ILYA KABAKOV is arguably the paradigmatic installation artist, known above all for his theorization of the immersive “total installation,” and its execution in dozens of large-scale works made since the mid-1980s (after 1988 usually in collaboration with his partner and subsequent wife, Emilia). Yet this retrospective, “Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future,” was unfortunately not London’s long-awaited opportunity to experience an overview of the Soviet-born artists’ melancholy-utopian otherworlds. Instead, it rebranded them as painters, and not very good ones at that. As a result, the exhibition told you more about the state of Tate Modern than it did about the singularity and significance of the Kabakovs’ contribution to installation art.
That said, the first galleries were a revelation. It is widely known that Ilya Kabakov’s installation practice grew out of his work as an illustrator of children’s books; less well known (and perhaps more interesting) are the artist’s early Conceptual paintings. In the ’60s, Kabakov abandoned a competent impersonation of Cézanne to rapidly pursue proto-postmodern experiments in painting, creating works that doggedly unravel any straightforward attempt at representation. Most often this strategy is accomplished by adding objects to a two-dimensional surface, intervening in the picture plane to thwart abstraction and illusory depth alike. Cubes, 1962, for example, undermines a po-faced geometric abstraction with two folksy depictions of a village, while Hand and Ruisdael’s Reproduction, 1965, features a severed red papier-mâché arm plonked ungraciously beneath a reproduction of a Dutch landscape, a prosthetic substitute for the viewer’s own body leaning in for a closer look.
From 1970 on, Kabakov’s paintings start to peddle fictional characters. The Answers of an Experimental Group, 1970–71, comprises a large grid filled with painstakingly neat Cyrillic text detailing the observations of a group of spectators from a cross-section of Soviet society, many of whom sound like avant-garde artists–cum–terrible bores. The humor here is wry and self-critical. More crushingly ironic (and more overtly political) is By December 25 in Our District . . . , 1983, a large-scale realist painting of a muddy construction site overlaid with eighteen bullet points itemizing a wondrous list of building projects—hospitals, swimming pools, cinemas, stadiums, housing!—that will all have been completed by the eponymous date. The implication is, of course, that they never will be: Such triumphant planning is always bogged down by mud, delays, and empty promises.
And so to the paltry offering of total installations. The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1985, was the only excerpt on view from the “Ten Characters” suite that established Kabakov’s reputation when it was shown at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York in 1988, a year after he had quit the Soviet Union. It is quintessential Kabakov: the oppressive misery of the communal apartment, a meandering polyvocal narrative, a completely reworked and meticulously detailed space, and a fantasy of escape that both updates and deflates the rich tradition of Soviet sci-fi as a way to imagine alternate worlds. Other notable installations included Three Nights, 1989, Tate’s own Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), 1990, and Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future, 2001. The last, a train-station platform littered with the works of forgotten artists, was the most poignant in its collision of grandeur, melancholy, and affection for history’s underdogs. As might be expected, the total installations almost all belong to public museum collections: This kind of work still encounters the “firm hostility of collectors who don’t have the place to house it” that Kabakov observed in 1995.
After these major works, and with the exception of a few installation maquettes, the show took a serious nosedive. We were propelled into the 2010s and some truly dreadful painting: hideous, overscale pseudocollages whose bombast gives Jeff Koons a run for his money— but instead of the latter’s porno-slick Photoshop effects, we had socialist-realist images fragmenting in layers of trompe l’oeil. These would have been heavy-handed even if painted in 1982, but today there’s no excuse. The final gallery housed a selection of angel-themed works, made between 1972 and 2014, that sentimentalize Kabakov’s leitmotif of escape (the man flying into space from his apartment, the train leaving for the future) and put a cute Christian spin on utopia.
Reading the labels, I noticed not only that none of the “collage” pieces on view had made it into a public museum but also that all the weaker paintings were borrowed from private collections. Their owners’ deep pockets may explain the curatorial distortion of Kabakov’s image from significant installation artist to indulgent painter. This is a criminal shame, especially as Tate Modern was once an institution with the capacity to mount terrific shows of installation art, including its inaugural exhibition in this space in 2000, showcasing many of the museum’s own holdings. Its stunning retrospective of the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles in 2008 also demonstrated how rooms of large-scale installation can be shown back-to-back to thrilling effect.
As one museum after another succumbs to building expansions, one would have thought that total installation would be just the thing to fill those spaces—and who better than the Kabakovs? But no: The expansionist imperative turns out to be a vicious neoliberal cycle, locking public museums into ever-closer relationships with private money and compliance with collectors’ fainthearted tastes. The Kabakovs, and the public, deserve better.
“Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future” travels to the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, April 20 –July 29; State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, September 6, 2018–January 13, 2019.
Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.