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Interview with the Russian Performance Artist and Big Dreamer – Andrey Bartenev, by Veronika Dorosheva

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Photography by Ivan Onoprienko

Introducion

Andrey Bartenev is a Russian performance artist. He is not a fashion designer as many journalists mistakenly call him. His main goal is not creation, but exploration. Like a scientist, he wants to explore and show people what they tend to overlook: in particular the beauty and power of nature, and the relationship of people to space. His art is all about creation of positive emotions, the development of a funky, crazy world that is a fairy tale and a circus at the same time – a world that opposes the serious, commercial world of contemporary society – especially in his Russian homeland that has become a huge market for European and American art and consumer goods.

The nineties were an important time for Russian illustrators because they were in high demand and therefore quite successful. Starting in 2000, the interest in their work sank rapidly and then disappeared. It was a dark time for Russian artists of all kinds, not only illustrators, who received more attention abroad than in their home country. Bartenev received invitations and support from many international cultural institutions and traveled the world showing his performance art. Bartenev’s work was exhibited in prestigious cultural institutions and in museums worldwide.

Bartenev was born in Norilsk, in Northern Russia, the area that once housed the GULAG labor camp. Mountains, rivers, cold and snowy winters, white endless landscapes, very strong wind, industrial surroundings, aluminum factories – these are the keywords that Bartenev would use if you asked him to describe his hometown. Bartenev recalls seeing human bones scattered on the hills of his hometown. When it became warmer and the snow melted away from the hills, he saw the bones of labor camp prisoners. These prisoners actually built the factories in his hometown.

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Photography by Ivan Onoprienko

Bartenev is a very good story teller. Here is one of his stories that he told at the private dinner organized by Berlin Fashion Film Festival and Interview Germany that took place at the end of March 2014 in Berlin. Story about a white bear: As a kid he saw a white bear at the zoo, one of the few animals inhabiting the zoo in the city of Norilsk.

This experience inspired him to create porcelain sculptures of a bear. He brought one of his porcelain bear sculptures to Berlin as a gift for the hosts of the dinner. The porcelain bear was a perfect gift as it highlighted two specialties that Berlin is known for: KMP, the Royal Porcelain manufactory which has existed in Berlin for 250 years, and the well-known symbol of Berlin, the bear. But Bartenev’s bear sculpture is a special liaison of two cultures, German and Russian: white (think about that snowy landscape in the Northern Russia) porcelain bear (Berlin, Germany) that has the eyes of a cat and a huge smile (think: Bartenev, think: positive emotions) and black circles all around the body which represent the traditional Russian pastry called Baranki or Bubliki (Baranki are bread rolls similar to bagels, but with a wider hole inside).

Many other inspirations for his art work come from his childhood years and things that he saw as a child. The colour white that he often chooses as a stage colour for his performances is associated with the white snowy landscape surrounding his hometown Norilsk. The shape of a circle that is also very significant for his art work. The shape comes from the image of the sun circling around the polar area where Norilsk is located.

Rayonism, a style of abstract art developed in Russia in 1911, is another visual reference that influenced Bartenev’s work. The ideas for Bartenev’s performances often come from his dreams. What does he dream about? Foreign planets, unknown sci-fi technologies such as a little square gadget that is half the size of an iphone and that is able to save a special moment of life such as a big party of friends, and the is able to repeat this particular moment at any time.

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Photography by Ivan Onoprienko

Bartenev’s sense of humour is unbeatable, smart and delicate. Once he traveled to Norway and saw many posters reminding people to wash their hands. It was the time of devastating flu outbreaks in Europe. “This was the first thing that I saw when my plane has landed”, Bartenev recalls.

An idea immediately entered his mind to create a performance based on “Moydodyr”, a poem for children written by the Russian poet Korney Chukovsky. It features a magic creature by the same name, who is basically a washstand that comes alive and that acts like a human being. He can walk and speak. In Russian “Moydodyr” literally means “wash until you get holes”. In the poem the washstand is trying to force a dirty little boy to get a bath. In the end, the washstand succeeds with his mission. The dirty little boy takes a bath. The poem ends with a moral note how important hygiene is.

Teachers and friends

Bartenev’s list of teachers and friends sounds like the “who’s who of the international cultural and art scene”: Tarkovsky, Lisa De Kooning, Paco Rabanne, Andrew Logan, Robert Wilson, Ernst Neizvestny, Andrei Voznesensky, to name but a few. While talking about Tarkovsky, Bartenev recalls his childhood memory of watching Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” (1979) for the first time at the tender age of 8 years old.

The film tells the story of a stranger who serves two other men as a guide and leads them through an unknown area called The Zone, where their desired wishes can come true. The hero in the movie, Stalker, served Bartenev as a sort of a mirror of the inner self. It was the moment that Bartenev looked at himself, his own special characteristics and peculiarities. The film enhanced his sensitivity and intuition that play a major part in the artist’s personal life and work.

After Paco Rabanne saw Bartenev’s performance at the festival in Latvia, he was so excited that he couldn’t even suppress his emotions and shouted out: “Are you crazy? Are you crazy?”  Rabanne invited Bartenev to come to Paris, purchased some of his work and was always giving Bartenev great moral and financial support throughout Bartenev’s artistic career.

