What is the “Manifesto of the Russian Chthonism” that you signed in 2017?
Mikhail Klimin, an ideologist of the Russian Chthonism, gathered around him several artists interested in related topics and the discussion and calibration of ideas began. After that, Misha finally came up with the text. Then we signed it. A number of exhibitions united by the topic were anticipated, but they didn’t happen. Misha almost dropped out of contemporary art, and the artists went their own way. However, this topic is still relevant to me, but in a bit different definitions, I guess.
The group declares through the Manifesto its opposition to contemporary Russian art – a “community” with its rigid hierarchies and “simulation of life.” The text reveals a certain regret about the failed “Art of the 90s” project, which had every chance to break into the international arena but failed to do so. Do these words express bitter regret or is it a sentence to the scene, where the artist, who doesn’t belong to the “community”, has no chances to grow?
You’d better ask Mikhail what message he wanted to deliver. As for my attitude to the project of the 90s, I have no special sentiment for it; rather, its collapse seems to me natural, because with the collapse of the Soviet Union, I think, there was certain self-denial, which was reflected in that art. In other words, it comes across as something deceptive, fake, like Egyptian cities with isolated sculptures built from scratch in the desert. It’s just that this cultural construct was built on the ruins of the state with an enormous cultural layer, which almost nobody cared about anymore. Jeans and Marlboro cigarettes were important. The only thing I miss in art now that have been then is a special sharpness, as opposed to today’s politically correct egalitarianism. But here, as they say, tastes differ.
How does “Russian chthonic phenomenon” differ from “chthonism”?
Russian chthonic phenomenon is about dark, eerie and basal in a metaphorical sense. In Russian Chthonism, “chtonism” is understood in structural, or what, meaning – the basal means the deepest. You can see it in the diagram I drew for the manifesto: Russian Chtonism extends to all layers of culture, but at the same time, it is in the place where culture goes into oblivion – at the edge of the abyss. If the chthonic is just something that scares, flirts with horror, with the otherworldly, with the underground worlds in the mythological sense, then Russian Chthonism is a discord, a mismatch, a crack, a kind of rift through which eternity filters through. Russian Chthonism includes the basal but is not limited by it. At least, as I understand it; Mikhail Klimin may disagree.
Does the epithet “Russian” in all these definitions have any special meaning for you? Is this a deliberate emphasis on the national context? For example, to a reader not familiar with the Russian chthonic phenomenon, these schemes may well remind M. Heidegger with his “anxiety of being” and his existential “clearing”. What is the fundamental feature of the “Russian” ontological approach?
According to Heidegger, the soil is what makes a thing real. Chthonism, on the other hand, is what is revealed when looking at what constitutes a part of this soil. In Germany, things are real because they “are rooted” in German soil. While things that are real in Russia “are rooted” in the Russian soil.
What, then, does this field of oblivion consist of, opposed to the field of “high culture”, which in your scheme is represented by art, literature, cinema, music, architecture, in other words, very traditional forms of culture?
I am personally interested in oblivion because it is what precedes death and is the intermediate state between being and non-being. From the point of view of art, oblivion is the place where a special molding of shapes and narratives takes place, which, figuratively speaking, can be observed at the verge of seeing, and which excites me. Something on the verge of extinction rings in a special way like a quiet forest bell, and is especially valuable.
What is the difference between the “Russian Thanatos” and the Western European “culture of death”?
I really like Russian traditional thanatological objects such as “domovina”. It is a small wooden hut in the forest, a prototype of a hut on chicken legs. I think that Russian death is an eternal home, something very cozy.
However, in fact, the Russian world cannot be limited by traditional, folk motives. The imperial and Soviet myths are also part of our history. What we are dealing with today, let’s say, the attitude towards death must also be taken into account. In this sense, both the history of our country and the culture of death are controversial. The black smoke of Soviet crematoria, making atheists shiver nihilistically, replaced the wrapping boughs of the traditional burial spruce tree. Russian cosmism called for immortality. In the 90s, I think we went through death abuse together with the raiders of the ritual business, who walked over our dead bodies. Today we are reaping the fruits of that time.
Who determines the right to live or die in Russian reality today?
Can we say that your artistic mission is “edification through horror”? What place do dialogics occupy in your artworks? The Other in the dialogue – who is it?
No, it’s not “edification through horror.” In general, the eerie in my art is not obligatory. I would even say that I’m overcoming it, I’m trying to bring myself to “angelic” heights. Basically, I am interested in polarity, the combination of the sublime and the hellish. It makes me wonder how all of this is contained within a person, how it is refracted in his psyche.
The Other is a metaphysical category for me. Probably, its presence or absence is more important. What I mean is the reflection to the degree that the following questions come to mind: “Is the presence of the Other experienced in eternity, or does eternity represent eternal loneliness?”. Or “Is what we experience as the Other someone else or is it ourselves?”
Do you think of yourself as an international artist or is being rooted in a local context your top priority?
