Artist Nikolay Polissky, who moved to the village of Nikola-Lenivets in Kaluzhskaya Region in 1989 and creates art objects in collaboration with local residents and in unity with a magnificent landscape, would seem to be an ideal embodiment of the view, now found only on the pages of Soviet school textbooks, that the art of Russian artists, writers, composers, and so on necessarily expresses love for the Russian people and Russian nature. 19th-century Russian realism, from which spring schoolchildren’s ideas of the classics in art, indeed provides easy confirmation of this love — whether in the form of canonical descriptions of nature, landscape paintings, or generic scenes in which it has always been possible to see a sympathetic account of the life of simple people. And even classic Russian modernist artists such as Bubnovy valet or the Cubofuturists can be made to fit this interpretation, given that the Russian Avant-garde for a long time remained simultaneously both futuristic and close to the Russian soil — oriented both on the future and on archaic local sources. In fact, even the Utopian projects of the revolutionary Avant-garde, who no longer called people to get excited about the landscape and ordinary people, but to radically recreate both nature and human beings, could not destroy this view completely.
But the long years of Sotsrealism [socialist realism] with their portraits of Stakhanovites and other workers and paintings of regional landscapes nevertheless compelled free-thinking artists to lose all interest in nature and the common people. Such subjects almost entirely disappeared from the most advanced parts of Russian unofficial art — those parts from which subsequently sprang all contemporary art in Russia today. The Russian narod [common people] was transformed into either the Soviet crowd (depicted with full expressionist horror and disgust) or a vehicle of the abstract collective unconscious of the ideology studied by the artist. And the Russian landscape either dissolved in objectlessness or became a crude theatre set, yet another phantom of the same ideology, which served as a substitute for reality.
The land-artist and narodnik [man of the people] Nikolay Polissky is a unique figure, but at the same one that is by no means alien to the Russian cultural tradition. On the contrary, Polissky’s project restores connections between all kinds of different areas and periods in Russian and world art. It is no coincidence that his first works of land art took a typically Russian landscape and fitted into it the most diverse recognizable forms of world architecture. Even his very first creation — a myriad army of snowmen blundering over the snowy banks of the River Ugra — could, if you wish, be interpreted not just as the customary popular amusement (only on an utterly titanic scale), but also as an unexpected paraphrase of the celebrated Chinese terracotta army. Just like the clay warriors who were so long buried in the earth, the snowmen sunk in snowdrifts demonstrated with piercing vividness that all that which is created by the human hand will sooner or later merge again with the material from which it was made. Nikolay Polissky’s subsequent works maintained similarly delicate relations (sometimes to the point of self-sacrifice) with the environment. Or, to be more exact, they revealed the ambiguity which has always existed in this concept, so beloved of ecologists. For, however much we care for our natural surroundings, the environment will always remain something irrevocably external and alien to us. Polissky’s works of land art have seemed to refrain from thinking of themselves as something surrounded by nature, erected in the middle of a landscape and dominating it but at the same time existing in a certain vacuum. His early works — an aqueduct made from snow, a ziggurat made from sheaves of hay, a pyramid assembled from logs — now exist only in photographs. They have suffered the natural fate of the materials from which they were made. The aqueduct melted and trickled away into the very same field in which subsequently there grew the grass that supplied the hay for the ziggurat. This tower was in its turn eventually dismantled — and the hay, as is right, fed to the cows. The same fate befell the pyramid, which was dismantled for its firewood. Nikolay Polissky would never dispute the fact that having a fire in one’s stove is more important than the Babylonian ambitions of a builder. The names of the projects are in themselves an indication of their practical value. The tower made of hay was called ‘Food Pyramid’; the gigantic log pile, the “Power Pile’. Unlike the creations of long-dead architects which served as their prototypes, these pyramids and ziggurats lay no claim to eternity. Nikolay Polissky modestly renounces any such ambition. His creations are in tune with today’s eco ethic, which says that the products of human activity should be recyclable and biodegradable. For all its grandeur, Polissky’s land art has seemed not so much the work of human hands as the product of strange whims of nature or the play of the imagination; it resembles cliffs or stalactites, things in which the human eye will sometimes make out castles or temples.
The fantastic structures which took shape on the banks of the River Ugra, reproducing the archetypal architectural forms of various cultures — from the Tower of Babel to the Eiffel Tower or the radio mast devised by the Russian engineer Shukhov — make one think of a Utopian civilization of the future in which it is not nature that will be subservient to culture, but culture that will be a function of nature. The permanent and temporary objects which Polissky and his co-authors have built both at Nikola-Lenivets and in other locations have seemed miraculous instances of nature mimicking the surrounding culture. The ‘Arc de Triomphe’ — resembling the famous skyscraper arch at La Defence, only made from brushwood — with which Polissky embellished a gloomy dormitory district on the outskirts of Moscow (almost the only example of modern public art in the Russian capital) is undergrowth attempting to reproduce the ascetic forms of the surrounding block-built multi-storey buildings. And the summer houses, pavilions, and swings with which Polissky has enriched the park in the town of Voskresensk in a reproduction of motifs taken from park architecture on Russia country estates of the 18th and 19th centuries are not so much a reconstruction of a now dilapidated stately park as a kind of revenge taken by that same Russian countryside — irrepressible, knotty, and overgrown with vigorous weeds — which enlightened Russian landowners tried to screen off when they surrounded themselves with imitations of regular French gardens.
