Does the West love the Kabakovs? Does the East do so?

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On death, humour, intelligentsia, history, modernism, art in Russia and worldwide
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov talk to Katarzyna Bojarska

Ilya i Emilia Kabakov
Ilya i Emilia Kabakov

Katarzyna Bojarska: Let us start with your project for the exhibition in Atlas Sztuki. The title of this installation sounds very serious (What We Shall See After Death) and therefore I want to ask you where has the inspiration come from? Why such an eschatological perspective?

Ilya Kabakov: There is not anything serious in it. The greatest problem of art today, is the problem of maximum seriousness. The artists look like prophets: they are puffed up, seem extremely important to themselves, and present themselves as if they were very serious. There is no sense of humour in all that and one cannot have a normal conversation with them. They are much more serious than we are. We prefer self-irony both in conversation with people, in relationships and in work, which is neither very serious nor totally playful, but is something in-between. Our installation What We Shall See After Death deals with death but there is nothing grave in it at all. What we shall see is what we shall see, there might not be anything serious in it. According to my very ironic predilection I assume that what we are going to see there is exactly what we are seeing here. That is landscapes which are very banal, regular planes. The only difference is the deformation of the perspective. But also this has to be taken with great sense of humour. What I can say about this installation is that it is very ironic, very light, and very pleasant. And that is what is most serious about it.

KB: Does the very medium of installation, or "total installation" for that matter, help to create this kind of lightness and irony you are talking about?

Emilia Kabakov: I would not say that installation helps anything. Installation can be extremely serious. It depends on the artists, on his/her relationship to art and art history. It also depends on how actually one takes oneself, but that is a different story.

IK: The problem is also the following: having assumed this manner of not being serious in the relationship with other people in art, the heaviness of understanding lays on the viewer. In the serious kind of manner it seems much simpler. Traditionally, the viewer sees him/herself as a neophyte in front of an artist - prophet, as a rabbit in front of a snake, as a patient in front of a doctor, and in terms of the contemporary sense of the world: as a person who has very little money in front of a person with a huge amount of money. And finally, the typical kind of relation is that of a student in front of a teacher. The artist is talking and everybody else has to listen, no matter what.

KB: And this, I guess, is not the relationship you would identify yourself with?

EK: Not at all.

KB: What is then your idea, or ideal, of the relationship with the viewer.

EK: As we already said: very light, full of humour and irony.

IK: In a way philosophical. In this relationship we deal with a viewer as with a very close friend. We think that the viewer needs to be granted the possibility to decide for him/herself on what exactly they are seeing. This grew out of our experience with Conceptualism and an opposition towards Modernism. In that sense Conceptualism as more reflective and intellectual is also more humanist. It was a humanist reaction against Modernism.

Ilya i Emilia Kabakov, 10 albumów Ily Kabakova, Atlas Sztuki, Łódź
Ilya i Emilia Kabakov, 10 Albums, Atlas Sztuki, 13.1.-5.3.2006, Łódź

KB: Would you say that this kind of projected perception and what you expect on the part of the viewer is more what one would expect of a reader, that is a person reading a book rather than of a person coming to a gallery to see contemporary art show?

EK: In a way yes! (of course if the book is good) Bad book just gives you everything. It grabs you and tell you how it is and what you should think of it. Good book, just as good art, makes you think, teaches you to make your own decisions and decide for yourself. And that is what we are constantly trying to do in our art.

KB: I want to go back for a while to the notion of "total installation" which intrigued me in your manifesto published by the Stedelijk Museum in the 90s. At that time, the medium of installation was still, as you claimed, a very young form of art. How do you tend to see it from nearly 20 year perspective? Is it more mature now? Have the viewers got used to it by now?

EK: It really depends on where you are, or even which city you are in. In some places people definitely got used to the installation art and learnt how to deal with it by now. They have accepted it as a part of the art movement. Sometimes they even understand the difference between an object, an installation, object within an installation or a total installation. In some places, like contemporary Russia, for example, people do not perceive installation as installation at all. They refuse to understand what it is. This can make a lot of problems. To give you an example: we have just opened an installation exhibition at Hermitage in which a part of the installation was a false museum. First of all, they did not understand that it was us who built it, and second of all, that the paintings are not just paintings as such but are parts of this total installation. This whole mis- or non- understanding found its reflection in particular reviews which prove that the people who wrote them absolutely failed to understand what it was all about.

