Nikolai Polissky was born in 1957 and first trained in ceramics in St Petersburg, becoming one of the group of Mitki artists there. The movement named after the artist Dmitry Shagin, has been described as ‘an ironic hybrid of Tolstoyism and hippy philosophy.’ It set the mood for Nikolai when he moved to the village Nikola-Lenivets, some 200 kilometers west of Moscow. There he co-opted villagers to work with him building large structures, often imitating famous foreign monuments, cobbled together out of humble local materials including snow, wood and hay. The first work was an army of 220 snowman with carrot noses and helmets made of buckets.
In the spirit of Joseph Beuys, he believes that all life can be art and that anyone can be an artist if they live an artful life. News of these installations soon travelled through the grapevine in Russia attracting the heartier and often trendy to undergo the difficult trek to the village. In 2003, the village came to Moscow and attracted a more urban audience which appreciated the mix of sophisticated art forms put together with local materials and basic manual skills, as well as the readily available copious quantities of local moonshine. Nikolai remains the father figure, his sturdy figure reflecting his great physical strength. He also has the necessary charm to inspire others to work with him, a gift that has enabled the production of extensive structures, as well as well-attended feasts. The yearly festival allows urban Russians the rare incentive to travel outside the city and enjoy the fast disappearing peasant life. His work has recently emerged from his native Russia and he was recently in group shows in Bordeaux, France and Miami, Florida. Karen Wright
An imposing bale of hay, swept up into a tower of Babel a Ia Brueghel – that’s the first thing a visitor sees at an exhibit called ‘Futurologies. Russian Utopias’, which opened in March at Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. It’s clear what the Parisian curator Herve Mikaeloff and his Moscow colleagues saw in this work by the collective Nikolai Polissky and Nikola-Lenivets Crafts. After all, Vladimir Tatlin wrapped his Monument to the Third International in the same spiral. But it seems as if a reference to the Russian avant-garde is the last thing on Nikolai Polissky’s mind – his artistic utopia does not aspire to be of worldwide proportions. This is a different story altogether, which, to paraphrase the title of Alexander Solzehnitsyn’s pamphlet ‘How to Rebuild Russia’, could be called ‘How to Develop the Village of Nikola-Lenivets’.
To be fair, when the successful Moscow artist Nikolai Polissky (a participant in the art group Mitki, which was unbelievably popular in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s) bought a house in the early 2000s in a semi-abandoned, picturesque village called Nikola-Lenivets on the banks of the Ugra river in the Kaluga Oblast (200 kilometers from Moscow down a bumpy, battered road), he wasn’t driven by missionary zeal. Nor did he have an intricate plan devoted to the social rehabilitation of a remote corner through artistic production. The idea of drawing local residents to the making of art emerged by accident, almost as a lark-their first collaborative work was an army of several hundred snowmen occupying the Nikola-Lenivets hillside. Behind this lay a joking reference to a famous episode in Russian history: according to legend, it was exactly on this spot that the Great Stand on the Ugra River took place in 1480, after standing across from each other for a while, the cavalry of the Golden Horde (under the command of Ahhmat Khan) and the troops of Moscow’s Ivan III (who had stopped paying the Horde its annual tribute) peacefully parted ways without engaging in a battle, and as it’s now written in schoolbooks, this moment marked the end of the Tatar Yoke.
But Nikolai Polissky did not merely limit himself to Russian themes: in the summer, hay was stacked in the form of Mesopotamian ziggurats; in the winter, Roman aqueducts were built out of snow, and logs were arranged to resemble Egyptian pyramids. The impulse to recreate these monuments of world civilization from local materials in and around the village became more and more ambitious, calling for the involvement of not just the odd volunteer, but a qualified, close-knit brigade, which could plan and create sophisticated projects: many meter-high towers of cane and brush that recalled Eiffel’s constructions or the lighthouse at Alexandria; a Taj Mahal made out of twigs; or even the Baikonur cosmodrome, complete with rocket-shaped baskets. And since there was no industry to speak of in this abandoned village – it’s located within the Ugra National Park and Nature Preserve – able-bodied locals willingly joined the artistic collective under the leadership of ‘Uncle Kolya’, – the villagers’ nickname for Nikolai. The undertaking took the name ‘Nikola-Lenivets Crafts’, but you won’t find gift boxes, embroidery, toys, or other tourist souvenirs, which are usually associated in Russia with folk art-what you’ll find instead is contemporary art, which closely engages with the question of nationality.
