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Emilia Kabakov. Оn “Strange City” and an amazing life 0

Interviewed by Sergej Timofejev

Material prepared with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation 

High above the glass shelves of Grand Palais and behind open-work metal constructions supporting the balance between glass and light, flutters the French flag. Under the glass, amongst the interwoven load-bearing constructions along the edges of the space, a city of white Styrofoam has been built and the path to it is indicated by a huge, sound-generating dome – a gigantic dynamic sphere, which constantly changes the nuances of its lighting and transmits soothing, slightly solemn music. In the city, it is possible to visit the center of cosmic energy, observe the encounter between man and angel and to see an always open gate from air to air.

The installation of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov “Strange City” has become a new embodiment of the Monumenta project launched in 2007: its idea is to temporarily turn over the monumental and incredibly impressive building of the Parisina Grand Palais to a particular contemporary artist who will make there his own, as Ilya Kabakov put it, “total installation”. With an area of 13 500 m² and height of 35 m, there is more than enough space for this. Under the Monumenta label, works by Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Christian Boltanski, Anish Kapoor and Daniel Buren have already been exhibited here. An invitation to participate is without a doubt a sign of recognition, a sign that the summits of contemporary art have been reached, but at the same time it is a challenge. It is a huge responsibility to find the right balance between the “contents” and the “frame”.

This responsibility lay unusually heavy on Ilya Kabakov's shoulders and just before the opening of the expo, when everything was ready to go, he literally took to bed. The artist hardly ever left his room at the Le Meurice hotel across from the Louvre.  It was his wife and co-author, Emilia Kabakov, who took over interviews and performances for the media – elegant, smiling, never missing an opportunity for a joke and able to coolly deal with the feverish activity of the media. “You have 45 minutes”, –she tells the chief of a large TV network whose team has come to shoot some footage with her at Grand Palais.  “But I need at least an hour”, – he says. “You have 45 minutes”, – she repeats firmly and with a smile. The revered author of the program has no recourse but to accept it.

We met her at Le Meurice for an interview a day before the public was let into Grand Palais. We had an hour and it flew by quickly and intensely. Emilia Kabakov told us how the “Strange City” for Monumenta was created and also about how she and Ilya spent their whole lives next to each other even if they were not always together. When I sent her the text of the completed interview, she replied that it might be slightly too sentimental. This may have been due to the fact that we talked on the next morning after the enormous project was completed. At times like this, it is difficult to remain an aloof and unperturbed intellectual.

Emilia KabakovPhoto: Viktoria Fomenko for 

You have just finished putting together the installation. How do you feel now that it's complete?

All is well, we have finished, everything finally fit together. Exhaustion, satisfaction... as always, it's an installation after all! Yesterday there was still an adrenalin rush, whereas today I feel all relaxed.

When you were putting the project together in Grand Palais, arranging everything in place, did the space itself add something to the project, did it change any plans?

Of course, some details changed from time to time. When we put up the walls that were made elsewhere and here just put together, we realized that we had miscalculated and added another 4 meters in height. When we put together White Chapel, we saw that the space is slightly wider than we thought, so we included some benches and added music. The sound-generating dome was not a part of our first draft, but when we thought about the kind of public that will come here – and a part of it is interested in entertainment, and there are many children – we decided that some striking visual object was needed. The dome itself was invented in 2004 for the opera of Messiaen “Saint François d'Assise”; it has 2000 light bulbs and it is calculated to last for five hours of the opera.  Here, we have incorporated the idea of Skriabin about the correspondence between sound and light. We reprogrammed it, here it is more muted. Yet in principle everything that was decided on was also carried out.

Could this be called your most universal project?

Well, we once made the “Palace of Projects”, also an installation of scale, with a huge number of concepts. Yet the “Palace of Projects” involves ideas of how to make oneself and the world better, how to increase creativity. And every project issues as if from its own little creator: there are 65 projects and 65 heroes – Russian go-getters and fantasists who are ready to change this world, i.e., there are characters who are behind everything. But in this case, it is all global projects: White Chapel, Black Chapel, the Center of Cosmic Energy, Center of Creativity, Gates… on which we reflected for very many years. And so they came together in one gigantic global project.

Why is your city “strange”?

You know, in the beginning the title was “Utopian City”. But the word “utopian” is so hackneyed. And at the moment when the Soviet Union fell apart and general euphoria took hold: on one side of the Curtain, there was freedom and on the other, there was no longer a potential enemy. We are all going to live well. And then all of a sudden all these “little” problems arose, religious ones, local wars. Utopia did not come to pass again. To talk now about a “utopian” city is even more utopian, even stranger. We cannot achieve an utopia, it is obvious, yet we can continue to dream about it and to try to create it at least in art.

