Painting as a stimulus

© kolodiy

The triptych “First on the Moon” by Odessa artist Kolodiy, who has been living and working in Moscow for eight years, became the trademark of the media campaign for the Art Arsenal’s recent project “A Space Odyssey”. The artist spoke with Liza German about his motivating for participating in the project, the Ukrainian arts situation in the late 1990s – early 2000s, and the nature of contemporary painting.

Lizaveta German: Tell us about your participation in “A Space Odyssey” and the series of works, as I understand, made especially for the project.

Kolodiy: Last late year, Oleksandr Solovyov invited me to participate in “A Space Odyssey”. I gladly agreed. There were no restrictions on the choice of medium. For example, you could make an installation. But I consciously decided to paint. Firstly, I am more familiar with this material. Secondly, I paint a lot lately, and I’m focused on the flat surface, so to speak.

There are pluses and minuses to a work made specifically for a project. In this case the topic was so global, so comprehensive, that there were no obstacles to the imagination. The idea was born quickly, and the process wasn’t long or painful.

Almost everyone thinks about space when they’re young. My childhood was at a time when Soviet victories in space were a subject of special pride. Today children dream of becoming programmers and economists, but we dreamt of becoming cosmonauts. Space is infinite and you can talk about it infinitely. I’m glad I had the chance to express myself on this topic. I’m not the one to judge whether it was good or bad, but I’m not disappointed with the result.

The triptych is called “First on the Moon” but it’s not only about lunar conflicts - for example, were the Americans on the moon or not. In general, our view of the cosmos is still na?ve. It’s a metaphor of our weakness, our helplessness, and our fear of this scary and bottomless blackness. We know very little about the universe, we suspect and assume. But we can do even less outside the Earth. And most importantly, all this mysterious infinity will remain undiscovered, incomprehensible and unreachable.

L.G.: What do you think about the project overall?

K: “A Space Odyssey 2011” was held and I think it was held successfully. I may be mistaken, but there hasn’t been an exhibition of this scale in Ukraine for a long time. Perhaps there are some shortcomings, rough edges, etc. Mastering such a space is no easy matter. The curators of Art Arsenal are seeing the end result, even if it’s not perfect. But the experience of the exhibition will certainly prove useful for future large-scale art projects.

L.G.: You began you artistic career in Odessa?

K.: 1993 can be considered the beginning. I had my fist personal exhibition at the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art. Everything began with this exhibition. I was still a student and ventured from the world of traditional art into a circle of completely different artists. I understood what contemporary art was and I felt that it was mine. In 1994 I began participating in various exhibitions and projects. The first such event was the contemporary art festival “Free Zone” - the first major international project in Odessa.

L.G.: What was your understanding of “contemporary art” then?

K: In short, it’s a completely different way of thinking, using new tools and materials for expression. Objects, installations, performances…This was all new and appealing after typical boring academic workshops and exhibitions at the Artists Union. In addition, it turned out that painting itself – a medium that seems to be traditional and understandable – can be quite different. I primarily mean Ukrainian transavangard, which reached its peak at the time. Later I learned about the Italians and many other interesting phenomena in contemporary painting.

Postmodernism triumphantly crossed the planet and it was clear that this paradigm was the only true doctrine – the mind, honor and conscience of our epoch, so to speak. This worldview was close to me, and in some way, became the continuation of my personal searches, that stopped at the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century. Just as many Soviet republics moved from feudalism to socialism, bypassing capitalism, I survived my enthusiasm for Cubo-Futurism and ended up in a state of post-modernism.

Of course I knew very little then about contemporary art. There was no internet. Now it’s even strange. Information about world art came in small doses and with some delay. It was transmitted via “our” channels and most often passed from hand to hand. As they said at the time about the deficit, “you have to know the places to look”. Certain crowds and the art community were those places. It was a sort of professional social network. For example, the first big portion of food for thought I received was in the famous kitchen of Alexander Roitburd on Schepkina St. in Odessa. There for the first time I flipped though the pages of magazines such as “Art in America” and “Flash Art”, and Jeff Koons’s catalogue.

The virus of contemporary art entered by body and infected me for life, as I recall, after seeing Kabakov’s works and texts in a magazine, and two small paintings by Leiderman that were hanging in that apartment on Schepkina. And probably after reading stories by Sorokin.

L.G.: What was your impression of the situation in Ukrainian art in the early 2000s?

K: I knew less about the situation in Kyiv even though I visited the capital often. After a decade of an active, even violent, artistic life in Odessa, by 2000 there was a lull. There were many reasons for this. Fatigue from the formulaic means of representation. One after another, there were curatorial projects using the same methods, issues and designs - small ones and so-called “mass graves”.

