Ilya & Emilia Kabakov in Conversation with Nick Hackworth
While producing The Ship of Tolerance (2005), Emilia Kabakov sat down to discuss the project, as well as other ongoing and historical parts of her practice with Ilya Kabakov.
NH: How has the project been going?
EK: Everything’s going fine, yes.
NH: And how are the school children?
EK: Schoolchildren are fantastic, very different.
NH: I can imagine! What was the main involvement of the schoolchildren in the project to date? What were they doing?
EK: They did drawings, mostly drawings. The idea was that we tell them about these Ancient Egyptian ships, sending them drawings as examples, and we send them the book, and they have to use their imagination and paint whatever they imagine the ship looks like, and make it very colourful, with surprising materials and sizes of material. Whatever they want to do on this drawing they could do it. It’s very colourful, and some of them are very beautiful. You can immediately say some of them are very talented, a lot of imagination there. All of them have text, and it’s very friendly, it says ‘Welcome to Siwa,’ ‘Siwa is our home,’ [Laughs] ‘Love Siwa,’ things like this.
NH: And then what ages were the children?
EK: Ages between ten and fifteen, I think. Difficult for me to judge, because the girls wear veils, and you can’t really see. Some of them you can see. I took some photographs.
NH: Are the veils just the head?
EK: No, no, everything, completely covered. Some of them even have gloves. It’s very religious.
NH: Out here particularly, because in Cairo it must be a very religious community, but out in the—
EK: It’s a very isolated community, as you can see. Did you see any women? Neither of us did. There is absolutely none of them. We saw some girls running around. Also one girl who’s albino,—she was completely white.
NH: How did you see her? Because she was very young she was not covered?
EK: Yes, she was running in the street. Some of the girls are on the street with boys, but very few. If you see a woman it’s a rarity, and she walks with a man and she’s covered completely. Also,—very specific, as you notice,—different from al-Qāhirah [Cairo]. In other places, women wear burqas, but they have slits for the eyes,—in this case it’s also covered. It’s also embroidered around the eyes. It’s very intense, yes.
NH: Did you go around and see the town, as well?
EK: Yes, three times by now. We walk in the town. It’s interesting because they look at you, but if you catch men’s eyes they look down. Schoolgirls try not to look at your eyes, but if they think you’re not looking they look at you very carefully, and if you catch their eyes they smile. For me it’s a first time for such a close encounter with the Arabic world.
NH: What attracted you to do this project?
EK: Frankly? To see the pyramids! [Laughs] Yes! It was my dream to come to Egypt. I wanted to see the pyramids. I said to Ilya, ‘You know what, now is maybe not the best time to go to Egypt, so what if I buy you a [inaudible]?’ He said ‘No! I want to go to Egypt!” [Laughs] So we ended up in Egypt. And we’re not exactly in Egypt. This is The Berber tribe] ,—a very famous, and one of the oldest tribes in the world. When I found this out, for me it was interesting culturally,—it’s a kind of exotic tribe. You have to know what it is. I read a lot about it.
NH: So, you thought it wasn’t such a good time to come to Egypt. Do you mean for you guys?
EK: No, for anyone. For the whole situation with tourists, and the political situation,—it’s not the best. We were held by police in Cairo, asking why we’re coming here, what’s going on. Very strange. I asked what’s going on, and he said ‘It’s for your protection madam, because you’re going to the desert, we’ll give you a police car.’ Finally they didn’t give a police car to us. I think though that he just fell in love with one of our girls, and just wanted to talk! He gave her his telephone number! I said ‘Next time can you just ask for the telephone number so we can go?’ [Laughs]
NH: How did the idea for the ship originate?
EK: Michael Hue-Williams came to us, and he said that this is a fantastical ecological space, to preserve and to develop in a way that it’s not going to be spoiled by tourists and development, and he would like us to work with local children. So I said ‘OK, come up with a project.’ And he showed us a previous project that was done by a Chinese artist,—flying kites, which children also painted. We originally had a project in which we were thinking of building a boat with children, but it never materialised for different reasons. This was a few years before, and was supposed to be in America, but for some reason we didn’t do it. He said there’s a beautiful lake, so we decided ‘OK, what could be better? Children will make drawings, we’ll make a sail from the drawings, and let the boat float! They will participate, and that’s very poetic.
