Interview with Anatoly Osmolovsky by Vladimir Levashov
Vladimir Levashov: In your opinion is political activity currently opposed to artistic one?
Anatoly Osmolovsky: Political activity is becoming anti-artistic when it reaches its ontological boundary of struggle for power. If a politician and an artist both go determinedly to the limit they will certainly part. The most vivid examples to prove the case would be relations between Bolsheviks and Russian constructivists and those between French communists and surrealists. Politicians and artists have always understood that their cooperation is a fight for being engaged one by another. When surrealists joined the communist party they subconsciously intended to engage communists, rather than to be engaged themselves. Upon realization of the case they parted. In its own fundamental sense, art is an alternative political project. Though if we limit art to purely a political project we are risking to lose other meanings present.
As for Moscow art scene of the 90-s, many artists including me and my circle did treat their artistic activity as an element of political struggle. Although it was quite a special kind of political struggle. No one claims that we wanted to become presidents, members of the State Council, etc. What I mean by political struggle, is pure revolutionary activity. Revolutionary activity was aimed to transform society, create new laws and new relations between citizens, and we fought for that. Aesthetics of the struggle has been shaped directly in action. “Street” aesthetics is an accurate choice of place and time: one finds a certain place (for example, one runs up the tribune of the Mausoleum) and combines it with actual time (for example, an election campaign in the State Council). Thus, the message is public at most, and it is transmitted via mass media.
Art of the 90-s found itself in an ambiguous situation. On one hand it produced rudimentary aesthetic gestures, as we treated our activity as a continuation of the 20th century revolutionary project with ideals of progress, equality and democratic dialogue. We had to present all those values that political parties have irresponsibly thrown into the trash bin in the 90-s. However it was surely not a mass activity, but actions by single persons, by renegades and turncoats.
All political organizations are ontologically based on regularity, constancy, mass character and irreversibility. Such mechanics is secured with people, money and connections. When you enter politics, the structure is imposed on you with whole weight of its resources. It is impossible to resist it using only aesthetics. Artists as a rule try to avoid regularity, constancy, and - in the very end - even mass character of art, as they keep inventing new heuristic moves. We could have acted differently of course. When you are attacked by some organizations you can found one of your own. However, then your friends and you become genuine political figures: dissidents as in the Soviet era or revolutionists as in the Tzar times. I faced this dilemma in the 90-s, and I realized I could probably sustain it both morally and physically, yet I wasn’t interested. It is impossible to treat organizational activity artistically, as if it were art, because it is not effective. You are condemned to losing because you must obey the laws of political field, so you simply stop doing art, and that is it.
V.L. This means that artistic activity to be realized in political form works against regularity, constancy, mass character and irreversibility, thus – in other words – it demolishes routine and does this in the name of freedom and as another way of accumulating energy. So the moment art reaches its maturity phase and therefore finds itself in opposition to politics, it transforms from an action (which is politics in its true sense) into an object. Is it possible for aesthetics – in its full-scale completed form - to exist as an action? Or can a terminal aesthetic product only exist as an object, a static structure that generates action itself and surrounds itself with it?
А.О. Fine art differs from others types of art such as theatre, cinema, music, etc… It creates psychically single objects. Western culture of the 20th century perceived this aspect of fine arts as inescapable sin. Avant-garde art tried to overcome it constantly. However I believe it is a very important detail that needs to be handled precisely. That is why I create works of art that are similar to each other, and at the same time I insist that they are works of art indeed. In a way I dispute these works of art myself. It is of course necessary to doubt uniqueness of each of them, but it is also necessary to understand that there is certain uniqueness to them. Apart from uniqueness of an artistic object, the second important aspect that derived from non-spectacular art is a rule that binds to create such works of art that cannot be understood adequately through mass media and their reproduction. Therefore, I began to create sculptures, objects. However, they were not created through analysis, this is my reasoning postfactum. I am not a religious person, rather an atheist, yet when I discovered Russian icons four years ago I was very inspired.
V.L. What exactly inspired you?
А.О.. In my opinion Russian orthodox icons represent some sort of ontological dullness. I am speaking about dullness in creative, constructive sense of the word. Monotony, repetition, immobility and even numbness are original attributes of an orthodox icon. You can look at it as an analogue of political practice that I was describing above, but as its negative analogue. Search for lofty ideals and images in an icon seems to be a sign of its inadequate understanding. The main idea of an icon is the idea of tradition and repetition, which is dullness. I wanted to make dull works of art, to create an object that cannot be interpreted. Dullness in that sense is - as a matter of fact - very subtle. It means absence of apparent interpretations as well as absence of purpose and single understanding why and for whom it is created. It is slow groping for essence.
