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Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

by Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, “The Empty Museum” (2004), installation, sound, light. Photo by Hermann Feldhaus.

We meet the Kabakovs on a cold February day in their installation The Empty Museum inside the Sculpture Center in Long Island City. It is a large room that looks like a classic nineteenth-century European museum gallery. The spotlights on the wall show there are no paintings being exhibited.

Concurrent with The Empty Museum, the Kabakovs are having a show at the Sean Kelly gallery and have just published an extraordinary catalogue raisonné that covers their installation work from 1983 until 2000. Two oversized volumes at almost one thousand pages with hundreds of color plates, it is a visual metaphor for their history and impact in the art world.

PRAXIS (Rail): What excites you both at the moment?

Emilia: The most interesting thing at the moment is a project— Utopia, a city, a dream, a reality, if it’s possible. We have a project planing a Utopian city.

Ilya: The basis is the very clear difference between reality and dreams. The art does not represent reality, it is a separate world, and they live in this world, of dreams, fantasy; it has no connection to reality.

Emilia: Very often people ask, do you think you can influence reality? What do you think?

Rail: We are always looking through the lens of reality, aren’t we?

Emilia: Not always.

Ilya: Absolutely not. Maybe it is because we come from Russia and Russia is a very special space. It is the not-reality country, the unreal country.

Rail: How so? As opposed to America?

Ilya: America is more reality, this is your hand, this is your head; and in Russia it is absolutely different. In Russia, I look at you and it is my dreams, my fantasy about you. And this is a general point, a general principal. Like in literature, we talk about reality, but it is not reality.

Rail: It is a state of mind?

Emilia: It is state of situation, not only a state of mind. For example, here, you are given a president; you select a president, more or less. We can rent an apartment or not, get married and divorced if we like, we can go to another country and come back. Millions of choices or at least the illusion of choice, we are given. In Russia from the very beginning, there is no choice. This country had three hundred years of Tartars over them, then it was the Czar and you don’t choose him, then revolution— and you don’t choose what sides you are on, you are either in or out, an enemy of the state or not.

So you follow the path that is selected for you either by your parents or the state, or some power, from the beginning to the very end.

Ilya: In the west this is the basis of reality, then there is my reaction about reality— what little can be changed? But the basis is reality, here (stomping foot on the floor). In Russia it is the exact opposite. First, it is my mind, my reaction, my fantasy; then I change the reality in front of me.

Rail: This is hard for me to understand, from an American point of view.

Ilya: Absolutely! It’s a unique situation.

Emilia: That’s why when our two presidents are talking, American and Russian, and the American says, “I understood him, I see in his eyes— his soul…” Excuse me? (Ilya laughs) His soul is illusion! Because everything is illusion in this country.

Ilya: In Russian it is a play, a mask, an impersonage, everyone is a character— like theatre, it is absolutely fake, and it is not reality.

Rail: Is there any face of reality there?

(Both laugh)

Emilia: We don’t know, what we are saying— it is also not real!

Ilya: It is not critical, it is not specific. Dreams and reality. For example, what was the Russian revolution, it is dreams of communists who push their dreams about reality. Trying to change reality by modeling my dreams? It is not possible.

Emilia: Look at the difference between revolution in Russia and, let’s say, fascism. Fascism starts as a Democratic Party, the initial idea was a better life, to reach for a positive life. In Russia the initial idea was a dream. A dream! A dream completely. Something out of this world. Utopian.

Rail: What is the dream?

Emilia: Everyone is in paradise. There is no money there, everyone works because they want to work, nobody is asking for a payment… We are all friends…

Rail: Sounds religious or spiritual to me.

Emilia: It’s a utopian project, a dream of humanity. But every other society uses the dream as a dream. Religion is also only a dream.

Ilya: The good side about dreams and fantasy is there is a lot of creativity. There is a lot of creativity in theatre, dance, music— because this is a dream life.