NH: And the drawings that you were talking about earlier,—they’re part of the sails as well, just like the little squares that the children were painting this afternoon?
EK: Yeah, that’s part of the sails. It’s mostly going to be the children’s drawings. In total maybe a hundred to a hundred and forty will fit, and already we have two-hundred and twenty from Siwa, so we’ll just combine, and put a few of them. The drawings from Siwa are extremely good, artistically speaking. I like the children,—and I’ve had a few problems with children before! So what I’d like to do is organise an exhibition of drawings of the children of Siwa, and travel it maybe to the United Nations,—New York, Geneva, museums,—and get them lots of friends. We know a lot of people all round the world, I’m gonna use my connections. Maybe with the videos from here. The proceeds from such an exhibition can go to a cultural program for the children here.
NH: So the exhibition wouldn’t necessarily be an art exhibition—, well, it would be an art exhibition—
EK: It will be an art exhibition of the drawings.
NH: And mixed up with—
EK: Right now it’s in process. I have to think it through. Right now I’ve only come up with some ideas. OK, we’ll take drawings from children. We’ll hang them up,—not on the walls and not with frames,—hang them around so they’re free, like a labyrinth, so people can go through them. Maybe we’ll ask local children, months before the exhibition, at schools, to do drawings as well, so we can combine both. Each city will have their own drawings,—they won’t travel. They’ll be sold at auction by the museum later. Money will go to local cultural programs for the children, at the museums. But Siwa’s drawings will travel ‘til we get it all round the world. Videos that we took here would be placed on little screens and shown together with the exhibition, along with photographs of local developments, the history of Siwa, the books. It could become an extremely interesting exhibition. The history of the Berber tribe, what’s going on today—
NH: Giving a mixture of arts and almost like a sociological thing—.
EK: That’s why I think I probably should get involved with UNICEF and UNESCO, yes.
NH: What about the actual design for the boat? Was that something you and Ilya—?
EK: It’s a design we made, yes.
NH: How closely is it based on a classical Egyptian boat?
EK: It’s a fantasy. We didn’t look at lots of Egyptian boats. Ilya has a great imagination, I have an imagination that’s kind of OK,—that’s how it’s supposed to work. [Laughs] Does it look like it?
NH: It looks like a—, yeah, it looks like an Ancient Egyptian boat—
EK: Well, no but you know,—we studied,—we got a very good education in the Soviet Union, even if we blew it for many things, we got a good education. [Laughs] So we did study the history of Egypt, and there were some pictures of the boats that we remember. We have some idea.
NH: Has the construction gone well?
EK: Construction goes fine. It was a little crisis when all the workers from Siwa, who were supposed to—, they’re making a side of the boat from palm leaves and bamboo. We told them not to go all together in one place, because it’s not really a stable boat,—it’s not a real boat. They went all to the front of the boat and goes down, in the water! [Laughs] So there was a half a day spent dragging it out! But now it’s OK.
NH: How did you feel about the installation in the Serpentine? How did that go?
EK: Poetic. Poetic, nice. I hope a lot of people will dream nice dreams,—unconscious, pleasant.
NH: Do you think in some ways that’s one of your most extreme installations, in a sense?
EK: No. Why?
NH: Well, because it’s completely immaterial, almost.
EK: But we did it before. We have by now more than two-hundred installations,—some of them pretty immaterial. When you do installations it’s very difficult because they don’t travel like paintings. They don’t get such publicity, unless it’s like a really big group exhibition, like Venice Biennale or Documenta. But we did some installations which are even more immaterial than this one.
NH: Yeah? Which are the most immaterial?
EK: Difficult to say. I don’t know, right now. There’s Moscow Conceptual Circle, which is nothing. There’s The Mental Institution. On the Roof is about the lives of people that don’t exist, and you go through and you see their lives but they’re not there,—it’s a ghost of their lives. Here in good paintings, here in good memories.