In addition, an internal conflict broke out among artists in Odessa that was the cause of the schism in the art community. This conflict destroyed the convention in this group of very different Odessa artists and essentially blocked the artistic process. Then there were problems with funding for non-commercial art. The Soros Foundation was closing its program. Interest from other charitable organizations was weak and cautious and assistance was insignificant.

Domestic sponsors and patrons didn’t appear, while state institutions didn’t notice us. If someone managed to find assistance, such as premises for a workshop or exhibition hall, it was the result of personal connections. Odessa, after all, is not a large city. Many began thinking about what to do next. Some left art for good, some took up applied art. Many moved away – to Kyiv, Moscow, New York, Tel Aviv…My friend, a very talented musician, moved to Vienna.

L.G.: Regarding the problem of funding for non-commercial art - turns out little has changed in 10 years. For example, Foundation CCA, which has a policy of non-commercialism, today is struggling for survival. The market doesn’t work well, it’s poor. What was the art market like in the 2000s?

K: In the late 1990s - early 2000s, the situation was totally opposite. There was no art market in Ukraine. Sales, if there were any sales, were occasional and sporadic. There was the “Russian Boom”. The western market was partly saturated with post-Soviet art and lost interest in this region. And connoisseurs still hadn’t appeared in Ukraine. One must not only be wealthy to collect modern art, but also have “progressive” views. At the time there weren’t any, or very few.

What’s more, the world art market was in a period of stagnation after the stock market crash. The situation in New York -- the center of the world art market in those years - is evidence of this. They say that in a year or two, three-quarters of all galleries in SoHo closed. Prices for art fell markedly. I remember flipping through an American art magazine and noticing announcements predominantly for retrospective exhibitions: post-war art, pop art…there were only current “stars” like Bazelits and Keifer. Perhaps that’s why the 1990s saw the flourishing of art projects that differed from the established market with greater focus on social issues, interactivity and, of course, use of new media.

Overall, we made art, without expecting quick commercial success. We hoped that sometime later, once the crisis ended, once Ukraine became a full-fledged European country, someone would be interested in it, and someone might buy something. But this wasn’t most important. The most important thing was the desire to express yourself.

L.G.: Do you think there is a need today for contemporary art centers (centers, not galleries or museums)? And what should be their main function?

K.: We need all forms of support for art: commercial, charitable and public. Accordingly, there should be different institutions: galleries, foundations and museums. The main function of contemporary art centers should be diverse support and popularization of contemporary art. They should exist in every large city.

Another matter is that a sort of special-interest art has appeared: there is a generation of artists that works on institutional orders (mostly western templates) and often does this coldly and distantly. Such artists appeared here and in other countries in the 1990s. They worked “under a grant”. But in Odessa, for example, they were few and far between, and as soon as the funding ended, the art ended. These people stopped being artist and curators. However, most of us saw grants not as an end, but as a means. We would still have created even without subsidies.

For example, my co-author and I did our first video installation without the support of any foundation. We used pipes we found in the trash. We resolved all the issues ourselves. Our friends leant us their camcorders and we borrowed two VCRs to do the editing. The televisions for the exhibition we also borrowed from friends. But then we unexpectedly got help from a sponsor - the owner of an appliance store. He gave us several TVs and a camcorder, if just for a few hours on opening day.

L.G.: Let’s return to the early 2000s. Artistic life in Odessa, as you say, died down. And that’s why you went to Moscow?

K: Yes. The last project that we managed to do at a Soros CCA was “Painting Workshop”. It ended with two exhibitions of paintings - one in the studio where the workshop was held and the second in the Odessa Art Museum. Of the six participants, only one stayed in Odessa.

I felt that I needed a break. I needed a change, including geography. Plus there were personal reasons. I came to Kyiv, spent some time here and expected to stay. But then unexpectedly I was offered the position of art director at a Moscow design firm. There I became part of a new art community, gained control over new tools. Graphic design excited me for a while, and I saw in it great opportunities for creative outlet.

L.G.: You say this in the past tense. Your expectations weren’t met?

K: Yes and no. Design is an interesting profession. But it has many downsides from the perspective of someone coming from “pure art”. A designer is dependent on the will and taste of the client, and this often destroys creativity at the root. And the percentage of creativity output is low. To put it simply - much of your time and effort is spent making things that in a few days become waste paper. A designer’s product, as a rule, doesn’t live long. Except perhaps if you get lucky and come up with the Coca-Cola logo.

L.G.: In contemporary art practice, many works live even less…

K.: Maybe, but it’s different. No gallery will ever throw an artist’s painting in the trash after an exhibition. And the artist won’t either. Thousands of artists, talented and mediocre, make art and fill showrooms, galleries, apartments, museums and other places with them. The surplus they store in their workshops hoping that someday this will all be in demand. That at some point they will be remembered and get what they deserve. And some get lucky. This brings to mind the beautiful stories about Van Gogh and Modigliani.

