On May 15th Nikolay Polissky, Russia’s best-known land-art artist, gave a lecture entitled ‘Art Kolkhoz’ in the Pavilion at Novaya Gollandiya, as part of the Genius Loci series of talks organized by Project Batlia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: cultural urbanization’ project. Marina Nikiforova talked to Nikolay Polissky about the nature of art and his work with the farmworkers in the village of Nikola-Lenivets.
Let’s start with our traditional question: how did you become an artist and how did you start doing architectural installations?
I am not an architect at all, although I’m often mistaken for one. I have never understood anything about this profession. I think like an artist. I have nothing in common with architecture, except perhaps for the dimensions of my works. I’m simply an artist who makes large things. I’ve learnt to work with large forms, with making them fit… Above all, I like tying a thing – its shape, its material, its meaning –to a space. What do we need here? What size should it be? Does it hold the space around it? Should something be here at all? These might be the objectives of the architect too (and that’s why I’m often taken for one). However, I think the artist can also learn this if he or she wishes.
Currently, in my park I’m having to tackle some urban-planning issues, so I’ve picked up certain architectural principles. But I’m a pure practician.
In my park what’s currently most important for me is how sensibly things are placed in space. As Grigory Revzin has said, “What does this landscape want?” [a paraphrase of Louis Kahn’s famous question, “What does this building want to be?” Editor’s note]. And I try to find the only approach which is right in all respects.
So that’s architecture sorted. But still, how did you become an artist?
I was more of a painter, although I began with sculpture. I wanted to break through into something new… I suppose each artist has to make some sort of breakthrough for him- or herself.
Then I realized that there was no point in my representing space on a plane: I needed to enter it in person, set foot in it, and work there. This was a painful decision, but as soon as I began getting results, as soon as I began feeling a rush, my doubts vanished. I inhabited the picture. I was 42 when I made the crucial break and I have no regrets at all.
In this age of total urbanization and dominance of technology you turned your back on all this and went in the opposite direction. Are you being led by fate or did you choose this fate for yourself?
I don’t know whether I would have started doing this had I been on an uninhabited island… The thing is, I immediately had an enormous audience and huge numbers of assistants – so I’m not that out on a limb from society. I can’t say that I ran away from it all.
I went out and I said: “This place is mine.” And the answer came back: “Yes, Nikolay! It’s your place, do what you want with it!” For 10 years no one laid any claim to it. Then on a number of occasions someone tried to come stomping in with their billions, but it all went to pieces very quickly for them – and they disappeared. In the end, the place continues to belong to me just as it always did. I hope that all the energies which exist around me there will not destroy the idea I started with – the idea of the structures I set up being simultaneously organic and artistically incisive. I want all the new works to be integrated into the existing world and at one with nature; in no case should they be alien. Architects very often fail to take into account the setting, although you would think that would be obligatory. In my case it’s simply indispensable.
People visit and look… They wouldn’t look at weak or inexpressive things. And no one has yet told me that I’ve spoiled a particular spot.
So you’re working on creating your own ‘garden of paradise’?
It might seem that I’m doing it for myself, but if you remove all the viewers, I’d no longer find it interesting. However, I’m undoubtedly totalitarian – an artist can never be otherwise. I want to be understood and valued, I want people to be happy with me there. I want to be happy not alone, but together with everyone.
You gave up urban folklore and the Mitki [Nikolay Polissky was a member of the Leningrad art group Mitki. Editor’s note] in favour of country folklore. Has anything remained of the Mitki in your character? If so, how is this reflected in your work?
I will not reproach my friends – they’re doing their thing. I’m also doing my own thing. I’ve tapped into everyone’s childhood dream: collective action, the joy of creating one’s own paradise, a reluctance to inflict defeat on anyone at all… Although I know very well that without victory it is impossible: the people who work with me require from me, as their leader, victories and correct decisions. I am obliged to bring them success, obliged to come up with ideas, so that their work is not in vain, so that they get the material resources they need.
You are often called a ‘21st-century narodnik’ [‘narodnik’: a member of the 19th-century movement which aimed to bring the Russian intelligentsia closer to the Russian people. Translator’s note]. Would you agree with this characterization?
I didn’t choose to be a narodnik. Evidently, I was born this way: I like it when I have people working beside me, but the main thing is that they should like working with me. The ideal power structure for me is probably anarchic: a kind of fellowship which itself decides how it’s most profitable for it to live and what it should do in order to attain the most favourable result.
But if you are a leader, you should spend all your time proposing the best option, otherwise you will be swept away and altogether different rules will be established, which is, all in all, fair. So for the moment I propose things which people like – I’m a narodnik, a man of the people. As soon as I weaken, I shall be of no use to anyone.
You have introduced to art people who have no professional artistic education. Do you give them some kind of basis in theory or is this an intuitive mutual understanding?
I don’t force them to get involved with what they have no inclination for. They began with the simplest things: scything grass, building haystacks, chopping things from logs… Now they’ve picked up a few skills and can make their own art on their own, using their chainsaws – art which is fully independent even. I offer them moves they can make, and they respond by telling me “Uncle Kolya, go away!”, i.e. “We can do everything ourselves.” Gradually, they’re developing a kind of style. Personally, I would perhaps work further on the pieces, but they think they’ve already finished. And in this brutality the viewer finds a quality – the result is an art which is independent and unlike anything else.