Rail: All of those creators are trying to build that dream?

Emilia: You have a lot of creativity here, for example you have channels— ways of creating something in reality that is real— here [America].

Rail: Like an exhibit?

Ilya: Yes, but here it is physical, physicality. The end product of creativity here is a product. It’s either a house, a castle, or money. In the Soviet Union, creativity was again a dream. It was a dream about a dream about a dream. It has to be a novel, a story, a movie, music, poetry, somewhere where it is possible. Because in reality you can’t really build something. You can’t create something that will be physically acceptable.

Rail: But you made objects?

Ilya: The art world is a dream world, a fantasy people live in, it is non-stop here. You make this exhibition in the art world, it is not reality. It is a very happy place because it is like a permanent dream, like jazz, non-stop, it just keeps playing.

Emilia: You were talking about making objects, something real. No, in the Soviet Union they didn’t create anything real at all. It was a dream about a dream; everything they created was not about reality, but about the dream. So the final product was actually a fantasy too.

We made a piece, “the happiest man in the world.” The man had escaped into a movie theatre. He built himself a little apartment and he is living there. He is watching a movie. The discussion was, should we use an American Hollywood dream which everyone is familiar with or do we use Russian Soviet movies. And you know what? As we started looking, the Soviet movies were better, the dream was bigger! Because in American movies, there are somehow tones of reality. Perhaps there is a character which is not a material girl, but she may become a material girl. It is possible that she may get her dream in this life. What you see in Soviet movies is a hundred percent dream! It never could happen. You would see beautiful fields…

Ilya: In the big city, people are dancing, playing, they are all happy.

Rail: It sounds so sensual.

Emilia: It is so beautiful, you could spend hours watching it. It is bigger than life, it is a dream, not just for you personally, it’s collective and it has a big impact.

Rail: So you are both in the west, and you are doing well here, how does that communicate what you are doing through different viewpoints?

Emilia: He [Ilya] still views the world through the dream. He practically has no connection with reality. I am doing both. I have always said, ok, I’m a dreamer, I see my dreams and I wake up and I try to make them reality. That’s why I am in the west. If I was in the east I would sit in the kitchen and talk to my friends about how I want to change society, then I would go to bed. Wake up in the morning and accept reality as a dream because it is not real. In the evening it is the same thing, we sit with friends and discuss changes in society.

Rail: In this country we are not so involved in a dream world.

Emilia: It is a different generation, a different upbringing, a different culture. Even in this country we have found people who will say, “Isn’t that fantastic that this project will never be realized, it will remain a dream project— in fact, please don’t realize it.” These are university dreamers. Another kind of fantasy world, a dream society.

Rail: University dreamers?

Emilia: Yes.

Rail: That’s a certain academic-type dreamer?

Emilia: Exactly! It’s a theoretical plane, but actually the same thing. It is a very tight society that has nothing to do with reality and that lives in an insular community. They understand these kinds of things perfectly. You can sit and discuss it because that’s what they are reading.

Ilya: Of course, there is the question, who paid the money for the dream— like the university, who is paying for the university. It is a serious point. The gallery is more reality, the museum is not.

Emilia: Somehow we manage to move in-between fantasy and reality so we are more connected to the museums and non-profit institutions than to the galleries. That provides a way so that we do not have to cater to reality so much.

Rail: Do you have private support and sponsorship of your work?

Emilia: No, not at all. We have hardly any collectors because there are so few objects, but we do have a lot of support from the museums. If we have twenty exhibitions per year, only one or two are galleries.

Rail: And you are not selling any objects?

Emilia: Absolutely not. We sometimes sell installations to museums.

Rail: The public reception in New York?

Emilia: The Soviet public never saw Kabakov, in a way it is all done for the western public.

