What does it mean to be an artist in Russia today? We asked Andrey Kuzkin, one of the artists featured in the exhibition The end of the world.
You were born and studied in Moscow. Your participation in the Moscow International Biennal of Young Art highlighted your contribution to contemporary art. To what extent do the specifics of social politics in the Russian Federation influence your art practice?
They have a considerable influence. I have always positioned myself in opposition to the circumstances which surround me. In 2007, when I started as an artist, the situation in Russia was considerably different that of the present day. Back then, I felt relatively free. I escaped from the field of graphic design to contemporary art, a zone of complete freedom. I wanted to have a say and to be heard, and I succeeded in this. In the beginning, I was supported by the National Centre for Contemporary Art, which was founded in the 1990s. Their support and the interest they took in my art provided me with opportunities to realise my projects. I wanted to talk about life, death, enclosure, loneliness, time and, relativity, of all things. I wanted to talk about serious things. Furthermore, I wanted to speak from a rather maximalist and, hard-core position.
After a year or two of my research, the only negative aspect I have faced is the commercialisation of contemporary art and its use in dealing with certain political and commercial agendas, by which I was deeply disgusted. Small non-commercial art venues were dying out. The commercial galleries, on the other hand, were flourishing. I could not understand back then, and I still cannot understand, how one combines art and business. I feel ashamed when I do this and I cannot get it out of my mind. When I faced that problem, I made several works in response to the situation: Money for Bread, And Chubais, A Project with a Rock, All Ahead of You ,and later Exhibition of Curious Things.
In one context an artwork costs millions, in the other one no one wants it and it can easily be thrown away. Everything is relative. The same thing happens with an artist’s life.
In the meantime, I met some people who decided to support me financially. Not, however, by selling my work, but by simply giving me some money thereby acting as donors. This allowed me to avoid public activity, which involves many things I dislike, and to ‘go wild’. I started to create existential, romantic performances that often referred to my childhood and memories.
My retreat from the publicity in 2012 coincided with the new reactionary tendencies in state politics. The parliamentary elections, which took place in Russia that year, revealed monstrous abuse and falsifications. This resulted in mass protests in Moscow, where the majority of participants were poor educated, moderately wealthy people, and intelligentsia: poets, writers, painters, musicians. These demonstrations were severely suppressed. Straight after that, a series of repressive laws were put forward, prohibiting mass gatherings of such kind. The state then implemented a system for collecting huge fines and imprisoning people for the sole purpose of being in a specific place at a certain moment in time.
I have never considered myself a political artist.
Then the war with Ukraine broke out, which involved Russian armed forces and led to the annexation of Crimea. We started to realise that we were living in an aggressive and militaristic state. There was a clear division in society: those who supported the state and its politics, and those who were against it. All independent institutions, which had at least a slight influence on public opinion with regard to those questions, were closed down one after another under various pretexts. The state defines it as an “information war”. It wants all media to communicate a single point of view on the state of things. It aims to convince as many people as possible that everything is fine, and that our nation is a powerful state surrounded by enemies. It wants people to be ready to sacrifice their lives for this fake mightiness.
At the beginning of 2014 I, along with many others, was violently arrested during one of the gatherings in front of the court, where cases on the 2012 manifestations were taking place.
All those events encouraged me to create Innovation 2014, a political performance piece which was not a typical work for my practice.
In 2013, I took part in Innovation 2013, a group show. This was an exhibition of finalists for a state prize in contemporary art, which was organised by the National Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA) in Moscow. As part of the exposition, I showed my video installation Peace, which was not directly related to politics. Several screens depicted still lifes and interiors of my modest household with a monotonous voice for a soundtrack, repeating: “You are only what is around you”. After those video fragments were over, an empty bridge with a running man with a lit up torch was shown.
I attended the private viewing of this exhibition dressed in an army uniform, but without any identification marks, in a black mask, which was covering my face, and with a gun on my shoulder. This was exactly how the Russian soldiers showed up in Crimea not long before that. With this performance, I was trying to say that in contemporary Russia it is useless to talk about any innovations in art. It is impossible to talk about subtle things with all of those political changes and a war happening in the background.
Since then, I got a feeling that all of us in this country live “by the grace of our tsar” and that life and freedom are granted to me not by God, as I used to believe, but by the state. Moreover, they can be taken away at any moment without any explanation as to why. Many people are confused and frightened and do not know what to do.
In this light, Pëtr Pavlensky appears as a hero - although his political views are extremely radical - and I do not share them. For me, the value of a human life is more important than any ideology, whether left or right. As far as I understand, he thinks otherwise. He stands for the revolution and anarchy, so that some victims won’t stop him.
The Right to Life was my personal exhibition, that recently took place at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. For me, the main value in life is the freedom: to live as you wish and do what you want; freedom of will; freedom of self-expression; freedom of the individual. It is a major question whether such freedom is possible in the contemporary, particularly in Russia. In my exhibition, I explored my life as an individual case: an individual case of search, fight, failures, passions and doubts.
Recurring themes in your work are memory, oblivion, illness and death and yet, they are combined with a kind of playful and ironic lightness, in an almost mocking tone. How do you connect these different poles of your research?
I guess irony, which you will have noticed in my works, is based on the permanent analysis and lack of confidence. It is my constant attempt to observe what I am doing from a distance. Self-irony is, to an extent, self-defence. If you are laughing at yourself, you take that opportunity away from your spectator. In general, the existence of death largely makes any activity meaningless. So, the questions that I am asking myself and my audience are fundamentally absurd and do not have an answer.