Another influential figure in Bartenev’s life is Andrew Logan, an English sculptor, performance artist, jewellery-maker, and painter, who is also the founder of Alternative Miss World. According to Bartenev, the Alternative Miss World is a surrealistic holiday for the whole family. There are no gender restrictions. It’s a holiday for everyone: for people, animals, cars, robots, music instruments, aliens and so on.

Bartenev and Logan look astonishingly alike “as if we were from the same planet”, remarks Bartenev.

Bartenev admires Logan’s endless curiosity, his desire to live every second of life, his youthful attachment to life, but also his self-discipline. Bartenev admits that before he has met Logan he was “a baby of chaos”. Logan, with both his organized lifestyle and his approach to art, helped Bartenev to create a bit more order in his chaotic, poetic universe.

Also Robert (Rob) Wilson with his logical thinking and smart business practice showed Bartenev that art can be different from what he called art before meeting Wilson, and that art is not based exclusively on intuition and emotions.

The encounter with Wilson inspired Bartenev to create an installation called “Say: I love you”, a tech-savvy object, that was basically a huge metallic spiral that was cut into segments. 200 speakers were attached to the segments of the spiral. The spiral was connected to a microphone and a computer. It was an interactive installation: people were asked to come and say into the microphone “I love you”, and the echoing sounds bounced all around the space. The computer saved the files of people talking into the microphone and played one of the previous files as an answer for the next person who came and said “I love you” in the microphone. The computer picked the voices randomly.

Bartenev describes the results as follows: “First spectators were pretty much afraid to say “I love you”. Indeed, after a small warming up people got slowly used to the installation, and much more people dared to talk in the microphone. Couples showed up shouting out “ I love you” to each other. It started to be kind of a romantic game. Some people started calling their lovers on the phone and let them listen to the echoing sounds of ‘I love you’ ”.

The installation was showcased at the first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. Now it’s in the collection of the museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. With this installation Bartenev explored a mathematical method of awakening emotions, he says.

Bartenev’s performances often feature the word “love”, exploring one of the most basic human feelings. In a way, he has established himself as a great contemporary love expert.

Here are little bits of his thinking about LOVE: “Love is the most powerful source of knowledge and energy. At some point love we had for someone is gone, but only to give space to another one.”

Another sculpture slash installation of Bartenev is “Monkey Bars” from 2009 that features metallic bars attached to the walls. Gymnasts were invited to perform on and through the bars in a certain way which was supposed to reveal a word “love”. Bartenev concludes: “Love is like wall bars on which we are exercising our whole life.”

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Photography by Ivan Onoprienko

The Interview

What do you think about Berlin? How do you like the city?
Berlin is like the ruin of a great empire. You know – all these cozy cafés with old wooden furniture and faded wallpaper…

It has something very natural to it. On the contrary, Moscow is all about renovation and “evroremont” (“Evroremont”, literally “Euro Renovation” is a Russian term that describes a standard renovation, in Europe we would say “Ikea style”). Everything looks the same, everything is soulless.

Berlin is like a butterfly that is stuck between window panes in order to preserve its beautiful natural form and look. In Moscow there is no life anymore, only a fight to survive.

How do you feel about culture and art nowadays?
Art and culture of all genres are the most powerful resources in life. The more humanist and idealistic the art is, the easier it is for people to understand what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. If there was no culture anymore or if culture was destroyed by people, it would be like the self-destruction.

There is nothing more important than the planet Earth. Our relationship to the planet influences directly our relationship to each other, between the countries, religions and everything else.

The biggest problem in contemporary society is that we devastate the Earth and its resources. People steal from the planet excessively without any control, in the same way they steal from their neighbors and strangers. This situation will lead to the self-destruction of humanity.

I am always looking at religious people and wondering…They go to church and pray to their Gods asking them to forgive their sins. Meanwhile they don’t care about the nature that surrounds them, the nature that is the only one holy body of God that exists in this world, the one that gives life to everything. For me it’s a true paradox. Why don’t those who truly believe plant plants in order to save the planet. Stop shouting to the sky; take better care of the Earth, of this material body of God. Maybe it’s the very last ark that people can embark on their life journey.

What do you think about current political situation in Europe?
The financial crisis, unemployment, and riots in Spain have something to do with the lack of vegetation in the county, Bartenev says. The aggressive environment makes an impact on people, on their emotional state. People don’t like what they see around them: Asphalt and concrete, lots of grey, the buildings that look the same without any green spots in between. The more that aggressive and ugly surroundings emerge, the more people feel like
they don’t know what to do with themselves. They become more aggressive, and are ready to go onto the streets and fight.

You will see the same situation if you will visit Moscow. Moscow has become like a stone. The trees are getting destroyed. I think that in a few years, the situation will lead to massive social clashes in Spain as well as in Moscow, because of an environment that is inappropriate for living. It’s like a subconscious jail that everyone is imprisoned in who live in such grey and devastated areas without any vegetation.

