Free Admission

Amei Wallach, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here, 2013, video, color, sound, 103 minutes. Emilia Kabakov, Dasha Zhukova, and Ilya Kabakov.

THE ENTRY POINT for Amei Wallach’s Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here, a marvelously layered, purposefully nonlinear documentary portrait of the husband and wife team known to the international art world as “the Kabakovs,” is the enormous 2008 retrospective of their work that was mounted in three huge Moscow venues: the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art, and the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. It was the first time Ilya Kabakov had worked in the Russian capital since he took advantage of a 1987 travel permit to Austria to flee the Soviet Union, even as it began to crumble. Returning two decades later, hailed as one of the greats of contemporary art, and, in collaboration with his wife Emilia, a dauntingly prolific maker of installations, he worries about how his work will be received. Anxiety, Emilia explains, is his MO, the result of being born in 1933, during Stalin’s reign of terror, to a Jewish family in Soviet Ukraine. It fuels his nonstop painting and also makes him an arresting and sympathetic subject for a filmmaker who cares deeply for his work and his person. An art critic and the Kabakovs’ neighbor on the North Fork of Long Island, Wallach is also the author of the 1996 Abrams monograph, Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away.

Anyone who has entered one of the Kabakovs’ chock-a-block installations, where one’s feeling of claustrophobia is countered by the sense that every object and verbal reference opens onto multiple strata of history—personal, cultural, ideological—and where, as Ilya says, “Irony is the sauce on the sandwich,” will understand the documentary strategy that Wallach and Ken Kobland, her editor and director of photography, adopted. This is no PBS art doc, although there are just enough titles (names, dates, places) to keep the viewer from being totally unmoored. The film moves fluidly—by means of understated dissolves and superimpositions and overlapping voice-overs—from the opening slo-mo close-ups of “Tout Moscow” at the Garage to the Kabakovs in their studio in the US, and from the permanent installation they created at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, of an abandoned Soviet schoolhouse (the realistic detail mixed with fantasy, memory, and color coordinates of abstraction, as Ilya explains) to preparations in Moscow where dozens of separate installations created all over the world are being reorganized for this enormous exhibition. (As an aside, the Garage—founded by Dasha Zhukova, who recently acquired with her partner a collection of Ilya’s pre-1987 work for a rumored $60 million—is housed in the very transportation hub that Dziga Vertov filmed for Man with a Movie Camera [cue the clip].) Among the other sights of the city which needed to be seen as they are today—and as they were in photos and home movies—is the attic art space that Ilya built, where he and his painter friends could escape a society that Ilya describes as “repulsive, dangerous, and destructive,” and fashion their own visions of utopia.

As you can glean, this much-interlocked material could result in a shapeless pileup, or worse, a watered-down show-and-tell. But Wallach and Kobland (himself an accomplished “personal” filmmaker and a red-diaper baby) have made a graceful, enormously moving portrait of a complicated artist and an artistic collaboration. Like the Kabakovs’ installations, it resists its own frame in time and space and invites you to return once and again.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here plays November 13–26 at Film Forum in New York.