For example people come to Donald Judd’s exhibition and get entirely lost as they don’t understand what it is and what purpose it serves. I believe, minimalism is a very serious practice that strives to show nothing but what it contents. This is the rule I followed when creating the most recent objects. Yet I wasn’t inspired precisely by minimalism as it mostly values space geometry.
V.L. Going back to the issue of politics, I would like to repeat that it presents a repeated, irreversible action. It is also necessary to add that is always an action performed by a group of people, not by individuals, for a certain mass of people (not for individuals). If aesthetic activity is opposed to political activity, then it is this very activity of one person for single persons. It is also known that the radical change in art has been connected (as some art historians phrase it at least) with introduction of mass exhibitions in Europe, where visitors could come in groups, such as families, etc. Tradition of an exhibition opening day is also worth mentioning, as it breaks all the previous conventions of art contemplation. Today an opening day is an event for the main target audience, for the”right” people and that of course influences art itself greatly. Contemporary art directs its efforts towards instantaneous interpretation, utmost simplicity of reproduction and meaning, etc. Your position nowadays seems opposite to this kind of practice. Thus, itisdeeplyconservative.
А.О. That is why I do not go to any exhibition openings recently. They have nothing to do with those who would like to understand the essence of art. Its place and means of production are connected with loneliness that transforms into peculiarities of artistic language. These very important factors are hardly valued in contemporary society. And such colloquial terms as conservative or progressive position needed to be thrown into the garbage, in my opinion.
I interpret contemporary fine arts as a sort of a halt in philosophical sense. A halt of an image, a halt of a person in front of an image, it differs from current situation in cinema or video where thousand of images alternate constantly. An elementary physical halt of an image changes its perception radically. An artist who produces a halt treats an autonomous image differently from an artist or a director who makes thousands of images. When a viewer finds himself in front of an art piece that awoke his interest, he is brought to a physical halt: his brain, imagination and thought start functioning simultaneously. In this sense art is entirely anti-political activity, because politics, as I am convinced, is nothing but a skill to move objects around in space. Mao Zedong has a great phrase about politics: “The table wouldn’t move unless somebody moves it”.
V.L. Your new pieces of art also give rise to one more theme: connection of an object and its title. Existing object as a rule certainly has a title. An object’s title is a sign of its function. So, a ”dull” non-functional object should have no title. In case of art, physically external movement transforms to subjectively internal one, it can also develop into producing various titles for art objects - into naming. A title communicates certain content to an object. My question is, how is your artistic object connected with naming - not-naming?
А.О. For now I can only say that a strange object that arises and exists beyond the bounds of pragmatic world, pragmatic appliance and ordinary meanings, should not be named as logic suggests. On the other hand, human brain is made in such a way that when it collides with something that tumbles out reality it tries to name it. I created objects in such a way, even in purely mechanical sense, that they are very difficult to be distinguished one from another. Therefore I entitle them “untitled” and use slang words to describe it in brackets. Yet nowadays it is not clear to me what role a title plays. I think it is the first step towards neutralization of an art piece. The main meaning and goal of an art piece is to stay unidentified as long as possible, bodily at maximum, be a material object. Any title would always be a way of defining it. However, at the same time it seems to me (and this is not an analytical belief, but a sensual feeling) that abstract art is impossible in contemporary situation. It seems that subjective creative will today lacks resources that would provide an opportunity to create objects not connected with reality…
V.L. Would the reason for that be degradation of human consciousness?
А.О. Yes, I think because of degradation, but not of the consciousness in general, but of sociopolitical atmosphere in the society. At least, I myself have thoughts about some abstract objects yet cannot find moral resources for their production. Therefore I am speaking of imitating abstract art, and thus something mimetic is important to me, I cling to it, I draw forms and ideas from it. It might also be a disease for Moscow art scene. Now we do not have moral resources to perceive art in its subjectivity. Therefore we can speak about imitation here. But at the same time it is not imitation for its sake, as is the case with simulacra, but for the sake of image so to speak. The main task is to create abstract art that is possible for contemporaneity. This niche existed potentially in pop art system, although it almost never depicted images that twinkle between the abstract and the material. So all the art works that I create now stay on the very boundary between “too abstract” and “too material”.