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Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: ENTER HERE

Ukrainian-born artist Ilya Kabakov’s 2008 multi-site Moscow retrospective is the departure point of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: ENTER HERE, itself a look back at the husband-and-wife team whose surreal, mimetic installations reinvented the landscape of Soviet and post-Soviet art.

Director Amei Wallach re-teamed with editor-cinematographer Ken Kobland (the pair’s last collaboration was Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine, 2008) to follow the Kabakovs, who fled the Soviet Union in 1987, back to Russia.

The couple has lived in the United States for the last 25 years, though Ilya appears most comfortable speaking German — anything, it seems, but Russian. Kabakov, now 80, plans, paints, and oversees the reconstruction of his 1992 installation The Toilet — a domestic interior within the façade of a public restroom — pausing to describe his “mechanical kind of life” in a post-Stalin USSR.

“He was silent for 55 years of his life,” Emilia says. Wallach de-emphasizes Emilia’s contribution; credited as “the Collaborator,” her role appears more practical than creative. No longer silent but still the lesser talker between them, Ilya is marvelously fluent in spatial forms: The climax of ENTER HERE finds an old Moscow garage transformed into a maze-like reckoning space, history and art made inextricable.

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Marion Cajori: Art About Art

Seated at her claustrophobic, makeshift editing suite inside a triangle-shaped building on Eighth Avenue and 13th Street, Marion Cajori spooled through her footage of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, mallet-wielding diva and irascible feminist art icon.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Cajori laughed, as the images tripped across the screen of her pre-digital Steenbeck.

The year was 1993. Cajori’s Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter had recently opened; the director had a vague plan for a film about painter Alice Neal. But it was the Bourgeois project that was going to occupy her mind for the next decade—along with money, her children, and the cancer she’d been diagnosed with several years before.

This week, Film Forum opens Cajori and co-director Amei Wallach’s Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. On June 27, the Guggenheim launches its career retrospective, “Louise Bourgeois.” And on Christmas, Bourgeois turns 97, having outlived surrealism, abstract expressionism, post-minimalism—and her director: Cajori died in 2006 at age 56, finally succumbing to the disease that had shadowed her since the late ’80s.

The title connects Bourgeois to her most famous sculptures (the spider), the governess who slept with her father (the mistress), and her father’s coldness (the tangerine). “Louise had this very difficult childhood,” says Isabel Cajori Jay, Marion’s daughter and now a psychology- lab manager at Columbia University. (As a child, Isabel and her brother Florian lived in various Manhattan spaces, where their mother also worked. “I’d wake up in the morning hearing Louise’s voice,” Isabel recalls of the long shoot.)

“In fact,” she says, “the film was originally called Louise Bourgeois: The Art of Sanity. I think about that in terms of my mother: Just as Louise has had the past with her all the time, my mother had cancer following her around, no health insurance, two kids—and I think, in a way, for both of them, art was a source of sanity. I think, for many years, making the film kept my mother alive.”

“I think she was in a kind of state of denial,” says Wallach, who was an art critic for Newsday and a commentator on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report when she first met Cajori. “She was going to finish the film despite what was happening to her.”

“Dying without finishing it was her worst nightmare,” agrees Isabel.

It was a nightmare realized. Cajori managed, with the help of cinematographer Ken Kobland, to cut Chuck Close, her portrait of the portraitist, weeks before dying in the summer of ’06. But Bourgeois—which had always been problematic financially—was completed only after her death, by Wallach and Kobland.

“At the time, she had no collectors,” Wallach says of Bourgeois—meaning, of course, people who’d be interested in funding a work about an artist in whom they had a monetary stake. “After Marion died, I did go to some people—who will remain nameless—and say, ‘Do you want this film or not?’ ” They did, and the money, which had been so elusive to Cajori throughout her career, came through.

In 1993, however, Bourgeois had yet to attain her current iconic status, even though she was the U.S. representative at that year’s Vienna Biennale. It was there that Wallach and Cajori began photographing the artist’s work—shooting all night, in what Wallach describes as a painstaking process of lighting, moving, shooting, lighting. It is Cajori’s visual representation of her subjects’ art that so distinguishes her films—precisely lit, uncritically observant, journalistic. “The camera is always moving,” Wallach says. “It leads the eye.” The result is a treatment which, arguably, improves on the experience the viewer might have in person.

