Soviet Russia – all pogroms, propaganda and potatoes – isn’t everyone’s idea of a utopian idyll. But as you descend into Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s vast, desolate cinema installation where rosy-cheeked technicolor mamushkas holler cheery work songs and shovel grain on screen, your heart might start to yearn for the warm bosom of mother Russia.
Row upon row of empty cinema seats fill the cavernous underground expanse of Ambika P3. In the middle of the space stands a room. A single bed, an armchair, a dining table – it’s a solitary home, with a lone window looking onto the screen.
If you choose to enter the room, watching the colourful Soviet-era films from the comfort of a tatty old sofa, you become ‘the happiest man’ of the show’s title. You lose yourself in the space, participating in a false and glossy past, becoming a man for whom propaganda is reality and work is freedom. But if you choose to watch the films from the cinema seats, you remain a mere witness. A passive observer on a rickety chair, aware of the gap between truth and fiction
The immersive desolation is uncomfortable. You want to participate, to become that happy man in that little Russian room, if only to believe in the happiness on screen. Heaving under the weight of history and nostalgia, the Kabakovs have managed to create an incredible theatre of solitude where propaganda’s idealised view of the world is almost tantalisingly real. And that’s their trick, turning the disparity between truth and fiction – and art and propaganda – into a choice. And it’s not an easy one.