NH: The Serpentine exhibition,—it was like,—if you don’t participate you get nothing from it, but then if you participate it’s as rich as—
EK: But every installation in a way is like this. You have to participate. You think you don’t, but it gets you at some point. You start thinking, you start remembering things, and that’s how you participate.
NH: I wonder if you thought that the form of installation art, its rise in the last few decades, is kind of a response to competition, in a way? Because obviously the installation is an environment that totally immerses the viewer in that work.
EK: I would say that installation, in a way, is the oldest art form in the world. Why? Because of the church. Church is an installation. You go inside and you ask to participate. There’s nothing material about it,—it’s just an atmosphere,—it's a total environment,—it's a created environment. Even before the church, any kind of paganism is creation of an environment, shamanism is the creation of an environment, and you always participate even if you are the viewer,—they expect you to feel something.
NH: But the installation becomes self-conscious, because it’s a cultural form?
EK: It’s a cultural form, yes. There’s a difference.
NH: So it’s more self-conscious. What I meant by competition is like if you look at things from a macro-historical point of view, and look at the rise of installation art, it’s happening at a time when there’s increasing competition for viewers’ attention from many different things,—TV, mobile phones—
EK: Well, installation came about before mobile phones. But, I would say it has come with the development of art, because in the beginning it’s just drawing, then painting,—in a way it’s depiction of the world,—because we can’t travel so much, they give you the world in a two-dimensional view,—sculpture,—it’s all opening your view, opening your mind to something different, bringing the world to you. Now we start travelling, and installation is—in a way—the opposite of our possibility to travel. It gives us a different view of our inner-selves, because you come into a closed environment. We travel so much that we don’t pay attention anymore to the painting, because we can go and see the painting, or we have a photograph, or we have TV. But installation is different. It is the creation of an atmosphere, which gets you through different means. You have to start thinking. You have to use your memory. Maybe installation is some kind of game, which uses the fourth dimension, and the fourth dimension is inside of us but we don’t know it, so when we get into the installation we start using some sources which we didn’t know we possess. It’s our memories, it’s our subconscious feelings, it’s knowledge that we forgot about.
NH: What are your favourite movies? Do you like Kubrick, 2001?
EK: Nah. I don’t know. I can’t tell you because I’m not a big movie fan.
NH: When you make your installations now, particularly if you’re making them in Britain or America, for example—, do you feel sometimes with an installation that you can show people, or put them in an environment, or give them a feeling that they have just never had before?
EK: Maybe. But, in a way, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to bring art—, because this is about art,—it’s about art history, it’s about culture. Whatever we try to bring, installation works on many levels, at least for us. So, if you’re a [normal] person,—like you’ve never heard about cultural history,—we get you involved through your emotions or feelings or memories. If you’re a cultural person, a critic, or a connoisseur of art, cultural memory works very well. We immediately can say, okay, this is a reference to constructivism or minimalism or—, I don’t know,—anything.
NH: But for the normal person, who doesn’t have that?
EK: As I said,—that’s about you, about your life. It triggers some memories in you and you respond emotionally. You may hate it,—it doesn’t matter,—you do respond. If we don’t get a response we fail,—it’s not worked.
NH: Do you have a desire sometimes to make installations larger and larger, so you can extend your interaction with the viewer for a longer period?
EK: We want to make installations as big as possible. That’s why we’ve created an idea of The Utopian City [The Utopian Projects], which we’re now trying to actually build somewhere.
NH: What stage is that at? Beyond the design stage?
EK: At some point it was at a very realistic stage, because The Palace of Projects was built and bought by the German government, and that’s now in Essen, in Germany. In the same place we were supposed to build The Utopian City [The Utopian Projects] as an installation there. It failed because the government changed and—, I don’t know. So now we’re looking for another place. We want to see how the pure environment of art,—which is not commercial, and people can visit,—how much it will be interesting for all levels of life and all kinds of people, if it’s actually built and exists.
