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"I feel like a child who can't do anything about the war. Conceptual artist Andrei Kuzkin on Russian culture and Russian tragedy


He's been writing this for almost six months, in the languages of the countries where he has been since Russia invaded Ukraine, every day.

On white sheets of Watman, so popular in Soviet schools for wall newspapers and political posters. It was a good format. Now there are 89 sheets of such writings in  seven different languages, written with an ordinary ballpoint pen in men's cursive handwriting. He writes just one phrase: "I want the war to end!" The mantra of the last 455 days.

Who am I?

We met in The Hague, on the anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine. He was sitting at a concert-festival "Who am I?" at a table with a table lamp turned on, and it wasn't clear what was this strange guy in a cap all there writing. Politicians, writers and journalists debated, trying to answer the almost rhetorical question, "Who am I?" As usual, they got down to arguments about the current wave of emigration and its potential role in the "beautiful Russia of the future. They talked a lot about politics, about the war, and about helping Ukraine. They were collecting money for electric generators. Incredible musicians wrapped up the evening. And he kept writing something. I went up to him during the break.

- Is it a complicated issue for you?

- Simple. I say that I am a Russian artist. I was born in Russia, in this culture, in this country. I love it. I am connected with Russian culture, I was brought up on it. Including church culture, although I am not religious. It's a question of self-identification for me. And it's understandable enough. Of course, when you move, you change.

But my roots are in Russia. Where can I go  to get away from them?

He is a conceptual artist Andrei Kuzkin. Twice winner of the State Prize for Contemporary Art "Innovation" (2009, 2016). Two times winner of the annual national prize in the field of contemporary art "The Kandinsky Prize" (2016, 2021).

Artist Andrei Kuzkin with his work "Prayers and Heroes"

His works are in the collections of the "New Tretyakovka", the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMCA), the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris (Centre Georges-Pompidou). The installations, performances, and actions at "Garage" and "Factory" in Moscow and at the Museo Marino Marini Firenze in Florence became hotly debated and often controversial art events. And in December 2021, in Nizhny Novgorod, the authorities even banned his performance The Wind, dedicated to Nizhny Novgorod journalist Irina Slavina and St. Petersburg entrepreneur Boris Alexandrov, two people who had committed public acts of self-immolation.

"Both Slavina and Aleksandrov are people driven to utter despair by injustice, lies, and the pervasive right of the strong to humiliate and destroy those who are weaker. But these are people for whom the preservation of human dignity has become more important than their own lives. These people are terrible benchmarks of our time, signs that something terrible is happening to our society and our state."

His solo exhibition "Deliverance" was to open at the "New Tretyakovka" (former CDH) in November 2022. A large sculptural exhibition. The dream of any artist. The exhibition was planned to feature many works, including the well-known bread sculptures. One of these works is already in the permanent collection of the "New Tretyakovka" in Moscow.

"Here I am nobody"

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the capital's exhibition was cancelled. Among other things, because of the artist's open letter to the Russian president. On April 6 last year, he posted on his Facebook profile:

"I, a citizen of the Russian Federation, an artist, Kuzkin Andrei Aleksandrovich, born in 1979, consider the war unleashed by our state with Ukraine a monstrous crime...

The decision to launch a "special military operation" on the territory of Ukraine has caused the death of thousands of people, both civilians and military. This war has brought death, destruction, hunger and poverty to the peaceful cities of the neighbouring independent state - Ukraine. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, women, the elderly and children have been killed and maimed. Millions of people have been forced to leave their homeland and become refugees...".

Detentions at anti-war rallies, coupled with an unequivocal anti-war stance, ended with his decision to leave Russia. Since October 12, 2022, being essentially a political refugee, Kuzkin has lived and worked in Paris. He decided not to apply for an official refugee status: it is easier to live and go somewhere else. Besides, he has an Autorisation Provisioire de Séjour (APS) visa. And now together with his girlfriend Andrew is preparing to apply for a "talent visa".

"It was a difficult dilemma. But there is no life in Russia for me now, and it is, of course,  hugely depressing to see everyone's normal life absolutely crumbling. My children are in Israel with my ex-wife,some of my friends are  in Turkey, some in Israel, some in Georgia. It was not an easy decision for me to leave Russia. I always called myself a Russian artist, and my ties to my homeland are very strong, although I participated in exhibitions abroad.

Now life has completely changed. I am quite famous in Russia, but here I am completely unknown, naturally."

