SWEET CRUDE ETERNITY:
ANDREI MOLODKIN IN A CONVERSATION WITH VICTOR AND MARGARITA TUPITSYN
M.T.: Andrei, could you please tell us about the moment when you liberated yourself from a maniacal attachment to the flat surface of the canvas and switched to three-dimensional objects or sculptures, which could be called factory products -- taking into account, as it were, the very fact that they were produced in a factory. Some would probably find it interesting to interpret this transition in the context of "mechanical reproduction," familiar to us from the history of the Russian avant-garde. However, focusing on your own themes, one wants to pose the following question. First of all, why did you abandon the canvas and go to work in a factory, and second, should your (now "trademark") image of the skull be regarded as a metaphor of looming death -- the death of old forms and the old method of work?
A.M.: No one has ever posed this question to me before, so now, in the process of this conversation, I will try to formulate for myself why this happened. First of all, I was influenced by the exhibition in New York displaying my works from the I Love series, made with a ballpoint pen on a canvas. This opened up to me a new world for which I was unprepared. This had a shock effect on me, after which I returned to Europe and decided to switch from drawing with a ballpoint on a flat service of a canvas to three-dimensional sculpture. I realized that the process, not of creating the work but of the circulation of money and ideas in the sphere of their mutual conversion, is an extremely important topic since it forces us to find a more precise language for dialogue with the American art world, and with the imperial capitalism it represents. It became clear to me that my earlier language, as labor-intensive and complex as it is, did not meet the criteria of adequacy, clarity, readability.
V.T.: The striking thing about the I Love series is the incredible dichotomy between the iconography of death, connected to the skull image, and the repeatedly renewed process of mastering the canvas with the ballpoint pen. One idea is, as it were, about dying, an image of the end; the other is about the continuation of the line of ballpoint pens, in the sense that the used-up set (the dead) is immediately replaced with a new generation. Each of them is destined to work obsessively at any price, until the last drop of ink-blood, thus creating the illusion of a continuous, living process. The end of that process is the end of civilization, or (as they say nowadays) "the end of history," and the skull is a symbol of that awful finale. Thus, the completion of the art project is experienced as the end of the world. Did you have such a feeling?
A.M.: Yes, I did, but probably…
M.T.: At a subconscious level?
A.M.: Yes, at a subconscious level. This is part therapy, part hysteria -- that is, you are constantly battling one or another complex, and this kind of constant scribbling on eight-meter-high canvases with skulls can have a healing, calming effect. It's a bit like the case of the maniac -- if you deny him something, then something irreparable will happen.
V.T.: I'd like to return, once more, to the times when Andrei drew skulls with a ballpoint pen and swore his love to them. It's important that these were not animal skulls (apes etc.), but human skulls -- particularly important in light of the antipathy Russian religious philosophy felt toward Darwinism. Take, for example, Rosanov's sarcastic comment, "Man is descended from apes, so therefore let us love one another!" It seems to me that the theme of love which coexists with the image of the skull in Andrei's work can be interpreted as a continuation of this tradition, that is, as an attempt to reduce one's existence on this earth to one's own kind, including God, and to love oneself, and therefore also one's neighbor, on the basis of the commonality hidden in the skull. On the one hand, love for the chtonic, for things extracted from the deep recesses of the past and, in this case, from the grave, is "necrophilia mon amour" and, in a certain sense, love of death. In both cases, we are dealing with "hauntology" (a neologism introduced by Jacques Derrida to denote ghosts whose "presence" is the hidden subtext of any artistic, social, or philosophical project). In brief, my question seems to hang in the air, since I don't know in what direction to continue the search for causes and motives that lie outside consciousness. It would be good for Andrei to give us some guidance.
M.T.: But actually, he has already answered the question.