Ilya: There are many levels, the art historian, the art critic, the religious person, the mystic, and there is the normal person who does not know the art world and he looks and reads and says, “oh.” This is a normal reaction, it is a multilevel experience.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, “The Empty Museum” (2004), installation, sound, light. Photo by Hermann Feldhaus.
Emilia: With installation art, you give people the possibility to participate, to reflect, in every possible way. What do you have in your mind, what kind of knowledge? Your background, your memories. You have to take your time. In a way it is a fourth dimension. You come here, it is a different surrounding, you reflect on your own memories and history. All these emotional levels are here.

I remember there was an installation with Soviet music and painting, and it was a dark space. A woman walks in and sits for four hours. She is American and I become very curious. I walk in and ask her why she is sitting here. She says, “I don’t know, I’m sitting here looking down beyond that barrier, there is nothing, and I look at this picture there and I suddenly remember my childhood and how my mother took me to the Macy’s Parade.” It had nothing to do with the picture!

Ilya: This is a different principal, it is stopping time, it is not that you see the art, understand it, and move on. No, the process goes on inside you while you sit and forget about your meetings, etc., and see the library in yourself and create connections, associations. This is a serious point because if you come with your friends it is a catastrophe for the installation. I talk and kiss you, it is a catastrophe. Come alone and come back, it is internal.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, “20 Ways to Get an Apple Listening to the Music of Mozart” (detail), Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

Emilia: Sometimes people don’t even see the space— it is already in their minds. They reflect and they think they see something that is not there. For example, someone came in to this exhibit and said, ” Fantastic, I remember Russian kitchens looked exactly like this, and that smell…” Where do you see a kitchen in here? What smell? But they see and smell these things because that is how the memory is engaged. Or you are an art critic and your memory is full of paintings and you come and see the wall and it is a classical museum and you see classical paintings on the wall—they are not here, but that is exactly what you are going to see.

Rail: That’s what I saw. [Laughs]

Emilia: Exactly, you see the row of classical paintings because that’s what it is. They do not have to be here, you project them.

Someone says this is a church because of the music being played, they do not see the space. So the viewer is an active participant.

Ilya: There are many meanings as there are many people.

Rail: You are asking for a different state of mind. It is very demanding.

Emilia: Absolutely. It is a total installation.

Ilya: The normal view in the west is, I stand here and you stand there, so there is a normal distance between us. I come to you and this is your piece of art, I understand it or not, it is separate from me, I am independent. This work is the opposite of that principal. As a viewer, I am part of this space; it is inside me and outside me. I have this inside my dreams and I look at this situation and these dreams have a connection to my dreams, this is meeting with my fantasy that I have had before. It is not new, it is not information; it is something you know very well. Yet in a new situation you can explore associations. It is not aggressive, it is anti-aggressive.

Rail: Is the European reaction different from the American reaction to your work?

Ilya: In America there is a lot of personal history, but not so much collective history.

Emilia: It is personal here, I like it or I don’t like it. It is about me or it’s about them.

Every installation is a narrative and Europe has a more narrative history, and America is not used to a narrative in art to connect to. So people spend less time and give less time to themselves. Painting used to be a window into another world. Installation is a window into your own self. Video is a window now into the whole world or whatever you want to project. Installations give you time to spend with yourself. It is between you and your memories, reflections, knowledge, sentiments— everything that you possess as a personality. Nothing else gives you these possibilities, because you are alone, secluded in the installation.

Rail: What kind of questions are you asked here?

Emilia: A few days ago we had an interview that was fantastic, very deep, on an excellent level of cultural understanding with a lot of parallels to dreams and literature and life. These people knew what they were talking about. They were Americans.

Then another art critic came and said, “Do you keep apples in the refrigerator?” I said do you keep them in the refrigerator? Then she said “Did anything in his childhood happen with the apple?” I said yes, an apple hit him on the head, but she didn’t get the connection.

The beauty of America is that if you have a project, people are willing to help you. In Russia, I always say, if you have a project, they are going to kill you. [Laughs] Together with your project! But America has these kind of endless possibilities in a way. Everything is in transition as a society here, all is an adjustment. We are flying in a rocket and we are trying to adjust things.

