Interview “ I need The
Vladimir Kanlelaki is a
well-known artist with a weapon collection. He has also written a
book. It is about how got “trafficked” to America and imprisoned
in England. A. Spurling spoke to him about why.
It is New Year's Day.
Again. I've . .arrived on Orthodox New Year and the table is laid.
Judging from the bottles, there were evidently some celebrations
on the eve last night. 'Volodya' is having several vodka
hairs-of-the-dogs with his breakfast. V/e are offered champagne
and liqueur. A huge ashtray is produced for me. Almost four years
ago alcohol and cigarettes became an arrestable offence for
Kandelaki. He grasps my hand in greeting and then jokes' about not
kissing it... In the light of what happened to him after he did
this to an English airline stewardess, I agree that this would
not be a good idea.
This is the story of how
one man in a general's uniform was arrested coming off a British
Airways plane. He shows me the offending item: a honey-colored
suit with epaulettes and brass buttons Vladimir Kandelaki then
spent 36 days in Wormwood
Kandelaki is an artist,
who also founded a Fund named after himself. It exists to promote
( Georgian art and he has published several according to his
wife) rather beautiful books and catalogues. He also has "the
biggest collection in Georgia" he says, of around 2,000 antique
Georgian weapons. "You may not be interested, but some people are"
he says, producing a long curved silver saber in a beautifully
carved sheath from a cupboard. Since Kandelaki clearly lives far
from extravagantly, I wonder where the Fund's funds come from, lie
says from his pictures, sold for thousands in the States. He also
has a "sponsor" in America called Norton Dodge, who is a collector
of non-conformist art. Kandelaki's wife Lali has a folder with a
letter from Dodge to the then-state minister - Avtandil
Jorbenadze. It is a sort of character reference, ending with the
wish that Kandelaki's stay 'at her Majesty's pleasure' will he
Kandelaki is currently
working on a prison-inspired series, but due to illness
and depression it is progressing slowly. After prison and the
"stress-mess", he says his legs seized up He's had operations on
them: he's had heart problems: he's had concussion. And he's
currently going through a court case. He's suing the former
president of his Fund, whom he accuses of fund-embezzlement. This
is not all that he suspects him of, as becomes clear later. There
is also a conspiracy theory. "[In Georgia], they can deceive you
the whole time, so watch out. At least. I'm deceived the
He is described as a
non-conformist artist. Why?
"I've never conformed," he
says not very descriptively.
In answer, he gets up and
(licks through an American-published catalogue of his paintings. I
say that the style actually looks quite traditional, He says it's
realism, but realism with surrealism.
"Is that traditional?" he
asks. I sec the realism of a townscape, but with the surrealism of
an enormous kuvshin wine-jug towering over buildings. This
proved to be very non-conformist, explains Kandelaki, because at
the time central Moscow was in the midst of Prohibition. He shows
me another in a similar vein: only gaming equipment (dice and
billiards) has replaced drinking vessels. Gambling was also
"Is that traditional'" he
asks again, pointing to a Lenin head in a light bulb, from a
series called "IIych Bulbs".
Is he someone who enjoys
risk - he seems to get himself into some rather extreme
Not a gambler, says
Kandelaki, but "by the time I think, it's already too late. I was
always sure of myself, but people have brought me down...I need a
Nobel Prize," he says. The later observation is one which will
Before he ended up in an
English prison.in 2000, Kandelaki . found himself in another
extreme situation in America. In l990, he was selected from other
Georgian artists by an organization called Lileo-Art. They
apparently promised accommodation in the States, a studio, an
interpreter, a car and publication and promotion of his works.
Even if the percentage was high, wasn't he rather native to
believe in all this? Didn't it sound too good to be true?
"Yes," he agrees, "but it
was official", it was organized through the Georgian Union of
Artists. He thinks his lack of English was probably a decisive
factor in them deciding to manipulate him. It is only recently
that Georgians are learning to be wary of similar 'white slave
Kandelaki's book about his
American and English experiences is called "Queen of Spades". He
has written that he has always been followed by the spade Queen.
Was he perhaps referring to Fate and extreme situations?
"To bad women," he says
more specifically. In fact, Kandelaki seems to have come into
contact with a more-than-average number of bad apples in his life.
Apart from personal relationships with 'witches', there was of
course - the airline stewardess.
Kandelaki was flying
Tbilisi-London (en route to America). He was arrested for
apparently committing three offences aboard the BA flight:
smoking, being drunk, and sexual harassment (of a stewardess). He
just happened to be in Cossack uniform at the time. "Not guilty,"
he says on all three counts:
I. He wanted to smoke. He
asked permission repeatedly; but says that though he had a
cigarette in his fingers he didn't actually smoke it.
2. He wasn't drunk. He
says he was "in a good mood" after a drinking send-off in Tbilisi
with champagne. He then proceeded to drink two mini airline-sized
wine bottles aboard. For a Georgian man, he does not consider this
serious alcohol consumption:
- "Georgians know how
to drink” he says mentioning horns and producing one the size of
half a human leg. "Even if I'd wanted to, I wouldn't have had
time..." he says about the four-hour flight and Georgian
3. What happened next was
apparently that after asking the stewardess for permission to
smoke ("smoke, cigarette, toilet"), she ended up sitting down next
to him and looking through his catalogue for an hour. By the time
she got up to leave, he'd kissed her hand, said "very good woman",
put his arm around her shoulders and also kissed her cheek...
