Anton Vidokle: I’d like to start by asking you about artistic independence. Your oeuvre strikes me as an example of one of the most independent artistic practices, in the sense of being a comprehensive, personal universe of meaning, paradoxically developed in rather totalitarian conditions. It is considered to be more difficult to achieve this in a repressive environment, where speech and artistic expression are curtailed, like the former USSR. Yet it seems to me that this may be actually easier than doing so in our current neoliberal reality, in which mechanisms of containment are more disguised and control is largely economic in nature. Is there a way to preserve artistic independence in a world where everything has changed so much?
Ilya Kabakov: We will discuss how the works of an artist coming from the Soviet Union (in the autumn of 1987) were perceived in the “West.” This was the time of the end of the Cold War and there was a certain interest in what was going on in the Soviet Union, whether from curators or museum directors or gallery owners. Moreover, this was heating up as a result of the absolute values of the Russian nineteenth century—the creations of composers and writers as well as the Russian avant-garde of the beginning of the twentieth century. Hence, one could say that there was potential attention. On the other hand, it was a full refutation of everything that had been done in graphic art during the Soviet period. So one could say that toward our generation there was a mixture of anticipation, and simultaneously a kind of fundamental skepticism.
It was a very interesting situation in which what was understood to be the world of culture, the human world, was the entire past culture of humanity, and all of that culture was located beyond the bounds of the Soviet state. Frozen eternity that would never end existed inside the Soviet country. Its past was found only in museum-like spaces: libraries, conservatories, museums, and theaters. Actual life was refuted, there was no real life in a material sense, and on the “cultural” level there was sots-realism, created forms that the censors monitored—forms of drawing, dance, folk art, and so on.
Let’s return to the image of Mowgli, a person who feels disgust toward today’s Soviet everyday life, who wants to jump beyond the bounds of that which is crashing down on us in the form of “culture” from reproductions and the television, who wants to go beyond that Soviet abomination; human nature rejected all of this. This is very interesting, because the extreme falsity, lies, and aggression that was in Soviet culture on all sides, from poetry to books and radio, was perceived as something non-human. This was a utopian mythology; we were all supposed to become some kind of Soviet heroes, there was a battle for quality raging everywhere, a battle for high ideals. In all of this there was something non-human. And for Mowgli, the human was that norm that was being sought for beyond the bounds of daily Soviet reality. Namely, the central point in this conflict between reality and what Mowgli had to imagine, to invent for himself, was in the past world, in the Western world existing beyond the bounds of the Soviet state, in the vanishing Russia of the nineteenth century.
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