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“A Story about a Culturally Relocated Person”
Speech by Ilya Kabakov at the 28th IAAC/AICA Congress in Stockholm, Sweden (22 September 1994) (Extracts)

The circumstances of my appearance at this podium are fairly remarkable. Not thinking or even contemplating such a thing, I unexpectedly receive the news that I am supposed to speak at this Congress and that I have been “chosen” to do so. This situation instantly reminded me of an episode from my childhood, from my school days.

My classmates and I were racing during the break between classes, textbooks and notebooks were flying all over the place, when suddenly the teacher appeared and announced that I was being summoned immediately to the director’s office. When I opened the tall, leather-covered door, I saw before me what we call a “Senior Pedagogical Council”: the entire core teaching staff was sitting at a long table, a bit further was the director himself and the counselor of the academic program. My appearance was met with total silence. Finally the director asked: “Kabakov, can’t you guess why we summoned you?” I was silent, shifting from one foot to the other. “We wanted to speak about your hooliganism.” Thoughts rushed into my head with frightening speed. First of all, Sidorov and Pokrass were in our class and they were much worse than I, and secondly, as far as I could recall, I hadn’t done anything at all during the past week… The director continued: “Don’t worry, you haven’t done anything “particularly exceptional,” we summoned you as a “typical representative” since we are discussing here the problem of hooliganism in our school and we wanted to hear what you have to say about why you behave like a hooligan and why hooliganism has become so prevalent recently?”

The present situation resembles what I have recounted here exactly: the auditorium is silent and I am supposed to guess why I am here. I am supposed to guess just what it is in me that is typical.

And I, it seems to me, have guessed. I am a “relocated person.” I, raised and definitively formed in one cultural region, have been living in another for a fairly long time now, 6 years already. My “cultural” past collides with my “cultural” present.

During this story I will experience a particular satisfaction that is rooted, apparently, in one circumstance that is of an entirely personal nature. It is pleasant to feel like a so-called individual, but it is no less if not more pleasant to reveal and display your individuality not as something exceptional, but just the opposite, as something entirely characteristic and typical. A psychologist would easily detect here the result of the self-repression of a person raised in a totalitarian society, and we would have to agree with his perspicacity.

As a rule, a “relocated cultural person” winds up in the “West” voluntarily, and no matter how sudden or gradual this relocation is, the “person” has been preparing internally for it for a long time, and naturally he can’t help but form image beforehand of that world in which he will find himself. This image existed and exists until today (I think that it will exist also) on the territory of the Russian-Soviet world of the 1970s–beginning of the 1980s, but it seems to me that a similar picture is visible from any country, and its “realisticness” remains the same despite all the diversity of the contours.

The notion that the Western art world is hierarchical, that it has a pyramidal quality, serves as the base of this image. In this sense there exists one most important country, the main city in it, and the most important gallery or group of galleries in that city. I’ll speak a bit later about why the gallery and not something else is precisely at the top and in the center of the art world. The director or directors of such galleries are crazed with their love of art, they are continually searching for “genuine” art and “genuine” artists. But to find both of these, given the fact that the Western world is enormous, is not so easy. For the most part, judging by the reproductions in journals and catalogues, what is done there is boring, third-rate, and uninteresting. And this, of course, is very good for the one who is now heading there—it will be easier to notice and “take” him against such a background.

I will not describe here in detail the fate of those artists who did not make into a gallery, be it any gallery at all, which is the majority of artists, and who are put in a position to “keep trying and waiting” for years, and do so, until such time when they lose their strength and desire. I will not talk about disillusionments, horrors, and tragedies—that is not my genre: I promised that my story would be depressing but not tragic. Let’s assume that the artist has already made it into a gallery.

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, “The Fallen Angel,” 1997 Exhibition View: El Lissitzky – Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Utopia and Reality. Kunsthaus Kunstaus in Graz, Austria. Courtesy of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

I understand perfectly well the curators and their role in the contemporary artistic process. In essence fate itself has called upon them to fulfill this mission of theirs: to show in their institutions the newest, most important and interesting of what is happening in today’s art world, both national and international. And I might add, in the majority of cases this profession and these people unite all that is necessary for accomplishing this. They are full of profound enthusiasm and interest in what they are doing, they combine in themselves art historians, critics, organizers, they possess complete and thorough information about today’s worldwide art process and furthermore, without this there really is no curator—they have that intuition and that sixth sense which permits them to see when something is approaching us from the future. In the best sense it is a profession for the idealist, and that’s why today it is so difficult and popular.

I am convinced that for each person sitting in this auditorium, the temperature of attention should rise purely automatically at the phrase “contemporary artistic language”: this is precisely that vague area where each person has something to say, each person has their own notion in this regard. I also have one—it concerns the contemporary artist: his speech should be comprised of a contemporary “vocabulary”: a “new” utterance pronounced taking into account precisely this vocabulary; an individual “accent,” personal dominants (leitmotifs) of this utterance. In all three of these components, the arriving “person” has, as a rule, what is called “problems.”

But there is still another reason why the “person” not so much cannot, but more likely doesn’t want to enter into Western contemporary art. The reason will be funny to the point of incredibility when I say it: he simply doesn’t like it. But as everybody knows, no one likes it: not the critics nor the collectors nor the artists themselves. It is formal, cold, heartless, boring, hermetic, and many people (as attested to by polls), if it didn’t exist, wouldn’t even notice it at all. It is not surprising that the opinion exists that we are talking about a unique kind of conspiracy, a “conspiracy of the untalented.” But it is very simple to respond to this. We have no other language besides this one today and there can be no other one. It is what we speak, and language, it seems, like parents, we cannot choose. But many of the “relocated persons” think just the opposite, and what begins is an excruciating dichotomy. Either I must speak in it, be it a thousand times damned, in order to be contemporary and to be “accepted,” or I will do what I know how to do and what I love—painting and art, as I understand them, I will make “genuine art.” Very many of the “relocated persons” think this way.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Photo by Roman Mensing.

But the problem of language appears even more decisive and radical today. This Western language is now actually a language of “common understanding,” and in this sense this international “language” enters, has entered, into contradiction with local, national, and regional languages, they interact and struggle with one another. And today it is very essential what “language” the artist is speaking—local, regional, or international—in literature this is far from the case. It exists, this international language, but like air, it is impossible to see or touch it, although all of us gathered together here in this auditorium breathe it and “speak” it.  It is that language, the level and attributes of which are applied as the criterion today to any work in any corner of the globe. It is that measure of assessment, it is unimportant whether we curse or praise it, by which works are exhibited today in kunsthalle, and in many galleries, it is the scale according to which museums aquire works. It is that Esperanto which never made it in the area of language, but which has been successful, born at the end of the century, in fine arts, music, and theater. And this is only good.

Are we to understand then, after all that has been said, that the method for preparing a contemporary art dish is already known: it consists of quality raw material—local, national, or regional content—as well as its preparation in the proper recipe, that is, in the mastery of international speech? Recalling the Russian proverb “God loves a trinity,” we glance around, and isn’t some “third one” forgotten in this “kitchen”? Of course, this “third one” is forgotten, the same one from time immemorial—the chef.

Adapted from the original speech, presented at the AICA Congress, 1994 in Stockholm Sweden. Text courtesy of Ilya and Emila Kabakov.


Ilya Kabakov


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