​Nikolay Polissky: “No Shelter Has Ever Saved Anyone”

Strelka Magazine visited Nikolay Polissky in his cottage and talked about the Archstoyanie Festival.

Between July 22 and 24 the 11th Archstoyanie Land Art Festival will take place in the village of Nikola-Lenivets,located 200 km from Moscow in the Kaluga region. Today Archstoyanie is the only international land art festival in Russia. The grand project, joined by artists from around the world, has become a large, successful production at the expense of the signature feeling of tranquility and harmony that was associated with the village 10 years ago. That is why Shelter was chosen as the festival theme this year. Curators set a goal of reinterpreting Nikola-Lenivets’ original role as a shelter where one seeks solitude and peace. Strelka Magazine visited Nikolay Polissky one week ahead of the festival to find out whether this is a turning point for the village.

— What do you expect from the upcoming event?

— I am ambivalent about my creation. On one hand, since I settled here I have been focused on building my own park and that project is more important to me than Archstoyanie. On the other hand, I perfectly understand the festival’s importance for this place, the importance of people’s reaction and the crowd being here. However, the event must not become overly esoteric. Participants both from abroad and from Moscow should should work here not only for themselves, , but also for this place and the people living here in the broadest sense. I am an advocate not of art for art’s sake, but of art for life’s sake. Art has to remain the shaping principle of this village, and that is why it is important that new works delve deeper and further beyond this festival crоwd.

— How did the shelter theme come up?

— Our curator Anton Kochurkin came up with the theme, and I, as the art director, approved the concept of getting inside an art object and hiding there. I think that the symbol of this year’s Archstoyanie could be the “Elephant of the Bastille,” which sheltered Gavroche – the first famous sculpture which provided a home to a person.

— Is living inside a sculpture an attempt to escape from the outside world?

— Although the etymology implies that meaning, no shelter has ever saved anyone. Nonetheless, I found my personal shelter here. This year the festival is my own story. I love my family, my collaborators, the nature and the art. This Archstoyanie is an example for those who are seeking something I found here 16 years ago.

— What were your main criteria for the selection process?

— Choosing something worthwhile is no easy task. Recently we held a contest: 300 participants were asked to build various objects on our territory. The majority of artists do not understand why they want to place an object in some particular place. Finding the perfect organic relationship between art and nature is the core creative principle I follow. For instance, we were invited to Château de Chaumont, one of Loire’s most famous castles, built by Diane de Poitiers. It’s the main tourist attraction of the Tours and Blois areas. There is an old park there, with 300-400 year-old sequoia trees. It took a lot of thought to figure out how we could fit our work there, because it seemed like there was simply nothing to add. We decided to style grapevines into huge roots and place them in such a way as if they sprouted from the trees and crept throughout the whole territory. This was an attempt to predict what to expect from that land.

Sometimes people want to flatter me and propose something similar to my own work, something “woodish.” That is the worst. If I had to name the best contribution that Archstoyanie has ever had, it would be AirPort, a flight information display designed by Electroboutique (a collaborative effort by Aristarkh Chernyshev, Alexey Shulgin and Inna Astafyeva). It was great. The object was placed in a forest and induced pure awe. Although we live in times of postmodernity and mixing styles is nothing unusual, an artist must always contribute something new and remain unique.

— Your “Beaubourg" leaves that particular impression. On the one hand, the sculpture appears to be a natural extension of the land, yet on the other it looks like a structure from outer space.

— I did not imply that it must be boring. Art should be sharp; it should baffle people. At the same time, I hear village kids ask their gran: “Let’s go walk around ‘bobur’.” I tried to explain what those pipes were, but nobody batted an eye. (The object’s name originated from a namesake area in Paris where Centre Georges Pompidou is located. Architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers freed as much internal space as possible by bringing piping, elevator shafts, escalators and other technical elements outside. That design solution is reflected in the art object designed by Polissky – Strelka). If you ask the locals what is Beaubourg, they will reply that it’s a thingamabob they have in their village.

— Do the objects which appear and disappear in Nikola-Lenivets reflect any sociocultural or political realities or phenomena?

— I’m not sure about political realities, but there certainly is a reflection of sociocultural elements. “Ziggurat,” “Media Tower” and even “Beaubourg” are objects which reflect global architectural and art brands. I could say that we reflect the entire global culture.

— Yet at the same time you are a prominent figure on the Russian art scene, within Russian culture. Do you introduce certain national elements into your work?