Despite the fact that the
charges have since been dropped and that the stewardess has
withdrawn her statement; still, I say, it doesn't quite add up.
People don't generally get arrested for asking to smoke,
drinking, and being friendly to stewardesses. Was he perhaps
being over-friendly? At any rate, according to him, no warning
to desist was issued, lie therefore had no inclination of what
was awaiting him on British soil. Lali thinks that the
stewardesses just "got tired of him... asking to smoke all the time." But if he'd had
sexual harassment in mind, Kandelaki implies that he would at
least have chosen a less scarecrow-like stewardess.
Perhaps it was the Soviet
uniform that put their guard up?
Even if he'd had a sack
over his head, it shouldn't have mattered, he says.
Why was he wearing the
In the book, he says he
hadn't wanted to crumple it in a suitcase. Now, he adds that he's
an artist. And what better example could there be of
I try again to find the
missing link: Being drunk aboard isn't a crime in itself. Though
being drunk and disorderly or disruptive is. Since incidents with
football hooligans, perhaps the airline was being
"I don't think so", he
says. And then comes his conspiracy theory.
Husband and wife think it
was a planned set-up. Planned by the former president of his Fund
to get him out of the way.
I am skeptical. For a
start, how could they reach BA stewardesses?
He thinks - through their
Tbilisi hotel. He thinks she was paid off. He also thinks the
woman in the next row, who had promised to help with
customs-declaration interpreting, instead gave him up to the
"Nothing comes from
nothing," Kandelaki quotes his Wormwood Scrubs cellmate on the
matter. But he's not referring to an aberration in his own
behavior; he still thinks it was a set-up. "I can't convince
you... But have you ever received half a million?"
Obviously not. Nor likely
to either, I say. Here, he's referring to the president accused of
embezzlement. He apparently blames him more than the stewardess,
whom he describes as just "abusing her position."
,, Kandelaki missed his
flight on to America. He missed a UNESCO forum he'd been invited
to in Paris. Not to mention all the earnings he lost and the
expenses he incurred from living in London for six months on bail,
before the charges were dropped. Isn't he going to claim for
compensation then? At least for lost earnings?
"The [Georgian] ambassador
said I should do it from America, but I was so tired of the whole
situation, I just wanted to be set free." And: "who's going to
TOBACCO AND THE ENGLISH
As to his 36 days in
prison, the impression I get from the book is that it was more
boring than anything else?
"No one will allow you to
be bored you're looking over your shoulder the whole time. There
were unpredictable moments, you never know what to expect...." The
most boring thing, he says, was the waiting. The waiting to be let
From Kandelaki's literary
descriptions, it seems that lack of activity in prison reduces
you to being a kind of one-cell creature. When Kandelaki wasn't
forcing himself to watch the football, he spent the whole time
hunting down tobacco and lighters.
"It's the prison system."
There were no other substances available to him to calm the nerves
(though he says he did see various kinds of marihuana being used).
Apart from learning how to
make roll-ups, did he gain any other skills in prison?
He refers to something m
the book - how to light a cigarette when your lighter's run out,
with the help of cotton wool.
Did it feel dangerous?
"Have you seen the films?
Do you feel the danger?" But worse than that, he says, is the
physical lock-up: The bars, the lack of windows, the not being
able to go out when you want to and the having to go out when you
don't (i.e. to the exercise yard when it's raining).
And then there were the
cellmates.. . In the book, Kandelaki describes sharing one cell
with a "hermaphrodite", which felt pretty dangerous. And despite
the fact that he got on very well with his most permanent mate (a
Russian Jew called Bikov); Lali reminds us that "he had actually
Is there a kind of
brotherhood between prisoners?
"It depends on who's
afraid of who. You've got to have authority."
"And not to show fear,"
The Georgian ambassador
apparently joked that if Kandelaki had been given a three-year
sentence he would have become one of those jail authorities. ' "
The food sounds pretty
bad. Kandelaki seems to have existed on bog-like stews and boiled
potatoes. "I can't complain because never filled out the menu
order-sheets in advance: 1 always thought I'll be out tomorrow'."
He didn't sleep well either, due to the general prisoner
has managed to get something out of the whole experience -
by writing a book on it. While in prison, he also collected
memorabilia to use in his up and coming painting series. So, in a
way, was prison advantageous?
"Well it will be if I get
the Nobel Prize," he says, not for the first time. I have to
laugh. He shows me a wooden box, containing a key the size of a
cricket bat and a football-sized medallion. This is his Georgian
Honored Citizen award. "Bui I need the Nobel Prize," he says. He
wonders if an exchange would be possible.
As soon as things are
resolved with the embezzlement court case, Kandelaki plans to
return to America, where he has secured a Green Card. Would he
ever go back to England?
He was invited to some
official occasion, but says that he still had the airline-prison
after-taste, so declined.
Does he hate England now?
"England remains England. Prison is prison. Stewardesses are
They insist on seeing me
off, right into a taxi. After all, Vladimir Kandelaki wouldn't now
want to get embroiled in a case of. say. 'Missing Englishwoman'
would he. "Queen of Spades" (published in Russian and Georgian,
with an English version due out soon) retails at around 7 lari.