"Making art and being an artist is a philosophical task than merely producing objects."
The artist Vladimir Anselm preparing his solo show MythSight at the Gallery 9/1 in Moscow. Opens 20 September 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 9/1.
The Russian-German artist Vladimir Anselm (*1962, Russia) is presenting a solo exhibition MythSight at the Moscow sculpture gallery 9/1, as a parallel event of the 5th Moscow Biennale. Opens on 20 Sept 2013, Anselm presents a selection of coal sculptures that are objectified archetypes - the fundamental, timeless elements that repeatedly manifest themselves through the history of philosophy, art and architecture.
At the occasion, we talked to Vladimir Anselm as well as his dealer Maria Sokolova about the project of the exhibition, the coal sculptures and the gallery’s plan.
Moscow, Sept 2013
20 Sept – 25 October 2013
Curated by Maria Sigutina & Tanya Zheltonogova
Solzhenitsyna Street 9, Stroenie 1, Moscow
VA – Vladimir Anselm
ST – Selina Ting for InitiArt Magazine
ST : For your first solo exhibition with the Gallery 9/1, MythSight, you are showing a selection of coal sculptures, some are from previous series, some are specifically created for the exhibition. What are the major thematic series that would be shown?
VA : The sculptures that are showing in the exhibition are made between 2009 and 2013. I started making sculptures with anthracite coal in 2007. Coal stays the main material in my artistic practices since then but the subject matter changes during the years. The arrangement in the exhibition reflects the thematic evolution of my work as well as different experiments with the materials and other new materials such as pyrite.
The sculptures started with symbols and archetypes. Each object represents one of the archetypes of humanity. Some of them come from religious texts. Let’s say, the works moved from religious archetypes to the idea of utopia, especially the utopic architecture. I focus on the French architecture of the 18th Century, such as Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736–1806), Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799), Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826). I also focus on contemporary tendency of representing symbols of political power in architecture. While in politics, politicians talk about freedom, democracy, transparency, etc., if you pay more attention to contemporary architecture, you would realize that it reflects another value which is quite opposite to slogans of the politicians. In other words, architecture can be seen as a mirror that exposes the true faces of the political reality.
As the project develops, I am getting more and more interested in the ironies of the futuristic utopia which can be seen in architecture, in human and non-human. These are the new works that will be shown for the first time.
ST : How do you approach the exhibition?
VA : One major theme that guides the exhibition is the idea of Golden Age. It’s an irony about the notion of futuristic utopia because Golden Age is about the ideal, but there is also a wordplay that “Golden Age sculptures are made in gold”. [Laughs]
Futurology exists in different levels. For example, in the sculpture of the little boy who is surrounded by Golden Age objects, it’s a play with the term “genetic engineering” favoured by artists of the 1990s. I am being ironical about the idea of genetic engineering and its association with contemporary political tendency. By being exposed to the ideas of futurology, you got used to it. For example, in the 1960s, boys dreamt about robots, cyber culture, exploring the outer space, science fictions, etc.
The future is shaped through discussion, people’s expectations and the energy they paid to a particular direction. Each cultural idea goes through different cultural genres, from artistic approach to popular cultures such as cinema. That’s why it’s interesting to see what is being discussed since the discussions are going to influence the future.
ST : What are the objects that surround the boy? What do they represent?
VA : The boy represents human beings, he is made in coal. All the objects surrounding him are made of pyrite because they belong to the Golden Age. They are the future life forms born from genetic engineering, cyber cultures, etc.
Vladimir Anselm's pyrit sculpture. MythSight, Gallery 9/1, Moscow. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 9/1.
One of the most popular futuristic statements is that human beings should allow a stronger life form, i.e. the “Super-human” to exist – an idea originated in Nietzsche’s concept of Übermensch (“superman”). However, Nietzsche’s “superman” has a negative connotation when the idea is manipulated by the fascists.
The boy sculpture was inspired by the German Middle-Ages plastic sculptures where a boy is often depicted in a sitting position with an apple or a sphere in his hands. He is an intermediate between God and Man and gives Man blessings from God. The globe in his hand is of course the world. The boy would be easily recognizable as a Middle-Ages sacred image in Germany but not in Russia. Therefore, the Russian audience might not be able to grasp the image immediately. They might even read it as a contemporary popular cultural icon.