Almost everyone has stopped talking about the future, there is no clear picture of it and even the picture of today is falling apart… Yet you are looking forward?

Everyone these days is looking at the past. In Russia, they are looking at the Soviet Union. When people do not see the future, they turn to the past. It looks to us all rosy, it looks like paradise.  I have talked to young people who said to me, everything used to be wonderful, what are you talking about? They are watching old Soviet movies that have been calculated to create an ideological “fog”. It is all simply ideal there, all the people are bursting with health, they are singing while working, and when they are harvesting, you can't even see them under that rich harvest.  All of it is bigger than life. It is more real than life, it is an utopia. And when young people are watching this, they say: “Look how happy they all were, what factories they had, how they worked, how nice and clean and rosy and puffy they were”. All the girls are beautiful… While in the West they look at the 1950s: how wonderful and stable everything was. People are worried about lack of stability, confidence in the next day and the future of their children. We have lost it all over the world, not just in Russia. It is terrible. Yet people will continue to dream of utopia, of heaven on earth. What is happening with us as a civilization is difficult to understand. Perhaps we are all still in our childhood, we have not become adults. We do not understand what we should do in this life, why we are here. And I hope that culture may be the means, the tool that can bring man to a higher level of consciousness and existence.  

It seems that what is exhibited here can be called a completely conceptual view of utopia. A view from inside and from outside…

We always do it like this: we look both from inside and from the side and try to combine these two vantage points. That is the specifics of our work.  We are trying to see what we are doing and how it will be seen by a viewer, someone from the side.  Such an approach is not very popular among artists. We even had an experience where we visited a famous painter, he was showing us his pictures and we asked him: “But did you try to see them from the vantage point of a viewer? How does he see your pictures? “ And he replied: “But why should I?” Of course, it's a different kind of artistic thinking: I drew it, it is all happening between me and the surface of the canvas, between me and God. And what and how the viewer sees it is his problem.  We see these things differently. We are doing it all for the viewer and time does not matter  -- he may have beent here yesterday, today, he may be there tomorrow, but he will clearly be there always. And this viewere is multifaceted, he is tuned in various ways, he is very sophisticated and ordinary at the same time. It is a person with a colossal intellectual background or without any whatsoever.  We have to put in all the elements, all the levels of understanding and seeing, so that the other person could “read” them. It applies to paintings and of course to installations.

Could you tell us how you wok together? For instance, on this project?

It is very difficult to explain how we work.  Everyone knows that I can't draw. I just can't and why shoud I – Ilya knows how to do it beautifully.  I am a musician by profession, actually since the age of three and it never occurred to me that I might to something else. But emigration, the different routes of my life changed that. For some time, I was simply adrift; I did something, of course, I was busy with the antique and painting market, I was a constultant in that area. But it seems to me that meeting Ilya made us both concentrate. It was a bilateral process.  We are thinking more or less along the same lines. But at the same time, we are very different people. Ilya is a very nervous person, he is always afraid of everything. He has a constant feeling of fear – perhaps from his childhood or maybe from when he was already an adult. I was not yet so damaged by life. And actually, the more heavy its blows, the more resistance it developed in me. Just try and say no to me! If they tell me I can't jump off the top of the building, I will jump. And Ilya is probably the one holding me so that I would not jump off these buildings.  

The two of us talk a lot. We are basically on the same intellectual level. Ilya is rather negative whereas I am an extraordinarily positive person. I can be depressed for only a day. Then I lift myself up and I understand that I have to go forward, because there is no other choice: no one has been standing behind me all my life. Ilya's imagination usually paints some dim pictures; mine does the same in the beginning, but then I understand that it is my fantasy, that in reality I can do something for things not to come to pass. And that's what I am trying to do. That's the difference between us.  

Ilya comes to our work with some sort of an idea and so do I. We discuss them and then we begin to plan something. Ilya draws a sketch, outlining something, and I try not to interfere. When we begin to implement the project we are next to each other practically all the time.  It is a very intense kind of life. Here in Paris there were days where I have interviews from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Ilya does not do them at all right now, he is not feeling well. But he worked on his own. And here are the consequences: he is sitting by himself in the room and not going anywhere. It is very trying on one's nerves. What else? He does not cook, but I do; he doesn't do laundry, but I do. (Laughs)  

Could it be that we are looking at the installations more from the point of view of space?