All these deliberately irregular, spiky, organic structures created from simple and profoundly local materials — firewood, stoops of hay, alder branches — are often seen as craftwork in the firm tradition of Russian folk crafts and pochvenichestvo [a 19th-century Russian movement which proposed a return to the soil’ and to the values of the traditional Russian peasant community]; and Polissky’s art is similarly interpreted in a patriotic vein, as in a recent article in the Moscow magazine ArtKhronika by the Kremlin political technologist Vladislav Surkov. In fact, however, his works do not even look as if they have been made by skilled village craftsmen; they are more like bird’s nests or beaver’s dams. They are more a natural than a cultural phenomenon, and they refer not to a specific national tradition, but to the soil in the literal meaning of that word — to the climate and the flora and fauna of a specific locality.
Nikolay Polissky’s work has avoided contradiction not only with the natural landscape, but also with the customary way of life of residents of Nikola-Lenivets. For Polissky himself the social aspect of his project is almost more important than the visual, and the transformation of a dying village into an artistic community means almost as much as the construction of Babylonian towers from ecologically pure local materials. It’s not just that hay, snow, and firewood may serve as excellent materials for avant-garde landscape objects, but also traditional peasant occupations can become a wonderful way of creating contemporary art. Polissky himself talks of his project as a social utopia reminiscent perhaps of fantastic images from the peasant futurism of Velimir Khlebnikov — who dreamed of tree houses, wind-driven sleds, and teams of clouds ploughing the communal fields — or perhaps of Joseph Beuys’s famous theory of ‘social sculpture’, a theory born from the conviction that the creator’s business is not to produce commercialized works of art, but to change the world by telling every person that he or she is an artist. Nikolay Polissky likewise believes that his mission has consisted in explaining to the residents of Nikola-Lenivets that it is possible to make snowmen and hay not unthinkingly, but as art; and he likes dreaming of how any village can, without any interruption of agricultural work, be transformed into an artistic commune, sparking the onset of universal happiness. He says he would like the villagers to learn to see each of their daily occupations as art. But in actual fact it is thanks to Polissky that Nikola-Lenivets has been transformed into a unique peasant obshchina [traditional commune] making a living through contemporary art. Since 2006 the village has been the venue for Arch-Stoyanie, an international festival of landscape design involving many leading Russian and foreign architects whose projects are realized with help from local residents.
Nikolay Polissky’s social project with its idea of love for the common people — a love which has been convincingly realized in practice — has echoes of the Mitki, the art movement which sprang up in Leningrad in the 1980s and became a notable phenomenon not just in art, but in the subculture as well. This group of underground artists (Polissky himself was a member) not only produced paintings, literary texts and musical recordings (with the participation of stars from Russian rock, which at the time was still an underground movement), but also developed a kind of slang, a way of dressing, and forms of behaviour that stylized and aestheticized the tastes and lifestyle of the most unpretentious and hard-done-by layers of society. Primitivist painting with overtones of the lubok [Russian folk print] and tape-recorder albums with recordings of Soviet songs in a deliberately amateurish ‘kitchen table’ style went together with the folk image of the Mityok — a large-hearted, sentimental, half-drunk figure invariably dressed in a sailor’s shirt and wadded jacket, a cross between an eternal resident of the urban pits and an idealized primordial Russian muzhik [peasant man]. However, for the Mitki, who were an ironic hybrid of Tolstoyism and the hippy philosophy, this stylized personality was nevertheless a personality — a conventional camouflage mask behind which the cultured artist could hide from accusations of alienation from the common people. Genuinely to take contemporary art — which previously, at the very most, could only stylize itself with ironic reverences to the lubok — to the people is something which as yet only Nikolay Polissky has been able to do.
However, in spite of its wonderfully harmonious relations with nature and ordinary people, the art of Nikolay Polissky has no desire to be a blissful idyll in the mould of a Slavophile new age. On the contrary, one of the most recent projects created by Polissky and his co-authors at Nikola-Lenivets is striking for a mood of fatalism and gloom which is untypical of his work to date. The grand land art installation Borders of the Empire, created by Polissky for the Arch-Stoyanie festival in 2007 and consisting of a mass of towering wooden ‘columns’ set amidst slushy spring fields and crowned with representations of two-headed eagles and cylinders and cones bristling with spikes, brought to mind an Indian temple with totem poles or an ancient execution site used for mass executions (with stocks, gallows, and crucifixion crosses). Polissky had until then essentially been engaged in eliminating all the various boundaries dividing nature from civilization, local culture from universal traditions, and the eternal folk crafts from solo contemporary art. But for the 2007 festival with its theme of ‘the Boundary’ he created a powerful and, it has to be said, fairly horrifying image: a forest of boundary posts fiercely and blindly ‘staking out’ not so much alien space as an uninhabitable no man’s land, and undergoing a transformation into an object of cult worship or weapons of terror. But, however fiercely these landmarks were speared into the earth, the latter is still incapable of accepting boundaries or taking on definite contours; it remains boundless, characterless, and vacant.
Catalog ‘XI Venice Architecture Biennale. Russian pavilion. A game of chess. tournament for Russia’.