Nikolay Vladimirovich Polissky was born in Moscow on January 5th, 1957. In 1982 he graduated from the Mukhina Higher School of Industrial Design in Leningrad, where he studied at the Ceramics Department. He was a member of the Mitki group of artists, with whom he participated in exhibitions in many cities all over the world. The Mitki are a group of about 20 artists from St Petersburg; they take their name from one of their number, Dmitry Shagin. The group formed at the beginning of the 1980s, and 1985 saw the publication of the book Mitki, which may be regarded as an expanded version of the movement’s manifesto. The Mitki became the focus for a distinctive social and aesthetic movement, whose members exercised themselves in fine art, prose, poetry, and life style. It was not long before this art project spread beyond St Petersburg, with the formation of the Moscow Mitki and, a little later, the New Mitki.
In 1989 Polissky took part in the exhibition ‘Mitki in Europe’, which visited Cologne, Paris, and Antwerp. 1993 brought a retrospective exhibition at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, held to mark the movement’s 10th anniversary. In 1995-1996 an exhibition/action entitled ‘How to draw a horse’ was held in the Manezh. Polissky was one of the Mitki participating in Art Moscow in 1996 and then in the Vodka exhibition at the Marat Guelman Gallery in 1997, the ‘Mitki honours the Navy’ action in St Petersburg, and Mitki. The General Staff Headquarters’ on Gogolevsky bul’var in Moscow. On December 31st, 1997, Nikolay Polissky organized the Mitki New Year’s Party during the New Year’s celebrations on Manezhnaya ploshchad’ in Moscow. In 1998 he took part in the Manilov Project together with other Moscow Mitki including Konstantin Batynkov and Sergey Lobanov.
In 2000 Polissky, together with Batynkov and Lobanov, created Snowmen, the first project in the village of Nikola-Lenivets and the start of Nikolay Polissky’s career as a Russian land artist. The project involved endless ranks of snowmen marching over the fields.220 snow warriors were made that winter, and Polissky’s neighbours from the village joined in. The snowmen looked like a snow army mustered against an unseen opponent, a resemblance which provoked memories of a historical event that had happened in these parts in 1480 — the ‘Camp on the River Ugra’, when the army of the Tatar-Mongol Khan Akhmat had been opposed by united Russian troops. At the initiative of Vyacheslav Polunin, snow guards were soon erected on the canals of St Petersburg and on the Arbat in Moscow.
Nikolay Polissky’s next project was the ziggurat (2001). The ziggurat of Nikola-Lenivets was made from wooden bases on which hay was laid along spiral ramps. The initial idea was to build a ten-metre-high tower, but subsequently the structure sank to seven metres. Almost all the inhabitants of the village took part in building the ziggurat. Polissky says that, to begin with, the locals could not understand what the point of the exercise was. He had first used their services in the creation of the horde of snowmen. “Everyone treated this as a fun winter game and eagerly came along to do their bit with the snow… But when it came to building the tower of hay, this was done by volunteers, groups of 30 who twice a week helped us lay the hay, providing their services free of charge.” The idea was that when the project was over the tower would be used to feed the cattle, but the hay began to rot and so the tower had to be ‘ceremonially’ burnt — the concluding performance in this project. Only one person expressed a desire to come in the spring to collect a little hay, but, in the opinion of the authors, he only spoilt everything. The following winter (2001-2002), an enormous Wood Pile’ — a huge tog pile — appeared on the village’s fields. Again the locals took part in creating the project. The wood pile was four-stepped, narrowing towards the top. If the tower made of hay resembled a temple, the Wood Pile looked like a strange defensive structure, the frontier post of an imaginary state — a kind of castle made of firewood.
In 2002 a 27-metre ‘Television Tower’ appeared in the village. This structure was fashioned from twigs of alder and birch, like an enormous basket with a lantern on the top. At the bottom were arch-like structures, which served as entrances. Once inside, the visitor could climb intricate staircases through the interior of the tower. The structure was a humorous imitation of Shukhov’s Radio Tower in Moscow. The Television Tower stood for two and a half years before being incinerated during the Shrovetide celebrations one year.