"Time of War"

“Solar circle, the sky around.” We were taught to visualise dreams much earlier than all sorts of "miracle marathon runners" started doing it. The main thing is to really want to, “draw on a piece of paper and sign in the corner”. The thread of hope from childhood holds strong, even when everything around you, as an adult, is falling apart. "Hush, soldier! Hear that, soldier, people are frightened by explosions. Thousands of eyes are looking up into the sky, lips are stubbornly saying..." Is this song sung in Russia now?

"On December 16, 2022, unable to hold this desire within me any longer, I began writing down large sheets of heavy 50 x 65 cm paper with the phrase "I want the war to end!"

I decided to write in 4 languages - Russian, French (I am now in France), Ukrainian and English... The conventional name of this performative graphics is "Time of War"".

An amazing project in its sincerity, naivety and simplicity. This is a minimalistic series in which Russian, Ukrainian and English are complemented by another language - the language of the country in which the artist is located. Thus four languages are always included. In the Netherlands the fourth was Dutch, in Israel it was Hebrew, in France the sheets were in French, and in Armenia in Armenian. A daily practice and performance, since the action is public. Almost 90 sheets have been written, but the war still goes on.

- But this is an illusion!

- It is more like a sublimation, because my main desire is for it all to end more quickly, and I cannot do anything about it. Perhaps this naive desire has taken on an equally childlike form. And this performance is one of the forms of my protest.

Many people reproach me for not writing something tougher and more concrete, because the phrase is too abstract, but it seems to me that for all its naivety, it is unifying and pacifist.

And with this wishful thinking, I feel a bit like a child who  can't do anything about war either. And I do what I can. If I knew that my death would stop the war, I would be ready to die ... But I am not ready to join the partisans or  go to prison.

- So this little bread man, who is always on the table next to you, is a symbol of what's happening to the protesters in Russia at the moment?

- In many ways, yes. And it's also a reference to the bread figures that the prisoners used to make. But that's not the only thing.

"Prayers and Heroes"

"I use bread to create sculptures (human figures) because bread is a symbol of the human body for me. This is connected, firstly, with the Christian symbolism of bread (bread is a symbol of the body of Christ) and with the statement "the body is the prison of the soul", and secondly, with the Russian prison tradition of moulding with bread (in Russia, prisoners in prison mould essential, prohibited things out of bread: dice, rosaries, cards, etc., because they have no other material available to them).

Also in Russia bread is a symbol of any food at all ("bread is at the base of everything", "not by bread alone"), and food is what nourishes the body, one might say, forms it... This material is short-lived, and requires careful attention, just like a living body..."

It was for his series of bread men, on which he has worked since 2016, that Andrei Kuzkin received the prestigious Kandinsky Prize in the category "Project of the Year" in 2021. The installation "Molesters and Heroes" consists of 1104 bread figures arranged in concrete niche cells. The resulting conditional room (cell?) measures 3.5 metres by 3.5 metres and 4.5 metres high. Each figure is unique. Those on the upper "floors" look down. Those in the centre look directly at the viewer. Those from the lower cells look upward.

Who are they, these kneeling supplicants? What are they asking? Who? There are many of them.

The heroes are also made of bread, with bloodied heads. The heroes can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

A story told by the author and completed by the viewer. A portrait of the country? Historical or contemporary? Not complimentary - that's for sure!

"This work is a kind of tribute I pay to the country's tragic history. Her innocent victims. Her weakness and cruelty. The division of society into the praying men and the heroes is about sacrifice and the social essence of heroism.

Most people are willing to endure injustice, suffer and beg for the salvation of God or the king. And those who throughout history are destroyed by the state machine can later be put on a pedestal and worshipped as a hero.

The disregard for the individual, the incredible cruelty and injustice with which our (and not only our) history is filled to the brim is what I pondered in creating the 'prayers'."

"Eternal Spring in Solitary Confinement"

As the artist himself said, speaking during an award ceremony in support of the Memorial Society, "remembering and acknowledging is hard, but if we don't remember and acknowledge, it will all be repeated and repeatable..."

Now Andrei Kuzkin continues to work in Paris. And again his characters are bread men. One of his first works in Paris is 'Eternal Spring in Solitary confinement'.

By: Olga Smirnova

Photo materials: from Andrei Kuzkin's archive

When muses are not silent. Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin's anti-war trio played again in The Hague
Event/The Netherlands

When muses are not silent. Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin's anti-war trio played again in The Hague

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