Alexeev and the APTART artists illustrate the degree to which “unofficial” artists in the USSR were restricted to private, enclosed spaces. Apartment performances were explosive powder kegs, begging to find a larger audience. Perhaps it was this sense of claustrophobia that catalyzed the large, immersive installations that the Kabakovs would make later in their careers, following the years that Ilya spent making paintings and sculptures as an “unofficial” artist working in his Moscow studio in the 1960s and ’70s. After all, Ilya’s The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment (1985) explicitly deals with this tension between confinement and exploration.
Having moved to New York in the late ’80s, the Kabakovs deal in flights of fancy that escape the alienation they felt in Russia. “We wanted to analyze the language of Soviet civilization,” Ilya once commented. “The banal, everyday language of the system…we felt like observers in our own country, like ethnologists…we ourselves were members of a different club than that of everyday Soviet life, but we were also part of that.”
Ilya’s breakthrough work, Ten Characters (1970–74), also examined the desire to escape. Composed of a combination of performance, illustration, and literature, the piece synthesizes Russian literary archetypes and the country’s rich artistic history. When first presented in the artist’s studio as a sparse installation, Ilya would perform one of 10 fictional characters, each with narrative featuring some variance of a “small man, possessed by big ideas”—an obvious reference to Communist ideology.
This small man desired to flee the conditions of his life, to fly out of his apartment and into the cosmos. Here, the individual fantasy of escape consumes the Soviet dream of a communal utopianism.