Interview with Emilia Kabakov: Ilya works only from imagination

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, photo by Rodionov Publishing House

The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is about to launch a large retrospective of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. The exhibition has travelled to Russia from Tate in London and will move to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow after the show has ended.

Below is the English translation of the interview Emilia Kabakov gave ARTANDHOUSES about her first years in America, forgeries and Ilya Kabakov’s current place of residence.


You moved to America before Ilya Kabakov. What were you doing before you became his wife and creative partner?
When I came to America, I first thought about becoming a music teacher, but then I realized that it wasn’t for me: I don’t like teaching after all. And it's hard to play: until you break through ... there is no money in it, and I have two children. Therefore, I decided that I should do something else. My father was a collector, we had an excellent collection of icons, I gradually began to engage in art. I became a specialist in Faberge. Then at some point a lot of forgeries appeared, the Russian mafia came into play, and I eventually had to leave.

We already had a lot of artist-friends at that time, they would all gather at our house, my sister and her husband were acquainted and were friends with many people from the theatrical and musical world. Then I became interested in contemporary art, including Russian, so by the time Ilya arrived, I was already a curator of a private collection. Ilya was the last of our family to leave the USSR.

How did you decide to work together? For two creative personalities, is this a difficult choice?
Well, firstly, we have known each other long and very well. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know Ilya. Our lives of course unfolded in different ways: I'm a musician, Ilya is an artist. But our family is the same: my grandmother is the cousin of his father. Therefore, I don’t even know, it’s fate: it happened the way it happened.

Sometimes people draw parallels between your tandem and the Spanish - Salvador Dali and Gala. Do you tend to be expressive, or do you in some way direct your husband?
No, each one of us is a separate, independent person, that way one guides the other. We’ve always understood this subconsciously - that's why we didn’t get married when we were younger. Neither of us, would’ve probably survived in that union: we would’ve simply destroyed each other's lives.

Then why did you decide to get married later, if it all started with business relations?
We never had a strictly business relationship, we always knew that we were attracted to each other. Work grew into love.

Is it your involvement in domestic and financial issues, which has resulted in an increased capitalization of the brand "Ilya and Emilia Kabakov"? In one interview you said that together with the galleries, you made a gradual decision to change the price of the paintings.
Well, I think this is a natural process. When the artist becomes more famous, galleries raise the price of their work. At that time, our gallery owner said to me: "You don’t understand art business at all! The artist works, nobody buys his work, and when he dies, his art starts to sell, and then the gallery makes money." I was furious. And I said that I will make it so the artist receives decent money during his lifetime. And so I raised the prices: now it sounds a little bit naive, but that’s more or less how it went. I understood that if during depression some things don’t lose their value, but on the contrary, it rises, it confirms their value as stable.

During the depression, only those who don’t have money suffer, and those who have it continue to buy everything they want.

Still, our prices are not that high - at this level they tend to be much higher. But, frankly, I'm not trying to sell, we have a very different aim. There is enough to live. Even when I was studying at the music school, the girls would say: "I’ll always earn enough for white bread and black caviar."

What are your aims now?
We do what we like, we go where we like. I am well dressed - all that I want, I can afford. And Ilya doesn’t want anything at all. He never goes shopping, I buy everything for him. Therefore, our everyday life is going well and smoothly. The studio is beautiful. The main goal at the very beginning was to create a studio, and we created it perfectly. Ilya embodied exactly what he wanted. That's something you need money for, everything else is nonsense, you don’t really need big money. We don’t ride yachts, and we don’t have a fleet of expensive cars.

At the very beginning of his American life, Kabakov’s paintings were selling at a price of almost $15,000. You once said that you would like to return them to your own collection. What’s the process of tracking down and buying these works like?
Nothing complicated. We know today, exactly who has our paintings. I knew, for example, that George Kostaki had one of the early works. I contacted his daughter when we were in Greece, I asked how much would she like for the picture. If we are able to buy, we do it, if not, we don’t.

At the moment, the last piece I bought was Ilya’s first conceptual painting - it was put up for auction entirely by accident, prior to the auction I was asked to confirm whether it’s a forgery or not. I agreed to look under one condition - if it's not, then I’ll buy it. And I did. Right now in Moscow they are trying to sell a painting, and it’s 100% fake.

Are there a lot of fakes in general?
Paintings - no. This is the first time, actually. Sometimes, of course, some kind of complete, obvious nonsense does appear.

What is the main theme of your current retrospective?
The problem of the artist's constant fears and worries: what will happen to his work after his death, whether he will be included in art history or not - this is the main theme. Furthermore it’s a retrospective of the life and work of the artist: starting with conceptual art of the 1960-80s, then the installations from 1984 to the present, as well as models of realized and unrealized projects, drawings and albums. Then there are the paintings of today, and finally the "angelic" room, where everything is about the angels, from early works to the present day.

Part of the exhibition is devoted to the mythologization of the Soviet life. Is it interesting to the Western audience today?
When Ilya first moved, his main goal was to tell about the Soviet Union, about this life, about the problems which worried him.

The fears of reality, the impossibility of free thinking, creating and exhibiting are reflected in his first pictures and drawings, he began as early as 1954. The West was, of course, intrigued. In fact, they imagined very vaguely what the Soviet Union and its inhabitants really were. For them it was a different, very mysterious world. And suddenly a person appears who‘s talking about it. Of course, some took it all too literally, including Russians.

