Frontiers of Fantasy, Narrative, and Art: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

by Valentina Salvatierra

The title of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s recent exhibit at the Tate Modern could well be a work of flash fiction. Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future: a suggestively blunt statement that speaks to the limits of utopia and ideologies of progress and raises questions about the fates of those who are to be left behind. Taken at face value, it is aphoristic: of course we are all constantly and inevitably being taken into the future by the unstoppable passage of time. The exhibit develops the aphorism contained in its title by offering up metaphoric, symbolic interpretations of the future that belie simplistic understandings of progress.

Among the symbolic entities one encounters when walking through the 10 rooms that comprise the exhibit at the Tate Modern there are angels, giants in a two-tiered art gallery, physical theories about the Universe’s invisible energies, and tiny inter-dimensional men. These elements of fantasy and science fiction, of a renunciation of strictly realist art, are what I would like to focus on in this discussion of the Kabakovs’ exhibit. Fantastical figures are juxtaposed with desolate, realist narratives of Soviet life in the 20th century, especially in the bleakly auto-biographical Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) (1990) that tells, through a long-winded letter in the first person, the story of Ilya’s mother. This contrast raises a question about the role of non-realist representational art (visual, literary, or both) in an allegedly rationalized world where the enchantments of supernatural phenomena such as religion no longer hold sway or generate social cohesion. What are the prospects of fantasy in the ‘disenchanted’ worlds of Soviet historical materialism or contemporary capitalist consumerism?

The USSR has been variably hailed either as the brave realization of a utopian project or as its opposite, a dystopia that perverted the true values of socialist communism. Definitional disputes of utopia versus dystopia aside, it may suffice to say that the alleged utopia of Soviet society was certainly not experienced as such by every one of its inhabitants. A few exhibit pieces are directly critical of the failures of the Soviet project, such as By December 25 in Our District (1983), a painting that presents a numbered list of all the great works that would have been accomplished by that date superimposed on an image of a dreary industrial landscape that appears implacably under construction. The criticism here is towards the unfulfilled promises of Soviet socialism, but there are also deeper critiques about what socialism can do to human existence.

In The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment (1985, pictured below), Ilya Kabakov explores the desire to escape from a circumscribed existence within a supposedly utopian blueprint. This installation piece immerses the visitor in the story of a man who builds a sort of trampoline in his cramped flat in a shared Soviet-era flat in order to enter an invisible flow of energy that permeates the Universe. We see his room as it was left after this escape, and can read eye-witness reports from his neighbors that narrate this man’s life and plans. For instance, ‘Nikolaev’, one of his neighbors, provides the following account of the man’s ‘grand theory’:

He imagined the entire Universe to be permeated by huge sheets of energy which ‘lead upward somewhere’. These gigantic upward streams he called ‘petals’. The plane of movement of the fallacies, stars and planets does not correspond to the direction of the energy of these petals, but intersects them, periodically passing through them.

This extract could come from a science fiction or fantasy narrative rather than from a piece of installation art. In this work, fantasy could be considered a means of escape from reality, with all the negative connotations that ‘escapist’ art traditionally carries. It is significant that this escapism is from the communal living under socialism, insinuating that fabulation is an individualist pursuit: it is used to escape psychologically rather than engage in social and communal realities.



The individualist nature of fantasy, however, is belied by at least two pieces of later work in the Kobakovs’ oeuvre. Crucially, the later work by the Kobakovs that gives its title to the exhibit uses an allegorical image of the ‘future’ as a departing train that leaves scattered debris and anonymous artworks in its wake. Occupying a whole room, Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future is a rejoinder to accusations of individualism in fantasy insofar as it effectively flips the discussion. After reading the back-story to the installation, the visitor is apparently plunged into a surrealist painting. Here, the community turns its back on certain individuals, those who do not fit into that specific community’s vision of progress and the future. The work forces the viewers to assume the perspective of one of those left behind, and therefore reflect upon the consequences of exclusionary social projects. While the Kabakovs may draw their inspiration from Soviet socialism, this resounds today in projects such as post-Brexit Britain, Trump’s America, or Bolivarian Venezuela that explicitly do not consider certain segments (recent migrants in the case of Britain and the US; opponents of the ‘Revolution’ in Venezuela’s) as fit for inclusion in their bright future. Therefore, far from being escapist, the Kabakovs’ work engages with the brutality of real individuals and communities, even when deploying surreal imagery.

In the contemporary world of capitalism, theistic religion is no longer what binds communities together, even if it can be an important source of individual meaning. As sociologists of religion from Weber onward have argued, the modern world is characterized by the devaluation of anything beyond material, rational criteria [1]. What is the point of re-accessing enchantment when the world brought about by capitalism is supposedly characterized by disenchantment? Furthermore, are there ways to re-access enchantment beyond theistic religion? Both these questions are explored through the Kabakovs’ use of fantasy, and specifically through their portrayals of two types of non-human beings: the little white men, and the angels. Unlike religious thought, the Kabakovs’ work does not (necessarily?) claim that angels and little white men exist in ‘reality’. Nonetheless, these beings still have significance as symbolic vessels for understanding this reality.

