littering the track. Strangely, they are preserving the socialist realist style in their latest paintings, finding mystery in its banalities.

History means never forgetting anything. The Soviet Union is gone but the millions who lived and died through it deserve some monument. In a proposed installation that would turn the Guggenheim in New York into a Dante-like vision, they tell the story of art in the USSR from 1917 to its collapse in 1991. History is a nightmare from which these great artists don’t want to wake up.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future is at Tate Modern, London, until 28 January. Box office: 020-7887 8888.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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