Russian land-artist Polissky works with peasants in the countryside to build huge structures and hand-crafted sculptures that have drawn the attention of the Kremlin and Russia’s elite.
Comparing Russia to Britain is always a tricky feat, but a recent article by Vladislav Surkov in the Moscow-based art magazine Artchronika is the equivalent of Alistair Campbell writing for Frieze about Andy Goldsworthy. The deputy of the Presidential Administration, Surkov is not just the ideologue behind Vladimir Putin but a master of PR, widely credited with winning the presidential election of 2004. For him yo put pen to paper and write that artist Nikolai Polissky is a conduit for the Russian spirit would be akin to the old New Labour spin-doctor claiming that land art tunes us into our collective Celtic identity. It was an important moment for Polissky proving that he is admired by both the establishment and the intelligentsia, who are traditionally opposed to each other.
Polissky himself is an impressive man. He has the appearance of a Russian muzhik (peasant man) – sturdy and red-faced, with a great beard. In addition to the physical stamina that enables him to erect towers of wood, hay or snow, and to drink gallons of moonshine, his artistic strength lies in the breadth of his mind and his ability to inspire a group to work together as a collective.
He trained in ceramics in St Petersburg and then became one of the group of Mitki artists there. This group, well-known within Russia, formed in the 1980s, and were an important part of Russian subculture. It was named after one of the group, artist Dmitry Shagin, and has been described as ‘an ironic hybrid of Tolstoyism and the hippy philosophy.’ Their subject matter and personal style combined city bohemia with working class chic.
From this original group, it is only Polissky who has taken art to the common man. In 1989 he and some of his fellow artists went in search of a quiet place to work, which they found in Nikola-Lenivets, a village 200km west of Polissky’s native Moscow. In 2000 he found himself making an army of snowmen in a nearby field. ‘I invited the peasants to join in, and they enjoyed it,’ he says. Soon there was a procession of 400 snowmen, frozen mid-trek across Russia. The celebrated clown, Slava Polunin, saw photographs and invited Polissky to fill Moscow and St Petersburg’s main streets with snowmen. It was delightful to turn into Arbat Street in central Moscow, where normally all you see is tourists, to be greeted by a crowd of snow people with twig-teeth and bucket- hats in various states of melting.
Polissky believes that life is art. In 2003 the villagers of Nikola-Lenivets came to Moscow for the first time, and took part in an art festival outside the capital called ArtKlyazma. Polissky and many of the villagers put on a ‘reality show’ with which the public interacted. The villagers weaved shelters that mountaineers might build, bivouacs, for themselves in various forms, from a racing car to Alexander the Great’s tent, and became the installation.
They lived there throughout the festival and sold food and moonshine made from produce from the village trendy architects and designers from Moscow. The event was such a success that the art festival then transferred to Nikola-Lenivets, and is now called ArchStoyanie. Although Polissky says he and the organizers have drifted apart, and that it is now more about architecture and design than about art, it remains an important annual cultural event. It takes people out of the cities into the wilds of the countryside, where they are greeted by a mind-bending Polissky creation.
In Russia there is a sharp divide between the country and the town which we, in more developed countries, are not used to. It is not politically incorrect to refer to people from the country as peasants. As a rule, life there is basic. The village consists of simple one-storey houses, izbas, made from wooden beams. There is electricity, but usually no phone or plumbing. They wash in the banya, steam house, and plunge into the snow or river to cool down. Drinking, mostly moonshine, is part of their way of life.
Polissky has made a short but telling film in which one of the villagers he knows, Zhenya Golubets, accompanies him to Moscow to take part in the Art Bazaar. ‘But I don’t have anything to wear only these trousers, and they won’t do,’ says Golubets.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Polissky, in his reassuring tone, ‘we’ll sort you out. You can buy some. You’ll earn some money there.’
‘Ok then, I’ll go. But I won’t be able to drink will I?’ says Golubets. ‘I mean I’ll be able to have one or two, but not really drink, right?’
