Ilya and Emilia Kabakov review – Russia’s great escape artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov review – Russia’s great escape artists - ImagesGram

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov review – Russia’s great escape artists

Tate Modern, London
The grim realities of life in the USSR become universal nightmare in the compelling, tragicomic work of the Kabakovs

Down a murky corridor hung with old overcoats is a narrow gap in the wall. You stand sardine-tight with your neighbour to see into the cramped chamber beyond. Here the walls are papered with optimistic posters of Soviet life, but the furnishings are abysmal and the floor thick with old rubble. Whoever lived here has gone, leaving nothing but a strange contraption of springs and straps dangling from the roof. Look up and you realise it must be some kind of makeshift ejector, for there is a spectacular hole in the ceiling.

The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment is based on the communal Moscow flat where Ilya Kabakov once lived. It is a one-room catharsis. All the deprivation endured by millions of Russians through the 20th century is crowned with an exhilarating vision of escape (and a jab at the Soviet space race too). If only it was not so impossible, this collective dream.

Kabakov was born in the former Ukrainian SSR in 1933. He is a poet of a painter, a storyteller of a sculptor and, with his wife, Emilia (born 1945, also in the Ukraine), a pioneer of the total installation. This famous piece, from 1985, grew into a historic masterpiece called Ten Characters, shown when the Kabakovs had managed to emigrate to New York in 1988. Each character had a room in what amounted to two walk-through apartments: the man so short he wanted everybody else to hunch over; the talentless artist who got masses of official work; the tenant who never threw anything away. You can see his cell at Tate Modern, every object labelled and displayed in case he lost the memories associated with a lifetime’s junk, into which he has vanished.