In the winter of 2002 a structure made from snow again appeared on the land outside the city; this time it was an aqueduct. But it did not exist for long. The winter was a warm one and the aqueduct kept melting; parts of it had to be rebuilt. In the end, about 100 metres of aqueduct were constructed, although the original idea had been to have it cross the river.
In 2003 in the little town of Disse in France Polissky was able to create another ‘tower’ made from natural materials — a column made from ‘grapewood’. This project was part of the West-East Festival. Eastern Europe was on this occasion represented by the Ukraine, Armenia, and Russia, which in its turn was divided into Moscow and Povolzh’e. A large part of the credit for creation of the tower belongs to engineer Mikhail Bulanenkov, who thought up the concept for the column. Together, the curving curly’ branches created an uneven, living surface, and there was a feeling that this surface could stir at any moment. Polissky built the column in France using materials that would be comprehensible and appealing to the French.
In 2003 Nikolay Polissky and his ‘Crafts from Nikola-Lenivets’ took part in the Art Klyaz’ma Festival, which for several years running took place in the grounds of what used to be the Klyaz’ma Reservoir Guesthouse. The festival was one of the largest open-air shows of contemporary art in Russia. At Art Klyaz’ma 2003 Polissky created a project entitled Bathhouse’. This was an ordinary bathhouse — only all the walls were transparent, made from film. Polissky brought almost half the population of Nikola-Lenivets to the festival, and they created a wicker installation-village called Art Bazaar. For the duration of the festival the authors lived in their works of art, cooked food, and plied the amazed general public with samogon [homemade vodka]. Polissky’s original plan was that the structures built in this nomad camp should include something resembling an Orthodox church, but the responsive Russian narod [simple people], who had greeted all other initiatives with such enthusiasm, refused point blank in this case. Instead, they built a Field Camp — in the eyes of its creators, a more suitable structure for horseplay than a church, which has no room for such carefree activity and merriment. The camp was likewise made of wickerwork; it took the form of a large circular haystack-shaped tower surrounded by four projecting minarets.
At the end of 2004 the entire ‘creative team’ from the village of Nikola-Lenivets travelled to Nizhny Novgorod to build an enormous ice slide beside the walls of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, based on the Tower of Babel in Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s eponymous painting. This 12-metre-high tower had ziggurat-like ramps and a 280-metre-long slide that started at the height of a four-storey house. It took three weeks to build. Snow for the tower was brought from the environs of Nizhny Nogorod — approximately 17,000 cubic metres in all. That year’s winter was very warm and the tower constantly collapsed and melted, losing shape.
The following summer (2005), yet another tower appeared in Nikolay Polissky’s ‘art village’, this time made from large branches. The tower narrowed towards the top and ended in a circular ‘turret’, which visitors could ascend using an internal spiral staircase, giving them a view over the surrounding landscape from a height of about ten metres. The crude wooden branches from which the tower was made not only gave it strength, but also visually connected it with the environs and the forest, which begins a short distance away. The observation turret was circular, and its exterior was spiked with long metal rods which made it look like a wooden hedgehog that had climbed to the top of a tree or bush. This was a kind of village ‘Beacon’. On the top you could light a fire and send out secret signs. The Beacon is still to be seen in the village of Nikola-Lenivets; it is Polissky’s most long-lived work to date, having functioned as a ‘natural’ exhibit for a number of years.
In the autumn of 2005 a strange-looking object made from intertwined branches appeared on the Altuf’evskoe Highroad. The structure was as high as a three-storey house and looked like an enormous, roughly hewn rectangular arch. A geometrical construction consisting of four rectangles joined at the top, this unusual arch symbolized the fact that travellers were entering Moscow’s North-Eastern Administrative District and a landscaped park which is soon to be built on the shore of the River Likhoborka. Its name was ‘the Likhoborka Gate’. According to Polissky, the arch could have come into being as the creation of an intelligent raven who, returning to the city after taking a course in construction techniques, decided to build himself this strange and fashionable nest.
