As the Art Moscow Art Fair inevitably approaches, attendees of this unique modern art market will notice the absence of one of its regular participants. This year the Yakut Gallery forgoes centre stage and joins forces with the Triumph Gallery to present nothing less than what the combined galleries have modestly dubbed ‘Imperial Art’.To elaborate on subjects ranging from the dead season to imperial art, Alexander Yakut talks to us from his exhibition location at the Triumph Gallery.
DE I: The phrase ‘Dead Season’ has moved on from being just the title of a classic Soviet movie into everyday popular usage. What meaning do you lend to the phrase?
A.Y.: We used the title of a film which very clearly demonstrated the distinction of ‘us’ and ‘them’ -likeminded and non likeminded people. It was the first Soviet film which – formally speaking – was hard to criticise. It didn’t suffer from the desire to be pseudo-Western, shot on location somewhere like Riga…
’Dead Season’ for me is has a global meaning; the first relates to civilization in general – the second is purely individual. If we can talk about the individual human implication, its inflected with a sense of…well, here’s an example to help you more clearly understand: imagine the holiday season – beautiful girls, tanned men, holiday romances and love affairs, life is buzzing and then suddenly, it’s all over, and you’re alone again. It starts to snow, your affair has either carried on or it has ended. Your life is either exactly how you want it to be, or you are a failure. The period between these seasons – that is the dead season – it’s a time to re-evaluate your priorities, rediscover the meaning of things, and improve yourself. And exactly the same goes on the broader level of civilization, when it’s not clear in which direction civilization is going. Either it’s going to move forward and develop, or it’s going to regress and degrade. Naturally it’s simpler for an artist to work in an era of ‘Great Style’, during the lifespan of an ‘empire’. And it’s easier too – there is a school, a tradition. But when you get caught in transit between seasons, it’s hard to understand is the artist necessary at all or is he superfluous.
DE I: You seem to be almost designating a period following complete (cultural) destruction. Is this a type of nostalgia…what is missing today?
Yes. I would say that I wasn’t looking to designate a particular time or period, I was look for an absence of time because time is vulgar, and vulgar styles disorientate the weak. The aim of art is to be outside time (timeless) while portraying the moment exactly as it happens. It seems to me that in our time the Dead Season of ‘pop’ has invaded and undermined fundamentally important things.
So for me it’s not a question of nostalgia. It’s a way - during the dead season, in the chaos - to stand firm and in a structured way remain true to oneself. Prior to this, there have been periods of more global contemplation and concerns, artistic concerns which - in other words - give a sense of some kind of structure. When pop culture begins to take over, my approach to life, my artistic approach is close to terrorism because often I get the feeling that I am stuck beating against a wall right in front of me. There are neither the end users for, nor the commercial instigators of, quality art.
Art has started to lose the part of it that is severe, rigid, and masculine and as a result during the dead season, there is a type of ridicule of the achievements of civilization. Chaos rules and there is the total lack of an hierarchy.
When a collector himself chooses a hierarchy and creates it artificially, he is in a position to ruin the reputation of a significant artist who should be reckoned with. Perhaps he is in a position to ruin a whole artistic direction, or destroy the tiny little intonations which often conceive great artistic styles. Look at how ‘pop’ has cleverly divided up everything – there is no longer simply ‘art’. There are these kinds of divisions – antique, social art (social realism), then the Moscow Conceptual School, and then there are all these other sub divisions. Nobody is keeping an eye out for ‘Culture’ in its broader sense. As for the collectors, their position is “if I collect Savrasov, then I only collect Savrasov.” I tried to fight this when I held the ‘Die Art’ exhibition. That was back in 1995 when I gathered together the work of artists who were 100 years apart: ‘The World of Art’, ‘The Blue Rose’ and then more modern artists: Koshlyakov, Mareev, Makarevich, Faybisovich. That way I created a reaction that allowed potential collectors, the end users, to create in their heads a historical chain of art that was unbroken. That way it would be almost impossible to classify art in terms of its evolution or anti-evolution and we can avoid the appearance of all these fanatics and gurus claiming to have found the next Messiah - let’s buy everything by Warhol or whoever else.
Pop-civilization is astonishingly boring: the people are poorly educated, unenlightened, boorish and without any kind of global motivation. ‘Dead Season’ was born as a result of sensing this. Although right now I get the sense that something is beginning to happen in the world of politics. With the things that have happened recently to Marat Gelman he seems to have woken up. And Dugin is giving a lecture at my gallery today. This is all fertile ground for art.
DE I: Your aesthetic position pays a lot of attention to locations that played a major role in the art of the 50s - Sochi, Central Asia. But in ‘Dead Season’ you locate yourself closer to the centres of ‘The Great Style’ of the Stalinist era. Is ‘The Great Style’ possible in the absence of a totalitarian power structure?
