From Russia with Love

Acclaimed art critic and film director Amei Wallach stood in front of an audience of about 30 last Thursday at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center to present clips from her work in progress, “How to Make a Paradise.” It was the first time Wallach had shown her clips publicly, and viewers were more than happy to give feedback on what they had seen.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, the internationally renowned Russian conceptual artists, married couple, and the subjects of the film, were seeing it for the first time as well. They were at the University as fellows in the Artspeaks series, and had spoken the previous night at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Nestled together in the middle of the small theater, they too had comments to offer. When asked to comment on the clips themselves, Emilia told Wallach, “We will talk later. It’s very good, but…”

The clips themselves were beautiful and intriguing, but didn’t form a coherent film, a fact which audience members kept bringing up. There was a disjunction between Wallach’s attempts to talk about the movie she is hoping to make and the audience’s persistent discussion of the clips they had just seen. Wallach struggled most to reconcile her desire to present the Kabakovs’ installation art in a comprehensive way with the knowledge that one cannot really experience the pieces through a film.

What was on display of the Kabakovs personally, however, was far more satisfying. The clips conveyed Emilia’s forceful character and her thoughtfulness for Ilya. The film will revolve around Ilya’s decision to return to Moscow for an exhibition after living in the U.S. since the late ‘80s. Clips of Ilya pacing through an empty garage-turned-gallery alternate with more interesting scenes, including an excerpt of the show’s opening in which reporters, critics, and photographers leer menacingly over the unassuming Ilya. Certainly, the screening brought to life the artist’s aching nostalgia for a Soviet utopia that never existed. Emilia’s voice ran over various pieces of the installations, exemplifying this longing: “The moment you lose your roots, you are in the air. You never, ever put your roots in another soil.”