Film Review: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here

The lives of two important artists, as well as their homeland of Russia, are vibrantly explored in this stirring documentary.

The spotlight of Amei Wallach's wonderfully watchable documentary is on Russia's most celebrated visual artists, the husband-and-wife team of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Although they initially look like any rather well-heeled, dignified elderly couple, there are volumes of turbulent personal and political history within them, as well as an unending, abundant creativity. Now U.S. citizens, they return to Putin's Moscow for the first retrospective of Ilya's work in the country of their birth.

As well as being a portrait of the artists, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here is also a highly personal history of Russia from the last century. Ilya describes the three phases of his life there: the early idealistic days of Communism, followed by the grim, totalitarian bloodbath of Stalinism, and then a period of placid conformity to the system, which had its own particular repulsiveness for him. These repressive eras and his feelings about them are expressed in his vividly conceptual work—fiendishly clever yet also deeply moving—which often takes the form of installations and environments, be they completely reconstructed and very sad and dismal deserted Russian schoolhouses or grimy communal kitchens familiar to him from his youth.

The artist is forever haunted by memories of his tough youth, born a Jew in 1933, at the time of a devastating famine orchestrated by Stalin, which killed some two million people. A letter written to him at his behest by his mother at age 80, recounting her hard life, is key. Arriving back in Russia, where his work was once forbidden, in a post-Communist era, he wonders how his art, so redolent of a past century quickly receding, will be received in the glittering orgy of capitalism that is the new Moscow. Despite the new freedoms enjoyed, Ilya finds himself at odds with much of what he sees, like the gussied-up Hermitage, preferring it in its former, sadder days when its very grimness provided more effective a background—a veritable temple to him—against which masterpieces by Da Vinci and such could pop.

Granted terrifically complete access, Wallach's camera captures the Kabakovs, a truly engaging couple, with an invigorating, inviting intimacy. Emilia provides an essential, practical-minded common sense to their relationship, while Ilya is all immediate emotion and artistic fervor. At one point, pleading for exhibition money from a foundation, she tries to dissuade him from attending the meeting, but he comes anyway and embarrassingly pronounces the program "garbage." She cringes, but it so happens that one of the powers-that-be heartily concurs with Ilya: happy ending. The Moscow exhibit is a deserved triumph, but Ilya's basic salt-of-the-earth quality remains unpolluted by the flash of adulation and paparazzi cameras. Watching his installations being assembled, he notes with a wryly bemused nostalgia, "Everyone is so serious, filming everything. They're like spies."