In Conversation: Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

The Ship of Tolerance. Photo courtesy of artists' website
The Ship of Tolerance, 2005. Photo courtesy of artists’ website.

 by Rachel Heidenry 

In March 2013 I met Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. At the time, I was naively unaware of their work, had not discovered their stories, had never experienced their art. They are now two of the most important artists I have ever encountered.

The duo arrived at the Slought Foundation an hour early, discussed their plan for the evening and finally settled into their places around a table. Once the conversation began, any glimpse of that plan went out the window, and the Kabakovs – mostly led by Ilya – just spoke.

Typically I sit back, certainly engaged but also highly aware of doors opening, seats needed, microphone adjustments. That evening I stayed completely wrapped up in their words, my fingers cramping as I copied them into a sticky note on my iPhone. For an hour and a half they spoke about revolution, about contemporary art, about age, about humanity.

One image I will never be able to get out of my head is a stunning allegory about the journey of an artist. “Take a train,” Ilya began. “At 20 years old you are just trying to get on the platform. At 40 you might make it into the train car. And at 80 you’ll finally get into a seat – but by then you’ll sit and watch as other trains rush past you.”

Looking Up, Reading the Words, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Looking Up, Reading the Words, Courtesy of Wikipedia

This morning I discovered the sticky note. Here are some of the brief words that made it in:

In art there are stages of poisoning. Artists are either skeptical that it will ever be better or believe they can change it.

Our future is our past – only way to get over this poisoning. Such as in the Renaissance.

Walk forward while looking back

Idealism, space, and the human

The 20 yr old has an important task and that is to be heard. The 40 yr old to be a part of the establishment and only at 80 yrs old do you realize that the only art of today is of the past.

All artists have three stages:

1. Ambition to please those close to you – local art. Like playing soccer with friends – not in a stadium

2. Ambition to please a regional or national audience. The old ambition was to create a national artistic school.

3. Ambition to please all – international art. This has destroyed the souls of all artists. The limits have been raised to be an artist on an international scene. Like soccer players in the World Cup.

Who does international fame depend on?

Dominated by west

The introvert – in the purest form – is to have a memory, a fantasy that continually produces something in your mind, and reflection. These three will help you move ahead. Memory will remind you that nothing will ever be new.

Doesn’t speak about that the extrovert. Everything is always okay for them.

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