If we think of the 12th to 15th centuries, artists were regarded as craftsmen and not intellectuals. What they produced were objects of everyday life, for the society and for religious use. They were very sincere with their craftsmanship and what they produced. Today, that kind of sincerity for art does not exist anymore because, on one hand, our society is full of ironies; on the other hand, we are sad that the sincerity is no longer possible. As an artist, the way the artists of Middle-Ages perceived the world is for me the Golden Age.
Nowadays, people talk about the futuristic ideas of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc. They are important discussions but for me, they don’t make any sense because we know that we are destroying the world and we are facing a disastrous future. If an artist can be happy doing his art, it is Golden Age for him because he’s self-contained and he expresses from his soul. If this is possible, then this is the Golden Age in art and culture. So the Golden Age can only happen inside of human beings. That’s also how we approach the ideas of Romanticism. I am a neo-Romanticist. [Laughs]
ST : In the re-interpretation of the boy, how is your approach differed from that of the Middle-Ages’ plastic sculptures?
VA : There are many different styles in presenting the manner of the boy figure according to the canons of Middle-Ages religious art. My approach is relatively naturalistic. One important factor is the material that I used, i.e. the coal. In Alchemy, the lowest form is black and the highest is gold. I made the human figure in black because, for all the emotions and passions, pain and sufferings that a man has to go through, he belongs to the lowest form – black coal. We all have to die one day in order to have the higher form to exist – the golden one. So, the boy is portrayed in a naturalistic manner in contrast to the futurist creatures that surround him. These organic creatures are very ironical. It’s like a joke. But together they form a constellation from which the connection and tension between them become explicit. Audience can easily read the interplays between different materials, different meanings and different contexts.
ST : Is the Boy the only new work?
VA : There is a site-specific work on the gallery floor which presents a Lily flower. At the centre of the flower is a heart. This image is inspired by writings of the German philosopher Jakob Böhme (1575 – 1624). Böhme had his own image of the utopia where God takes the form of a Lily flower. Divine Lily is the symbol of the next stage of human’s spiritual development. Such assumption is not rational but unconscious, perceptive. The irony in this work is that, instead of taking a symbolic approach to Böhme’s writing, I created the work in a purely literary interpretation, i.e. the heart grows from Lily and the heart is a naturalistic, anatomic form.
Vladimir Anselm at work, Gallery 9/1, Moscow. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 9/1.
ST : How do you position your work in the contemporary art world ?
VA : Maybe this sounds a classical-postmodernist approach but what defines me as non-postmodernist is that I have a Romanticist tendency – the anguish of unity. Romanticism has a sense of unity because it’s one of the features of the new age and enlightenment. It was the moment when people started to distinguish between emotion and rationality, religion and science. The form of unity has since been lost – a loss that was particularly acute for the Romanticist artists. It’s also a feeling that I shared strongly. It’s an irrevocable loss except perhaps only art and the soul can restore the sense of unity. The German Romanticists’ search for soul and spirit put them in a resistance position in relation to the idea of progress. On the one hand, it’s a very regressive reaction. On the other hand, it’s very existential which makes the position contemporary.
ST : Is there any nostalgic feeling?
VA : Yes, somehow I feel nostalgic. In European culture, everyone is nostalgic about ancient Greek and classical art. This is where neo-classicism comes from. But Middle-Ages world was totally different from that of ancient world. From the Middle-Ages, there is the path that leads to Romanticism, neo-Romanticism, Arte Povera, Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and me! [Laughs] It’s very easy to see how the tendency is evolving though with different intonation. One can easily distinguish in different cultures and arts the two opposite tendencies of progressive and introspective.
ST : The title of the exhibition is “MythSight”. What does it mean?