Toilet, 1992

For example, I recall the hysterics with the "Toilet" (installation of 1992, in which a public toilet was combined with a typical Soviet living room). Many didn’t understand that this is a metaphor for life, but perceived it this way: "Why do we, Russians, live in the toilet?" In fact, it’s not just and not even about the Russians! It's about life in the world surrounding us: of course, our country perhaps is the notorious toilet, but it turns out that even in the toilet one can arrange a very cozy life. If a person doesn’t understand this, to them this is ethnographic material, and even in Russian newspapers they write - “Ilya Kabakov and Emilia lived in communal apartments.” We never lived in communal apartments, neither myself, nor Ilya. This is not the moment of a "communal apartment," this is the moment of culture in which a person grew up and was formed. Culture, which he reflects, which always remains with him. This is a typical phenomenon for a person who belongs to a particular culture.

But the theme of escapism, the escape from reality - is it connected to both the biographical, and philosophical backgrounds?
There was a desire to escape from the reality of life and escape from life itself. There is a huge number of meanings, you shouldn’t look at it one-dimensionally. Every thing, every work of art, embodies the philosophical meaning of life, the escape from it, the fear of it, and the reluctance to deal with it - and, of course, the situation in a particular state. Each of the heroes and characters of these installations and albums tend to hide: one disappears into the picture, the other - into the sky.

During a meeting with the audience in St. Petersburg, you spoke about the museum as a temple where you can hide, and that that’s what Kabakov did in the USSR. What was the reason for this?
In the boarding school, the older boys treated the younger as servants - you know, "bring-this-take-away-that.” Ilya, of course, wasn’t exempt from this: he just loved going to the museum, it was a place of solitude and escape from everything around, from the situation in the boarding school and from family circumstances. The Conservatory and the Museum were the places of his salvation. For him, the museum was a temple of art, a citadel of culture, that is, those eternal values ​​for which he lives.

Could you imagine how your life would have developed here in Russia?
I won’t imagine it, why would I? I left, I have a completely different life - why should I imagine what my life would be like in Africa, or in the Soviet Union, or in Russia, or in England? I live where my home is. Ilya is different case. Ilya knew that he wanted to leave. And he left. He lives where he wants. He doesn’t live in America, doesn’t live in France, or in Russia - he lives in the art world, inside his workshop. And he has absolutely no interest in anything else around.

Then how is the artist's worldview formed?
From imagination. There are different artists: there are those that reflect on reality, and there are artists who work exclusively from their imagination. Ilya works only from imagination. Therefore, to think that the communal apartment is a reality, is nonsense. This is his invented world. He feels and hears the atmosphere around. It's a talent. An incredible sensitivity to the atmosphere.

Do you tell your husband any news from the outside world?
Right now I don’t want to tell him anything - the world is crazy. Ilya would be worried.

How did the exhibition go in Tate?
Very good reviews, the flow of the grey public was steady, everyone was discussing communism, socialism and generally what is happening in this world at all levels. People left the "Labyrinth" crying. And not just Russians.

If someone is interested in what we do, you can read about it on our site "Ilya and Emilia Kabakov" - there’s absolutely all information, books, catalogs, photographs and video from exhibitions, individual projects and installations. A lot about our project "Ship of Tolerance". But if you really want to see what this art, which is both modern and very serious and is filled with a huge amount of meanings, represents then, of course, you need to go to the museum.

One journalist in England wrote: "Frankly, I do not know what it is, and I don’t really understand it, but it's worth seeing. I don’t even know if I like it or not, but you need to see it."

Your exhibition opens during a very tense period of relations between Russia and America - partly reminiscent of the situation during your departure. How do you assess the relevance of the vernissage?
I believe cultural ties are very important. When they are violated, the coexistence of people as a whole changes. We could very quickly return to the caves. We were the first who brought Russian and American children for a concert in Cuba - since 1958 American children didn’t travel there. Our project "The Ship of Tolerance" has a concert program - we bring together children from different countries, they live together, rehearse, work, then we organize a concert. Right now we are going to Germany. It doesn’t matter what color children are, what language they speak, what religion they have - they are united by culture. This project has already been running for thirteen years.

What are your impressions of traveling to Russia now?
No impressions, because I don’t really see much at all. I don’t travel by public transport, I don’t walk the streets - I arriveand spend time between the museum and the hotel, sometimes I meet friends, sometimes other artists.

Do they share their thoughts and experiences with you?
Everyone shares their thoughts! Everyone from the driver to those who sweep the floor. Why would I reveal what they share? That is personal and depends on the level at which the person is. If someone works three jobs, it’s clear that they don’t have an easy life. And if I go to an expensive restaurant with somebody else, it’s clear that this person has very different impressions from life.

Sometimes people share nostalgic memories. Do you?
My family lived in Moscow since 1953, my parents were arrested in 1957, my grandmother and grandfather took me and my sister in. When they eventually released Mom, and then Dad, we left. So ... People get bored when they are not integrated into reality. I am very integrated into our life, I don’t have time to reminisce. When I left, I knew that I would not be accepted in America as a superstar and that my life wouldn’t always be a walk in the park. I expected that, perhaps, I would have to mop the floors - and at some point I did, and there was nothing catastrophic about that.

Of course, you can be homesick when friends are left behind, and this can last for five years. But forty-five have already passed! And when I left, people took the other side and they feared me as if I was infectious, “you’re leaving, you betrayed the Motherland". And that is hard to forgive. So I have no relatives or friends here from my past life.
Today I have a huge number of friends around the world, children, grandchildren - there’s not enough time to look at your own kids, yet alone to be nostalgic! Our house is a constant circus: there’s always someone coming and going, there is absolutely no time to get bored.