Ilya and Emilia Kabakov began to jointly sign their works in 1997. When Joyce Beckenstein conducted an interview with them, Amei Wallach—Ilya Kabakov’s first biographer, and director of the recent film, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here (2013)—joined in. What began as a discussion about the nature of the Kabakovs’ collaboration soon shifted gears; the artists had other things on their minds. The elusive way in which they personally communicate and get things done emerges through their views of what matters to them most—their art. [Ilya’s responses were mostly in Russian. Emilia Kabakov translated or recapped.]
Joyce Beckenstein: I’d like each of you to speak about the nature of the collaboration. How and when did it happen?
Ilya Kabakov: This is a question we don’t actually ask ourselves, because this naturally happened. It’s like a marriage. You don’t ask a husband and wife how it is that they live together. It’s natural. It either happened or not, the same; if you ask, “What are you doing together?” When they start to explain, it’s the end of the marriage.
Beckenstein: Yes, but there came a point when you were Kabakov, and then a point where you began to sign your works Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. That had to involve a conversation. Do you recall how that happened?
Ilya: The same thing, no explanation. It’s like in life, either things happen or they don’t happen.
Emilia Kabakov: I will add a little bit to this, in that Ilya always worked alone. He never had collaborators. Then we started doing installations together. We were together all the time and at some point—it was actually Ilya’s idea—we thought maybe we should do it with both names.
Beckenstein: Do you remember the first work that you jointly signed?
Emilia: Yes, of course, it’s documented. It’s The Palace of Projects (1997).
Beckenstein: How would you define your different roles?
Emilia: We try not to define. That’s what we try not to do. When people ask me this, I say, “Can you keep a secret?”
Emilia: And of course everyone answers, “Sure, I can keep a secret!” and I say, “Then I can keep it too!”
Ilya: See, it’s not the problem of the artists today. It’s a problem of the journalists! Before the journalists were asking the artists, “What do you do? How do you do these things?” The journalist was always trying to go parallel to the idea of the artist. Today the questions are very intimate: “Why are you married? How do you live together? Do you love each other?” And it’s a very serious problem because artists start hating the person who’s sitting across from him.
Beckenstein: You hate me?
Ilya: Yeah, of course! [Everyone laughs.] You’re a very nice woman but the question leads to a situation when I start hating you.
Beckenstein: Okay, then I’m not going to ask you that.
Emilia: No, let me collaborate in this a little bit. You practically never ask when two men collaborate. People don’t ask questions.
Beckenstein: Sure they do.
Emilia: Yes, but I didn’t see many interviews asking, “How do you collaborate?” Man and wife, yes. And the reason is because before the wife was a muse, she was just kind of sitting there, either model for the artist or inspiration for the artist. And today, suddenly she wants to be a partner. You have a lot of examples and people are not used to the situation. [Ilya and Emilia talk in Russian.]
Emilia: Christo and Jeanne-Claude—and Oldenburg did.
Amei Wallach: Oldenburg and Coosje [Van Bruggen], his second wife! His first wife, he didn’t give her any credit.
Emilia: Yes, but the second wife insisted. But when we visited Coosje and Oldenburg, she starts screaming at me—that was ’92—“Why don’t I sign more because we work together?” And I said, “because Ilya is already an artist for 20 years. I’m a musician and being a pianist, you know, you have to be professionally trained. Because I don’t have professional training to be an artist, I don’t feel like an artist.” And she started really screaming: “You destroy everything; you have to sign your name.” For four years I didn’t feel comfortable doing this.
Beckenstein: Emilia, when I asked the question I meant to add that nobody could doubt the creative participation that you bring to the enterprise. In other words, you’re just as creative, it’s just a different kind of creativity. It fuels the momentum that makes so many ideas happen. Would you agree with that?
Emilia: I would agree with that but this is a very thin line we are walking here because every time you try to pinpoint exactly who does what in this relationship, it can break the relationship because we both have very big egos, Ilya and I. We both like publicity, different kinds of publicity. I like to be on the stage. I’m a performer, he’s a performer, and you don’t want to specify exactly what’s going on behind the stage.
Ilya: Social situations change. Before it was ego: I do this. The writer is the same. For example, Nabokov, all his life he was together with his wife. She controlled everything—translated, editing, everything. But his ego never let him put her name. So he was only Nabokov. Today the mentality of man has changed a little bit. So the artist wants to say, “My wife is equal to me,” and puts the name. It’s my second half.
Wallach: But Ilya, why did you? I mean that was an incredibly generous thing and you didn’t come from a society where they did that. So what was it that made you decide to do that?
Ilya: We live in a different society. There is a freedom between people and you feel that the second person is also a person.
Beckenstein: So it’s all part of a marriage, a partnership.
Emilia: It’s a partner; it’s an equal partner, in your marriage, in your life, in your work.