NH: Whether it will communicate to people outside the art world, and how much it will communicate?
EK: Mm-hmm. How much people are willing to get involved in this, and spend time there. It’s a provocation for ideas, so we invite you to visit and think.
NH: And do you have a quite utopian idea of what art can do?
NH: What is it you think art can do?
EK: I think anything!
EK: We just have to try! [Laughs] It can do a lot of damage, it can do a lot of good, it depends how you use it. There’s a high and low in art, OK? We are trying to be on the high. We don’t like the low.
NH: So, it’s to the level that you want to give people life-changing experiences? Do you think art is a space where people can go and it can truly affect how they think and feel and how they behave in the future?
EK: It depends. It depends how you train from the very beginning, starting with childhood,—the relationship between the child and the space. Before it was religion that would dominate people’s lives,—people go to the church and they know it’s a sacred place,—it’s between you and religion, and God. Then, in a way, religion failed, or disappeared from our lives, and I would say that culture—for a while at least—was supposed to replace religion. Museums became a temple of culture, and a lot of people got very much involved in the museum. The museum was a level by which you measure art and culture in every country and every city, so there was an abundance of museums. What’s going on now—, we try to attract—, what I’m saying right now maybe you wouldn't like, and maybe it’s a kind of idealistic point of view on culture,—and in this case I think I can speak for Ilya as well as for myself—. Culture is a very subtle matter. It’s given to us, and makes us different to everything around us,—different species and so on,—not because we eat, or sleep, but because we do have a culture. Museums are very important. It replaces the church, it’s our sacred place right now. We have to respect the museum. If we try to attract visitors by bringing regular stuff to the museum,—‘So what’s so special about museums? I can see a motorcycle on the street, or I can see a dress in the street.’ Oh,—OK, we get more people. What quality of people come to the museum? Are they going to come a second time? Sorry, I don’t think so.
NH: You mean things like the Guggenheim doing Armani shows, or—
EK: Yeah,—like many museums right now. A lot of things are done at museums right now, which may bring a big crowd, but kind of lower the quality, and people lose respect. That’s what I think. Maybe I’m wrong. You don’t respect the museum anymore. To get more money,—that shouldn’t be a goal for the museum. I think the government should support the museum, people should support the museum, and the museum has to give high standards.
NH: One of the levels that art works on is a level of a self-conscious system, where the works refer back to art history and previous things that happened in culture, and it’s impossible for it to work at that level if everything becomes dumbed-down, because those references disappear and you can’t engage with people on that level.
EK: I try not to say things for every artist but I would say that there is a long history of art behind our back. Every time we want to measure ourselves, or make some corrections, you have to look back, because they already did it before you. The next step? First look if somebody else did it. Look at the high level, during all the history of humanity,—what art achieved and culture achieved,—and try to measure yourself first.
NH: Do you think art also has a moral power?
EK: Sure it has moral power.
NH: Do you think culture per se makes people better?
EK: I think so, yes. I would say I firmly believe that culture makes people better. Look at Hitler! If he’d been given a possibility to be an artist maybe we wouldn’t have this fascism! Look at Osama Bin Laden. You know he wanted to be an artist or a musician? Oh yes,—a musician I think. I read it somewhere. We have to be careful who we reject!
NH: The typical counter-arguments are that—, well, the really standard cliché one is that in Auschwitz, the SS guys used to have a band playing classical music. People have been immensely cultured yet capable of total cruelty.
EK: People use culture, music, art, literature, in different—, in any way they can to achieve their goals, whether high goals or low goals. We can’t blame culture,—we blame people. It’s the idea of culture to take us up, not to take us down.
NH: When Ilya started developing installation art in the Soviet Union, the fact that it was to do with space,—was that very clearly to do with finding a space separate from the state?