A.M.: Yes, but I can add another fact. I actually started drawing with a ballpoint pen while serving in the Soviet army, where soldiers were issued two ballpoint pens for writing letters. I would take them from other soldiers and spend all my time drawing. That's how I developed an interest in constant, monotonous drawing. I later realized that this "bad habit" was akin to masturbation. I realized this when I started drawing skulls using the ballpoint pen technique rather than an oil painting technique. It was my way of masturbating to death, a confession of love…
V.T.: For death?
A.M.: Yes, for myself and for death. What's noteworthy here is the image of masturbation as self-satisfaction and self-love.
M.T.: And once again, this is related to the concepts of alive and dead. Masturbation is tantamount to the declaration, "I'm alive," isn't it?
A.M.: Yes, it's like birth. Birth and death. Or rather, birth as a result of masturbating to death. A strange kind of cyclical thing…
V.T.: Definitely. The technological principle of masturbation is an accumulation of constant repetitions that copy the sequence of acts of birth and death. Or perhaps it's the other way round: the sequence of these acts is a mimesis of masturbation. The attempt to find out which is the copy and which the original will lead to the creation of a new religion.
A.M.: Yes, yes….
V.T.: But you haven't answered the question about the identity of the skull. Why did you give preference to homo sapiens?
A.M.: This is probably a personal moment that presupposes identification with oneself -- above all, with one's head and one's skull, that is to say, with one's own life and the life of one's circle.
V.T.: I am especially interested in the transition from the representation of the skull to the esthetics of oil (fuel as opposed to oil painting), for the two are connected. After all, oil is a sea of compressed skulls and other organic substances that went through decomposition and stagnation in the distant past, and were converted into oil, which, in turn, is converted into money and political ambition. For its sake, people kill humans and animals, pollute the atmosphere, and destroy forests and wildlife preserves, thus creating raw material for future oil. It turns out that the "means of existence of protein-based organisms" is nothing but a cycle of oil, and its energy is the energy of death. Oil is the Eros of Thanatos, the black blood that flows through its arteries. That is why it seems to me that your interest in oil flows directly from your earlier series with skulls. Isn't that true?
A.M.: Yes, on some level, in fact, such a logical transition does suggest itself -- from masturbatory blue pictures with giant skulls, where you kill time and life, investing them into an eight-meter canvas, to something different, to an opportunity to reflect on the cycle of death. When you expend two or three months of your life in this kind of insane physical condition, you feel frightened and you want to understand what's causing this. But I would also like to talk about my relationship with oil that began many years ago, while serving in the Army. I remember how we spent fifteen days delivering gigantic oil cisterns to Siberia by train. The entire way, we heated our cattle cars with that same oil, scraping it off the cisterns because they were covered with a huge fat layer of it, and it didn't freeze even when it was 40 below zero Celsius. When the train stops, you get off and scrape two or three buckets of black oil off the cistern, and then use it to heat the cattle car and get warm. As a result, you become completely black, filthy, since you don’t get chance to wash, and any time you get off at a station to ask for bread, they'd give you spam or some other kind of canned meat out of pity… So, once again, oil somehow performs this strange cycle, this transformation into something else -- and then it once again transforms into something different, and in a totally different way. Oil is the symbol of transformation.
V.T.: It's a chameleon just like death… Attachment to death, a desire to "nurture it at your breast," are symptomatic of your art. Is your interest in oil, perhaps, a sublimation of your interest in death? Are they linked?
A.M.: I think they are, definitely linked. Most probably, it's the other side of my attraction to death.
V.T.: Are you talking about erotic attraction, or a purely mental one?
A.M.: Most probably, erotic.
M.T.: Especially since we're talking about masturbation…
A.M.: Yes -- if it's masturbation to a skull, that's an erotic attraction.
V.T.: What arises as a result of the erection is reminiscent of the main attraction of Paris. After all, the Eiffel Tower is essentially a larger version of an oil derrick.