VA: It is one of the themes that I am working on. Every individual has a certain way of perceiving the world, and I am interested in where these different perceptions come from, especially in Russia where the state is becoming stronger and stronger and there is no ideology. Unlike the Western where the notion of ideology is evolving and liberal, here in Russia we don’t have the system. We are in a state of confusion oscillating between authoritarian and democratic systems, between religious and military tendencies, etc. At the same time, I have the impression that “ideology” becomes an instrument for manipulating the public, the people, especially when there is nothing that you can trust.
I believe that we humans are born with a certain shared way of perceiving the world. We have the ability to tell the good and the bad. However, this instinct is disappearing, just like the human tail that has disappeared in atavism but a trace stays to remind us of its past. In the same way, we ignored our ability to perceive the world because we are given too many other tools and instruments. But such ability stays within us. There are positive and negative aspects about this, the negative being the superstitious tendency.
At the same time, the instinctual perception of world is very close to the poetic approach of Romanticism. According to Heidegger, such poetic approach to the world is the most proper way of perceiving the world. His writings on the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Holderlin (1770 – 1843) become the main source of reference for my work. Heidegger states that through the poetic statement, art leads us closer to the truth. It’s not just about reading a poem or a book but to develop yourself internally, your spirituality. Art gradually opens up yourself and you find your Golden Age within. This is the focus of the new series of work. Some of them have a touch of irony but always with a poetic language.
ST : How do you feel of presenting absolute contemporary work in an 18th century building?
VA : It’s a historical building and the moment when you walked in the building, you are in the history, in the context immediately. Moscow has a vast architectural mix, when you walk in the streets you have the feeling of travelling through time. The Gallery space offers the same experience, it’s very intense. The particular architectural space dictates the installation as well as the experience of the public.
Vladimir Anslem, boy Sculpture in coal with object in pyrite, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
ST : Why did you choose to work with anthracite coal?
VA : Coal evokes many layers of meanings and associations. It represents something deep inside. It comes in stratum which reminds us of the history of the earth and the hierarchy in the society. Coal is often associated with the subconscious because it’s a compressed form of mineral. As a material, it’s created through the process of fossilization which compresses something organic into non-organic. Though coal and diamond share the same structure, one is perceived as basic, the other as noble. Such difference is similar to that of low and high cultures. When coal is compressed under high pressure, it becomes diamond. In our association of coal with the subconscious, compression becomes crystallization and you would find the diamond inside of you. The shiny diamond for me is the access to the soul, the spirituality, the truth.
ST : What are the major difficulties in working with coal? Are the final sculptures fragile?
VA: It’s very time-consuming and demands a lot of physical effort because I am doing everything on my own. I am using a technology that makes the sculpture less fragile. At the final stage of the sculpture-making, I put a shiny layer on the top of the coal. This is the most important step because you need to catch the right rhythm and to understand the structure and texture of the sculptures very well. Depending on how you put the final coating layer, the sculpture can look very impressionist or baroque or classic. So the coal and my working process allow me the freedom and possibility to create diversity.
ST : Does the coal come from a particular geographical origin? Is there any significance in terms of location and origin of the material?
VA : The first time I presented the coal sculptures was in Germany in a group show about the history of Germany. I indicated the origin of the coal – the Lorrain area which used to be a contested region between France and Germany. This particular geo-historical context was interesting for that exhibition because nowadays we live in a united Europe, the notion of border is disappearing and conflicts unnecessary. For the present exhibition in Moscow, since we have many coal resources all over Russia, it’s less important to indicate the origin.
ST : What were you making before starting the coal sculptures?
VA: There are different periods. From 1991 to 1999, I was experimenting with paintings, its language and contexts. I was searching for my own identity. The next period from 1999 to 2003, I focused on the historical relationship between Russia and Germany, which is also my personal history since I am half Russian half German. Then since 2003, I am very interested in German Romanticism, especially painting and poetry. Coal started to appear as part of my paintings. They were not individual sculptures but part of a painting-sculpture duo, like an installation.
ST : You were born in Russia but live in Berlin.