EK: No. I think what actually happened to Ilya was he was doing drawings, he was doing paintings, he started putting objects—, it was kind of evolutionary. And then it wasn’t enough for him. He is a very expansive artist. So, if it’s not enough, what’s next? Let’s try space, using the space,—and that's how installation started. It always has to do with his ideas. It’s a concept. He’s a conceptual artist, more than people can imagine,—it’s mostly concept. So, now he comes back to paintings. He’s made a lot of paintings. He did it in the Sixties, he did it in the Fifties, a lot from the Seventies. Not that he stopped painting,—he’d start using his painting inside of installations. Now he’s doing a different thing. He does paintings! And now he installs paintings, I would say! [Laughs] It’s a different idea.
NH: I haven’t seen his paintings. Are they very different? Are they figurative?
EK: They’re very different. They’re conceptual paintings. They’re mostly with a concept. They could be figurative.
NH: Do you paint?
EK: Me? No. I don’t want to. You can’t have two people in the house painting. [Laughs] It would destroy our harmonious life.
NH: What’s your next big project? Is that the realisation of the The Utopian City [The Utopian Projects]?
EK: Oh, no, we have a lot of projects, a lot of ideas. Our next one that we’re working on is a retrospective of our works, of our paintings. We want a show of paintings because right now we have three characters, lately which are [part of an] alternative history of art. Michael Hue-Williams has the book. Presumably art went in a different way. It didn’t go the way of Malevich and Kandinsky, but imaginary artist Charles Rosenthal. Charles Rosenthal was a student of Malevich and a friend of Chagall. So there are like a hundred and fifty paintings by Charles Rosenthal in existence. He’s had exhibitions in Japan,—everywhere, all around the world,—which is true, already. He’s very well known,—there is a catalogue. He died in 1933 in Paris, in Montmartre, unfortunately. We found his paintings and we made exhibitions of his, as curators. Me and Ilya, yes. Of Rosenthal we have the whole biography, we have his diaries, we have his letters,—the whole story in there. Then Kabakov, incidentally, saw paintings by Rosenthal, and he became fascinated. Kabakov never had a teacher, so this is his mentor and teacher,—Charles Rosenthal,—he started painting following the line of Rosenthal. So Rosenthal is social-realism, and homage to Malevich, Kandinsky.
NH: Chagall’s friend, and Malevich’s student, but a very different style?
EK: Very different, because he was thinking Malevich is too formal. So he’s tried to mix the styles.
NH: Kind of an abstract language with a more Expressionist style?
EK: Yes, Expressionist, Cézannism,—because he left Russia,—he’d never been in the Soviet Union. And some of them are very interesting, the collectors are dying to buy them. I’m not joking! Except they always want Kabakov to send them, for some strange reason! But they’re signed by Rosenthal! So,—seventy-five paintings by Kabakov,—not this Kabakov, an imaginary Kabakov.
NH: But also called Ilya?
EK: Ilya, yes. He was born 1936. But Kabakov is a product of Soviet society, so although he starts earlier with landscapes,—and following Rosenthal,—then he becomes angrier, because he’s a product of Soviet life, he knows what this utopia—, how it ended,—and his paintings are darker and darker, and black, and very angry,—but interesting. And then the last artist,—it’s a post-Soviet, post-perestroika, young artist, Ukrainian,—Igor Spivak. For him, Soviet time is the time of the past,—very romantic, very idealistic,—it’s utopia to him. So he paints kind of Soviet paintings, but only half of the painting, and it’s covered by a reddish, pinkish glow because it’s a dream about Soviet time. He lives now. He’s unfortunately got very drunk and stopped painting, so he only has twenty-five paintings. So we want to make a retrospective of all three artists, The Alternative History of Art. There is a big catalogue already in existence.
NH: Why did [Spivak] leave half the painting blank?
EK: Ah, we don’t really know! Just white canvas, yes. Maybe because every time he’d start painting he’d get drunk, and he didn’t finish. Or maybe he got this idea as a concept. Ilya said every time he’d go to the bathroom, because there’d never be enough toilet paper, he would use newspaper. It’s all kind-of strange ideas!
NH: Sometimes when I think about making art, it’s very depressing the way that the art market and the art world kind-of requires one person to have one thing,—you have to have a recognisable—, Richard Serra,—or whatever it is,—and sometimes you just want to do different stuff.