We look well together.When we started out, I probably saw the space better than the pictures. I have architects in my family, all that is well known to me. But I was always very much afraid of paintings because I am a musician and the visual was always less important to me.  Today I can already claim to see pictures, because I have had much experience: already almost thirty years.  I am an easy to teach person, I know how to learn. But I express my opinion about like this: “You know, I think something is not quite right there… But have a look yourself…”  

Ilya draws a lot. He has always drawn a lot. But before it was mostly paintings as concepts, whereas now it's the other way round: the concept has receded and painting has come to the foreground. It is a huge number of paintings.  And it does not matter that I am his wife, I am a very tough critic – these are all very well done pictures, very professional, very interesting.  And there is a concept in all of them, but now it hides behind the painting. This is the big difference between the 1960s-1990s and today.

Is it important to you that “Strange City” appeared in Paris of all places?

Actually yes, it is important. Here we've had our largest exhibitions. At Centre Pompidou we build “We Live Here” in 1995, followed by the “Palace of Projects” and now “Strange City”. The first and the last one are the most important and large-scale ones and both are related to Russia. The first one was about what was happening in the Soviet Union, about all these promises of a utopian city, a city that was promised to be built. And here it exists in the picture. And next to it are two floors in ruins. People permanently live in little trailers, which should have been temporary. Everything is unfinished, incomplete and only in the picture it's a shining city.  That was Pompidou.  But now, it is a city that has been realized in its artistic form, without all this Soviet nuance, where there are no elements of everyday life, just purely artistic and strange it evokes ideas, contemplation, a mass of associations arrises. So we have made a huge circle from 1995 to 2014. Almost 20 years have passed. And there is an incredible difference. It is a completely different space, scale and departure from the Soviet past.  

Do you often go to Russia?

We don't really have very many exhibits there...

Do you not find perhaps that there never quite formed a new reality that could compete on the level of ideas and emotions with the Soviet one and that it may be the reason for the problems that we are observing now?

You know, I recently talked to a cinematographer from there who came to film something about us. I unexpectedly found out that the Soviet Union has really kept its promise to build a new world and create a new man. When I met this person, I understood that for me he is the embodiment of how thinking and genetics were changed in the years of Soviet power.  We have yet to understand it completely. It is a person who does not believe in anyone – he does not believe in himself.  He looks at you, listens to you and hears that you are lying. He just cannot understand that another person could openly say what he or she thinks.  I never have any problems with western journalists, because we are on an equal footing and we tell the truth. But when I see that person, I see that he is lying. Why? He is trying to be liked, it seems that if he does manage to butter me up, I – as a woman and a human being – will simply melt and will talk about incredibly intimate things. But of course I will not talk about them, because it is intimate is intimate, it is my life. But the questions that are asked are deep down very aggressive, they are an attempt to provoke. In the West too they might ask an unpleasant question: what do you think about politics, what do you think about Putin, about Ukraine… I will either skirt around them or reply depending on how the question has been asked and what it presumes. Whereas in this case I understand that it's a provocation. And it's even subconscious. The person is not even thinking about what he is doing. I said to him: “You are trying to make me into an aggressive person. But I am not aggressive – I am tough, but not aggressive. In the film that you are making I will come off as an extremely unpleasant person that does not correspond to reality. He replied: “When you talk, you get lost in thought and the audience will understand that you are lying.” “But don't you think that this happens because I have to reflect on what you asked? I can't answer spontaneously because I am not an orator, I am not an actress, I am a person who thinks about what she says.” And so it seems to me that they really did create a new type of person and it will be very difficult to get rid of him because it's already all in the genes.

And then empathy for people, empathy for others disappeared. It became obvious already after the perestroika. Before, in old Russia, even if they were driving a group of prisoners, women ran to feed them, sharing bread; there was some kind of empathy even in Soviet times. We lived in a communal flat in Moscow and in the kitchen, women would get into fights, but if something happened , they immediately tightened their ranks, they stood shoulder to shoulder. Because they understood that all of us had to survive , that we are all victims of that regime. Today it has disappeared. When I went to Russia in 1991-92, I did not go there for a long time afterwards, because I was shocked by the huge numbers of homeless children and old people on the streets. And this in a country where for decades it was declared that children are our future and old people our past. I could not think about it as abstractly as it is usually perceived in the West: “well, that's how they live, that's how they are used to living – in the dark and cold.”  So all that morality developed in decades was simply superficial and was easy to destroy. But there was nothing like that in my childhood or my youth – I left the Soviet Union when I was twenty-five.

You and Ilya were born in the same city, in Dnepropetrovsk?

