New film tells story of two North Fork artists

Photo by Jacques de Melo | Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in the studio, 2013.

Photo by Jacques de Melo | Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in the studio, 2013.

The lives and work of internationally acclaimed Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are intimately explored in a new documentary by Mattituck art critic and filmmaker Amei Wallach, “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here,” which premiered at the New York City Film Forum last Wednesday and runs through Nov.26.

Centering on a major three-venue exhibition held in Moscow in 2008, “Enter Here” lets viewers follow along as Mr. Kabakov, 80, and his wife and collaborator, 67, install works for the retrospective, held at The Garage, a massive contemporary art space in Moscow.

Mr. Kabakov’s installations, many of which take up entire rooms, focus on life in the Soviet Union and its atmosphere of dashed utopian dreams.

“Soviet life for us is like a climate life,” Mr. Kabakov says in the film. “Every day it’s raining.”

Ms. Wallach, who spent 30 years working as an art critic for Newsday, was introduced to the Ukrainian-born artist’s work in 1987, when she traveled to Moscow for a five-part series about Glasnost, a policy introduced by then-president Mikhail Gorbachev that called for increased openness and transparency in government institutions and activities in the Soviet Union.

“A woman led me to his studio,” Ms. Wallach said of her first meeting with Mr. Kabakov, a former children’s book illustrator. She wrote a biography of him, “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away,” in 1995. “It was very clear to me that he was a major artist,” she said.

Some of the Kabakovs’ work is currently on exhibit at Manhattan’s Pace Gallery through Dec. 21.

Photo by Bill Edwards | Filmmaker Amei Wallach

Photo by Bill Edwards | Filmmaker Amei Wallach

Q: Ilya Kabakov is famously private. Did you have to convince him to let you make the documentary?

Amei Wallach: I think to this day he doesn’t like the idea. He creates characters — he doesn’t want to see himself as a character. He’s an artist and what he’s interested in is the art he makes. He doesn’t want the focus to be on him as a person, so he did not like the whole idea.

Q: Do you think Emilia played a role in persuading her husband to do the film?

AW: That was the impression I got. Emilia understood that a film was a good way to spread the word about their work to a larger American audience.

Q: What was the most challenging part of making the film?

AW: Everything. This was a tough one. Filming was quite a bit of fun, although sometimes we had to chase Ilya down and sometimes he locked the door in our face and all that. But filming was really quite exciting. I hated the fundraising — that was just awful, and the editing and structuring of this fi lm were very complicated.

My editor [on the film], Ken Kobland, was wonderful. The way we worked was piecemeal – I would start at the beginning and come up with images and scenes and then the voiceover to make this big picture that I’ve always wanted to make, which is the private life of the artist in historical context and how the clash between those two becomes art.

Q: What are the central themes you hope viewers take away from the documentary?

AW: I want people to find a way into this art, which is very rooted in history, and to get some understanding of the complexity of the history it’s rooted in: how things are never simple, how the lives we lead are never simple. Ilya’s art is so much about the very many contradictory things, and desperate things, and witty things he translates into art.