Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Happiest Man (****) and Two Mountains (**)

Ambika P3, London/ Sprovieri Gallery, London

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The Independent Culture

Ambika P3 is a vast gallery underneath the University of Westminster campus at Baker Street. It is difficult to find, but more than worth the effort.

Furnished with red seats and a towering projector screen, the space has been transformed into a Soviet era cinema, wherein you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the brainwashing effects of Stalinist propaganda films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Flush-cheeked, flaxen-haired young women dance and sing in unison amidst shining fields of wheat; bales are rolled; hay is forked. Everyone labours in harmony with robustness and joy. This technicolour vision of happiness is surreal and fascinating.

These films were made during the most violent years of Stalinist rule, when Socialist Realism was sanctioned by the state and other art forms were banned. The regime decreed that art should idealize the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Stalin’s own words, the artist should be “an engineer of the human soul.”

The cinema is a new “total installation” by New York based Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. A husband and wife team, they have been collaborating since leaving the USSR in the late 80s. Born in 1933, Ilya Kabakov was a children’s illustrator for many years while producing unofficial experimental art. Since 2008, he has held the title of Russia’s most expensive living artist.

Towards the back of the cinema, there is a small room. The door is ajar, the light is on. Inside, the décor is brown, homely, and twee. A table has been set for tea, the bed is made, a man’s trousers have been draped over a chair.

The cinema screen appears through the window of the room, so that the propaganda films look like a view onto another, better, but impossible world. You can sit on one of the chairs or the sofa and watch the films.

This is an uncannily powerful trick. It is an optical illusion that contrasts the dowdy ordinariness of the room with the glamour of utopian youth. The effect is dazzling.

The Kabakovs’ series of paintings and sculptures at Sprovieri Gallery do not seem to be created by the same artists. They are strikingly different: sentimental oils of mountains, mirrored and doubled. Figures appear stranded between watery blue and green reflections.

The paintings possess none of the astuteness of the cinema installation, but they too refer to an upside down world in which truth is inverted.