And when you see in the trash all the work that you spent three weeks of your life on, there is a strange feeling of hopelessness and meaninglessness. Time passes and you look back and see how much time and effort was wasted on something that became trash or sank into oblivion. But this is probably a reflection of a painter that moved into design. I suspect that graduates of the Stroganov Art School or Moscow Polygraphic Institute aren’t bothered by such thoughts and peacefully earn money. Those who want additional creative realization participate in design festivals, paint and participate in art exhibitions.

L.G.: How do you manage to unite design with so-called “pure art”?

K.: For a time I was fully immersed in new materials and swapped my paintbrushes for a computer graphics tablet. Because I worked in graphic design, I didn’t have to radically restructure my conscience. It’s very close to the fine art. Plus, I even had a slight an advantage – unlike many designers, I know how to draw and have experience with contemporary art. In advertising this is called creativity. But by training and, perhaps, by nature I am still a painter. And this nature takes its course.

L.G.: Are you thinking about working with other techniques or formats? What place do you see for painting in contemporary art?

K.: Painting still competes with newer techniques. This material has a mysterious and inexhaustible strength. Time has shown that a drawing is always relevant. Trends change, but the discourse remains. For the last century this has been an invariably strong aesthetic and intellectual stimulus. That’s why painting is hidden from time to time. But it never dies. Perhaps the most radical formal experiments are behind us. Canvas has been burned and slaughtered for a long time. But, oddly enough, there is still much that is interesting and unseen on “the other side of the glass”.

In addition, canvas and oil are more durable materials, which is also significant for the artist and collector. A simple example: video art of the 1990s used tapes with a magnetic film that disintegrates rather quickly, especially if not stored properly. That’s why many works that weren’t digitized in time have been ruined. Documentation, as opposed to an installation, can’t be recreated. As for other media, in rare exceptions, I don’t see any obstacles. The selection of material, as a rule, is dictated by the idea. And sometimes the material itself can encourage the creation of a work.

L.G.: What do you think of the Moscow art scene today? How comfortable is it to live / work / exhibit there? And how does Kyiv look on this background?

K.: Artistic life in Moscow is in full swing year round and this is a big plus. This vibrant energy, this rhythm feeds you, it doesn’t let you relax. Although in general, Moscow is a tough city and “doesn’t believe in tears”. In this sense, Kyiv is a more familiar city, more like home, or something. If some time ago Kyiv had to catch up to Moscow, today I think Kyiv isn’t far behind in terms of quality or number of art events. For example, I wasn’t the only one that thought that this year’s art fair in Kyiv was much better than Art Moscow. As soon as there is a national biennale in Kyiv and a modern art museum, the difference between the two capitals will be erased completely.

L.G.: You may have heard that Ukraine is in the running to host the European Biennale Manifesta in 2014. Many in the professional Ukrainian art community believe that by hosting this forum, known for its intellectual slant and focus on the local context (the latter, however, wasn’t that noticeable at the last Manifesta in Murcia, Spain) would be far more appropriate and beneficial for the Ukrainian art world than its own “blockbuster” biennale. Don’t you think that a national biennale could become more of a show rather than promote positive movement in the Ukrainian artistic process?

K.: Let me start by saying that Manifestas and any other event of that caliber is also, as you say, a “blockbuster” because it involves the interests of many people: experts, artists, politicians, sponsors, media, etc. And in order for all these interests to be taken into account, and the result to satisfy everyone in one way or another, the event can’t be quiet or, using the cinematic term, “art house”. It’s like the Olympics.

It’s difficult to say which is preferable or useful. I’m not an expert. You can’t rule out that the resonance from the Manifesta might be less than expected. The event will attract the attention of a small group of dedicated people, but I think a national “blockbuster” could draw the attention of the local business and political elites, “wake up” the country. It would be great if the interest in the biennale was the same as to the European football championship, for example, and several new exhibition halls and contemporary art centers appeared in the country ahead of this mega event.

In general, it is important for me as an artist that such an event takes place at all. A major art event is a necessary component for a civilized country. It’s like a TV at home: you can live without it, but it’s better to have one. And it’s nice if it’s an HDTV. And it’s even nicer if it’s a 100 inch.

L.G.: And how many inches will your personal “television” be? Or as journalists like to put it, what are your creative plans?

K.: I have not had a personal exhibition in a long time. That is probably my main creative plan for this year. I’m not limited right now by any deadlines, but hopefully I will have an exhibition by the end of this year. I’m currently working on a series of paintings for it and there’s a bunch of sketches waiting their turn.