Your performance Natural Phenomena can be read as a kind of psychological practice that aims to connect the human being to its natural dimension. How important is the combination of nature and culture to you?
I want to fall from my window
And get stuck into asphalt with my head
So I can swing my legs in the air as if they are branches.
I wrote this poem when I was 17 years old.
I started as a landscape painter, depicting the sky and earth. Back then I thought that a human beings were too concentrated on themselves. I used to admire and explore the world of nature around me, and I accepted my own minuteness in this world. Later, I shifted my attention to the human being and that made me incredibly sad.
I love nature. It makes me feel united with the entire world. I can observe trees for hours. They stand still and live their own lives, ignoring us and our mundane problems. We are not accustomed to life within nature. We have created our own “comfortable” artificial world, in which that of the natural world is present, but only as an option, a nice addition or soulless resource. I think that if in life and in culture, more things were to come from nature, our lives would be better and more peaceful. People who permanently live in nature, away from civilisation, do not usually pay attention to its grandeur and quietness.
How would you describe the art scene in Russia? What is different from the international system?
I am not very familiar with the international art system. However, I would like to say the following about the Russian art scene:
First of all, I would like to mention that only a certain percentage of people in several large cities in Russia know what “contemporary art” is. For the rest of the country, this term either doesn’t exist at all or is blatantly received negatively as something alien and inexplicit. An artist, according to most Russian people, is someone who can draw your portrait. Our art history lectures did not go beyond Henri Matisse. No one has told us about anything that happened after him.
Today, in several big cities, especially in Moscow, the situation with both education and exhibitions is much better.
There are various institutions in Moscow that deal with contemporary art. For instance, the National Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA), a museum that was created during the wave of democratic changes in the 1990s, and until very recently, has successfully organised exhibitional, scientific, analytical and archival activities. It opened branches in several big cities throughout Russia and it also founded Innovation, an annual prize for contemporary Russian artists.
The NCCA gathered accomplished artists, philosophers, curators and art historians. This was a platform for open discussions, where artist talks and lectures often took place. In 2011, there was a scandal when the state prize Innovation was awarded to Voyna, an art group, for their performance A Dick Imprisoned by the Federal Security Service. The members of the group painted a 65 metre penis on a drawbridge in Saint Petersburg so at night, when opened, the phallus directly faced the Federal Security Service building. Paradoxically, during the award ceremony, some members of the group were in prison, sentenced for another performance they had recently created. This highlighted an obvious contradiction: on the one hand, the state was punishing Voyna, on the other it was giving them an award.
In 2016, there was an attempt to avoid another scandal. The judging panel suggested Pëtr Pavlensky as one of the nominees for his performance piece Threat, in which he burned the door of Federal Security Service. The director of the NCCA realised that it might lead to problematic consequences both for him and for the centre, so he decided to completely abolish that category of the prize. As a result, several judges chose to withdraw from participation. However, that provoked many discussions and, finally, the director was removed from his position. The centre joined up with ROSIZO, an art organisation which was founded in the 1930s during the Soviet Union in order to represent official soviet art abroad. At the moment, the director of this organisation is someone with a military background, a former bureaucrat from the president’s administration. One might say that the history of NCCA as an independent and free intellectual platform has come to an end.
It is extremely hard for me to outline certain, clear strands and tendencies in contemporary Russian art. Everything is very segmented. One can probably speak about a general logocentrism of Russian culture and, in particular, of Russian contemporary visual art. I mean that the conceptual component often dominates the visual. I could also highlight the influence of Fedorov, a Russian philosopher who argued for a real physical resurrection of all dead and for human immortality, among certain art circles. The left marxist discourse, which was prominent a couple of years ago, seems to have died out right now.
Some recent Russian art events have highlighted the existence of censorship acts and restrictions on freedom of expression in your country. Have you noticed that in your personal experience? What does it mean to be an artist in Russia today?
I can say that in my art practice I attempt to have a broader approach. For me, the important question is not what it means to be an artist in Russia, but what it means “TO BE” in general - to be a human being and to exist in the present world.
Do you feel that there is a rise of new movements or personalities capable of challenging the Russian culture of oligarchy?
No, I don't perceive anything like that. I actually feel the opposite.
In The End of the World you are part of a section that deals with themes settled in our present, almost counteracting the a-historical dimension that characterises the exhibition. How would you define the current reality and how do you imagine the future?
One can only define contemporary reality in comparison to the past. In the last few decades, the major changes that have taken place are connected with the development of electro-technologies, the internet and the creation of social media; In this total transparency, human beings lose their individuality. I believe that today this difference between people (social, national) is wiped away. It seems as though everyone has endless copies of themselves spread across the globe. The soul, instead, is something divine hiding in the uniqueness of an individual. The virtual world we inhabit today is a surrogated substitution.
It is impossible to stop these tendencies. Only those who can adapt themselves to this new artificial universe will be able to survive: those with the most advanced skills and devices for information processing. We live in a convenient but dead and aggressive world.
I guess it is possible to imagine some sort of reaction to the present situation. For example, more handwork and the abandonment of some comforts of civilisation. Anyway, I believe that the main goal of art is the preservation of life.
Andrey Kuzkin, The Phenomenon of Nature or 99 landscapes with three, #5, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, 27 August 2011. Ph. Vladimir Dmitrienko, Courtesy of the Artist.