Q&A with Emilia Kabakov, The Ship of Tolerance

James Gaddy

The utopian ideal of a world where people of all races, religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds could live in harmony is particularly resonant at a time when severe global conflicts are dominating headlines and demanding resolutions. So it's particularly appropriate timing for the unveiling of the newest masterwork from Russian-born, New York City–based conceptual artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who focus on themes of universal connectivity. On September 27, TheShip of Tolerance, a boat that has been installed in far-flung locales from Siwa, Egypt, to Sharjah, Iraq, and shown in Venice, Italy, and Havana, will be docked beneath the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the DUMBO Arts Festival.

The Kabakovs are known for their way of engaging the public through collaborations with museums, galleries and public spaces, but the ship is on a different level. At every stop, the boat is assembled on-site by local craftspeople and shipbuilders, but its defining feature is its sails. In each city, the artist duo enlists the help of local schoolchildren to create drawings that will become the sails; for the Brooklyn launch, the Kabakovs partnered with the Studio in a School and received more than 1000 submissions for the 150 slots available. The boat will be christened with a sail-raising celebration that will bring together for the first time many of the children who participated in the project; they'll find out then which paintings were chosen to create the sail. The same day, the New-York Historical Society will present a free concert featuring student performers from LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York, the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn and the Spivakov Foundation in Moscow and Havana. Following a nine-day stint in DUMBO, the ship will move to Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, on Roosevelt Island (October 6–8), and will be on view at Staten Island's Atlantic Salt Yard (October 9–13).

Emilia Kabakov recently talked with nycgo.com about the project's process and production, and how children share the same passions and ideals all over the world.

Do you find that children are very different in all the places you've been? Emilia Kabakov: They are all different, but they think the same. They have high expectations out of life, and they're a little bit upset with grown-ups because they're worried about what's going to happen to them. They understand tolerance differently and [they are] sometimes outrageously funny. One girl in Venice said, “If people keep murdering each other, they will all wind up the same color.”

How do you decide which ones will go on the ship? EK: You want every child to be in—they start jumping up and down at the ceremony when the sails are shown for the first time—so you just try to choose the best drawings visually and try to imagine how the sail is going to work in space. A technically good drawing doesn't matter. Some of the kids are 5 or 6, so it's enthusiasm and what they're thinking about, what they understand about changing the world and how well they express their feelings about it.

Were there any challenges unique to creating this project in New York City? EK: It's funny, but because of the diversity—we have Jews, Arabs, Russians, Hispanics—sometimes even I don’t know what they [the paintings] are saying. You just try to see the whole picture.

What has The Ship of Tolerance meant to you and Ilya personally? EK: The Ship of Tolerance is a product of our consciousness, what we feel morally obligated to do and what we want to do. When we left Russia [Emilia, in 1973; Ilya, in 1987] we were dissatisfied with the situation, we thought it was the worst in the world. Now? It's even worse. So we think, maybe wrong, maybe right, that culture can change how we live, it can open our minds to the wider cultures of other people. It's easier to accept other cultures, other beliefs, the better we know them. And children are so open and are so ready to understand what we tell them, and they still have a mind of their own. Right now, we are putting some seeds of knowledge, of acceptance and understanding gained through culture, knowledge and respect instead of violence. We are even watching the grown-ups change. You realize that people do want to know each other and be friendly. They are so tired of confrontation. They hope children will have a future, and they also hope that they have one too, that they can live, not die. We failed, our generation, to create a better world, but maybe our children will succeed. They have a different vision. We just have to encourage them in the right direction.