What is the connection between land art and architecture?
Land art as art is, I think, something altogether ancient. It’s something from the earth, something from our ancestors, which means that it died a long time ago. For us it is a new and unfamiliar spectacle. Of course, you can call it a kolkhoz [collective farm], but then no one now has any need to create a kolkhoz. What we need is to do what is interesting, that which enchants and which forces the viewer to get to grips with the universal, mass nature of the project. In Old Russia, I suppose, all this cost a lot of money and all the folk crafts that were recreated at the end of the 19th century were sponsored by large fortunes and wealthy individuals. Talashkino, Gzhel’, Dulevo: all this was created so as to force the Russian narod [common people] to work for its own good. And for this reason Russian folk art underwent a renaissance and lives to this day in shawls, matryoshki, wooden spoons, and so on. But for us this is a spectacle, a Russian folk festival. It’s not even from the age of Old Russia, but from a proto-age, a primeval period – like the shaman dances of our distant ancestors. It’s commonly thought that cliff paintings with bisons are the most ancient art, but perhaps this status really belongs to dancing at the fireside and ceremonial cremation. Universal unification.
Did the idea of creating a centre for contemporary art in a village occur spontaneously?
Russian folk celebrations are always spontaneous. The idea was undoubtedly spontaneous. One thing led to another. There was, I think, this moment of crisis when we were unsure what to do next, but then everything fell into place. We had the idea of holding a festival, invited everyone we could think of, including many well-known architects, and everyone was willing to take part. All the ideas were born without our having to sweat over them – we would simply have flashes of inspiration and everything would begin to take shape. Personally, I can spend months doing nothing, sitting, drawing… And then suddenly an idea comes long and I begin working intensively on creating a project. It was the same here with the idea for Arch-Stoyaniye and the art centre.
Tell me, do you feel a connection with Western land art? What is distinctive about Russian land art?
There were some Dutch people who came from Adriaan Geuze (Adaiaan Geuze of West 8 made a pavilion of pine cones at Arch-Stoyanie 2007 – M.S.), bring with them entire talmuds, theoretical calculations as to how to make things from pine cones, how to build, how to assemble the material, how to measure the pine cones, using a tape measure – entire tomes of paperwork. But we, you see, do everything wrong. We did the reading, of course, we got that but right, but what next? It’s our practice to do everything without making any calculations. In the Russian manner, as they do in Russian villages. What’s the point of counting pine cones? It’s a waste of time. Of course, the pavilion should have been done a little differently than the way it turned out. But the technique we used is the same. In theory. No, it is possible to work with the West. We’ve had projects in France. But we haven’t yet done a joint project with foreigners. But you can keep talking and then end up with the Tower of Babel. You need a framework indicating who’s going to do what, who will have what duties, and then you can work together to realize the project – and where and how is of little relevance. So far we’ve received no such proposal, but if we were offered the chance, I’m sure a collaborative project would be interesting to do.
Are you easy in the company of architects? There’s no rivalry between you?
There’s no rivalry. I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad thing. They have their own approach to projects and to creating them and I have mine. I don’t understand the way they do their design work, the way they trace everything out, and I don’t understand how they can make a model and plant 20 trees around it, on the model. There’s something slightly absurd about a model of a tree. Of course, in most cases it’s not they who do it. And of course, we too do not simply knock things together. But I don’t use this kind of complicated mathematical calculation, and yet in my projects there’s never anything that comes off or falls down. There was a pillar that fell, but that was because it hadn’t been dug into the ground properly. But everything else is still standing. It’s like in a village when they build an izba [peasant hut] or a bathhouse or shed – no one ever makes any mathematical calculations. And nothing ever falls down.
No, we have no connection with architects. For me the main thing is figurativeness. How a thing looks, how it stands, how it looks in its natural surroundings. I’m an artist; for me figurativeness is more important. For instance, Borders of Empire is an absolutely visual object. There was this land, which became overgrown with forest, and then we came along and built on it what seem to be the remains of a civilization – and it’s not important what kind of civilization this was exactly, how Carthage was organized – maybe someone held ritual processions there or there was a council of some kind, but this is no longer important. What is important is that it stands before us, that it’s majestic to look at, and that it leaves an impression that is profound and memorable.
How do you picture Nikola-Lenivets in 20 years’ time?
Nikola-Lenivets in 20 years’ time is a space filled with projects, and yet it remains within the same boundaries, has not expanded. There’s no point in it expanding; let nature remain and let the grass grow. The projects are always new, but at the same time the old projects are not forgotten and there is no repetition – but there are some beautiful ruins. For instance, if a project turns out to be highly successful for some reason, it automatically becomes a ruin and is preserved – although, of course, this is a deviation from the concept that this art should live its life and then die. In general, I find the idea of restoration and recreation strange; I just don’t understand it. But the way that contemporary architecture dies, leaving absolutely nothing behind it, means there’s nothing left to conserve. Modern architecture mostly turns to dust; it simply goes up in smoke. It’s not at all the same thing as a village shed – which starts to sway, then the roof starts to slide off, first one side subsides, then the other, and you end up with something picturesque. Many of my designs are based on picturesqueness.
And this is the way it should be at the festival too – it’s nature, after all. Land art probably cannot come to an end; it should – and can – be constantly taking on nourishment. Of course, it can veer off into design. And this might happen to the stuff that I do too. But it’s not what I want. In general, I’m lazy. One of the villagers even said to me once when I started complaining of having to work too hard, “No, Kolya, this isn’t work. Work is when it’s hard, dirty, cold, and they don’t pay you any money. But what you’re doing is not work.”
Are you sad that your projects disappear?
Yes. But then people die too. All projects are unrepeatable. No one is going to reproduce them. They existed and then they died. If they died beautifully, all honour to them; if they died without beauty, then they were taken apart and that was it. A project exists and is recorded and photographed. And then it is no longer. I’m always being asked why I don’t do my Hay Tower or Woodpile again. But, no, I won’t. Those projects are beautiful memories, but now I need to think up something new. Everything in this village happens once only. Every project is born, live, and dies. It may be beautiful or it may not, but it has its own life, and when it dies, everything is over. No, it is not forgotten. But nothing is repeated.
2008, Catalog ‘XI Venice Architecture Biennale. Russian pavilion. A game of chess. tournament for Russia’.