IK: The fact that they could not understand proved that the type of mind which understands everything eagerly at certain level - and which for us is normal, because we are used to it - might not exist in some places at all. In order to understand this one needs to acknowledge that this problematic is connected to certain things: to the notion of intelligent mind and the difference in the notion of intelligentsia in Russia and in the West. Two hundreds years ago, the idea of education and enlightening was brought to Russia, found its realisation there and got popularised. In the 19th century Russia it was moving in two directions: towards science and towards humanities. The humanities were extremely important because it dealt with an image of the human being as the one who deserved this enlightening, deserved to be intelligent. An intelligent person was therefore standing out from generally uneducated society. In the 20th century, during the Bolshevik revolution and after it, intelligentsia became nearly completely eliminated. A difference between two totalitarian regimes is as follows: the Nazis completely eliminated intelligentsia, whereas the Soviets did not. According to the Nazis the German race was the best and nothing else seemed worth remembering or studying, whereas the Soviets thought differently. They were thinking they have to inherit and use international knowledge. In the Soviet Union there existed little islands amid all that dirt and darkness; islands of light and enlightenment: libraries, museum, conservatories, theatres, also art museum and the systems of self-education. Young intellectuals found themselves confined in this dark space but they believed they could find a tunnel of enlightenment, a connection to universal culture. There were a lot of groups of self-education, especially in Moscow. It was a confrontational movement to the power, but not a political one, because the political was useless. It was a culture of confrontation. It was a wish of an innocent girl not to go into a whorehouse. The reason I am talking about all this for such a long time is because it is a background for a circle of Moscow conceptualists who partially grew out of this type of mind, this type of intelligent mind. Unfortunately, today this tradition disappears almost completely. And that is why we assume such a distanced position towards contemporary art contemporary Russia. Russia today is a totally destroyed place. That is it!

EK: I do not agree with that diagnosis. My idea is never say never. And I think, nowadays there exists the domination of big money in Russia. But it is not only there, it is everywhere. There is the domination of glamour and fashion in Russia, but so it is all around the world. Different things are going wrong but it is just a period of time, and that period is going to change, as it always happens. Right now the markets are falling down and money might not be available to such an extent as it used to be lately and fashion will not be at the top of everybody's mind and that in turn will create a vacuum in which culture again will dominate. It will grow up again and intelligent people come up again,. Because that is the only way to save ourselves at the time of the depression is to start thinking again.

Ilya i Emilia Kabakov, 10 albumów Ily Kabakova, Atlas Sztuki, Łódź
Ilya i Emilia Kabakov, 10 Albums, Atlas Sztuki, 13.1.-5.3.2006, Łódź

KB: Would you say there is nothing at all interesting in contemporary Russian art scene?

IK: It is not only about contemporary art, it is about general situation. What matters is not really what type of art dominates, but what type of the artist. One has to be very aggressive and very much directed towards mass media. The ideal is the hybrid of a businessman and an artist. These are not intelligent people. Modernism allows artists not to be intelligent: the artist can be a bandit, a genius, a spontaneous person but not a normal intelligent human being. In Moscow it was a very short period when the model of intelligent mind was dominating. And now it is over.

EK: Art there is mostly back to performance, to actions, videos, social projects. It is all more about what one can do to surprise.

IK: It is no longer about distance, reflection and observation. Very dynamic and very animal-like.

EK: It is only for today. It is art whose bond with contemporaneity is inseparable: "we want you to see us today!" that is what they all keep saying. If you forget about them tomorrow it does not matter because thier art concentrates on what is happening today. It is all about the interaction between you and me today. What will happen tomorrow, belongs to the future and that is beyond their interest. They get their money today, they get their fame today. They take what Warhol said about 15 minutes of fame literary. Even in his words they cannot see distance and irony. They take literary what Beuys said: everyone can be an artist. That is what it is. They take it as a face value because they lack distance and irony.

KB: Which seems kind of paradoxical if one thinks back about the Soviet Union and two realms of artistic activity: official and unofficial.

EK: Today every art in Russia is official.

Ilya i Emilia Kabakov
Ilya i Emilia Kabakov, What We Shall See After Death, Atlas Sztuki, 16.9-16.11.2008, Łódź

KB: And you have not found artists who would be politically engaged, intellectual and seriously treating their obligations ,who would function on the margins of this official culture?

EK: Many people from the older generation remained the same. How it works in the younger generation, frankly speaking, we do not know. I would not say yes or no, because I do not know. What we see is what is on the surface, and there might exist the margins but so small that one cannot even see them. Politics? Practically nobody is involved in politics on serious artistic and intellectual level, it is a political charade.

IK: What is very important for us is the meaning of the art. The meaning of what we do. What we do has to be meaningful. It cannot be just for one-day use. We do this in opposition to Modernism, because for us meaningful art is related to literature whereas according to the Modernist paradigm it is useless as distracted from the visual element of art. Art has to have just the visual element and no meaning and that is what it is supposed to be. For very long time in Modernism human feelings and thoughts were considered sentimental and were treated as taboo. And if a critic discovered that there was some "humanity" in an art work it was immediately labelled sentimental and was out of discussion. If it is pornography or pedophilia it is fine, but humanity, no.