You could say that we were even born in the same family. He is my mom's cousin. For that reason, I have known him all my life. My family moved to Moscow when I was five and his family moved there when he was 9 or 10. His mom sometimes asked me to go visit Ilya in his studio and then write to her how he is doing. It lasted for several years. Actually we were walking parallel to each other in this life and watching each other carefully.  When I decided to emigrate, it was Ilya who put me on the train because there was no one else.  He came over, brough some drawings and said, here, these are for you. Like the dutiful person that I am, I asked to whom I should give them. He says: “These are not for giving to anyone, I am giving them to you: if you get into hardship, you can sell them.” Standing by the train, he said that he loved me. I was of course very much taken aback. And I left. But I never sold the drawings, no matter how hard it was for me.  

When Ilya left the USSR, you spent time in so many cities but then chose to settle in New York?

After all, I live there since 1978. And Ilya insisted then that that's it: we will get married and buy ourselves an apartment. So we bought a loft in New York. But we were there rarely, because we kept travelling.  People who visited us would ask: did you just move in? Oh, no, we have lived here for two years. But what about the boxes? Well, we simply live at the airport.  

And how did you move to Long Island?

In 1996, we were visiting someone there. Ilya suddenly freezes and says: “I want this house.” A small house, built in 1918 and a sweet pair of old people are sitting there. They are about 90, rocking in rocking chairs. I said to Ilya that we should find out how much the house cost; we did not have so much money. But he insisted and I went to negotiate. “Please forgive me, but we would like to buy this house.” The owners looked at me as if I was crazy: “But we are not selling it…” “Yes,” says I, “I understand.” Well, the negotiations lasted three weeks and then we bought the house.  

True, these people gave in to me on one condition, that I would never sell the house. “I am selling it to you and you will love it like I did,” the former owner told me. I replied that of course I would love it “but I won't be able to love it exactly like you did”. And they left us everything, furniture, some sort of things of sentimental value. And of course, for a long time the life of other people was present there, their memories and memory of them. By now, it is already more our house than theirs.  

The first thinkg we did was to make a studio for Ilya. But we renovated the house, reinforcing the foundation only seven years ago, when we came into some money. We are no millionaires.

Photo: Viktoria Fomenko for

Long Island  probably lets you regain the energy that this process requires of you: to think up a project, to carry it out…  

It is a working place, a place where we live, but we also work. We have a strict schedule. We get up very early, I get up even earlier than Ilya because I work a lot with Europe. We have one assistant. He is a former musician from the Volodya Tarasov project. An amazing person, he has been with us for eleven years. He helps us with the organization, particularly the details. And there are plenty of those. It is one thing to paint pictures, they are hung on the wall, and the person comes for the opening and accepts congratualtions. And it is quite another thing, to put together this kind of project. Sixty-five crates were sent from America with what we had done. In White Chapel, there are 78 paintings, in the other chapel there are six, but each one consists of four or six parts. There are lots of models, drawings, little things. It is an incredibly complicated project.

What are your feelings when the installation has come to an end and you have to take it apart?

We are used to it, it's not the first time after all. Sometimes the museums buy the installations. Yesterday the Minister of Culture of Brasil visited us there and then she said to the director of all their museums: “We should take all of this.” Then she asked me how much it cost. I said that I could not answer that question right there and then. Although of couse I know how much money we have put into it, because I collected the money for it. The director of museums then says: “Yes, I like the White Chapel very much, we will recommend that someone buys it…” But the minister interjects: “We will not recommend but tell them!”  

So there is the hope that someone will take it. Although usually no one takes such big projects. “The Palace of Projects” was bought by the Government of Germany. The exhibit took place in New York, the German Minister flew over and announced that they were buying it. Later the Moscow “Garage” asked that the “Palace of Projects” be brought to them for an exhibit. The Germans refused and told them that this is their national treasure.

Ilya and I also happen to be the national treasure of Japan because we received the Emperor's award. The recipients are automatically awarded this status. Well, at least somewhere we are a treasure! (Laughs) We have many works there, five public projects, which have been recognized in population surveys to be the best public projects in the country.  

But do you have a real city that you would call an “ideal city”, your own city?

I don't know. I have been moving here and there all my life. To me, it is all the same, I can walk out of the best palace and be out on the street the next day starting a new life. Just that kind of feeling. Because in my childhood we never had a normal house; my parents were arrested when I was little, so it does not matter to me where we live and where we go. I feel wonderful in this hotel because it is comfortable. Whereas a house is a house, I don't even know what some of the closets contain because I never look in there. All of this is just there, I am not interested how. I am not attached to things.  When I was moving earlier, it was important to me to move the children, the books and the piano and that's it, I have moved. Ilya of course is a little more attached to the house because there is his studio. It's his life. Here he is already suffering: “I want to paint”. I say, well, do some drawing. But he replies that he wants to paint pictures. Okay, we will go home and he can paint.