Golubets does go to Moscow, he does get a new pair of trousers, and, at the Art Bazaar, he has a few drinks. The next video shows him singing while a chic Moscow beauty wraps her legs around him from behind, and powders her nose, and then his. Golubets died a month later from cancer, which nobody knew he had, but that night he was an artist, and he was happy.
The tragedy of the Russian countryside is that the villages are emptying and the rural way of life is in decline. Like the aristocrats and landowners at the end of the 19th century who revived peasant crafts by investing money in workshops and teaching, however, Polissky sees the beauty of peasant labour in everyday objects made by hand. For although he is still an artist, he has, in a sense, returned to the peasant in himself.
Unlike the social realist artists of the 1950s, who, as part of official propaganda, created an idealised image of the peasant, Polissky is working with real peasants and their actual labours, chopping wood, making hay and moonshine, and clearing snow. Chopped wood and hay have been made into towers, snow has been made into aqueducts stretching across fields and giant snow slides. Polissky acknowledges that he has helped give meaning to some villagers’ lives and provided them with an alternative to drinking. ‘But I’m not a doctor,’ he says, ‘and in any case, artists drink a lot too so they’re going from one drinking environment into another.’
Yet, despite his clear sympathy with peasant culture, one of the things that makes Polissky so interesting is the relationship that his work reveals between urban and rural forms. He is not a fan of the city, which he describes as aggressive, but he is from Moscow; one of the biggest and most adrenalin-charged cities on the planet. In 2004 he and the villagers constructed a La Defense-style arch from branches in the Moscow suburbs, the Likhoborskiye Gates, almost the only example of modern public art in the Russian capital. ‘When it first went up/ says Polissky, ‘there were traffic jams beside it and the buses were nearly falling over as everyone went over to one side of the bus to have a look when they passed by.’
His interpretation of the arch is typical. ‘It could have been made by a raven, who, returning to the city after taking a course in construction techniques, builds himself an unusual, cutting-edge nest/ he says.
It is the materials, though, that root the pieces into their surroundings. The field, on which the army of snowmen stood, produced hay that was used to build a tower the following spring. ‘There has to be a ready supply of whatever material is to be used, and it has to be cheap,’ says Polissky. ‘The principle is to take what you know and not something exotic.’ Yet, the very materials and sites that he uses introduces a temporary nature to his work.
Often the record is all that is left of his creations. He loves fire and the ritualistic aspect of burning. This belief connects him to the shamans and Russia’s pagan practices. Russia was pagan as late as 998 AD, when Russian Orthodoxy was adopted as the official faith.
One can certainly feel the influence of pagan rituals in last year’s Firebird. This is a giant hollow double-headed bird made of metal with a stove at the base. It was erected on a flat field close to Nikola-Lenivets, under the expansive Russian sky. The whole thing was filled with two lorry- loads of oak, and set on fire. Smoke, and then flames and sparks leapt from its mouths and the tips of its outspread wings. Yet, Polissky is a modern man as well, carefully recording the process of creating a work as well as its completion and then uploading it on to his website.
Polissky believes land-art is something ancient. ‘It’s from the earth, from our ancestors, which means that it died a long time ago. So for us it is a new and unfamiliar spectacle.’ Surkov believes that Polissky is reviving something deep and ancient from within the Russian mass-consciousness. Whatever it is, it is working – his unselfconscious belief in what he is doing inspires everyone who comes into contact with the work, not least the villagers themselves. Today, some 10 of the villagers work full-time as professional artists, earning money from their labours. Polissky finds it hard to get enough financing, but the projects continue. Future plans include a project for the Centre of Contemporary Art in Luxembourg, a monument to science made by peasant hands.
Surkov, the voice of the Kremlin, is right: Polissky does represent something quintessentially Russian. The collective that he has formed is more equal than communism was able to achieve. His work is also remarkable for its lack of sentimentality. Its scale, boldness, and wit excludes it from accusations of folksiness.
The Kremlin could take a leaf out of his book, for rather than uniting Russia by fuelling national pride through warmongering, Polissky is reuniting Russians with themselves and their surroundings through art.