Cajori, the child of two artists, received a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 1974 and proceeded to make films both abstract and narrative (1981’s White Lies featured the unknown Willem Dafoe). She was married to Paul Jay, a member of a venerable New England family, but Isabel says her father wasn’t in a financial position to fund his estranged wife’s projects. Besides, “she refused to ask for help. She was a stubborn person”—and not a businesswoman, her daughter adds. Isabel wishes she’d had more conversations about the process of her mother’s art, about the way Marion mirrored an artist’s work in her own, and about the film with which she essentially grew up. “We would discuss it a little bit,” she says. “Mostly, I would look and give her feedback. When you work on a film for so many years, you have to keep asking the question: ‘Is it any good?’ “

Film Forum thinks so. Karen Cooper, the theater’s director and a longtime friend of the filmmaker’s, has shown all three Cajori films; her husband, animator George Griffin, also served as executive producer on Bourgeois.

Given all the footage they had to work with, taken over so many years, one must credit Wallach and Kobland with the puckish inclusion of one particular Bourgeois quote: “Artists should not be supported by the government; they should be grateful to be artists,” Bourgeois says to the camera. “The artist has the privilege to be attached to his or her unconscious. And this is really a gift. It is the definition of sanity. It is the definition of self-realization.”

It is also the definition of art delayed, art frustrated—of too much time wasted in the craven pursuit of money. Of course, the sequence is insightful re Bourgeois’s worldview. But it seems the height of irony that she should say it in a film being made by a dying woman, one who had to sidestep spiders and juggle figurative tangerines to make art—art which, in Cajori’s case, was far less about privilege than it was headlong pursuit.

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Louise Bourgeois: Tangled Biography

Perhaps a benefit of its epic gestation—much of the original footage dates back to ’93—Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach’s documentary biography of nonagenarian sculptor Louise Bourgeois nicely distinguishes itself from a current theatrical epidemic of stultifyingly admiring life-of-the-artist docs. Bourgeois, born in France but expatriated to the U.S. before World War II, has tangled with surrealism, feminism, postmodernism, and most any other -ism you could think of in the course of her creative life. The filmmakers seem to have developed an unusual intimacy with their subject, and part of this film’s pleasure is in the intergenerational frictions that come up in Bourgeois and Wallach’s conversations, with the interviewer trying to coax her subject into mouthing explicitly feminist cant, and Bourgeois cannily demurring. When Wallach calls a Brancusi sculpture “phallic,” Bourgeois scoffs; while many activists read Bourgeois’s oeuvre as a rebellion against the patriarchy of her girlhood (the Guerrilla Girls: “She’s our icon, whether she likes it or not”), Bourgeois insists that she’s been reacting to one specific patriarch: her philandering father. The artist’s festering recollections of her girlhood mesh with guided first-person tours of her sculptures, creating a privileged look into a psyche rendered solid.

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Where the Art Is: How a Sense of Place Informs Creativity

In the conclusion of the first season of “Confounding Expectations: Photography in Context,” an ambitious series produced by Aperture Foundation in collaboration with the New School/Parsons School of Design, author and critic Amei Wallach discusses with Sylvia Plachy, Shirin Neshat, and Walid Raad the impact that the act of returning home, or of turning both toward and away from homes, has on work that reflects a self that couldn’t exist without this exile.

Neshat’s most poignant photographs, videos, and installations are both politically and poetically cinematic, and were created only after she returned to Iran in the early ’90s (for the first time since the revolution in 1979). Raad’s work is one of text and context enacted through performance, photography, and assorted media; his “imaginary foundation,” the Atlas Group, researches and archives the contemporary history of Lebanon (where he was born), and his work with Arab Image Foundation promotes experimental-video production in the Middle East and North Africa. Plachy’s latest publication, Self Portrait With Cows Going Home (Aperture, 2004), is an almost lyrical travelogue of 40 years of return trips, both literal and through the medium of photography, looking back to the home in Hungary she left in 1956. The work of all three is informed by and indicative of a duality that can only come from feeling at home (and feeling lost) in more than one place. Now each resides in New York.