Could you call this your school?
I wouldn’t want to be so pompous. Undoubtedly, I am for them a kind of institution, a kind of alpha and omega, the beginning and end. I think that were I to go away somewhere, everything would begin to die out.
Now there are young helpers turning up – from the city: they continue to organize this guild, to prevent it from petering out. Of course, you have to help people, otherwise they could scatter at any moment. But that’s the way it is in any creative team: if the leader loses his grip, if no one has anyone else by the throat, everything can die out.
The members of your guild seem at first sight to be ordinary country people. How did you manage to get them interested in art?
The right decisions. Whatever you say, you need success to make things happen. An individual artist may spend his entire life in torment, suffering in his studio and then dying in poverty, but a team cannot exist without success. In our life we don’t receive any help from the authorities. And the fact that these country people are evaluated, that ordinary people drop in to see them and give them money – all this convinces them that they are living the right life. In general, all this exists in spite and not because of the fact that special conditions have been created for us. The thing is that the land does not belong to us; it has twice been sold. We and the ‘owners’ are two independent units: they own the land and we know what to do with it.
You create objects not just in nature, in the open countryside, but also in the city. What is the main difference in approaches? Where do you find it more interesting to work?
In the city you have to either find a place which is very like a natural site (and it is possible to find such places in any city) or to fit into the urban context.
People’s opinions are also important. Here, in the countryside, I am forgiven everything because people come here as my guests, but in the city I am invited by the authorities. And people have no love either for the authorities or for their helpers. City-dwellers get the impression that you’re taking money from them – money which the state has given you. At best it’s 50/50. Half are for; half are against. And in this situation everything continues to be as in Perm [here Polissky means citizens’ reaction to the art interventions carried out at the initiative of Marat Gelman, director of PERMM, the Museum of Modern Art, at the beginning of the 2010s. Editor’s note].
So in the city there are difficulties in all respects. There you have to be indispensable, comprehensible. And the main thing is that neither in Russia nor in the rest of the world is there any understanding of what to do in cities, apart from monuments. People are used to monuments standing there – a person on a horse or in a cap or holding a cap clenched in his hand…
When you are the only artist expressing your opinion, you become alien to the city – given that you’re the first to try inserting something into this context.
I think the art of the future is doing things in cities. Not just advertising and not just children’s play areas… But residents often don’t understand anything apart from McDonald’s and monuments. In the countryside there are no such problems: people come of their own initiative, are happy, clap their hands. Although in the midst of nature you need new objects least of all – there’s enough beauty there as it is. Whereas in the city you have a human environment, garbage.
There’s one project of ours: in the village there was a concrete box which used to be a shop. Over the years it took on the foul urban appearance of Soviet decay. We turned it into a sculpture. So it’s not necessary to make the ruins a kind of multifunctional multicultural centre (if only because that’s expensive); to begin with, it’s sufficient to turn this concrete horror into a sculpture.
Which of your urban interventions do you regard as the most organic?
One of our themes is four-columned arches. We’ve already done three – one in Moscow, one in Perm, and one we did recently for the Polytechnical Museum but is now standing in our village. This pure form was not invented by me, I merely change the materials. In Moscow it’s as if a raven has woven a nest. In Perm it’s a jam of logs that’s floated down the Kama, a structured explosion. And here in the village it’s a technogenic arch, something from a ‘scientific’ series.
If we think hard enough, we can find forms and materials which will be organic in the urban setting – it’s possible to come up with more than just an equestrian monument in a cap. For instance, for a French port city we created ‘Cosmic archaeology’ – a fallen satellite made from old buoys. And for a factory in Taiwan we did an ‘oriental’ installation made out of metal.
Your objects are on the one hand monumental, but on the other they convey the idea of temporariness [Polissky often incinerates the objects which he creates. Editor’s note]. Is there a contradiction here?
I think contemporary art should not think about eternal materials. This is simply impossible: everything eternal has already been made. Time today moves very quickly, and art must go along with it: it stands for a while, is dismantled, and then something new is built in its place…
In fact, that’s what I began with – with snow, with hay… The works were quick to die. The main thing is that some kind of myth should remain: something was here, and it needs to be remembered. It’s important that the memory should remain. Of all the seven wonders of the world, only the pyramids are worthy of eternity; the others have disappeared, but people remember them. That’s better than if something should stand for so long that everyone is fed up with it and when people want to replace it, it turns out to be made of metal so strong that it can’t be dismantled.
I think eternity is in the idea, not the material. An idea can always be repeated.
You have to play. Given that time changes, art in the city should also change. And architecture too is becoming non-eternal: previously it left behind beautiful ruins, but now it’s turning into a heap of rubbish.
Evidently, the times are coming when it will be necessary to break it up and build something new.
Your works are ambiguous: in them you can find second, third, tenth meanings, including meanings which were not invested in them initially. Which interpretation by a critic or ordinary viewer has struck you as the most unexpected or interesting?
