If you were asked to name a well-known living Russian artist, the first you would probably mention is Ilya Kabakov (if any of course). As an artist, Ilya works with his wife Emilia, and together, as the Kabakovs, they are not only world-famous but as such, they are also considerably well to do. Rich is a relative concept of course – even some millionaires consider themselves ‘not so rich’ – but if you have ever been in the Kabakov residence in Long Island, the last thing you would call them is poor. And yet this is the title of the documentary that premiered today in Garage in Moscow: ‘Poor Folk. Kabakovs’.
I have had the luck, the privilege and the pleasure to work with the Kabakovs several times, and if all goes well, we have a few projects ahead of us. So I got the chance to fly to Moscow to attend the premiere of the documentary, see the former Kabakov studio, talk to some colleagues and collectors and attend the opening of the show in the New Tretyakov. And now, here I am, sitting in the back of the Garage Summer Cinema after a few drinks and a bite to eat, together with the happy few of the international flying art circus. We are always in search of something new, and we go a long way to find it. And here it is now.
So why are the Kabakovs poor folk according to the director of the documentary, Anton Zhelnov? You must know that ‘Poor Folk’ is the title of the first novel of Dostoevsky and that the main characters in this exchange of letters are a man and a woman who are second cousins. Now Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are second cousins as well, but only this fact would make a weak connection to Dostoevsky and his poor folk. In the documentary, Ilya explains a lot about Soviet life and how it affected his creative work. Gradually it becomes clear that he considers the whole Soviet experiment a total failure and the people that had to endure this, including Emilia and himself, he sees as ‘Poor Folk’.
This documentary is quite revelatory about Ilya’s youth and his artistic ideas. We follow him from book illustrator to unofficial artist and then to an official artist in the contemporary sense. Ilya tells us in detail how Soviet life sucked and how he managed to escape it in the other world, that of art. Also, the intense relationship with his mother is well addressed. Ilya answers a lot of questions that I would have liked to ask him myself. The images of Ilya working in his studio and Emilia installing the exhibition in the Hermitage are well photographed and the montage gives you the time to look at them. But the many entr’actes with computer animations after Kabakov themes in this documentary really put me off. Why not just let Ilya and Emilia talk and show how they work? And in the end, I think this documentary could also be more concise.
Now I had to write all this to you before going to sleep in a luxury hotel in Moscow, with more of these meetings to come in the next days.