The tradition of human feelings and a humane respect for another person has been inherent in the tradition of Russian art and literature for a very long time. It is the tradition of the attention for a simple man. And who is this simple man? It is a looser, a person who fails. Those who devoted their art to this kind of man, the individual we can identify ourselves with, even if not fully, at least partially, were Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov. But it was not about losers, it is much deeper on a human level. The idea behind it is that it is not an individual simple man who is a loser in this country, but the whole history of this country is the history of losers, of losing. It deals with constant destruction of utopia which Russia constantly tries to build and constantly fails to achieve.

Ilya i Emilia Kabakov
Ilya i Emilia Kabakov,
What We Shall See After Death, Atlas Sztuki, 16.9-16.11.2008, Łódź

KB: What kind of utopia is Russia trying to build nowadays.

EK: It is a capitalist utopia.

IK: What it really is is subsequent waves of losses.

KB: Having considered what you have just said about the Russian tradition, how would you identify yourselves as artists? Russian artists? Post-Soviet artists? Russian-American artists?

EK, IK: International artists! Nationality does not matter here.

IK: Ours is always a viewpoint of an outsider, of the person who is always outside and looks from that perspective.

KB: Is the choice of such an artistic stance a lesson of the 20th century history (and art history as well)?

EK: It is just a position growing out of one's character. It is hard to say. It might be an advantage of one's character or a fault of one's character. For me it is a position one takes as a human being, as an artist to look at life, at art and at others from the outside. It is an ability to always be ready to reflect.

IK: The difference between the 19th century intelligentsia and the 20th century intelligentsia in Russia is very radical. In the 19th century, they believed something could have been done, in the 20th century, they knew nothing could be done or changed and that the only position available for an intelligent person is to be outside, to be a viewer, and to reflect on the situation. He or she is like a patient in a hospital who can only take his/her temperature but cannot heal him/herself and cannot heal the others.

KB: What would you say is the role of the historical experience in your artistic work?

EK: It contributed to this reflective position, to the reflection on people's achievements and failures.

Ilya i Emilia Kabakov
Ilya i Emilia Kabakov, Ship of Tolerance, 6.6.2007, Venice

KB: Svetlana Boym wrote on your work that it is a "museum of memory." Would you agree on that. And if so what kind of memory would that be?

EK: Of course we would agree. It is human memory, a memory of a human being, it is also an artistic memory and a memory of the country.

KB: Is it concentrated on individual memory or does it rather deal with some collective experience and phenomena?

IK: There is no difference between personal memories and invented memories. It is all about images and metaphors. It is never actually personal nor real, it is always metaphorical. Whether it is documentation or fiction, it does not matter. Image is much more important. Maybe people in the West do not know what I am saying but they have an experience and they know how to understand the structure, the medium and the visual. It does not matter if it is understood or not, what matters is a very strong artistic form of it.

KB: Would you say there exists any relation between your choice of total installation and totalitarian political system? Is there any link between the two.

IK: No, it is naïve.

EK: It is too direct an association. Total installation is an artistic genre, a variation on the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, it is an experiment.

KB: What I meant is the relation between the total installation and, as you said, the fact that it was completely rejected in Russia, that it was not understood as an artistic concept. My question goes on to the relation between this rejection and what one might call a mentality (individual and social) shaped by totalitarian system.

EK: It is very childish to say so. No.

IK: Power is totalitarian and people cannot be totalitarian, otherwise there would be no totalitarian power. This is the paradox. Even if people succumb to totalitarian power, it does not make them, or their mentality as you claim, totalitarian

EK: Just the opposite. Look what happened when the Soviet Union fell apart. Have you seen any totalitarian people around. Nobody wants the totalitarian system to be repeated.

IK: People are victims of totalitarian power, they are never totalitarian.

KB: I am afraid you got me wrong, what I meant to say is that totalitarian system might create certain kind of its victim, if you like.

EK, IK: No, it does not. It cannot, just think about it.

IK: Russia is a very chaotic country. It is actually more chaotic than any other country in the world. There are no rules no directions, it is incredibly chaotic despite the experience of the totalitarian power. The official structure might seem totalitarian, everything else goes in whatever direction. One needs to understand Russia. It is not a monolith and therefore there does not exist a unified type of mind. It is really difficult to understand.

Everyone thinks he/she is very complicated whereas the other is very simple. It is psychological phenomenon: I am a four-dimensional person and the other is one-dimensional. This is so typical and normal at the same time. It is a colonialist point of view. The western artist looks at the periphery as at something very primitive: Russians, Turkish, Africans are very primitive.