Beckenstein: I want to move on to something else: how the work evolved. You go from something like the 10 Characters done in the Soviet Union to How to Meet an Angel (2000), to your colossal exhibition in Paris last year at Monumenta, seven buildings occupying the Grand Palais. There’s this enormous creative arc. The scale of the work grows exponentially and seems Michelangeloesque on this enormous stage. Can you explain this?
Emilia: Every person evolves. We have a tendency to grow and change. Ilya was always going in the direction of creating an empire with his works. He started with drawings, paintings, then albums, then small room installations, then 10 rooms, it becomes bigger. In 1995 we did a huge exhibition, two floors in the Pompidou and that was one installation.
Beckenstein: What was in that installation?
Emilia: It was 10 wagons and construction sites. People were living in 10 wagons so everybody was going from wagon to wagon. Part of the wagon was a living space and part was construction material. And then downstairs were huge wagons—it was like a movie feature but instead of a movie, there were paintings. It grew bigger and bigger and bigger.
Ilya: Some artists have a desire to create an empire: Wagner, Renaissance artists. Picasso wanted to expand all around the world. He wanted everybody to have his work. It’s an essential imperial mentality.
Beckenstein: Okay, so you were thinking on a monumental scale when you worked in your studio in the Soviet Union?
Ilya: That’s the same with me. I want to be everywhere.
Wallach: So Ilya, do you think there will be something bigger than Monumenta?
Ilya: If somebody will offer, yes. A city, maybe. It’s possible, yeah. The bigger it is, the easier it is. It’s much more difficult to make a small work than bigger.
Ilya: Because it’s my mentality.
Emilia: He doesn’t feel well right now. So he makes more paintings, smaller in size. He can’t go up. I’m afraid that he’s going to fall from the stairs.
Ilya: I know that collectors want smaller paintings, but I can’t. I see museum space and all of my big paintings inside museum space. My orientation is not the private collector but the museum space. It always was and it still is.
Beckenstein: Let’s talk just for a moment about The Ship of Tolerance (2013). This is a different kind of project because when we talk about this arc of scale, you are also dealing with a kind of performance. You are involving children, the art is becoming interactive and you’re moving through both time and place. How did that whole idea come together for the two of you?
Emilia: You know, it’s the same thing, it’s installation and often now, installation travels. With How to Meet an Angel, The Palace of Projects, How to Make the World Better, the viewer actually can go and make this project for themselves, later. Mostly we don’t get people involved, except for students and assistants. But The Ship of Tolerance becomes more socially-oriented work; more into morality, public opinion, and children’s minds. We are trying to do something different, something good. The Ship of Tolerance is an involvement of children. Why children? Because the world today is overwhelmed by hate on every level. It becomes scary. When children interact with each other, if nobody puts in their minds that this is a different religion, a different color, sexual orientation, they don’t care. And it is important to start very early, let them interact and understand that they can make the world better. It’s maybe a utopian idea, a little bit naïve. But you deal with children, they are naïve and they believe in utopia. They are not cynical. And I think it just works. This is a very beautiful project, very visual.
Wallach: Ilya, in the early years your work had much fantasy in it—The Ten Characters, The Man Who Flew into Space, The Flying Kamarovs, for example. Where there is fantasy there is escapism, something that Boris Groys mentions in the catalogue for the new show, Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art, at CUNY. He says that in the early ’60s and ’70s, when you were working in Russia, artists had two choices: they either went underground and met and shared among themselves, or they expressed themselves through fantasy. Groys mentions your work in this regard. Can you comment on this?
Ilya: It’s very obvious. It’s like a family, when the father has beaten up the child everyday. He takes a book and goes into the corner, to hide there and disappear into the world of fantasy. Soviet life was like this abusive father, beating up everybody in the family, and it was an ability to hide in the corner and then create some different fantasy. Some people use fantasy as music, and Boris Groys fantasizes about philosophy. It’s very natural; like a horrible father and a small child. Then there were some periods—of illusions that you don’t have to be scared, and you can do anything. Russia has always been back and forth. It never stays on either side. Either the father is drunk and he’s lying on the floor, or he comes up and beats you up again.
Beckenstein: Emilia, how do your fantasies compare to Ilya’s?
Emilia: The element of fantasy is always there, connected to escapism. When Ilya came to the West, he didn’t want to participate in reality. All his fantasies are about trying to disappear into some other world. For me it’s the same. I don’t like reality. All my life I’m a storyteller. I can tell you a story in a second, about anything. That saved me when I was a child, in many situations. I learned to deal with reality because I didn’t have a choice. I had responsibilities. So did Ilya. He learned how to make money by making children’s books, and make them fast. It didn’t matter if he liked it or didn’t like it. But he learned how to survive by making this. I learned too, even in my cooking. I learned to do it fast, so it doesn’t take much of my time, and I can think about things, I can fantasize about something different.