EK: We had one collector who said to us ‘I hate you! I just finally understood what the Kabakovs do. I think I got it. I know it. You start doing a completely different thing? I really hate you!’ [Laughs]
NH: But you want that freedom. Is that part of the reason you take on the pseudonyms and all that kind of stuff?
EK: Mm—, it’s just that ideas come. It’s fun to do. We like what we’re doing,—it’s our life, there is nothing else. If it sells, fantastic. If it doesn’t sell, just go and do it bigger. [Laughs] So most installations end up at the warehouse.
NH: Is it hard to maintain utopian ideas about art having lived through the Soviet system?
EK: It’s actually much easier. You know why? The Soviet system didn’t have a commercial side of it. It was completely utopian. You were employed by the government or you weren’t employed, and then they didn’t even consider you an artist. So you work for them, you work for yourself. Ilya used to find the best solution. He was doing children’s books illustration three months a year, getting his money, and then doing anything he wanted. Because he was a visual artist no one paid attention to what he does in his studio, as long as he illustrated the books. Nobody was buying. There were no collectors, there was no market. You are completely free. You do your work because you want to do it,—because you can’t live without it. And actually I do think that that’s how it’s supposed to be. There are a few professions in this world that shouldn’t be very commercial. Ballet dancer,—you dance because you don’t have any other life. Musicians,—it's hard work, but can you imagine your life—? Poets,—is anybody going to buy your poems? No! And artists used to be like this. It has become so commercial. You can see an artist’s good, [but] before he really becomes good, somebody starts selling him, and he’s forced to produce, because that’s your moment to make money, and he’s thinking ‘Later I will catch up.’ Sorry, you’re not gonna catch up. It doesn’t happen this way. It’s complete destruction. It’s dominating—, right now, the market is dominating the culture.
NH: Dominating the thought of young artists.
EK: It’s a worse situation with young artists, because older people have already got their time,—their unknown period in which to develop. A young artist doesn’t have a chance to develop. They become rich and famous, and that’s a goal.
NH: Do you think that the specific problem is that if you’re young and you become very successful, you’re always thinking about what will sell next, or do you think it's that you don’t have the space to make mistakes?
EK: No, it’s because actually there is a demand,—you keep doing it. You keep doing it because there are collectors standing in line waiting for your work. If you want to take a break and think, you have to be strong enough to do it. A lot of artists who are mature are doing that. Young artists are scared inside, because maybe inside they do know they’re not good enough. ‘I have to do it, because tomorrow maybe somebody—.’ If you look at the situation, that’s what happens,—names popping up like popcorn in the machine. Every second there is another name,—you look at the same artist two years later and he’s not around,—nobody remembers who he was. But of course during these two years he is trying to get all the money and fame he can, because he’s also seen what happened to somebody else. It’s very scary.
NH: You and Ilya are immensely successful, with museum shows and all the rest of that, but do you sell a lot of work?
EK: We do, but not like people expect, considering the fame and amount and exhibitions,—I would say probably we have more than anybody in the world,—we have like four exhibitions a year. Everybody thinks that we actually have millions of dollars, which is not the case, because installations don’t sell. If they sell,—there are many cases where you think ‘OK, what’s more important?’ To get money? It is important if we have a project or two we want to do, or another installation. Or is it actually to be able to preserve the installation by placing it in a museum, and not getting money,—probably that’s what it is. So, many museums have installations—and we try not to publicise this part—and it’s actually a donation, because that’s a condition,—they’re going to preserve this installation. Otherwise what are we going to do with it? Throw it into the garbage? This boat, for example,—what are you going to do with it? Travel it? It’s impossible. Sell it? I don’t wanna do it for someone to just enjoy privately. It’s a beautiful boat, it’s a beautiful place, it was done for this place. Alright, how to do this? I’m thinking about giving it as a present to the people of Siwa. I don’t know how that works here. So meanwhile I think we will take the drawings, travel the drawings, the boat will stay here, and then meanwhile I will try and work out how to work this out,—is there any government that is not corrupt.
