Unfinished Business: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov


A new documentary tells the story of a prodigal son of the Russian underground returning to his changed homeland. New York-based filmmaker Amei Wallach’s dynamic film Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here (2013) follows Ilya Kabakov, 80, and his wife/collaborator, Emilia, 68, on their 2008 return to Moscow on the occasion of a massive retrospective that spanned six venues, including the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture and the Pushkin Museum. Ilya Kabakov fled to the West in 1987, eventually settling in the United States, and subsequently became one of the most critically celebrated Russian artists of the 20th century. Despite such success, Kabakov avoided returning to Russia for over 20 years, using this occasion as the opportunity to become acquainted with post-Soviet Moscow.

Enter Here ventures deeply into Ilya Kabakov’s biography, work, and psyche. Wallach focuses on Ilya’s time in Moscow’s avant-garde scene during the ’70s and ’80s, the couple’s current life in their Long Island studio and Ilya’s anxiety and conflicted emotions about traveling to post-communist Russia. The film features interviews with both of the artists as well as art-world figures such as Garage founder Dasha Zhukova and Yale School of Art dean Robert Storr. Wallach uses these testimonies to narrate footage of the intricate, multimedia “total installations” for which the pair have become known.

After a brief run at New York’s Film Forum in November 2013, Enter Here has been picked up by First Run Features and will have wider U.S. and Canadian distribution in the coming year.

Wallach discussed her film with A.i.A. in a phone interview, talking about her connection to the Kabakovs, their success and the results of the trip to Moscow.

KERRY GAERTNER GERBRACHT How did you meet Ilya Kabakov?

AMEI WALLACH I first met Ilya in 1987 in Moscow, when I was chief art critic for New York Newsday. Glasnost was widely seen as propaganda in the U.S. but everybody [in Russia] was being allowed to do things that they had never been allowed to do since Khrushchev. They were very excited and very scared; they thought it was all going to go backwards. I had heard of Kabakov and asked around how to meet him. I avoided my KGB handler and I was taken to his studio. It was very clear to me that this was a major artist.

GAERTNER GERBRACHT Kabakov seems to have had more success in Europe than the U.S. In the film Robert Storr says that “America has been slow to understand him.” Why do you think this is the case?

WALLACH It’s very hard for me to understand that exactly. He’s been in every museum in Europe over and over and over. The Pompidou, the Tate and everywhere. So how do I understand it? I don’t know. He hasn’t had any big museum shows, and I think that’s what it’s really about. And I also think that when he first showed here he was taken into everybody’s bosom as somebody who was revealing the psychological weight of everyday life in the Soviet Union, and that was very exotic. And you know how it is-when the exotic stuff is over nobody cares. So nobody paid enough attention to realize that this work, which uses Soviet vocabularies, images, traumas and ironies as a language, is in actual fact universal.

GAERTNER GERBRACHT How would you describe those Soviet vocabularies?

WALLACH The people who lived under the Soviet regime are very suspicious and ironic about any system, and therefore they’re going to really probe it and take it apart and play with it. Whereas Americans buy into certain things. I think there’s a level of naiveté even now in the United States that there just isn’t in Russia. And that might have to do with the Europeans accepting Kabakov in a way that Americans don’t because in his work there really is slippery layer after slippery layer after slippery layer.

GAERTNER GERBRACHT Do you think the return to Moscow changed Ilya in any way?

WALLACH The shows in Moscow were what one critic calls his life’s work. That’s the last big installation he’s done. He came back to America and ever since he’s been back he’s been doing big paintings that go back to the Baroque, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, and to the big humanistic questions. It was a big change. It was like he got something off his chest. That doesn’t mean he won’t do installations again, but that seemed like one of these moments that settled something.

One of the reasons he was afraid of going back to Moscow was that he had a certain kernel that was born in that situation, and he was afraid that he would lose it by going to the new Moscow. But he didn’t. The fact is, that kernel is there. It’s internalized.