AV : I was born and grew up in Russia but my grand-parents were from Germany. I somehow feel closer to the German culture. I imagined that I belong to another world. So there is a kind of separation between the two cultures in me and I felt sad about the separation. In the search of my identity, I am one of those travelers in the past who were looking for an unknown land beyond the shore. They didn’t know what was exactly waiting for them, they were not interested in searching for a final destination or settlement but they explored the world just for the process of exploration, of adventures. For me, it’s the same, the process is more important than the final result.
ST : Who are the contemporary artists that you feel particularly close to?
VA : Anselm Kieffer. But he produces his works too fast and sold too easily, I don’t trust him. [Laughs] But we deal with the same subjects.
ST : How do you feel now showing in Moscow?
VA : Moscow is changing fast and a lot. I have the impression that the economic recession somehow has a good impact on the people. People are suffering but it’s a good cold-shower, people are waking up from the excessive, senseless excitements in the past two decades. Now, people start to look inside of themselves. Russia always has a very special position in the world because Russian people suffer more than the others. [Laughs] If you think of the Golden Age of Russian literature, such as Fiodor Dostoievski (1821 – 1881), they always focused on the inner world and suffering. When Dostoievski was teaching young writers, he often said to them, “you haven’t suffered enough to be a good writer”! [Laughs]
ST: Do you think Kiefer suffered a lot?
VA: Gerard Richter and Anselm Kiefer are the two “official” major artists in contemporary Germany. Kiefer is a bit disputable as an artist in Germany, that’s why he left for France. He’s researching into the history and cultures of Germany, however, his proposition is considered as unacceptable by the German academic world. His teacher Beuys has a similar disputable status in Germany for his fascist army history even though Beuys is leftist. But there are signs in the art of Beuys that show some rightist tendency. Kiefer has the same ambivalence as Beuys which created a tension for him and in his work. This is very interesting.
ST : Thank you very much!
A short conversation with the dealer Maria Sokolova
Maria Sokolova, owner of the Gallery 9/1.
ST : Ms. Sokolova, you started the Gallery 9/1 in December 2012 as a contemporary sculpture gallery. Why a sculpture gallery? What are the artistic directions and programs of the gallery?
MS : There were two main reasons to start a sculpture gallery : 1) The sculpture as an art becomes very popular all over the world nowdays and there is a great interest and demand not only among art ellite but among people who are not closely connected to the art world ; 2) to the best of my knowlrdge there is no art gallery in Moscow specialising specifically on sculptures and we thought that such an unfairness should have been eliminated.
ST : The gallery is located at the basement of an 18th century historical building. Can you tell us about the history of the building? Does the architectural style have any influence on the installation or mood of the exhibitions?
MS : Since 2007, the Polezhaev-Zubov estate has been protected by the state as a historical and cultural monument. Today, this elegant mansion, dating from the XVIII-XIX centuries, has been gradually returning to life. Through the efforts of the new owners, the Sokolov family, the estate has been undergoing extensive restoration work, bringing back another important cultural space to the city. Previously, the house belonged to the merchant and collector of antiquities, Vasiliy Zubov, and his son, the famous scientist and prominent numismatist Pavel Zubov. Here, many illustrious guests were always being welcomed: artists, actors, writers, scientists, musicians; all those who gave colour to the artistic and scientific life of Moscow. It is a rich tradition deserving of revival; and once again the estate will be gradually filled with cultural events.
The new exhibition will present sculptures made out of coal. These exhibition objects represent traditional art archetypes known since Greek and Rome Empires. We believe that forms and essence of the objects should « feel and breath » with comfort in the arch white-brick basement.
ST : Nine months after the opening of the gallery, you are already in the parallel events list of the Moscow Biennale with the solo show of the Russian-German artist Vladimir Anselm. Congratulations! Can you say a few words about the works of Vladimir Anselm?
MS : When you hear “a coal sculpture” you think of something rough and brutal, and only when you see it you become impressed with its shiny curviness and natural elegance. And it is a must to see them original as even a photo can’t give you the correct impression. I do realize that it is not only the material that does it. Vladimir is an extremely talented artist!
ST : What do you think of the art market right now in Moscow ?
MS : It is constantly growing in all directions and it is nice to have all kind of art available on the market. The quality of any market depends on the tense of the competition.
ST : Thank you very much !