Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future review: grim, heart-rending and brilliant

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This exhibition isn’t so much a retrospective of two of Soviet Russia’s most important underground artists as it is a retrospective of late-Soviet Russia itself. And while the Royal Academy attracted some criticism for the celebratory nautre of its Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 earlier this year, there’s no fear of that here.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future displays the works of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (now married, though their collaboration precedes this), a pair of conceptual artists who refused to practice their craft within the stifling constraints of state-sanctioned social realism, instead producing strange and wonderful things out of sight in grim residential blocks and improvised studios.

Their cross-medium works are deliberately hard to categorise, with the pair presenting many pieces as the work of fictional artists, parodying the staid art of the regime, or the absurdity of living under Soviet bureaucracy. Arbitrary, found objects often find their way into canvases – coat hangers, shovels, mannequin arms – a comment on how the regime would pore over every-day items, worming its way into every facet of life.

The most exciting pieces, however, are the installations. One consists of an impossible warren of dour, institutional corridors, the walls hung with family diaries and photographs detailing life in Communist Russia (the pair lived there until 1973 and 1987 respectively). It even smells like a different time.

Flight and escape is a recurring theme, with flies and angels often appearing. One installation is a boarded up room in which a makeshift catapult has fired the occupant into space; at once humorous and deeply depressing. “Little people” also appear in many works, tiny cutouts clambering over objects, or, in one case, painted on vast canvases so small you can only see them through a telescope.

In other works the viewer can only see fragments of an image through swirls of smoke, or small squares of an unseen bigger picture. It all screams of quiet frustration, of people trying in vain to escape a terrible, unknowable machine.