You get people who have seen a thing or two coming to our village. They lead groups and tell stories – sometimes amusing ones which create myths. All interpretations make me happy. For instance, when the ‘Border of the Empire’ aged, it was as if it really was very ancient: somebody said that it had been made by the Druids or the ancient Slavs, although in actual fact it was no more than 10 years old. And people believe it. People are in general very trusting.
But I always say I don’t put any secret meaning or ‘sacrality’ into my works. Of course, I use the spirit of Stonehenge or ancient structures, which is why you get these ziggurats. But I don’t deceive anyone on purpose, do not charge objects with voodoo magic, even if that’s what people sometimes think.
People are only too willing to be deceived, and imagination lets them find their own interpretation of art. I think that if art gives occasion to reflect, to think up a fantasy of one’s own, then this is also co-authorship, co-creation. Perhaps people will subsequently want to do something themselves. This kind of co-involvement and inclusion in the viewer’s imaginary life is much more important than saying, “This thing is about this and about nothing else”.
Reflect and what comes to mind will be the real truth.
So there are no labels with captions in the open countryside?
Ideally, there shouldn’t be any. At festivals you have to have them, but I’m against it. On the contrary, the less aroma of a festival, of an artist there is, the better. The viewer should find things whose authors are forgotten, whose meanings have disappeared, and should invent and make sense of everything from scratch.
Given the desire, in your works one could see political subtexts – the two-headed birds in ‘Border of the Empire’, another two-headed ‘Firebird’, the controversial ‘Gothic in Flames’…
I’m a living person, I can joke about this two-headed firebird… There are steppe birds flying round the Border of Empire; when they settle on it, it’s as if they too have two heads. It’s malicious people with no imagination who turn this into a sacrilegious act.
With Maslenitsa [this year, Polissky’s traditional festive burning of a Shrovetide installation involved ‘Gothic in Flames’, giving rise to criticism in the press. Editor’s note] I had no intention of offending anyone. When I heard all this, I didn’t know what to say in response – all I wanted was for everything to end as soon as possible.
Is it really not allowed to think freely today? Do we really have to keep turning on our internal self-censor?
You have a sci-fi series which includes ‘Large Hadron Collider’, ‘Universal Reason’, ‘Beaubourg’… Is that what you dream of?
I simply respect people who are audacious. Scientists who perform a heroic feat, do something beyond what is normally possible. In Large Hadron Collider I tried to create a visual image of this scientific event. Of course, this is a cargo cult – when someone who understands nothing about science tries to repeat something which has amazed him.
Incidentally, our collider was visited in Luxemburg by people who work at CERN, and they were very complimentary.
So the phenomenon of the Large Hadron Collider is of similar significance in contemporary culture to Stonehenge?
Of course! Previously, artists could take something from nature – thunder, lightning – but now man has created his own scientific nature which is so complex, so powerful, that artists can interact with it, can find in in it ideas and inspiration.
Of course, I shall never be able to understand this like a scientist. But, as an artist, I’m like a savage trying to reproduce this phenomenon from the materials that I have to hand and to explain to my fellow tribesmen how important it is.
They call you a ‘Russian man of the people’, but that doesn’t stop you working a lot abroad. Do you find it difficult to create works of art away from your home country?
No. To begin with, of course, you have to reach an agreement with the locals, but then you start explaining to them that you want to learn from them, for instance, how to work with bamboo. And it’s not long before you’re creating together and work is humming along. Then they begin behaving like my country people: they and I create this thing together and together we assess it. So for them it’s not a gift from some incomprehensible artist, but something which arises as a result of collective labour. They already look upon this thing as their own, take pride in it.
So it’s not being of the Russian people that’s important, but just being of the people, whichever people that may be?
It’s got to be organic. If I’m in France, I become a French artist; in Japan, a Japanese artist. And this does not strip me of my own personality, I’m still myself. On the contrary, this enriches me with new material, the opportunity to do something in a new landscape. For instance, in Japan there are the most beautiful blue mountains; where else am I going to find something like that?
Due to globalization being ‘of the people’ is often today a false stance, a bait with which to lure tourists. Are you not afraid that Nikola-Lenivets will suffer the same fate?
In Nikola-Lenivets I’m afraid of everything. My main fear is that I won’t have the strength to make fast my principles, to explain to people what I really want to see there. I’m truly afraid of globalization, internationalization, which will make all artists similar to one another, like identical twins, and turn everything roundabout into ordinary indistinguishable design.
That’s what I’m afraid of more than false populism. We don’t have any matryoshki at Nikola-Lenivets, or bast sandals, or anything cheaply patriotic. We have material which grows on site. But I would not like to lose my distinctive face. And I’m truly afraid that here everything will be as it is everywhere.
That at Nikola-Lenivets everything will be as it is everywhere (or everywhere will be as it is at Nikola-Lenivets)?
Everything everywhere is already approximately as it is everywhere else. But I still have my own face and even if people think it rather plain, it’s nevertheless my very own.
Interview: Marina Nikiforova