Your artwork is often described as belonging to Russian futurism. Do you see it this way too?
Well, I have the experience of working with new technologies. It’s fun, but it’s very expensive fun. My favorite piece from my experimental years is the futuristic sculpture called “Connection lost or the fields of lonely hearts” that I did for the 52nd Venice Biennale. I also made some 3D models of sculptures that can’t be built in reality. After that I stopped, because it was expensive and because I couldn’t get any funding from the state. In the end it’s not a big drama. There are other talented people who create wonderful futuristic art, such as Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand. (After his experimental period of creating so-called “scientific futuristic art”, Bartenev came back to his bold, colorful and slightly naive but incredibly positive art that awakes positive emotions while questioning and criticizing the current state of contemporary society.)

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Photography by Pavel Antonov

Which of your performances is your favorite one?
Gogol Mogol, or Adventures of Invisible Warms

What is your favorite technique to work with?
Collage.

Are there any contemporary artists whose work you really like?
Anish Kapoor, Robert Wilson

Your performance art is very colourful. You use many bold and vivid colours. You also used the wrappers of different consumer goods in your performance piece “Snow Queen”. Would you describe yourself as a pop artist?
I think that I am unconsciously dealing with ecological problems. I am looking for ways to recycle all trash that our civilization is producing. It doesn’t really matter if I am doing it in form of pop art or op art.

As for the “Snow Queen”, I created the piece in 1993, so 20 years ago. It reflects the situation in Russia when Russia first opened its market for American and European goods. At that particular moment Russian people would give everything – even their souls – in exchange for commercial products coming from the US and Europe. This is the reason why I called my performance “Snow Queen”. Like Kai, the main hero of the fairy tale, all
Russians would give their hearts to get all those new goods coming from abroad.

How much time do you spend working on a performance, from the idea to the final show?
Usually 1 – 3 months. Sometimes I make performances with students in as little as 10 days.

Does chance play a role in your work? Or do you prefer to prepare everything in advance?
I love improvisation! Of course I do rehearsals, but there is still space for spontaneity.

What is art and beauty for you?
You know, the contemporary definition of art is that art is science. The question is what is science about and who are the scientists. The main function of art is to refresh historical knowledge and update it for contemporary usage in order to maintain the connection between the past, the present and the future.

Art and beauty are sources of life. They are something that people create themselves, unlike water, air, and soil that are created by God. They represent the interest in and the desire to live.

What do you think about the political crisis between Russia and Ukraine?
I think that the crisis and the Olympic Games have been used as a sort of nationalist idea that was supposed to give Russian people a feeling of unity. I think that it’s the wrong way to solve Russian problems. It’s actually quite scary, as it shows how much the level of education decreased in Russia within last 20 years. Russia has become a very uneducated country. The conflict with Ukraine just proves it. There is also some kind of moral decay within Russian society.

So even if politicians are using the conflict in order to unite people in Russia, they don’t understand that they aren’t uniting people, but are uniting their aggression. You can make people come together only if you make them build something together, but not if they are aggressive. Even if this kind of idea could work for a bit, people will soon get disappointed and they will turn their aggression towards something else. So maybe Russia will get Crimea, but it will only suffer from it and that’s sad. It looks like people in Russia are losing their rationality. It will be also a catastrophic situation for Crimea.

Please tell me about your future projects.
Currently I am working on a piece called “Poster” together with Lyuba Strizhak. At the moment we are looking for the third co-author who would be able to edit text in order to make it a bit more optimistic, because what we have now is a very sad text. There is no way we can show all this sadness to the spectators, because otherwise the suicide rate will rapidly increase (laughs). In a way we made our piece too real and that’s a big mistake, because art should always show that there is hope in the end, no matter how bad the situation is.

Is there any connection between art and fashion? If you look at the current collections, you will see that many fashion designers are inspired by art. What do you think about that?
Yes, of course fashion designers use art for doing their business. They want to get the same amount of attention with their fashion as artists have received with their art. Why not? I don’t think it’s bad. It’s good if they get inspired by masterpieces of art.

Who is your favorite fashion designer?
I like Vivienne Westwood, because she uses some elements of punk culture and there is always a little bit of provocation in her designs. Issey Miyake for his fabrics. Hussein Chalayan.

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Photography by Slava Filippov for Numero Russia

So dear readers, have you ever wondered how much vegetation is left in your country? It’s time to open your eyes and look around! What do you see? What does this world look like that you are living in? Watch Bartenev’s performances, get inspired, think.

Berliners and guests of the city watch out:
Bartenev will perform in Berlin in July 2014 for the Berlin Fashion Film Festival (BFFF). He will show his performance “Bubbles of Hope” which will be staged in a swimming pool. Don’t miss the show. Bartenev might share something nice with the audience: be it one of his unique sci-fi dreams or good advice about how to get Europe out of the financial crisis… Even if you are not so much into sci-fi or politics, you will definitely get some good energy, positive emotions and a dash of craziness. It will be an aspiring break out of your daily routine in any case. It could be even your ultimate life changing experience. Check BBBF  for further information.