EK: Even Poles!

IK: Absolutely. For Germans or Englishmen everything that goes inside their cultural space is very complicated and advanced, whereas what is outside is wild and barbaric. We have lived in the West 25 years now, it has always been the same reaction with us. Ah! Your are Russian, let's drink vodka together! Ha ha!

KB: Would you say art has any possibility to change this situation, this state of matters?

IK: Absolutely not. Centre and periphery is a very stable organisation of the world. Everyone thinks I stand in the centre and you at the periphery. France, Germany, England, America constitute the centre of the world. Everything around it is the periphery, it is impossible to change it.

KB: And yet the West loves the Kabakovs.

IK: No, absolutely not. It does not matter.

EK: They can like you, they can love you, they can put you on the pedestal, but they will always think "what a nice Indian artist," "what a great Polish artist." They are not going to say: "what a great artist." They will always put a label first. Even if you were very successful. Unless like it is now. You are very successful, you exceed the local success. And then they will say: American artist born in Russia. That is where we are right now.

KB: I read about your project "Alternative Art History" and found it very intriguing. Was the reflection on how the art history and art world works an impulse to make this project?

EK: No, not really, It was more about Russian art, the ideas in Russian art, combination of different artistic ideas and how it is going to be. It is also an installation.

KB: OK I understand. I wonder how do you perceive the movements of writing alternative art histories, for example the idea to write or re-write the Easter or Central-European art history?

IK: This is very good question! There is no other history beside the Western art history, it is impossible to write a parallel history: African, Australian or Central European. It all boils down to Western museums, galleries, collectors.

EK: It goes back to what we have just said about the centre and periphery. Why does it have to be Eastern art history and Western art history? Why cannot you just include everything into the art history! There are many eastern artists who made career in the West and you cannot then take them back into the Eastern art history, they belong somewhere else. Take Opałka for example. For me he is a Western artist because he is very influential in the West. He is international. It is the same for me. Some people made it into the realm of international art, and some did not.

KB: Would you say then that calling oneself a Polish artist or Slovenian artist is a gesture of self-colonisation, of pushing oneself onto the margins, beyond the realm of international art?

EK: In a way, yes. I just hate this questions: do you consider yourself Russian or American. We hope art does not function within national borders. On a certain level art is international. And if it is not there we are in a bad shape. There are local artists as long as they come up. If they can make it, if they can put their local ideas in international context and explain them on an international level so that people everywhere around the world understand them, it means they are international. Why should you say Polish, Russian or American?

KB: What about women's art in that context?

EK: It is same thing. How do I see gay art? The same! I had an argument with a friend who is gay. I said why do you push it in my face? Do you want me to notice that you are different? I do not care about it. For me you are a human being, a very intelligent and smart one. If you push in my face your sexual difference you force me to resign on this. I do not see that you are a woman unless you play with it and you want me to know that you are doing right because you are a woman. If I talk to Marina Abramovic, I do not talk to her as to a woman artist, or because she is a woman artist, I talk to her as a great performer, great performance artist. And I do not need to know from which country she is or what sex she is. As a woman she is my friend, as an artist she is an international level performer. That is all I have to know.

IK: The crucial question is that of the difference between the local and the international. What is the border? What are the criteria? In Russia we have very good, famous and rich artists, whom no one knows outside of the country. And the other way round: there are many international artists not known locally. So what are the criteria determining what is local and what is international? For me that would be a formalist criterion: new, clear and very transparent medium. For example, Opałka is an international artist because he invented his own artistic idiom. Nobody makes the same thing as he does, his is new medium. Same with On Kawara.

EK: But not only because it is new, but because on this level we called international art, they succeeded, they are there. You can see them in the museums in any country and you look at it as at art.

IK: There are several levels one can distinguish in art world: money level, galleries and biennials level, academia level, and finally the museum level. The latter means time, atmosphere, more attention and carefulness. It might seem quite primitive a distinction but it works like this to a great extent. It is impossible for one person to operate on all of these levels.

EK: But I think it is not that clear. You can look at Damien Hirst as a market person or as a concept of market person. Maybe his is a concept of being the most expensive and richest person in the world.

IK: The problem is there are two parallel worlds that of culture and that of reality. It is not possible to combine the two: money is for survival, culture is for spiritual being.

September 2008

Katarzyna Bojarska, Czy Zachód kocha Kabakovów? Czy kocha ich Wschód? O śmierci, humorze, inteligencji, historii, modernizmie, sztuce w Rosji i na świecie Ilya i Emilia Kabakov rozmawiają z Katarzyną Bojarską