Beckenstein: Well in a way you’re the one who mostly deals with realities: with the museums, curators, contractors, and journalists. In Amei’s film you are always on the cell phone. It’s always going off. Is this “reality” now a natural thing for you?
Emilia: No, it’s not natural. In many cases when I deal with people, and it’s reality, I bring fantasy. One reason I’m successful is because everybody lives in reality, everybody talks about reality, but you bring fantasy into the common conversation, and people don’t expect it. They fall for it because you give them something different.
Beckenstein: Okay, so you are bringing projects to them.
Emilia: Not only projects. I can bring any kind of fantasy.
Beckenstein: Could you give me an example?
Emilia: [Laughs.] I don’t know.
Ilya: I never believed in reality and I don’t want to believe in reality. Any question about art is normal and anything about reality is not normal. All my life I’ve lived without reality, and as I get older I also want to live without reality. I see some reality on TV and shut off the TV. All my fantasies are connected to the museum or the international art world. In the disgusting Soviet world there were a few islands: Museum of Classic Art, Pushkin Museum, Hermitage, conservatory, library, and the theater, all on a very high level in the Soviet Union. Among my fantasies was the idealizing of the Western art world, and my dream, you could say, was how to be accepted into the international art world.
Beckenstein: That raises something that always comes up when people talk about your art: the difference in your acceptance in the United States, in Europe, and in Russia. In each place your art is perceived differently. Why is that, and why are you not better known in the United States?
Emilia: We did a lot of exhibitions in Europe. It’s closer to Russia, so Europeans knew more about it, and they still do. It’s much easier to accept that we do different things. In America, if the artist starts making dots he’s making dots all his life, and if he makes lines all his life he makes lines, and if he makes white paintings or black paintings, that’s until the day he dies. At the very beginning there was a fascination with the Soviet world. Nobody knew much about it. In America, the Soviet Union was the enemy. But when it was opened, everyone wanted to know the Soviet people, and people were looking at them like they came from another planet. So, the art was art from another planet. And Ilya was a storyteller of this life on another planet, so they became fascinated with this. This was a curiosity at first.
Beckenstein: And then the American audience got curious about something else?
Emilia: And then their curiosity got satisfied, and then the Chinese came, and now you will see Cubans the same way. It’s always something—Indians come, the Middle East.
Beckenstein: How are you perceived in Russia now?
Emilia: Well I’m very sorry you couldn’t watch this movie [an interview with the Kabakovs made for Russian TV] and then see all the emails we got from this. This movie was made for the Russian, not Western, public. Someone wrote, “We understand that it’s impossible to live here […] I decide to leave Russia right now, after watching your movie.”
Beckenstein: Wow. What did you say about Russia in this interview?
Emilia: There are a lot of things I still don’t want to say. [Laughs.] What I think is very problematic. The man who interviewed us made a lot of Soviet films. And even 25 years after Perestroika, he still has a Soviet mentality. Some details of what we say are changed so it looks like we are saying something in favor of Russia. But when Ilya talks specifically, a lot of things show how restrictive, how difficult it was for a talented person to live under suppression. I went on a more personal level because he provoked me. He said, “When you answer questions you start to think, and people will think that you’re lying.” And I got really mad and I said:
You know what, I want to explain to you the difference between you as the best representative of Soviet mentality that I ever met, and let’s say, American normal people. And it is: When I think before I answer here in America—it doesn’t matter if it’s a lecture, an interview, or I just talk to people—they will understand I’m trying to say something that’s meaningful, and I’m thinking about my answer, not just the first thing that comes to my mind. I want the answer to matter. People like you don’t trust anybody—don’t trust yourself. So when I start to think, you think I’m thinking of how to lie.
Beckenstein: You both have been greatly acclaimed in Russia, where you left because you couldn’t really work. You’ve been back to Russia several times since 2008, when you had your big three-venue show. You also received the Premier Imperiale from Japan, which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. These represent joint honors that recognize you as a collaborative artist couple. Did you feel differently about those disparate honors, given that Russian acceptance came so late?
Emilia: I see the popularity of our work in every country. When we came to Cuba we discovered that we were kind of national heroes, and now we go to Japan and Korea, and then to China. The Chinese were persistent about our doing Monumenta again and we were tired and really didn’t want to do it. It’s very difficult.
Beckenstein: When will that be?
Emilia: June 26, and it’s a very short time. They insisted on this exhibition because they said, “You are national heroes and these Chinese artists want to talk to you.” It’s not even about the exhibition. They want to see how you live, how you work, succeed, what you do. It’s a human scale. This art touched not only artists who were curious about what we do, but touched the general population because it’s about personal feelings of many people who are trying to escape from this life. They’re afraid of government, and it stuns them on an artistic level. So that’s important. And the prizes, of course, are nice, but we also have prizes like this in Russia—they awarded both of us. And here in America, we also got national accolades together.