— I am a man of the world. For example, Philippe Starck and I created very French-like “Hunting Trophies” at a hotel, a project paid for by a Qatar sheikh with a profoundly French cultural background. In Taiwan I gathered all the symbols I could and tried my best to become a Taiwanese artist. There is no reason to insist on your Russian origin with a shashka, sharovary and kosovortka. Art, like a tree, should be able to take root. “Local and global.” An artist should intrigue with his personality, including his national traits, as well as with his connection to global culture. At the same time, I resent exaggerated exoticism and cannot stand ethnic theme parks.

— What about Burning Man?

— Heaven forbid! To my mind, these are rich amateurs who picked up art for the sole purpose of entertainment. Like, “let’s build something fantastic, get some joy from it and then obliterate it from the face of the Earth”. I have no respect for creative artists who possess no artistic essence beyond reacting to modern life. This is vital to me; you could say I am a modernist to some extent, although I am fighting with myself over it.

— Can one remain a modernist while creating land art?

— Modernism is my academic background, and while I use my skills when I have to, I make no attempts to become a pure modernist. I want to create something greater than just beautiful art, as I am not a classic land artist. I strive for people to react to and take part in my projects.

— For almost 15 years art objects have been a common sight for the locals. How did you manage to gain their understanding back in 2000?

— One day I realized that there was an indescribable natural resource – land – owned by me only because there were no other owners. The Soviet government vanished, no new owners appeared, and there were only poor people ready to respond to any ridiculous offer. You can’t build anything in other countries. Here, I found freedom. This land was waiting for an intrusion. Maybe I, an artist, could offer it nothing else. Maybe it would have been more rational to set up farmland here. But I never forced anybody to become an artist; I would consider this criminal. They just started doing what they were best at doing: crafts.

— How many people do you currently have on your team?

— Everybody is welcome to participate. On average there are 12-15 people; there were almost 30 last year. Some arrive to make some money, others enjoy the process and have created objects of their own. For almost a year they have been working on wooden sculptures and have earned their first money doing that. This money alone is not enough to make a living, but it shows that crafts do have a place in the modern world.

— Could the idea implemented in Nikola-Lenivets be replicated somewhere else in Russia?

— Land art is a perfect fit for Russia. A huge country with lots of uncultivated land calls for this. The Soviet government did not allow artists on the streets, and today the Russian government is afraid of artists once again. I am an example that there are ways to work in this environment.

— Do you keep an eye on arguments concerning your work on the internet?

— Are you referring to “shit on a stick” (the way an internet user referred to an object created by Nikolay Polissky and his collaborators at Chermyanka Park – Strelka Magazine)? That is one fine title, and I applaud the wit. However, what comes next? I realize that city dwellers are not used to this kind of object they see bronze and stone everywhere. And that problem is not Russia-exclusive.

— Do you have any educational goals?

— No, they would take me about 300 years to achieve. However, when I went swimming this morning, the beach was clean and there was no trash lying around. Feeling that the cultural level here is above average pleases me.

— So you managed to replicate the feeling of a park, of virgin land, although there is no security or even a fence. At the same time people are allowed to touch your objects and even climb them. Is this what you tried to achieve?

— I think that our works protect themselves. They are vandal-proof in their essence, nobody has tried to destroy them. I would say that our art can be touched, but not trampled. There are limits to everything. It is fine when kids climb the sculptures. When a 100 kg man tries to do the same, it is another story. I think whoever would do that would realize what he is doing.

— Could you describe a perfect scenario for the future development of Nikola-Lenivets and the festival itself?

— A perfect scenario would involve me, Yulia Bychkova and my son Ivan, who created New Media Night festival, forming an initiative group which controls this land. I am not a manager; I am an artist and I provide art direction to some extent. This approach obliges any person managing the events and the objects to get approval for any planned event, its approach, meaning and result. This way the idea of a wholesome designer park stays intact. Overall, I would like to gain more substantial authority. The land itself is the issue: the objects and brands are owned by us, but the land they are built upon is not. We cannot develop the park and the festival in these circumstances; however, this situation is bound to be resolved soon.

— As the festival draws near, whom of the participants would you advise keep an eye on?

— I think that “Gelendvagen” will be the coolest project this year. It will be fully underground, accessed via a hatch. On the one hand it is only a joke, but on the other it will possibly be the most real shelter we will have here.

Photos by Ivan Anisimov