Ilya: Let’s not forget this is dreams about America, this is fantasy.

Emilia: A point of view.

Rail: It is fascinating to talk about the dream. We both feel that something is wrong here, we struggle so much with rent and realities. We dream of a dream we don’t quite understand. We are looking for a bridge…

Emilia: Maybe there is a bridge and you haven’t found it yet. Or didn’t build it yet?

Rail: That’s why talking to you is so fascinating. Perhaps you are that bridge. Do you have any advice? How do you get there?

Emilia: I am this way, I am very American with a Russian stubbornness. I want this, I am going to get it, I am going to break the wall to get it, but if I can find the door I’d like to use it. (All laugh) I will look for the door!

Another important thing is that every American is a dreamer. You come here to build a new world, a new life. When you come as an artist to make a project, it’s a dream. You don’t say we are going to make a million dollars with this project, you say, I don’t know, it may not be profitable and people may not even like it, but this is a great dream, artistically speaking, and you know what, you’ll get support.

Rail: Everyone likes to support a dream.

Emilia: You can’t always live in reality. I never say I want to do this because it will generate a profit. People who want to help you already know how to do that, to make money, but they don’t have a dream. They have the reality of making money, and spending it in reality— how about spending it on a dream? It is very exciting!

Rail: That’s the most inspiring thing I ever heard!

Ilya: This is an important point— when you want the money, the dream is no longer. [Laughs] This is a very serious point.

Emilia: Karl Marx and Engels. One of them was a dreamer and the other supported that dream his whole life. It was a dream that was supported by capitalist money. Engels paid for two wives, who knows how many children. He never worked one day in his life. The other guy worked all the time in his factory to pay for the dreamer, a typical capitalist, always paying for another! A dreamer! Because the dream was bigger than life. It is an ideal combination.

Ilya: Van Gogh and his brother, and more…

Rail: How are things at the show at Sean Kelly Gallery, are you selling any objects there?

Emilia: At Sean Kelly there are some paintings for sale and some drawings, but not much. It is a dream there.

Rail: And your next project, Utopia City?

Emilia: Yes, the biggest project right now is Utopia City. It may never happen.

Rail: Will we be able to visit?

Emilia: Sure, you can visit and you will see it: the whole utopian city, unrealized projects. One of them is the center of cosmic energy, center of creativity, I’m not going to give you details… [Laughs]

Rail: Do see the power of art as being able to change the world? Will this nextUtopia Project add somehow to a collective project?

Emilia: Maybe, maybe…change the world. You know what? When I, for example, pitch this project— and you can imagine, it is an expensive one— there are a lot of realities going on now like war and terrorism. Don’t we think we need some Utopia in this world? Maybe Utopia it is some kind of unexpected salvation. Because we can look at religion, but we have already been there. We have tried everything— war, negotiation— name it, we’ve been there, but what about Utopia? We actually haven’t tried it yet, maybe we should. Maybe we should build something as an example— not real— a project, an artistic project, and see how it will influence everyone in reality.

Rail: Influencing? Changing reality itself?

Emilia: It depends how people perceive fantasy and reality. For example, we made a project called the palace of projects. That is, projects which are fantasy and not about reality at all. This is an artistic project; it has nothing to do with realization. This project was installed in Germany as an art project. There is a man living there who is a dreamer, but a very realistic inventor as well. He got hooked on this project seriously. He built different projects all around his city. He organized a palace of creativity based on the palace of projects. He said “I think we need creativity, I think young people need a chance to be creative.” He is a businessman who absolutely believes that fantasy could be reality. He just wants to do it. He bought a building, and he made rooms and people work there creating their fantasy.

Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey are PRAXIS, an art collaborative whose projects have been shown in P.S.1,MoMA and in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. They are also writing a book and directing a feature film. Their projects can be seen online at


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