Out on the open ground not far from the buildings
an abandoned newspaper has lain for months, full of events.
It grows old through nights and days in rain and sun,
on the way to becoming a plant, a cabbage head, on the way to being
            united with the earth.
Just as a memory is slowly transmuted into your own self.

—“About History” by Tomas Tranströmer (from Bells and Tracks)

Ilya and Emillia Kabakov

Ilya Kabakov has spent his life as a painter and conceptual artist reconfiguring his experiences as a citizen of the Soviet Union into installations (and paintings) where the everyday banal tears at his country’s utopian aspirations and the disastrous social climate they created. In 2008 Ilya and his wife and co-conspirator Emilia traveled from their home on Long Island back to Moscow for an ambitious showcase of their work, and Amei Wallach’s documentary uses this trip as a loose structuring device. The movie opens as the couple disappear into and out of a throng of darkened faces at the show, the camera doing its best to discern them clearly: this is something like what Wallach is up against in documenting (and editorializing) their story.  

Sad-eyed and jowly, Ilya walks in circles around the massive warehouse where one of his installations will soon be housed and, as he describes in voiceover the feeling of someone “in the background . . . controlling your life,” Wallach cuts to Emilia conducting business on a cell phone. Ilya is a somewhat inscrutable figure whose artwork, with its immersive environments made of allusive personal references and partial narratives, depicts the history and historical forces that made him who he is. Blunt or reductive as moments like the above might be, Wallach goes for psychodrama: in the black-and-white ripples of a puddle reflecting the shadow of his old Soviet-era studio an in-color Ilya appears via the power of digital manipulation to declare that his mother was “in total denial of the reality around her.”

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here

Wallach’s documentary on the Kabakovs is an overview of her subjects’ work, a re-telling of 20th-century Russian culture, and an example of creative mimicry, the complexity of the art under discussion reflected and addressed by using similar tactics. One of the Kabakovs’ installations features reminiscences from Ilya’s mother paired with images of depopulated landscapes hung on wall after wall in hallway after hallway. Wallach’s camera tracks along these reminiscence-portraits in wide-shot while a frame-within-the-frame does so in close-up, the forward momentum and disorienting repetitiveness of the installation (appropriately titled Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)) made abundantly clear. In another work, hundreds of plastic flies dangle from fishing wire: the fly is Kabakov’s symbol (and avatar) of choice and, as he explains this to Wallach, white subtitles run sideways and upside-down around the artist’s head, creating a frame (within the frame). If the pretensions of the technique are grating (and maybe a bit simplistic), these “It’s easier if I just show you” formal echoes of the Kabakovs’ work remain amusing.

The tragic course of Ilya’s mother, told in her own words after years of requests from her son, lends another structuring device to the film (and to Kabakov’s artwork). At one point, her writings accompany shots of an open door in an empty corridor, conjuring an air of mystery by which memory replaces the material and reality wobbles. The scope and multiple moving parts of the Kabakovs’ projects are difficult to summarize, let alone dissect. Wallach, an art critic and longtime Kabakov scholar, has undertaken a considerable challenge: the Kabakovs’ life is their work (and vice versa); their work contextualizes their personalities and motivations (and vice versa); and, for all the scholars and friends who offer their insights on what ends where and how and why, the Kabakovs and their work remain profound in their impact yet endearingly out of reach.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here

So Wallach and editor/cinematographer Ken Kobland go for broke in conveying the Kabakovs’ ironic layering of hopes and dreams over the busted real. Talking heads are superimposed over images of the art; a clip from Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin hovers in a rectangle slowly pivoting next to one of Ilya’s paintings, the aircraft within the black-and-white film in counterpoint to his mockery of too-sunny-too-be-true propaganda. That painting, part of an installation called The Red Wagon, hangs inside a trailer refashioned as an auditorium, a viewing space that puts one more twist on the Vertov clip.

When Emilia visits her grandmother’s house, given a tour by an unidentified old lady, the cluttered house, which looks to be still inhabited, resembles one of the couple’s installations. Ilya doesn’t accompany Emilia, which she thinks is for the best (even if he does “thrive on negative emotion”). But on the edge of a table next to a bowl of pockmarked apples, Wallach superimposes a CGI fly, and with the talk of dreams at the edge of the real and alternate histories, it isn’t difficult to imagine the fly as Ilya’s form of visitation. Or at least it’s a reminder, as if one were needed, that this man’s life is caught in a constant catching up with the past—the one he lived and those only imagined.