NH: Do you work with lots of young artists who assist you and help building stuff?
EK: We work with one assistant who is younger, who is a young artist, who you’ve met here. He was our assistant for nine years, and now he’s a young artist with a lot of exhibitions, but occasionally we’ll ask him to come help us because we don’t have anybody else. He knows the work, he speaks Russian as well,—which is important for Ilya who doesn’t really speak other languages,—and by now he has a sixth sense about what exactly we want from him,—he can make it. From here he’s going to his own exhibition right now. Other than that, we used to run a program where we would take four students from different countries, and they’d live with us, and they’d work with us, and they’d have to communicate for a year and they’d go back and we’d take another four students. It worked for five or six years, and then last year I was kind-of—, they started fighting, and I decided, “No, I can’t really mother all of them, I don’t have time for this!” [Laughs] So right now we have one person who actually travels with us and is the main assistant, and that’s it.
NH: Do you think your work is still distinctively Russian in any way?
EK: No. It always will be perceived as Russian, because if you know we’re Russians you have a tendency to look at it as Russian work. It’s only one quality,—it’s a narrative. There is always a narrative to the work, there always has to be some story. Even if it’s not there, we try to create it. If we tell you about the boat of Siwa, there is no narrative, right? That’s a boat of Siwa,—big deal. But we will try and say “OK, this is the story behind this,—Ancient Egyptian ships, and da-da-da-da-da.” I’d say “This is maybe made before people were trained in using boats.” Nice to imagine. That’s typically Russian. Russian culture is based on narrative. I don’t know why,—just how it is,—stories and literature.
NH: In the press release that Albion did for the show at Albion, in the first line they have a quote from you or Ilya saying, “It’s a typical Russian view to think that they’re born into the wrong world or a different Earth.” Do you know this quote? ‘“The average Russian,” says Ilya Kabakov, “feels that the earth is the wrong place to live.”’
EK: That’s correct. Why? Because they always dream. In Russia, it’s always negative about reality,—people are very negative about reality. A famous saying by this minister,—‘We wanted to do it better, and it’s come out as usual.’ [Laughs] It’s always like this. Whatever we do, it’s always going to be like always,—it always will fail. It’s very different from Americans, very different from anywhere in the world. Because of the Russian history, yes. Somebody told me about the movie, which is extremely interesting for me. It’s based on a love story. There is a boat crossing the lake. A boy and a girl, in love, going on this boat, trying to cross the lake. In the middle of the lake they sink. There is another boy and girl crossing the lake, and in the middle of the lake they sink. It’s a typical Russian story,—they always try to cross the lake, and they always sink.
NH: There are two sinkings?
EK: A lot! [Laughs] It’s a whole movie based on it. They try again and again and again. That’s Russian,—you believe despite absence of hope. There was slavery in Russia. There were a lot of serfs, people beaten and sold,—it was very cruel.
NH: You’re based in New York now. How long have you been in New York?
EK: I’ve been here for thirty years. Ilya left Russia seventeen years ago,—almost eighteen years. But he was first in Paris, and I was travelling back and forth with him.
NH: How long have you been together?
EK: Seventeen years,—since he came. I knew him before though, in Russia. He’s my mother’s cousin.
NH: You’re an artist now, but what was your background before?
EK: My background is very strange. I was thinking about it yesterday. When I tell people my background, people probably think I’m crazy or I’m making it up,—I don’t make it up! I am a professional musician. I started piano when I was four years old, and I was a concert pianist by the time I was seventeen,—even at nine I was already giving concerts. Then I overplayed my hand, and I went into university. I started university knowing German and Spanish faculty. I finish university in two years,—[Laughs] I know it’s crazy, but I’m a determined person!—Spanish Literature and Language. Then I had to emigrate. So I emigrate, and I have my professions, which nobody needs as a musician, and as a translator, so that doesn’t work. I emigrated from Russia in 1976.
NH: Was that easy?
EK: No it was very difficult.
NH: How come you were allowed to go?
