Rarely has an art gallery appeared onscreen with more excitement than the ones in Ilya And Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here. Director Amei Wallach plunges into her subjects’ displays with breathless energy, gliding her camera through artificially constructed museum sets and the head-turning, nakedly confrontational works that inhabit them. She uses extreme close-ups, superimposed talking heads, archival footage of Soviet life, and anything else she can get her hands on to explain the philosophy behind each piece. At times, it’s hard to imagine how a real, physical visit to a Kabakov exhibit could improve upon Wallach’s film, which plays like the world’s trippiest docent.
This kind of tactic is appropriate for a feature on Ilya Kabakov, whose authority-defying work emphasizes total immersion. Born in 1933 in Stalinist Ukraine, Kabakov lived under Communism for more than five decades as an “official artist” (read: children’s-book illustrator) before leaving the Soviet Union in the 1980s to pursue more ambitious, “unofficial” works, away from his government’s ever-watchful eye. “You have to decide, at a certain point, what it is you want to be for your country,” his wife and business manager Emilia explains. Kabakov’s landscapes are gigantic, lush, layered objects of dissent, from a full-scale recreation of an abandoned Soviet-era school in Marfa, Texas, to an entire “Alternative History of Art” gallery that attributes his original work to fictional painters with elaborate backstories.
The film follows the Kabakovs as they prepare an incredibly ambitious, three-part installation of new work in Moscow in 2008—only Ilya’s second return to Russia since the Iron Curtain fell, and the first he seems to be taking seriously as a homecoming. His team decides to move its art into venues not designed to be galleries (including an abandoned, nefarious-looking garage once featured in Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera). Wallach draws some of her best footage from the preparation, following Kabakov from a distance as he wanders through the cavernous staging, his back to the camera, pondering whether a young Moscow that has forgotten Stalin will still find relevance in his life’s work.
Despite the title’s presumption that the film will be a joint portrait of the artist and his wife, most of the runtime is concerned with Ilya, with only a brief aside for Emilia’s childhood home. Considering that Emilia is also Ilya’s niece on his father’s side, and that Ilya deeply resented his father for failing to support the loveless family he had created, there are some Freudian undertones here that Wallach is neglecting to explore. Also largely glossed over: the couple’s Judaism, which, given the climate they grew up in, could have informed much of the way they view the world.
It’s clear that Enter Here is meant to function at least partially as a promotional tool for Kabakov’s reputation; there’s a lack of serious criticism about his work, and almost no discussion of his personal life. But Wallach, an art critic and the co-director of a 2008 documentary about Louise Bourgeois, knows how to grasp for broader historical themes within the parameters of a simple biography. She turns Kabakov’s story into one of epic resilience, and, via letters of hardship written by his mother, taps into the deeply personal yet universal wounds felt by Communism’s working class.
And then there is a spontaneous moment that, for pure striking effect, will be hard to top in cinema this year. The man who spent half his life in mortal fear of the surveillance state pauses in the midst of frenzied planning to glance at Wallach’s camera and say, with a mischievous grin: “They’re filming everything. They’re like spies, everywhere."