That’s not really a question that can be answered in magazine format. If I was to say that ‘The Great Style’ could exist only in the presence of a totalitarian regime, that would be stupid. There is a very fine balance. Art would become necessary for civilization in that case if the motivation of the both the artist and the end user are identical. Imagine a person who watches MTV every day and whose way of thinking is influenced only by what he sees in music videos which is common enough these days. He doesn’t get up every morning and think to himself ‘what will become of my country?’ His actions are not provoked by the needs of the country in which he lives.
More significantly, during the ‘dead season’ the potential end-user of art couldn’t give a damn if he is damaging his own surroundings. In that frame of mind, how could he possibly be in a position to acquire a work of art which is in essence the best example of what a people can create. A people I mean in the fundamental sense. Art of course also attracts casual passers-by (amateurs) whose main aim is to be ironic, and create lots of hot air and scandal. They take up the full range of instruments utilised in the creation of ‘pop’ and they start to ‘play’ – the hold exhibitions without understanding that at that particular moment it is essential to fortify the castle, be resilient, and do what they are destined to do.
DE I: All the same, you still participate in Art Moscow despite the fact that the people involved in it are, according to you, working in the opposite direction to Yakut Gallery.
They’re not working in any direction at all. But Art Moscow isn’t an ideological event, it’s a fact, a situation more about marketing. It’s not something close to my heart, I don’t like it much, and there was a time when I wouldn’t have participated. If you remember I once tried to set up my own situation called ‘Zone Eurasia’ using Manezh as a base, but I was crushed (by the powers that be) and one man’s presence on the battlefield doesn’t make him a warrior. Liberal Culture did not accept me. But I’m sure that now everyone understands that I was right then. We don’t need Bienales and ART FAIRS. ‘Zone Eurasia’ is a splendid algorithm which is reflects the scale of our culture and history. And all that messing around with the Bienale for a good artist is very degrading. As a gallery owner I understand that very well. Our society is looking for some kind of reassurance from the rest of the world so as not to feel left behind and sense that it is on the same level as others. To be like everyone else. But try experiencing the reality of our world – go out into the freezing cold, and then go back into a basement bar and have a shot of vodka to warm up…
DE I: You are saying that as you sit in the most elitist gallery in Moscow?
Well, it wouldn’t be right to let them take down all the plaster moulding and disfigure everything, would it?
It’s elitist, but not bourgeois. The highest concentration of bourgeois sentiment you’ll find at the Moscow Bienale. A bourgeois, liberal mess.
DE I: So what you do define as bourgeois in that case?
It’s liberal ideals, a lack of any priorities except for hypocrisy, scandal, the ability to be insulting on a global level. There is one very unpleasant aspect to a bourgeois society and that is the avoidance of total clarity. It would be appalling to have to state with certainty that someone was gay, or black, Bourgeois means vulgar political correctness, it means bringing everyone down to the same level by destroying hierarchy. I am very clear about why I am exhibiting at The Triumph Gallery has one gauge for choosing what it exhibits – ‘quality, or not’…
DE I: Should art be elitist?
Absolutely. Although the word ‘elitist’ has also been turned into a term of abuse. Art should have depth at the level of human and professional integrity. In terms of consumerism through television and the internet we have reached a level where there are no longer any limits and it’s unacceptable for someone to have some kind of internal level of integrity. This is the mark of a truly bourgeois society.
Together with Timur Novikov we tried to set up a political party which was against the internet and even back then we argued that art cannot not be too easily accessible. You log in to some site, look at some pictures, and suddenly you think you know the history of art. Television and the internet have started to alter some very basic principles. I would forbid people under 30 to use the internet. A person should have a chance to understand who he really is. If he has to find out something, he dives straight into the internet. Go to a LIBRARY! Go and meet someone, and relate to one another like normal human beings!
DE I: Are you not afraid of one ‘Great Style’ lowering down on us from above? Haven’t you seen the kind of work that ministry employees select for auctions?
It’s a disaster created somewhere between the red tape of conventionalism and chaos. Pseudo-bohemianism. Modern art is also awful. That’s why a genuine collector like Tretyakov is so important. During his time there was also a lot of ‘modern’ art, a lot of fads, but there was also Vrubel. Now all that’s classed as contemporary art. It’s become an everyday process. Why has my gallery always looked a little out of place compared against everything else? It’s because I have always tried not to rush ahead completely into the world of contemporary art. There’s no point in rushing.
DE I:Describe the ‘imperial art’ you are showing at Art Moscow?