EK: As I said, I am a very determined person,—I managed. I travel and I have a child, and then I decided one thing I do know is Russian antiques. So I became an expert in antiques. I worked for Sotheby’s for a while, in New York, and then I got my own business and was doing antiques shows, so I was pretty well known. Then I decided it was time for a change,—and there were reasons for that. I went to California and got married, and my husband died. Everybody was telling me ‘You know so many artists, you have to be an art dealer.’ I started dealing originally with American folk art, because I had very good friends who were collectors and they’d teach me. I always really pay attention to what I study. And then contemporary art. So I made a deal with one collector, who was a German banker and had a huge collection of contemporary art,—I will be his curator for a year, he doesn’t have to pay me a salary but I will learn. I learned all the contemporary Russian art. By the time Ilya came I was an advisor for a private company on art, and then I dropped everything and started working with him. That was 1989.
NH: Ilya comes in 1987, before the wall comes down. Was it easy for him to leave?
EK: He got an invitation to Graz. He went and never came back. Just defected, yes.
NH: Things were already falling apart in the Soviet Union—
EK: That’s why they let him go. They didn’t really try to get him back, no. He was under control,—he was supposed to go to the embassy to say ‘I’m in this country,’ ‘I’m in that city,’—and then it just fell apart so badly that nobody cared anymore. He had a Soviet passport, and I think he had already got an American green card when we started dating. In order to travel to some countries he had to have a stamp on the Russian passport, and I went with him to the Russian embassy in New York to get the stamp, and the consulate said “That passport,—how come it’s not stamped that you are in America?” and they went away with his passport. He became all white, he was so scared. I said, ‘Ilya, why do you care?’ At that point he had a French card,—carte de séjour,—cos he was living in France. ‘You have a carte de séjour, you already have permission to live in America, why do you care about your passport?’ He said ‘I don’t know! They’re not gonna let me go.’ He comes out with the passport, and he said ‘We can’t give you the passport because we have to put the stamp.’ So, being me, I just put my hand and I said ‘You know what? Grab the passport!’ ‘Goodbye!’ He said ‘Excuse me?’ I said ‘Goodbye!’ I grabbed Ilya, put him in a taxi. He said ‘I almost had a heart attack!’ I said ‘I saw it! I don’t understand why! There’s nothing they could do to you.’ But then we got his American passport, and I said ‘You can’t be afraid of people.’ Because my policy is what can people do to you,—kill you? Oh, big deal, that’s it! You can’t kill me twice. In Russia I never was afraid. I despised my friend who was scared. Why were you scared? What can they do to you? Besides, if people see that you are not afraid then it’s harder to intimidate you.
NH: Do you go back to Russia a lot now?
EK: No, we don’t go at all. The last time we went was last year,—first time,—to St Petersburg. It was organised by the Guggenheim Museum. Guggenheim presented The Kabakovs for the first time in The Hermitage Museum. It was very interesting, yes. Big show!
NH: Lots of installations in the Hermitage?
EK: No, no, no. We did a few installations. The same thing,—part of them,—that are now in London, at Michael Hue-Williams’. It didn’t travel,—just the Hermitage and then we took it back. It was very interesting. It’s a completely different country,—but that’s a different story,—very different from what we left.
NH: Is that why you’re not gonna go back?
EK: I would always say never say never. I would say I have no desire to go.
NH: Were you very depressed by what you saw?
EK: No, no. I was very curious. But, some things I am depressed by. When I was there we always were told ‘Children are our future,’ and ‘Old people are our pride.’ What I see today,— children begging in the street, prostitution, and old people begging. How come, as a society, you failed two important parts of your life right away? First things that went were children and old people,—how come? Where are all the values? You let them be on the street? I never saw children in such a quantity on the street! I never saw children on the street to start with. Right now, it’s just disgusting. If you can’t take care of your older people and your children, you are not worth much as a society.
NH: You don’t feel that about America sometimes?
EK: There are no children on the street in America. It’s mostly men in America. It’s bad, but it’s not the same. I really worked at some point in the social system, helping people,—it’s not bad.