M.T.: Concerning your three-dimensional works, I would like to ask two separate questions: one about form, the other about content. First, about form. From the history of modernist sculpture, we know that the formal effectiveness of a sculptural work often manifests itself in the combination of opposite or "contraindicated" materials which absolutely do not belong together in the viewer's consciousness. Example: surrealist and Dadaist objects. It seems that this formal strategy is key to your works as well. Thus, you create a clash of classical sculptural objects (hard, light-colored, sterile, no longer connected to the present) with a non-artistic material (liquid, dark, dirty, and politically relevant). How did you arrive at this formal paradigm, and was it perhaps inspired by your interest in technical paradoxes?
A.M.: Yes, it is indeed a key strategy. You're right, the joining of high and low is the main formal "move" in all my works. Both the canvases covered with ballpoint-pen drawing and the oil represent a joining of completely incompatible, contrasting things. I remember that when I was doing a small presentation of my works, some businessman pointed at Apollo and asked, puffing on a huge cigar, "How much does this black guy cost?" I knew then that this was "real success": Apollo had moved from the space of high aesthetics to the lower depths of racial bias, outlined by a crude entrepreneur.
V.T.: Remarkable! It seems that oil really does deserve to be scooped up by the Holy Grail.
A.M.: The only thing left is to drink it and use it as medicine.
V.T.: On the one hand, it is the most ancient of resources; on the other hand, there is nothing more in demand by modernity than oil. Demand is a synonym of eternal youth, which makes oil an example to be imitated. Oil, like death, is an ideal model for art, which aspires to something "always already" (toujours-déjà) existing, and at the same to be modern. One can smell oil in Nikolai Zabolotsky's poem: "In nature's eternal press, death and being are joined.”
M.T.: It also seems to me that your appetite for paradoxical combinations makes one ponder the process of sociocultural globalization. That is to say, it makes one think that we live in an ear when the problems of any cultural discourse or the cultural identity of this or that "commodity" are effectively obscured by so-called "global issues," which in your case is accomplished through "oil discourse." It's precisely this kind of referential field that emerges in my consciousness. However, getting back to the second part of my question about form and content, I will try to get some idea of what your group of referents is. When minimalist sculpture appeared in the 1960s, it was used by some critics as an argument against "rationalist composition," that is, compositions that openly referred to something else. From this perspective, minimalist sculpture was perceived as a completely "pure," self-identical object. Your works gravitate toward a more traditional scheme, in a sense taking the idea of "rationalist composition" to its end, to "suicide." Considering such an approach to "rationality," what are you trying to convey to the viewer?
A.M.: First and foremost, I am interested in referents that are located in the subconscious -- the mass subconscious and my own. Some of them have migrated there from textbooks, from books and magazines; it contains a variety of images that include everything that holds up history and our education starting with childhood. Added to that are media-generated images; however, I would rather not borrow anything elite, unfamiliar or alien. This is not part of the strategy. The image must be recognizable, like an icon. One could speak of replacing the icon with the oil index. It's precisely within this regime, within this framework that references to something else take place. These transformations still interest me.
M.T.: Yes, but what is your place in this circle of referents? After all, you have to occupy some sociocultural position.
A.M.: Yes, of course. The images I use in sculptural objects are utilized by politicians to achieve their goals. And I make this parallel quite consciously. Everything that is exploited, that is used to fuck people's minds, is of great interest to me. My position is defined by the formula, "Take a look around and make sure you're not being fucked." We're witnessing the start of a new crusade in which the image of Christ is used to fuck the Muslims, grab the oil, etc. On the level of metaphor, I am, as it were, replicating these events -- that is, taking this hideously dangerous, criminal, terror-saturated Muslim oil and filling the image of Christ with it, after which it becomes holy and is sold at an insanely high price. There's a process that moves me. Christ as an economic transaction …
V.T.: In other words, you are deconstructing not the image or the teachings of Christ, but the powers that use him for their own purposes.
A.M.: Yes, including the use of power as something God-given in order to fill everything with oil that isn't filled with it already. Any political image is used in order to "suck the pipe." The same is true of Modern-day ideology: countries that have a bad regime and no democracy have no democracy because they have oil.
