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Vladimir Levashov, Vadim Zakharov

Conversation, December 22, 2003, Moscow

Levashov: What is your art about? What do you work with?


Zakharov: This simple question always turns out to be a chasm into which the artist falls again and again. Because there is nothing to hold onto. The first and probably the most important thing is that there is no stability in art; not one single construction can hold the artist back from flying off into Non-Being. There is no authority that could lend a helping hand, since even this authority would fly off into Nowhere along with you. I’ve been up in the air for the last 25 years, and can tell you with a great deal of certainty that I have no idea where I am flying to. I see that one person falls like a stone, while others gyrate as they move, others make progress in fits and starts. One person falls to the ground laughing, while the other wears a serious face. Of myself, I can say that I fall actively and try to mobilize everything that is around me, including my own myths, of course. I am hardly interested in the subjective world of the artist as such. From the very beginning of my activity as an artist (during the late 1970s), I have been interested in models, systems, and methods; that is, (and this is something I can say with a certain irony today), I am interested in global stupidity and the obsession with positivism. The former has produced audacious folly, while the latter has bound me to reality. In 1978-80, Igor Lutz and I developed the idea of Functioning in Culture. This idea began in sots-art, but gradually moved off in another, more conceptual direction. (Unfortunately, he and I grew apart all too quickly.) For an example, our last piece, which hardly anyone knows about, consisted of the action The Rationalist Approach to Black Cats, which took place in the framework of the exhibition APTART in Nature. In this action (from which Igor was absent), I undressed many artists who are quite famous today. Once they were buck-naked, I painted them with white shamanistic designs and had them stand in line to walk into a swamp. This took place at midnight and had a direct connection to Russian folklore and shamanistic dances. Viktor Skersis and I continued to develop this idea of Functioning in Culture, although other ideas soon emerged, such as Simulation in Culture, Filling Up Niches, Using Art for Military Purposes, Phantoms, and Co-Authorship…By the way, at the same exhibition at Kalistovo (APTART in Nature, 1983), we repeated the Lieblich performance by Collective Actions. This action was completely new and unexpected in the underground consciousness in Moscow at the time, which is why it provoked a completely inadequate reaction. One photographer even said, “We should kick the shit out of you.”

            My work also somehow immediately flowed into the current of what was called “self-evolving systems” at the time, even if I didn’t really know what that meant then, to be honest. But it was an idea, an idea that I find myself returning to more and more today, as strange as it may seem. Then, some 20 years ago, it consisted in developing separate lines, methods, or character masks. There were many masks: the One-Eyed Man, the Pirate, the Dwarf, and later, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Madame Shlyuz, or the Pastor. Unlike the characters invented by Ilya Kabakov, Viktor Pivovarov, or Igor Makarevich, these characters were real means of escaping from my own paradigms; they were a method of separating out different layers and moving in different directions. This is where the different roles – artist, collector, publisher, archivist, photographer – come from… This is also the source of the interweaving of mythology and reality. And as a result, I am no longer capable of controlling the system I have constructed: it’s begun to work independently, taking on a life of its own. What exactly do I mean? My activities in different directions began to dictate my conditions. The role of the publisher (in 1992, I organized the publishing house Pastor Zond Editions, which has already published over 60 publications) demands a certain quality and quantity of production. The role of the archivist demands the fastidious treatment of material and its systematization. The role of the artist demands that I send everyone else packing and only work on my creative endeavors. The role of the collector (and I’ve been collecting art since the early 1980s) demands that I abandon the mediocre, penniless work of the artist in favor of more serious matters, such as money, sales, collecting, or exhibitions.

            But in the final analysis, it is exactly this diversification and multi-directionality that I am so interested in. I find it boring to be nothing but an artist: I want to be a publisher or a designer once in while, for example, especially since I’m a book designer by profession. Then again, I also like to work with co-authors, which provides me the opportunity to actively explore other territories. This is why there are no pauses in my activity. One purely psychological problem that many artists face is that that they grow tired of being artists, not knowing what to do next. But I just switch from one role to another, which is why there are no pauses. Let’s say I’m “depressed.” I “treat” myself by arranging papers. It’s amazing what a calming effect shuffling through archives can have. You take out folders, move pictures from one folder to another, make copies of them, etc., almost endlessly. The archive always provides you with a loophole through which you can escape. I don’t actually use this loophole, but I know that it exists, which is why the archive is my helper. Then again, the archive is the ideal madhouse.


Levashov: Why do you get sick of “the artist’s condition”?