I do not think of myself as an international artist, because I have not held international exhibitions, although my art attracts some attention. In modern Russian institutional or gallery life, I am not particularly present. I am not represented by any gallery. If we talk specifically about practice, then yes, I work with local meanings, but I look beyond them. These meanings are not secluded or clear only to the locals. For example, I do not mold ‘syrniki’ or aspic, traditional Russian food that will perplex a Western person. I work with metaphysical narratives that are understandable to everyone who considers himself or herself a human – it’s about dreams, soul, eternity, death, time. These narratives are painted in local colors, but they can also be oriented to the West and the East so that the world can learn more about Russian identity.
Why does the world need to learn more about the “Russian identity” today? Is it important for you how you are perceived from the outside?
It seems to me that Russia is in an interesting moral state today: on the one hand, being a modern technological state, and on the other hand, holding on to national values. At the same time, in the face of the globalist project, we are (this is my subjective opinion) an island of pluralism. For me, Russian identity is expressed in a spiritual and intellectual outlook that differs from the Western pragmatism. In general, I think it would be better to say “Russian soul” instead of “Russian identity”.
What is the Russian Idea is a life-long question, and every Russian, especially an artist or a philosopher, has been trying to solve and answer it all his or her life. That’s why one paragraph won’t be enough to answer it.
As for the second part of the question, it seems to imply a negative attitude towards Russian artists, apparently in view of the political and ideological context. I am rather frustrated by the complexities and high cost of international logistics. It is important, of course, how Russian artists and the country as a whole are perceived. I personally root for Russia. Huge strata of Russian culture are generally not broadcast outside or don’t strike a chord there. Some peculiar and even in some sense alien to the Russian context things are popular now, and our fellow citizens often don’t care about them. I think the reasons for this are of an ambiguous nature. Much depends on certain enthusiasts, say, Russian curators, who work in the international arena and decide what is valuable and what is rubbish. I have questions for these people.
How important is an institutional representation for you, or are submission platforms quite enough?
Someone considers it important, someone, on the contrary, is in opposition to it. Personally, it would be interesting for me to cooperate with museums as an institution that installs artworks into the canvas of art history. The museum, in this sense, is a temple of art, an intermediary between the temporal and the eternal. It’s true, that such perception of museum has already become a thing of the past, and museum is turning into something situational and entertaining nowadays – this transformation does not particularly fascinates me. It would also be interesting to cooperate with galleries because I want to participate in the development of the local market, but I don’t want to become a gallerist myself. The only problem is the underdevelopment of the Russian art market and the post-covid degradation of the industry.
What is a form of artistic protest for you? Who is it aimed at?
At the moment, it is insubordination to the mainstream narratives in modern art. I oppose myself to the blind copying of Western fashion, the replication of ideological tendencies and trends. Instead, I would like to be an original national artist and develop our narratives. Not in the colonial sense, as some Russian artists today who sell Russian culture as a souvenir or flirt with its profane layers such as lubok, but from the perspective of Russia as one of the centers of world history.
Is Russia’s aggressive policy towards the so-called small nations and appropriation of neighboring lands, accompanied by the destruction of local culture, language, traditions, for you a part of the history of Russia as a “center of world history”?
I see it a little bit differently. Based on the historical and fiction literature, at least from what I’ve read, the policy of the Russian Empire was not aimed at oppressing small nations (their cultures, traditions and religions), and the communist government also invested a lot in their development. Small nations that lived in the territory of the Russian Empire and were part of it were not oppressed; their culture and religion were not destroyed. In particular, mosques, Buddhist pagodas, Catholic and Greek Catholic churches, synagogues and Orthodox churches existed and survived – all of this coexisted in all its diversity. There were, of course, more Orthodox churches, because there were more Orthodox Christians. Both national arts and crafts existed, traditions and language were preserved, small nations had the opportunity to live their own national and cultural life. This allowed the communist government to form states, both along the borders and inside after the revolution of 1917. If they were oppressed and their identity was eroded, how would the USSR form so many states, and would it form them in the first place? Throughout the Soviet history, a friendship of peoples was promoted, and the Soviet government deliberately invested in the development of these national states and their identities, which allowed them, after the collapse of the Union, to safely secede and create fully autonomous states with a developed infrastructure.
The Soviet government, of course, did not support religion. It affected not only the religions of small nations, but even Orthodoxy. Which in my opinion was a mistake, of course.
Does the other side of the great project of “friendship of peoples” that you are talking about sit well with you? In Belarus, for example, representatives of the cultural, scientific and civil society (more than 100 people) were executed in one night from October 29 to October 30, 1937. In the period from 1937 to 1938, Stalin’s repressions against Belarusians reached their peak: more than 100,000 people were arrested, repressed, exiled to camps, and thrown into prisons. The Belarusian language was forced out and replaced by Russian at the state level.
I don’t know the specific situation in Belarus. As far as I remember, the Belarusian language was taught in schools alongside with Russian, like Ukrainian. National literature was published in these languages and translated into Russian.
Stalinist repressions, like any repression, are terrible.
Do you see the difference between the historical Duchy of Moscow and what is now included in the concept of “Russia”?
It’s an interesting question, thanks. I do. By the way, as a native Moscow resident, I loosely consider myself a citizen of Moscovia– at least the history of Moscow is sacred for me, and I consider it my Motherland. This does not apply to the whole country, but it certainly influences me. There is an abyss not only between the historical Duchy of Moscow and the modern Russian Federation but also between the capital and the rest of the country.