V.T.: Some of your works, Andrei, attest to the "defeat" of the heavenly forces in the struggle with oil. One can only hope that the sculptural replicas of Christ and the angels cast down into oil are no more than a "disaster signal" that reflects the depth of our oil dependence. What's more, if oil is in fact related to death, then how does the line, "having defeated death with death" sound translated into oil-language? "Having defeated oil with oil"? In your works, you are trying to do something similar, and in my opinion not without success. If I'm wrong, please shake the dust out of my head.
A.M.: Yes, a very good question. In my view, they are not cast down, they're just soaked in oil, sanctified by it. On the one hand, the continuation of political discourse and political art is expressed in the fact that one has to take Christ and soak him in the Arab oil that we grab or snatch from the countries where it is extracted. On the other hand, this can be interpreted as proof that Christ is eternally alive and that there is life after death. That is, such a version is possible too. Besides, generally speaking, I make hollow sculpture. It's simply a negative of an image repeatedly used by everyone else. The negative is filled with oil because the image is empty, i.e. hollow, and oil, as we know, is liquid matter.
V.T.: An empty form is a prop for mimesis ….
A.M.: Yes, the empty form of a skull, of Jesus, of an angel or of anyone else is a hollow matrix you can fill with anything you want. At present, they are filled mostly with oil. It turns out that there is no art, no culture, nothing but economics. Culture is an emptiness we have to fill and affirm with economics. Economic mayhem is the main thing that exists in the world right now. The "Black Angel," for instance, is the same emptiness filled with economic mayhem.
V.T.: When I said that an empty form is a prop for mimesis, I meant that vacant forms are easily filled with equally vacant content, including any ideology and any discourse. They are all "free agents."
A.M.: It seems that empty forms are filled with anything that comes in handy, for the same of economic mayhem under the screen of some external cover -- be it Christ, Apollo, angels, or, for instance, the Muslim world. All that's required of people is just to suck the tube -- "sucky good, fucky good!" [language used by Parisian prostitutes to describe their services].
M.T.: I also have a question that has to do your representation of Christ. Whenever the person of Christ has been reinterpreted in by historians or by artists -- such as, for instance, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, or Leo Steinberg's book, "The Sexuality of Christ," it was not an attack on Christianity. Rather, their goal was the negation of the sociocutlural clichés that have been attached to the image of Christ and have been forced on him, as it were, by institutional religious doctrine. In your case, Christ is completely separated from canonical narratives and transformed into a new global sign that experiences the gravitational pull of the hot topics of our time. If that is the so, I would put you in the same league as the socially and politically engaged artists of the 1980s such as Hans Haake, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Martha Rossler, and Jenny Holzer.
A.M.: I do, in fact, try to pay close attention to political engagement, to political art and generally to political message. I would like my language to be adequate to the task. Thus, when I first came to New York with my two-dimensional pictures, I realized that my imagery was addressed to a different viewer and could not be relevant where it lacked the precision and clarity needed for adequate understanding. So it seems to me that Serrano in Piss Christ and many other artists thought that what is most important is internal fluids -- urine, blood -- and generally, one's individual problems, personal love toward one thing, personal hatred toward another. Now, I think, we are in a completely different time -- a time of a global world, global politics and global economics; our vision can no longer discern any personal stories. There is only one blood: the blood of the earth. It doesn't matter where you've peed, doesn't matter whether it's your blood or someone else's. What we're seeing is that as the world becomes more globalized, language becomes global, too. The maniacal need to kill as many people as possible in conflict-ridden oil-bearing areas attests to a hidden, unconscious desire to constantly renew the supply of oil, and here I completely agree with Victor's opinion. In millions of years, all organic matter will turn back into oil, so the more people they snuff out, the more fuel there will be in the future. Thus the strategic supply of raw materials, the strategic reserve, is replenished.