What’s important is not merely that the collective employs so-called common peasants (the collective currently has about fifteen members); nor is it that Nikolai Polissky himself hides his own urbane professionalism under the mask of ‘an artist of the people’. It’s possible that the central element of the project is that the artwork made in this field has a truly national popularity. And this is a unique event in contemporary Russian art, which the broader Russian public traditionally refuses to accept as its own, accusing it of elitism and ‘incomprehensibility’. The collective’s constructions, on the other hand, seem native and natural to the Russian soul, at least at the level of materials – the construction of sculptures out of fallen branches found in the woods is a widespread Russian hobby.
Ever since Polissky`s helping hand led Nikola-Lenivets to hold ArchStoyanie, a yearly Land Art festival, it’s not just art critics who head to the Kalugan village, but thousands of tourists. For a few days, all of the attention transforms this remote corner into a site of mass promenades. Happy to take a break from big construction sites, leading Russian architects, as well as their international colleagues, build an ingenious little shack in nature’s midst, or a pavilion on a float on the river, or an ecologically pure gazebo, In the summer of 2009, Nikola-Lenivets was even visited by a delegation from Versailles, which, with its typically French grace, graced the Russian field with its landscaping prowess. And of course the main draw and attraction of Nikola-Lenivets remain the works of Polissky and company, which have brought the artist real fame and rare commissions to design public spaces – that’s why a 280-meter-long ice slide was constructed in the center of Nizhny Novgorod, something that hadn’t been built since the era of empresses Elizabeth, Anna, and Katherine the Great, who loved such entertainments, And in the Moscow suburb of Likhobori, an impressive triumphal arch has appeared-almost like the one in Paris’s La Defense, only assembled out of branches of wood from the banks of the Ugra.
In 2007, Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov wrote a sympathetic essay about Polissky’s artwork, which was published in the journal ArtChronika. This publication gave some critics an excuse to speculate that Polissky was a government artist, and that his art was something akin to a contemporary Potemkin village, an optimistic decoration with decorative peasants, concealing the wasteland that reigns in the rural Russian backwater. But to get a sense of the artist’s skeptical attitude toward the Russian authorities’ imperial rhetoric, it’s enough to glance at works like Firebird, his fireworks-breathing oven, topped with a two-headed eagle, which, in spite of its fairytale name, is more likely to evoke associations with a terrifying dragon-or his Border of Empire, a stockade of wooden totem poles placed in an empty field, on top of which sit the very same officious two-headed birds. Moreover, the work of Polissky’s collective, with his (artistic) deliberate archaic character, emphasis on gumption and manual labor, and his use of available natural materials (from the neighboring wood), could realistically be seen as a mockery of the current official doctrine of Russian progress toward modernization and the high-tech realm.
When Polissky was asked to explain the idea of one of the collective’s most recent works, a grandiose installation called the Large Hadron Collider, he said, not without irony, ‘Yes, we’re also scientists, but from the village. What can you do, we live in the forest’. What those who live in homes still healed by wood fires think about the great scientific experiment to split matter was clarified last summer in all of its wooden glory at Luxembourg’s museum of contemporary art (MUDAM). The entire entourage of a high-tech science laboratory, which was perfectly suited for a sci-fi film set, was built of natural materials – even the electrical wires, which were made of cane. Despite the fame and numerous prizes as well as the national adoration that have all come his way, there has still been no official recognition in Nikola-Lenivets’s home country. There has yet to be a one-man show in a Russian museum. While, on the other hand, foreigners compete to invite Polissky to build something for them.
In spite of all of its patriarchal qualities, this artistic production has turned out to be sympathetic to the international ecological movement. Polissky’s projects don’t harm a single tree – instead, he only uses trees that are dry, fallen, or ravaged by insects. In Nikola-Lenivets, the principle of a product’s purity is sacrosanct, and it’s a principle that extends even to the local home-brew and other delicacies used to welcome guests.
In Russia, Nikolai Polissky is often associated with Land art, but this is only part of the picture. His work touches on national mythology, while It ill being grounded in historical reality. The experience of developing a village with natural materials using art as the subject no longer seems so utopian. Unlike Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, which was never realized, the towers of Nikola-Lenivets stand firmly on the ground.