Installations sit at the border between art and theatre. I usually concentrate on writing about the latter, but I find the self-consciously theatrical stage-set installations of Ilya Kabakov give me endless fascination in a way that most contemporary art doesn't.
Kabakov, born in Dnepropetrovsk nearly 80 years ago, left the Soviet Union in 1985 but all his work looks backwards towards it. Many Russians experience a form of artistic nostalgia for the USSR, but Kabakov was in the nostalgia business well before the Soviet Union disintegrated and vanished -- an event which the current generation of post-Soviet artists has yet to fully digest.
The Happiest Man, now showing in a cavernous bunker known as Ambika P3 underneath the University of Westminster, is different from many of Kabakov's installations in one respect; it is entirely devoid of written or printed text, relying on a mixture of three-dimensional space and two-dimensional moving images with music. The space has been reconfigured as a cinema with rows of vintage red plush seats, while on the screen there is an endlessly repeated 20-minute loop made up of song clips from late-Stalin period movies. Pride of place goes to The Kuban Cossacks (Kubanskie Kazaki), made in 1949 in a Soviet colour process known, ever so appropriately, as 'Magicolor'. This film -- locked away in the vaults when I lived in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s -- is a utopian fantasy about the glories of collective farming, relentlessly cheerful, absurdly optimistic and lyrical. It fits Kabakov's nostalgia for the world of his youth perfectly. The core of the installation is a small enclosed room, whose most important feature is a curtained window looking directly at the cinema screen. The room is furnished with the basic comforts that a respected Soviet citizen might have enjoyed in about 1949 -- a bed, a table and four chairs, two or three items of other furniture and some lamps and nondescript pictures. Stalin and communist propaganda are absent from the scene, as is the 'happiest man' himself. Crossing the threshold into the room, one is left imagining him looking out through the window which divides fantasy from reality. Except that the room itself is almost as much a fiction as the coloured moving images and the jolly Dunayevsky ballads that the man is watching.
What the installation captures above all is the timelessness and immobility of the Stalinist vision, in which life has become so perfect that no 'further perfection' (dalney'shee sovershenstvovanie) is possible. It's a world in which time has been suspended altogether. Unfortunately for a London audience with no working knowledge of the Soviet context, much of the meaning may be a bit remote.
Kabakov's best interpreter and critic Boris Groys has written extensively about his installations, especially The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment, from which the central hero has also mysteriously vanished. Groys writes: 'Kabakov's relationship to his 'hero' is ambivalent in the extreme. He shares his protagonist's utopia even as he distances himself from it. In fact this ambivalence is present consistently in Kabakov's work as a whole. As a rule he doesn't work under his own name; instead he makes up names of fictional artists --alter egos and doppelgaengers.' What I enjoy in Kabakov's work is not just the evocation of a Soviet past which is also part of my mental landscape, but the layers of ambiguity he creates in conceptualising and recreating it. In literary terms, he's an unreliable narrator.