At Shrovetide 2006 Nikolay Polissky and his team set fire to the symbolic rocket ‘Baykonur’ to celebrate Shrovetide in the village of Nikola-Lenivets, but also another important date — the 49th anniversary of the first space flight. The artist directed a team of twelve local craftsmen in creating the Baykonur rocket tower from birch osiers, hay, and straw. It stood for more than a year outside the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but its creators’ dream was that it should lift off. Eyewitnesses say that during its incineration Baykonur several times rose into the air.
In June 2006 a project involving the recreation of a landscape park ‘for the duration of one day’ was carried out in the grounds of Krivyakino, a country house in the town of Voskresensk in Moscow Region. This 18th-century country estate belonged to the writer Ivan Lazhechnikov. A two-storey brick house in the Baroque style is surrounded by a neglected park, which was originally divided into regular gardens dating to the second half of the 18th century and a landscape park, created in the middle of the 19th century and featuring a system of cascading ponds. The park buildings — summer houses, grottoes, and fountains — have not survived; and it was these that Nikolay Polissky decided to recreate from wood, using slender tree trunks. He gave them a fairy-tale or toy-like appearance in an attempt to imitate the architectural forms of a park at the turn of the 18th century. Construction lasted three weeks. By June 17th the park had acquired summer houses, arches, benches, chairs, swings, a covered gallery or walks, a green stage, a ha-ha ditch, and a ‘palace’. Nikolay Polissky’s structures stood on the two banks of the cascade of old overgrown ponds. On one bank stood the ‘palace’ (30 metres long and 9 metres high) with whimsical summerhouses scattered round about. One of the latter was circular with a supporting pole in the middle; another consisted of a swing on cart wheels covered by a triangular roof. The ‘palace’ was the largest structure. Its massive forms stood out in silhouette against the greenery and rose above the crowns of the trees. A polyhedral turret on the top gave it the appearance of a defensive structure, but the swings around the perimeter — and the children who had occupied them — dispelled this initially threatening impression. There were swings involved in almost all the structures — around the ’round table’, on the green stage, in the summerhouses and arches, and in the ‘palace’; they were a motif that linked all parts of the project. Having sat a while on one swing, you could move on to another in the next summerhouse. On the opposite bank stood the so-called ’round table’, named after the shape of the tree trunks from which it was made. The two banks of the ponds were linked by a wooden colonnade standing in the most commanding position, on an artificial dike between the top and middle pond.
In July 2006 the first Arch-Stoyanie festival was held in the village of Nikola-Lenivets. Apart from Polissky and his helpers, the festival also involved architects from Moscow. Polissky let his Moscow guests take the initiative, believing the smooth running of the festival to be more important than the chance to build another of his own designs — and all the villagers worked on realizing projects by their visitors. On the other hand, at the second Arch-Stoyanie Polissky got his own back, so to speak, with a grand installation entitled ‘Borders of the Empire’. This was an entire ancient city, reminiscent of the archaeological cities of Asia Minor and Africa, Palmyra, or Timgad. There was a columned street of approximately 200 metres in length with a central tetrapylon and, standing in disorder some way away, a collection of mysterious votive pillars. On the log/columns and transverse beams a large flock of wooden two-headed eagle/ravens stood picturesquely. This structure remains to this day one of the most captivating three-dimensional spectacles at the village of Nikola-Lenivets.
In the spring of 2008 the village craftsmen of Nikola-Lenivets realized their first project without the direct involvement of Nikolay Polissky (he merely gave them the idea). In the snow in the graveyard beside the Church of St Nicholas they planted large black wooden rooks in a kind of pantomime on the theme of Aleksey Savrasov’s cult painting ‘The Rooks have Returned”.
At Shrovetide 2008 Nikolay Polissky presented a project which is a continuation of the ideas in Borders of Empire: a Firebird made of metal. Of enormous size — as big as a house, — this metal two-headed eagle with a built-in stove lit up in a terrifying fashion, flared, filled the whole field with back smoke, and then started to give out tongues of flame, and itself changed colour from black to dark red. The damp air and wet earth underneath the bird started spitting with the heat. In the course of just 20 minutes, the bird consumed two large lorry-loads of wood. All in all, this was an impressive image of the Russian state.
2008, Catalog ‘XI Venice Architecture Biennale. Russian pavilion. A game of chess. tournament for Russia’.