The first supernatural beings that one encounters in the exhibit are the little white men. As the text that accompanies Trousers in the Corner (1989, text pictured below) explains, these diminutive figures sometimes turn up in our world but are in fact  ‘inhabitants of completely different worlds’. Why are they here, one wonders? These little white men are the narrator’s project in ‘The Mental Institution or Institute of Creative Research’ – it was not clear to me whether it was simultaneously both, or whether as viewers we have to decide which classification seems more plausible. There is a parallel between the seeing-beyond of the artist and of the madman, the setting of this textile and paper installation-narrative implies. In the Kabakovs’ work it gradually emerges that the fantastic is not out there but within us, in contrast with Judeo-Christian theism.



In the writing that contextualizes the large-scale wood Model for How To Meet an Angel (1998/2002, pictured below), the Kabakovs explain that, although people have assumed angels are fictional, they do in fact exist. The catch is that to encounter them one must be in extreme circumstances, in a ‘crisis moment’ of one’s life – and the model represents a contraption that by taking a subject to extremely high altitudes and inhospitable conditions can force the encounter. Angels are divorced from their religious connotations to become tools of self-help, or even self-improvement.



The actualization of the figure of the angel for a non-religious era is taken one step further in the mixed media How To Change Oneself (1998). This piece presents an intricately beautiful set of angel wings accompanied by instructions, both hand-written and typed, for ‘improving oneself’ by donning hand-made angel wings for a certain amount of time every day. The satirically playful ‘how-to’ is reminiscent of contemporary injunctions to meditate some minutes each day in order to improve our mental health, or to exercise frequently to avoid the health perils of sedentary lifestyles. At the same time, it is a poignant exploration of the difficulty of achieving deep, lasting personal improvement. Finally, the piece highlights that in the Kabakovs’ fantasy universe, the super-natural and the magical is not externally given but inhabits inside of us, and is dependent on our state of mind. Such a shift in perspective is, perhaps, a tool for maintaining hope and motivation in a world that often appears characterized by external coercion and spiritual poverty.

In this same line, the Kabakovs’ work explores the role of perspective in apprehending both the real and the fantastical. Interpretation of both art and reality are in the eye of the beholder, as The Answers Of An Experimental Group (1970-71) is saying through the multi-vocal interpretation on the left panel of a series of seemingly random household objects on the right. Each speaker has a different thing to say about the sparse objects, ranging from the despairing ‘I don’t understand anything’ to the pragmatic ‘I will hang my new raincoat here’. In later paintings, the idea of perspective crops up again. The Two Times series of paintings super-impose in a collage-like style images ‘reminiscent of seventeenth-century painting with glimpses of everyday Soviet life’ [2]. Every viewer might choose to foreground one or the other. Additional complexity in the interpretation is added considering that the scenes of Soviet life are just as much a part of history, viewed in 2017, as the 17th century paintings. This highlights the evanescent nature of the contemporary, which always depends on the observer’s vantage point. Can we ever actually apprehend reality, then? Can we even say there is a reality behind what we see? Three Nights (1989) provides some suggestive guidance on possible answers to these questions.

Three Nights is a room-sized piece, made up of three large-scale paintings on three adjacent walls which are partially covered by a wooden paneling structure, and which can be viewed through three respective telescopes within the wooden structure. Accompanying text explains that these supposedly anonymous works arrived mysteriously at the museum and were later discovered to contain ‘little white men’ in certain areas of their surface. These are revealed when the paintings are viewed through the telescopes: tiny white aliens invading in neat little lines. The paintings are subject to different interpretations if viewed separately, as a whole within the installation, or through each telescope. We can never see the whole paintings; the pseudo-history of the paintings consolidates the uncertainty around which interpretation, if any, is appropriate. Even though there is ultimately a reality beyond the multiple perspectives, we inevitably adopt some perspective for viewing it, and this perspective determines what aspect of reality is visible, and what is obscured.

Emilia Kabakov has said that ‘reality can never be seen straight on but is always obscured either on purpose or by necessity’ [3]. If, as Zizek has argued, a certain twentieth-century thirst for reality is in fact a way to avoid confronting it [4], then perhaps a better way to approach the real is through the fantastical. In their work, the Kabakovs sometimes practice the deliberate concealment of reality, for instance through fabricated back-stories that contextualize their works as that of past artists or the work of fictional characters. They are also aware of the need to interrogate our notions of reality regarding the observation of both present and future. In Two Observers Nr. 2 (Right Part Of Diptych) (1989, pictured below), the two observers from the title are tiny figures, gazing at an alien-like white oval suspended in the sky over the coast. This surreal image could represent a visitor from far-away, but in the wider context of the exhibit it could also be read as an allegory for the future – either as a void, or as an over-illuminated reality too bright to be directly observed. The future cannot be directly observed; the Kabakovs instead deploy fantasy and metaphor to explore notions of future, utopia, and social reality.



Through their narrative-infused work, the Kabakovs push the boundaries between visual art and literature, as well as exploring the links between art, ideology, and social life. Their work exemplifies the role of fantasy in critiquing the bleak materialism that both socialism and capitalism tend to provoke and shows how daily realities can be transformed when observed through a different lens.


[1] For a contemporary sociological discussion of Weber’s ‘disenchantment’ thesis, see Richard Jenkins, ‘Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium’, Max Weber Studies, 1.1 (2000), 11–32.

[2] Katy Tan, ‘Exhibit Leaflet & Curatorial Texts for “Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future”’ (Tate Modern, 2017).

[3] Tan.

[4] Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (London: Verso, 2002).

Valentina Salvatierra is a student on the MA Contemporary Literature & Culture at Birkbeck.

Author: CCL

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