V.T.: Your comments about internal fluids have refreshed in my memory an argument I once had with a friend. Having moved from the countryside to Moscow 50 years ago, he still believes that blood is everything and that all virtues inherited by children from their parents are transmitted through blood. In saying that blood is the important thing, he appeals to blood as a universal identity. However, today, in the era of globalization, blood can no longer lay claim to the role of a universalized identity. It's no longer red blood but black oil that has been raise to the level of identity for the generations living in the globalization era. My next question has to do with the technology of the production of your works. Many, myself included, are struck by the quality of their execution. One can see that you are using a technique conducive to the differentiation of optical perspectives. Thanks to these different perspectives, our first impression scatters into various allegories of interpretation, and the more numerous they are, the more significant the artwork. What could you say about that, and did the technological aspect really require a substantial time investment?
A.M.: Yes, this was rather time-consuming. Especially since the first works were not quite adequate: here are the objects, dim and black, even though from the beginning the plan was to make a sort of negative of the sculpture, so that we could see emptiness in some kind of neutral glass cube -- an emptiness intended to be filled with something "global," some sort of product or waste of globalization. The development of this technology consumed a lot of time, including trips to factories and innumerable tests during which three or four different materials had to be tried out. To this day, the people at the factory where I make my works cannot believe their eyes, because they have never seen anything like that. It's one thing to place a sculpture in transparent acrylic; it's another to take it out, leaving a hollow space (a negative) inside and then fill the void with oil using a pump. This technological task was not easy to solve.
M.T.: One prominent art historian believes that every creative person who turns to sculpture automatically becomes a citizen responsible for solving social problems, because, unlike artistic practice in a workshop, a sculptor's activity is public art. If that is the case, would you perhaps like to display your objects in the streets? Probably the presence of oil inside them excludes such a possibility, mainly because public sculptures often become targets of aggression? In your case, this could include not only graffiti but something more serious -- for instance, fire being set to oil tubes and the like.
A.M.: Yes, of course it would be interesting for me to see my sculptures in a public space. For instance, in the offices of a large oil company -- in the reception room or in the lobby. To me, they are not sculptures but a kind of technical process of the transformation of oil into something else. Today it becomes transformed into victory over a weaker country, into Nike, into Apollo -- into anything you like. Anyone can fill whatever he or she wants, any way they want to fill it. It's the process that interests me, and I would like to demonstrate it in a large public space. I could imagine a sculpture of large dimensions "cast" from such material.
M.T.: There is a contradiction here: while oil may in fact be the new global blood, the image this blood is poured into is borrowed by you from some other world -- a world not yet touched by globalization, more traditional, and at the same time more universal. Such as the image of Christ …
A.M.: It's old and new generations, as it were.
V.T.: We're all as old as oil -- we and the dinosaurs alike.
M.T.: The age of oil is one thing; the beginning of its use is another. Oil as fuel is as old as modernism. Its utilization is connected to the industrial era and scientific discoveries. They started pumping oil to feed industrial complexes, cars, machines, etc. And now you, Andrei, have somehow returned to the roots of the modernist attitude toward art as a resource. The idea of its utilization is comparable to the utilization of oil products, and even though oil as raw material is an inalienable part of "modernity," it has never been mythologized by modernists. They have used other, oil-mediated images -- airplanes or automobiles -- but no one has ever perceived oil as the blood that feeds the infrastructure. You have brought out precisely this quality -- that is to say, you have bared the skeleton of industrialization and penetrated inside it, so to speak.
A.M.: What appeals to me is the opportunity to identify the very substance of modernism in order to turn that substance into an aestheticized political art. To take, for instance, the portrait of some contemporary chairman of a corporation and execute it in oil instead of bronze. It turns out that in our time, in a moment of total aestheticization, this kind of modernist portrait, which has on its conscience the automobiles and airplanes of the past, is a response to the aestheticization of politics and the aestheticization of plunder imposed by capitalism. I actually do find this direction interesting, since it opens up a new horizon in joining living characters through modernist connecting material -- oil. In this kind of oil portrait, we see plundered and burned countries, and hundreds of thousands of people murdered for oil, but it all looks horribly aestheticized. For an example of the hyper-aesthete, look at someone like Bush, who talks about high culture.
