Ilya Kabakov was born in the Soviet Union in 1933. He worked as an illustrator of children’s books, while at the same time producing unofficial Conceptual art. Since moving to the West in 1980, he has focused on large-scale installations. He lives in New York and Paris with his wife and collaborator Emilia.
Set in Russia against the background of the Revolution, the convulsions of war, and Stalinism, Labyrinth is presented as the autobiography of Bailey Solodukhina. She is one of a host of fictitious characters whose dreams and disappointments are narrated through Ilya Kabakov’s albums and installations. His works draw on his own experience of the Soviet Union, where he lived until the 1980s.
Adapting the narrative legacy of Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Chekhov, Kabakov creates a ‘three-dimensional novel’. Two parallel stories are told as the viewer walks through a winding corridor that recalls the dim lighting and shabby decor of the communal apartments of Moscow. In a series of texts, hung on the wall, Solodukhina recounts the hopes, deprivations and uncertainties of her lifelong struggle for survival, adopting an even tone that implies simply, ‘this is normal’. Her life story is collaged with photographs, the so-called ‘pictures of happiness’ that officially documented life in the Soviet Union as an inevitable progress towards a joyous future. As we follow the corridor inwards the sound of muffled singing - Kabakov’s own voice - gets louder. But once in the small room at the heart of the maze we find only a pile of discarded boards, sticks and panelling.
This labyrinthine archive, constructed with the artist’s wife, Emilia Kabakov, can be seen as a microcosm of Soviet culture, bureaucracy, the museum, everyday life and one individual’s memories. It ironically juxtaposes the promise of utopia with disillusionment, the frustrations of enforced communality with the pleasures of fellowship, the profoundly tragic with the comically absurd.