Zakharov: In 1977, I happened to meet Yuri Albert, who introduced me to the circle of the Moscow underground. Since then, I have never asked myself why exactly I work in this context. It was my personal choice. The question was always “how do I work with this?” Fatigue is the artist’s professional ailment. After all, this profession constantly encounters the unknown in culture and its liminal conditions, its dead ends. Unlike many other professionals, the artist is the one who actively searches for dead ends. Sergei Anufriev and I dedicated a big piece to this theme, and called it The Dead End as a Genre. So if an artist doesn’t find his dead end, he hasn’t realized himself as an artist. But doubts as to whether it makes sense to be an artist or not only arise when an identification between the dead end and the creative personality takes place. I am in dozens of dead ends at the same time, and this leaves me with no time for fatigue or identification.


Levashov: Your work can be completely incomprehensible to audiences that aren’t familiar with the inner logic of your creative development. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for this incomprehensibility lies in the shifting signs of identity that you talked about, which you call masks. Essentially, the same thing takes place when you shift from one type of activity to another. As it turns out, this is useful and effective for you, but to the outer world, it is not always clear “who is talking,” so that the meaning of what is being said also remains obscure. Does this problem have any meaning to you?


Zakharov: There is one sleight-of-hand or trick in all of this: no matter how many masks and costumes you don, you’re still always Vadim Zakharov in the end. By the way, I didn’t understand this simple truth until quite recently. This is something the audience also needs to understand. Nevertheless, I went through a period in which the audience didn’t interest me at all. This was in my painterly period from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, which was defined by its own internal logic. My work of the time had a hermetic, intermediate quality, but the conception itself actually demanded this, since this was a period of transition: the epoch was active and connected to the political and artistic situation of Perestroika and the emergence of Russian art in the West, which is why it was so powerfully documented in dozens of catalogues. This really helped to establish the view of my work as something unintelligible, isolated, and self-sufficient, a label that people attached to me, sometimes justly and sometimes not.

            One could say that from 1992 onward (I had been living in the West for several years by then), with the appearance of the publishing house and the journal Pastor, when I suddenly saw all of my territory from the side, my work became more straightforward and accessible. Now, it is extremely important to me to be understood by the audience.

            In a way, it is necessary to make concessions to the audience, to supply it with an Ariadne's thread. Take my latest piece, for example, which was shown at the exhibition Berlin–Moscow. This is an extremely straightforward installation, even for an audience that is completely unprepared. I built a huge book-keeper’s file (3.6 meters tall), which one could enter as if one was entering one’s own country house. The name of this piece was just as easy to understand: “The History of Russian Art from the Avantgarde to the Moscow Conceptual School”. I selected the five artistic directions from the last century that seemed most interesting. And the audience was given the full possibility for interpreting and understanding everything. Then again, the classification used in this piece is personal and subjective; it is based on taste. It contains a great many of my own mythologies, choices, and commentaries. I am completely convinced that neither reality nor archive can survive. It would be a mistake to think that archives don’t burn. And how they burn! The only thing that survives is myth. This is why its necessary to mythologize both reality and its archives.

            By and large, the subject of the archive has become very interesting today. Big Western corporations, like Bill Gates, for instance, have begun a hitherto unprecedented effort of collecting databases of everything that was ever recorded. Today, ownership of archives is a colossal power, especially if it is supported by money, of course. Unfortunately, in my case, the archive only sucks up my own energy and money, but I hope that it will pay off later on. By the way, it was already clear to many people in unofficial circles during the 1980s that the archive was a powerful lever in culture. The “MANI Files” (Moscow Archive of New Art – V.L.) came about in full knowledge that this archive would support them. This was a unique collective publication that will never happen again. Today, it keeps even those artists who have stopped making art or make art far less actively from sinking into the swamp. The artists themselves created an archival safety net, which has not yet disappeared. Once I had moved abroad, the first thing I did was to create an archive by collecting facts and photographs; I also started filming exhibitions of Moscow artists on video. These artists didn’t just include conceptualists, but also Vladimir Nemukhin, Eduard Shteinberg, Igor Shelkovsky and many others.

I have activated the masks of the archivist and the publisher more intensively as of late (and these are also parts of my myth). And I think this is the right thing to do, because – and now I’m going to say exactly the opposite of what I said before – only reality can support the myth. If I publish the journal Pastor, this isn’t the imitation of a journal, but a full-fledged publication in its own right, with new articles and themes. It doesn’t matter if it only appears once a year in a limited edition of 100 copies.