Wallach: Let me ask you something about your Wikipedia page. I think it was written by a Russian because it ends when you leave Russia. But one of the things they say is that your art started out as questioning Soviet utopias and has advanced to questioning all utopias, including capitalism. What do you think of that?
Emilia: I don’t really like Wikipedia because it’s full of, to put it politely, mistakes, and sometimes stupid things.
Ilya: That’s nonsense. Today’s art is enormously politicized. They’re trying to create political situations in the content. I feel very old fashioned about art, because I believe that art can’t change anything, especially politics. It’s on a different level.
Wallach: I wanted to talk a little bit about your late paintings, Ilya. I haven’t talked to you about them in years, and at that point you were very much looking back to Baroque paintings. Do you want to talk about that?
Ilya: Yes, I feel an enormous interest in the direction of Baroque for two reasons: I believe that the evolution of Modernism came to the end. And to break the rules is impossible, and so you have to go back to the way it was during the period of Renaissance, because the Renaissance is the departure from Middle Ages.
Wallach: In order to go forward, you have to go back.
Ilya: Yes. That’s the first reason. The second is my age. I have absolutely no interest anymore to run next to a car that is going fast. My legs are not running so fast and it’s more interesting for me to stop and start running in a different direction.
Beckenstein: Was it ever important for you to catch up with the car? Or did you always feel this way?
Emilia: No, it was important, in middle age it was very important.
Beckenstein: I noticed that in some of these paintings, these black paintings, that you’ve included portraits of Emilia. Is that something new?
Wallach: It has nothing to do with personality. With the Baroque, I wasn’t interested in the faces I depicted. I’m interested in the atmosphere, how the faces fit into the atmosphere of those paintings, and who was in the painting doesn’t matter.
Beckenstein: And Ilya, what are some of the ideas or issues that you’re going back to explore through these paintings?
Ilya: I’m interested in the combination of Russian poems and classical Baroque poems, and there are a lot of reasons for this.
Beckenstein: And what are they?
Ilya: I’d rather not talk about it now; it’s not completely formed yet. Just working. It’s not finished yet.
Wallach: Do you think through painting that your ideas will resolve themselves?
Ilya: That’s why I’m doing it.
Beckenstein: I’ve got a question for each of you. What is the question that journalists should ask and stupidly don’t?
Ilya: In the ’60s the question for American art was solved: What is American art? The Germans had the same question. The French were international because they were already the center of the world. [Laughs.] A very important question for Russian artists: How do you think Russian art can be integrated into international art? This is an incredibly hard question; Russian souls are breaking apart because they can’t solve it. There are a lot of serious questions—except for asking how’d you manage your wife—there are more serious questions.
Beckenstein: How about for you Emilia? What kinds of questions do you think are important to ask that don’t get asked often enough?
Emilia: Frankly, I don’t know. It depends on the personality and how much you trust the interviewer. It depends on the personality of the artist and what he wants to talk about, and if he wants to talk about his problems. For Ilya, the most important question is how to become international. How to break this barrier, and we talked about this with a Russian interviewer, for Russian TV. We know this is a very important question and every Russian is dying to get an answer. In many cases, they don’t know how to solve this problem, and it’s not just for Russians; it’s the same for Arabs and for Chinese. You take any artist from the periphery, different countries, and they’re dying to get into America, into international art. They don’t know how to. Very few people learn how to use their national qualities, their national language, and transform and integrate into international. Another important question: What is the criteria of museums today for art that is going to sustain into history? They just follow the trend and brand.
Wallach: One more question, Ilya. When you first came to the West you entered this travelling world of artists, right, like a sports team. And then that came to an end in 2000, and it became about nationalism and everybody was seen as belonging to their country. How do you see it now? What do you think is happening in the art world now?
Ilya: I can’t judge and I can’t talk about it because I’m not a prophet. And everything changed from 2000, so I don’t really want to comment on the contemporary situation because I don’t even know what’s going on. New directors, new museums, new arts, new atmospheres, new trends, new brands. Everything has changed. Another important question that journalists never ask: Why judge the quality of the artist by the price of his work? Why are some of the big famous artists’ works very expensive, but in reality it’s empty and commercial? It’s a very big problem for young artists because they lose their compass. Where are they going? What direction? Should I go with someone who I really respect and like, but he doesn’t make money, and he’s not famous because he doesn’t make money? Which direction should I choose? And they ask us about it all the time. This is a big problem for young artists.
Beckenstein: So what do you say?
[Emilia and Ilya converse in Russian.]
Ilya: Continue, we say continue.