Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Happiest Man

If, today - or indeed any day for the next month or so - you exit the tube at Baker Street (my least favourite tube station to manage with a buggy and a toddler, but they're optional) battle through the waves of tourists heading for Madame Tussauds, cross the road, find the little side entrance into the University of Westmister (to the right of the main entrance, next to the public loos), carry the buggy down a rather temporary-seeming metal staircase before winding through a subterranean loading bay, hanging onto your toddler for dear life because he'd like to go and explore everything, you will eventually arrive at Ambika P3, the University of Westminster's exhibition space.  Currently, it is hosting an installation by legendary husband and wife team Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Happiest Man.

The work recreates an old fashioned cinema; classic cinema seats are lined up in front of a screen showing a loop of Soviet propaganda film from the 1930s and 1940s - think scenes of happy peasants singing as they bring in the harvest.  On one side is a little room, which one can enter and go and sit in, rather comfortably, watching the screen through the window.  There's a table and chairs, a bed, a few books (which include such things as Herman Hesse in Italian - I can only assume that the Kabakovs' London gallerist, Niccolo Sprovieri, must have raided his own bookshelves); it is the home of 'the happiest man', and entering it one 'becomes' that person, forever engrossed in happy, indeed utopian - though false - memories.  As installations go, it is totally immersive, and interestingly hard to leave. Aside from anything else, I was very comfortable sitting on a sofa in the dark - so was Sholto - and the images are very nice and cheerful - which is of course why 'the happiest man' decided to erect his little house in the middle of the cinema.  ("Mummy, me live in cinema too?  Please, please please?" Either my son didn't get the subtext, or he's got a much better developed sense of irony than the average two year old.)

Ilya told the Financial Times that it is a contemplation of the 'stupid mentality' of romanticising the past.  Kabakov himself grew up in that period - he was born in 1933 - and what is certain is that life under Stalin was no utopia.  The Great Famine of 1932-1933 is estimated to have killed approximately nine million people; so much for those joyful peasants.

This mocking of the non-utopian past links, in my mind, with the idea of exile, whether voluntary or forced.  I have interviewed the Kabakovs a couple of times, and what comes across very clearly is that while Emilia has become American - in fact, she deliberately chose America over, say, the UK, because one can become American quickly, unlike here where it takes more than one generation to be thought British - Ilya is caught somewhere between Russia and the rest of the world.  Emilia is his conduit between work and everything else. I have visited their house on Long Island, and made the mistake of suggesting that it was Russian in feel - "It is not Russian, it is American," Emilia told me very firmly, and then explained that anyone who had left had to cut all ties with the past - otherwise "you wouldn't survive. It would be unbearable."  It is a message that comes across clearly in a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, To Russia, which I have to write out in full because it is just so beautiful:

Will you leave me alone? I implore you
Dusk is ghastly.  Life's noises subside.
I am helpless.  And I am dying
Of the blind touch of your whelming tide.

He who freely abandons his country
On the heights to bewail it is free
But now I am down in the valley
and now do not come close to me.

I'm prepared to lie hidden forever
and to live without a name.  I'm prepared
Lest we only in dreams come together
all conceivable dreams to forswear.

To be drained of my blood, to be crippled,
To have done with the books I most love
for the first available idiom
to exchange all I have: my own tongue.

But for that, through the tears, oh Russia,
through the grass of two far-parted tombs
through the birch trees tremulous macules
through all that sustained me since youth

with your blind eyes, your dear eyes, cease looking
at me, oh, pity my soul,
do not rummage around in this coalpit
do not grope for my life in this hole

because years have gone by and centuries
and for sufferings, sorrow, and shame,
too late - there is no one to pardon
and no one to carry the blame.

It is the first thing that Nabokov wrote after leaving Russia, and it literally sends shivers down my spine every time I read it, because I just can't imagine how awful it must be never to be able to go home again.  And were I ever to find myself marooned on a desert island, I think that might be the poem that I would most value.  (I don't know what is going on with the upper case/ lower case beginnings of lines in the version that I found to put on here, incidentally.  I am aware that it all looks a bit odd.)  Of course, the Kabakovs are able to go back to Russia now, and do so, regularly, but it is a Russia that has changed so much, and so fast, that it is, in Emilia's words, unrecognisable from the Russia that they left - so in a sense, they still can't ever really go home.

There is no doubt that Ilya Kabakov is the most important living Russian artist - he's the father of Moscow Conceptualism - and the most expensive.  Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova reportedly paid $60 million for a collection of Ilya Kabakov's early work (the Kabakovs haven't always co-signed everything; although they've known each other all their lives - they're cousins - the didn't start working together until Ilya left the Soviet Union for the US in 1988, Emilia had left 1973,  really thinking that she could never go back. It was Ilya who drove her to the station, he told her he loved her en route, they finally married in 1992.) There are examples of his work from the 80s hanging in the Saatchi Gallery's Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960s - 1980s, which is a great exhibition focusing on a period that I am fascinated by.  I can not possibly sumarise why I am fascinated by it in a matter of pararaphs, but there's a very good book on the subject - The Irony Tower; Soviet Art in a Time of Political Glasnost by Andrew Solomon.  It's truly gripping, and certainly sets the scene for what went before The Happiest Man.

Incidentally, I told Emilia Kabakov about Sholto's wanting to live in the cinema, and she very kindly told me that he could live in their installation for as long as it was up.  So if you do see a blonde two year there when you go, it's because I'm employing the artwork as a free babysitter.

The Happiest Man is at Ambika P3, 35 Marylebone Road, NW1 until the 21st April.