            The further I go, the more I realize that I have created some kind of strange system, some kind of monster, which I can no longer deal with, and which overpowers me more and more. By now, I can’t tell its legs “don’t walk” or its hand “don’t move.” The only thing I can do is to amputate something or to relax, in the sense of letting yet another set of hands grow in. For example, I had never made monumental or architectural pieces. But then, someone invited me to take part in the competition for a monument to Theodor Adorno in Frankfurt. The competition was pretty serious: Kosuth, Buren, Nedko Salakhov and others. For me, this was something absolutely new and incomprehensible: I had to learn lots of things on the move, but having tried once, I already understand that I will be able to become familiar with many other things.


Levashov: So you also found yourself interested in an experience like this?


Zakharov: Once again, this experience suggests that despite all of those “self-evolving systems,” you really need one head. I’m no three-headed dragon. Then again, the same experience made it clear to me that there are limitations in terms of time. You can’t work more than 36 hours a day. You see, I had to go and pick out wood, stone, and glass; I had think of all the connections, fittings, waterproofing, sounds; I had to discuss all of these questions at dozens of meetings with specialists, etc. And all of this is normal. But if you add running projects, publications, and exhibitions, you begin to come closer and closer to the category of the “impersonal.” Where do all the masks, and even the artistic “self” go? I have no idea. As Ilya Kabakov said once, we can only understand one another if we’re moving at the same speed. This is a very accurate observation. But you can increase your speed three or five times, once you’re working in different directions at the same time. By the way, I call my method of working “The Shiva Method.” But you can’t become an entrepreneur, because after all, an artist and not a business lies at the base or heart of all of this activity. This is why I don’t want to place aspects of my activity, publishing, for example, on an industrial basis. Of course, it wouldn’t be bad to have one or two assistants for every one of my directions, but I think that this isn’t realistic as of yet. This isn’t just because I wouldn’t be able to support them in material terms, but because I both work in culture, and am also a cultural user. I derive a great deal of pleasure from culture. I’m a culture addict. I get high off of everything from classical poetry and literature, of all peoples and times, to super-modern technological gimmickry in contemporary art. This is why my view of the development of art has become more and more positive over the last five years. What I see in art today makes me happy. There are many interesting artists of different generations from different countries; there are many good exhibitions. And again and again, you’ll encounter artworks that don’t allow you to stagnate. Of today’s Russian artists, I would probably only name two figures from the older generation that stimulate me creatively. These are Ilya Kabakov and Andrei Monastyrsky. They both have the powerful energy of being lost, on the one hand, and the crystalline clarity of Renaissance artists on the other. Of my own generation, I feel closest to Yuri Leiderman and Pavel Pepperstein… The “young generation” of artists hasn’t resonated with me yet.


Levashov: So from your perspective, the artists that emerged after the 1980s have become more one-dimensional?


Zakharov: I think that this one-dimensional quality arises because everyone is playing on one playing field, which is called contemporary art, forgetting that this is only the tip of the iceberg. This is where the problem of wearing one “iron mask” comes from, when the mask replaces the face. While changing masks used to show your distance from the subject, it has now become more important to perfect and to wear it, so that everyone will recognize you. This is already a problem of fame. My relationship to fame is unambiguous: I don’t find it interesting. This is why I keep trying to change my mask and my tactics. But many artists have suddenly taken to wearing masks that are sick and feeble: some wear the mask of the idiot or the hater of contemporary art, while others pretend that they are classical artists and geniuses, and so forth and so on… But actually, we should think more about the difference between the mask and the public persona…


Levashov: Today, there is no need for public personae. As soon as the demand for a commodity arises, a supply of commodities arises as well. The mask, on the other hand, is something completely explicit.


Zakharov: …The public persona is so difficult because it doesn’t let you relax at all, not even for a second. If you relax, everyone will know about it immediately. Not everyone is capable of constructing a public persona. Any idiot can wear a mask, on the other hand, but even if you wear a mask, you can still be an idiot. You can’t do this if you become a public persona. Then again, the public persona is a collective mask, which the audience plays with by accepting this persona or that. Matters are far less complex with the mask, obviously, even if the mask of a mutton-head turns out to hide a good-looking girl. I think you could even put it as follows: masks are characteristic of Russia, while public personae are characteristic of the West. The public persona only exists in real time and space, unlike the mask, which is always easy to wear on Russia’s endless theatrical stages. So that’s probably all I can say about this issue.