V.T.: In the 1920s and '30s, along with capitalist modernism, there were two other kinds: socialist and National Socialist. The differences between them are not limited to Walter Benjamin's theatrical statement that fascism is "the aestheticization of politics" while communism is "the politicization of esthetics." Incidentally, the color of oil does not in any way contradict the color scheme of fascism, which cannot be said of Soviet-style communism -- though from the point of view of critics on the left, its redness is nothing more than optical deception. However, if you believe that Bush and the oil tycoons backing him are trying to aestheticize politics, this corresponds, to some extent, with Benjamin's definition of fascism.
A.M.: That's quite true, but these things are either not said or said in different terms. They may not be called by their proper names, but it's precisely in this kind of aestheticization of politics that we see an undisguised fascism toward Third World countries, and toward everyone in general. What we get is global fascism.
M.T.: Strangely enough, we have returned, yet again, to the problem of minimalism. It is naïve to think that aesthetics can level political and social problems, or that those problems level esthetics. However, unlike minimalist structures which are now faulted for having become too much like boutique designs, your sculptures, "tainted" with an un-aesthetic material such as oil, will probably never move into the sphere of pure aesthetics. The oil that periodically drips from them will keep them in a state of conflict with the architecturally sterile and physically pure environment of today’s galleries and museums. In a sense, this is reminiscent of the situation of Pollock, who offered art collectors his purely abstract canvases and was capable of taking a piss into the same collector's fireplace.
V.T.: In the case of the objects we are discussing, the minimalist props are related to the aesthetics of the funeral. Every one of these objects is a glass coffin in which the sleeping princess awaits her prince -- that is, in effect, the viewer. The princess stands for the content packed into the coffin. There is some kind of hidden expression resting within it, and in order to make it apparent the viewer must smash the glass coffin with his gaze, free the content imprisoned inside it, and start interacting with it.
M.T.: No, that's not going to be content any longer -- it's going to be just the filth that postpones the victory of pure aesthetics.
V.T.: Oil will save the world!
A.M.: Having defeated oil with oil…
The exhibition opened in Kashya Hildebrand Gallery in New York on September 9, 2004, and was called “Trash Resources.”
Vasily Rozanov (1856 – 1919) was a Russian writer and religious philosopher.
Since the military-industrial complex has a powerful interest in oil extraction, the scientists working for it undoubtedly know what contribution to the world's oil reserves can be made by a single person a million years after his death. If they could (with the aid of new technologies) shorten the time of the conversion of a corpse to oil, this could lead to even larger-scale slaughter of people. (V.T.)
There were no previous analogs of any kind to these technological processes. I had to develop everything from scratch. I tried using virtually all new technological transparent materials (polyurethanes, silicones, polyester resins, methocrylates). In the last couple of years the workshop began to look like a chemistry lab. Chemical formulae and the temperature-based transformation of materials became my top priorities in life. The first sculptures came out of the autoclave flattened by the 9G atmospheric pressure; others were bloated because of the difference between internal and external pressure. Each time, placing the sculpture in the autoclave and then removing it, I would find out if my calculations and the chemical formulae had been correct or incorrect. The temperature in the autoclave reached 110 C, the atmospheric pressure was from 9 to 12 Gs, and the process lasted up to 48 hours, depending on the mass of the object. Once this process was completed, in a transparent block that weighed 150 kilos, the "positive" of the sculpture had to be destroyed. The hard sculpture inside the acrylic block was dissolved with an acid/alkaline solution, and then poured out through a small 15-mm hole. What remained inside was the negative of the sculpture, its hollow imprint -- for instance, the hollow imprint of Christ, which we filled with oil, thus turning it into an oil icon. The image is exchanged for the index of oil obtained in conflict zones, and the dimensions for its volume (barrels). (A. M.)