Essentially I’ve always been involved with this kind of art. I did my first imperial project in 1993 – ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Deep down, every Russian is genetically ‘imperial’. That’s the root of all of our problems and all our achievements and it’s a sacred part of a Russian person. We have been endowed with a huge responsibility – our lands, a great civilization which we connect. I total agree with Dugin in the sense that Russian orthodoxy is the structural fabric of Russian culture. But that doesn’t amount quite to an empire. Holy Rus was not an empire, but from the time Ivan the Terrible seized Kazan, imperial characteristics began to appear. And we became an empire when all the different nationalities started to live here: Germans, Jews, Tatars, all of them. But what in fact is the binding element of any empire? The interaction with other cultures and religions. Marat Gelman has a contrary position, he holds that ‘Russian’ motifs are bad. If you were to extract from Russia its imperial ingredients, this country would cease to exist.
DE I: There is something I seem to have missed. Are you saying that Art has a nationality?
Without Russia, Europe mightn’t exist. It’s easy to be a patriot when all’s well. And when our national hero is Kirkorov, of course it’s hard to be patriotic. But you have to be patient. We don’t have an alternative. Patience is one of the basic virtues of Christianity. The older generation has lived lives that the ancient heroes couldn’t even have dreamt of in terms of suffering, but look at the motivation they had!? They were absolutely complete. That was both the pathos and tragedy of the Stalinist epoch. It was definitely not a ‘dead season’. Given all the drawbacks of the USSR, given the overall stupidity of the nation, the Soviet era had one astonishing quality: love for ones homeland, and a patriotism that wasn’t in any way vulgar. Total certainty about the identity of ‘us’ and the identity of ‘them’. We lost that in the 90s.
DE I: The ‘Blue Rose’ which you hold so dearly – is that also imperial art?
Absolutely, fully fledged imperialism. Only in those circumstances could it have appeared. Compare the difference between tacky Western European modernism and Klimt, Mukha, Vrubel. Do you see a difference in their sheer power? Or Benois? A completely imperial artist. The intelligentia underestimated the power to be found in Russia at that time, betraying everyone – both from the right and the left – before discrediting itself. The first half of the 20th century saw unprecedented cultural explosion in Russia. Maybe I see it this way as a result of my vulgar patriotism, or perhaps the vulgar part of my patriotism.
DE I: Do you this is specific to Russians? The load of your birthplace, it’s sense of tragedy?
I wouldn’t use Dostoevsky as an example as is usually popular when talking about this. The average person hasn’t developed to the level of empathy reached by him. Only a Russian person can get that wound up, can suffer to that extent, can expand his own personal worries to the level of the universe. That’s the main differentiating factor of Russian person regardless of what nationality (ethnicity) he is given that he thinks and speaks in Russian, and he was brought up in this culture with its own tragedies and contradictions. Our more serious collectors had a cosmic, universal motivation. Nowadays they say that art is an investment which leaves me feeling sad and apathetic. And it’s just the same when I hear about ‘modern art’ as if people are denying their responsibility for the future and the past. As if they have chosen for themselves a small piece of history where they just idly sit.
Worst of all is when people talk about ARTBUSINESS – that is yet another external influence. We’ve added to our armoury the experience of the private galleries which is great, but all the time some of the gallerists seem to go over the edge and create lists and ratings of some kind. It’s clear that this isn’t to improve the structure, but for profit. Ages and ages ago, Marat Gelman suggested creating a list of the top 100 artists to me and I told him I would gladly do it but I had a suspicions that in the time it would take to compile it, an artist would appear who - in terms of historical significance - would supercede each and every one of the artists on our list. So let’s do something useful and not waste our time with lists.
ARTBUSINESS astonishes on a regular basis with some of the strange things it gets up to. And all of our galleries, artists and collectors are to some extent involved in ARTBUSINESS. I rarely see collectors whose eyes light up from the desire to own a particular work of art. And there is no attempt to get to know more about the artist and his life. And the gallery owners are not interested in the artists as people – they are interested in gossip and some of their more questionable achievements.
ARTBUSINESS has destroyed the natural life cycle of culture. All these fads don’t last more than 10 years. Take from 1986 to today – only 20 years have gone by which from the historical perspective is nothing. But many of the artists who were active in that time no longer live as artists. What does that tell us? That they perhaps weren’t very good artists to start with, they just imitated an artistic process. And every collection that was put together during that period is of very questionable interest to us now.
In any case, in my opinion the more tragic the situation, the more it gives us reason for optimism regarding the development of civilization. In order to love something, you have to hate something else. Once again we are burdened by the effect of ‘political correctness’. For love to be of a high standard, you have to learn to hate. I don’t believe in the phrase ‘you should love everything and everyone’ like certain artists who arrived back from Tibet and started with their ‘let’s love everyone’. It’s just common. That’s why I openly state who my enemies are. And when I was asked to sign a petition requesting for Ter-Oganyan (who slashed an icon) not to be sent to prison, I wrote on it ‘Dear Prosecutor, Please add another 15 years to his sentence.’ That was the last thing someone brought me to sign! But we are living in an interesting time and place, somewhere on the verge of the birth of a new empire.
© DE I / DESILLUSIONIST ¹09. ON THE VERGE OF NEW EMPIRE