            Moving on from public personae and masks, we could take a step in the direction of mass psychosis and collective delusions…For some reason, I just remembered that I don’t know whether I should connect this to psychosis or delusions, but every time I come to Moscow, I notice one and the same thing, one device that many Moscow artists, writers and designers will use. Each and every display is based on the same dummy, the same joke. This could be a psychological, political, economic, or erotic joke, even if all these jokes really don’t make anyone laugh anymore. We are living in the age of global transparency. Everyone sees and understands everything and calls things by their proper names, but still, they all continue to tell one another jokes, jokes that make you cry instead of making you laugh. After all, laughter lies in a completely different realm, in the creative recognition of the unknown.


Levashov: What is this “unknown,” exactly?


Zakharov: I don’t know what the unknown is, but I’m sure that no creativity whatsoever is possible without it. Creativity demands a meeting with the unknown, when you can’t understand anything at all, neither on a cultural nor on a psychological level. But this isn’t a dead end. Quite on the contrary: by overcoming your dead end, you can reach total freedom. Encounters with the unknown are extremely rare. The unknown is something you need to search out, overcoming the stereotypes of your own thinking, the attitudes of your life and the dummies of your emotions. Our (creative) paths need to strike against the Unknown, no matter how thoroughly we build them and no matter which point we lead them toward.

For an instance, I can talk about the paths of publishing or keeping archives, how thorough I am in paving them; I can pontificate on self-evolving systems, but I never forget about the unknown, not for a second. I would even put it as follows: by developing my own system in such an active, dynamic way, I am able to achieve regular meetings with the unknown. These meetings don’t take place according to plan, but on the strength of the fact that the edges of my activity are always in some extreme, liminal state. My face is always turned toward the unknown, while my masks address that which can be recognized by culture.


Levashov: In conclusion, could you sketch out your own artistic evolution very briefly?


Zakharov: I already talked about this a little before. It’s interesting that I began working collaboratively immediately and that for the 25 years of my creative life, I’ve been working with co-authors. This is something we should keep in mind if we’re talking about my personal trajectory. After all, collaboration is one of the most important methods of my activity. I met Igor Lutz in 1978 and worked with him for two years. I can only begin to sketch out my own trajectory in 1980. But in 1980, I began to work with Viktor Skersis. From 1980 to 1982, my works connected to stimulation and the Zondworks appeared. These included: Little Elephants, Papuans, Piracy is What We Need Today, I Made Enemies and others, although all of these pieces were made as second-class works, works that didn’t have the aureole of innovation or serious thought. They were made intuitively, subconsciously, but the goal was clear: they appeared as probes, which I “inserted” into culture and into myself, swallowing them like little elephants. What’s interesting, and this is something I’m convinced of again and again, is that they turned out to contain a great deal of potential. I often ask myself how exactly these pieces, on which I spent no more than a few seconds at the very beginning of my professional career, have proven so important to me 25 years later. This is a question that I can’t seem to answer. Maybe it was important for me to intuitively place something that would be illogical, incomprehensible, or absurd at the base of my future work, to build a foundation of the unknown, that is. That’s the first stage.

            The second stage consisted of raising a building on this fundament of the unknown (like the raising of a church on the relics of saints). Painting served as my construction material. First, I made eight large canvases in a surrealist vein, which I never liked, not even when I painted them. But they were necessary then. These were sculptural images of a one-eyed man and a man with an elephant trunk (both bore some resemblance to their author), caught up in some kind of barely comprehensible dialogue. Gradually, I began to “carry off” these images in the direction of minimization, erasing their meanings, ideologies, and styles, practically bringing them to the point of minimalist walls and dead ends. In this sense, I erased the entire memory of the myth that I had initially created. Even more, I still continue to do this today by actually painting over pieces with white paint from that period that have already been sold (if the collector lets me do so). At some point in 1992, I also made my global “architectural paintings,” which included drawings in charcoal on canvas. But later, I turned away from all of this entirely.

            The third period could probably be measured from the point when I began to publish the journal “Pastor” in 1992 and with the organization of the “Pastor Zond Editions” (note how the word “zond,” which means “probe” in Russian, rolled over into this new context unexpectedly). This period is characterized by a more serious relationship to the archive and the collection, and finally leads into the feeling of being polyphonic and multiplex, or to make a long story short, of being a complex creature with many different hands. I have to admit that I really like this feeling, despite the immense workload it involves. In terms of creativity, age, and psychology, I’m in good condition. Thanks to my masks and my six hands, I’m able to unfold quickly in different directions. But I don’t barge in on reality. If this does happen somehow, I immediately recoil, because I’m surrounded by the great unknown, whereas I’m… too weak, too pampered, too dumb…