Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here: Film Review

Art doc's stylistic quirks detract slightly from a sometimes fascinating portrait.

The Ukraine-born artists stage a massive Moscow exhibition decades after emigrating to the U.S.

An art doc that makes difficult work more accessible to newcomers while offering plenty of biographical insight for those who know its subjects well, Amei Wallach's Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here focuses on the two Russian emigres as they re-enter the Moscow art scene decades after fleeing to America. The Kabakoname is much less famous than that of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, the subject of Wallach's first film, meaning theatrical prospects are limited to museum screenings and special bookings in art-savvy cities like this one. The doc should have a more robust life on video.

The Kabakovs are largely known for conceptual installation work of the sort they're creating here: One part of their Moscow project involves building a fake museum within a vast contemporary art space and stocking it with ersatz work by painters who never existed. (To many viewers, it will appear that Ilya is the sole artist, with wife Emilia handling logistics; the film never discusses their decision to share credit.)

This piece and others draw heavily on both Ilya's childhood (especially his mother's impressive dedication to getting him an education) and on the scene in which he became an artist. He and his Russian peers discuss the hermetic environment of their youth, in which painters showed work almost exclusively to each other; they had a "life under the floor," we're told, in which they were well paid for illustrating children's books but couldn't be recognized for the art they cared about. Kabakov's pointedly political work stood out, and he eventually moved to Long Island, New York, where he could paint and exhibit in the open.

Wallach's presentation of biographical material is somewhat herky-jerky in its chronology, but that isn't nearly as distracting as the decisions she makes about visual presentation. Often seeming incapable of looking at a single thing at once, she overlaps images of installations with mundane office footage in ways that add nothing; when showing an interviewee, she often employs a haphazard blur to crop out just the talking head and superimposes it on an unrelated scene. One or two decisions are laughably wrongheaded -- as when the artist is discussing his recurring motif of a housefly, and the subtitles start climbing upside-down around the screen. Elsewhere, the decision to subtitle some material and dub other subjects in English seems arbitrary.

Still, the conceptual range and peculiar personality of the artwork comes across well in the film, as does Ilya's concern about returning to a country that has been made nearly unrecognizable by capitalist consumerism in the years since he left. Young Russians, surrounded by billboards and unfamiliar with the deprivations he endured in the Thirties and Forties, might need a film explaining his viewpoint as much as Westerners do.

Director-Producer: Amei Wallach

Director of photography-Editor: Ken Kobland

No rating, 102 minutes