Shapero Modern proudly presents Encyclopaedia, an exhibition of pen and ink drawings by acclaimed Moscow-based artist Amanita.
The work on view is comprised of five series, ComMOONism, Revolution, Eastern Calendar and Oil and Barrels, all of which date from the period 2011 to 2016. Each series reveals the artist’s highly idiosyncratic engagement with the world, which is simultaneously fantastical, surreal and darkly satirical.
While political themes clearly come through in his work, Amanita is not a political artist. His drawings are wry, crackling with visual jokes and mercurial connections and associations, as well as flashes of surrealism.
Says exhibition curator Sasha Markvo: ‘Amanita is an artist of exceptional gifts and imagination, and I’m delighted and privileged to present the first survey of his pen and ink drawings in London. While Russian influences are evident in all his work, so to are European and Asiatic which lends it a universal quality. His is a unique talent, one that provokes and delights in equal measure.’
ArtAttack had the chance to speak with Amanita on his artistic history and practice.
ArtAttack: How did you become involved in creating art?
Amanita: As soon as I came out of my mother’s womb, I started drawing. I always drew! I drew with chalk on the pavement, with charcoal on the windows, in copybooks and in albums… I even added extra drawings in books where I felt they were missing. My granddad, a former soldier, used to swear when he picked up his brand new newspaper and saw it was covered in doodles! In both kindergarten and school, my teachers knew that the only way to calm down a little “idiot” (troublemaker?) like me was to put a pencil in his hand. I completely ignored art lessons, though – I used to think that the artist couldn’t be bothered with that nonsense.
My first ever exhibition was in 1977. The Soviet people were celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the Great October Revolution. I was five. In kindergarten, the kids were asked to draw something for a children’s art exhibition. My drawing – “Sailor at the march” – became part of the “Creative children” exhibition.
When I was 12, I understood that I needed to study. I passed my exams and applied for the art institute. As of the first of September 1984, I was a REAL ARTIST! From that moment, no one could stop me!
AA: How long have you been working with pen and ink?
A: The relationship between graphics [intended as graphic drawing, ie pen and ink] and I started as a marriage of convenience. In the USSR it could be difficult to find cardboard or canvas for painting, or even just oil paints and other materials. All those mythical tools that were indispensable to create miracles were only sold in special shops, meant only for professionals, at least in the provinces. Even in art school we had to learn the basics of painting by using watercolours (!). Andpen and paperwere always athand… China ink and steel feathers were sold in shops for literally a few pennies. Then perestroika happened, and then the economy crashed. Even ink disappeared from the shelves, BUT pencils were still available. Graphics forever! So that’s how I became a graphic artist. Of course, my hand would always hover over the colours (/would be tempted to reach for the colours), but I decided that it was better to be a good graphic artist than a terrible painter. Since I’d been born holding a pencil, it looked like I would die holding one, too. Whoever wants to be an artist can be one: an artist isn’t broken by the economic situation, or by the social structure of his country. Nothingcan break him! And this isn’t about the technique or the materials used for art, because at the end of the day, you can always dip your finger into your tea and use it to draw on the wall.
AA: To what extent is your work influenced by contemporary politics and Soviet history?
A: Having been born in the USSR at the height of the Cold War, I witnessed all the political and economic changes with my own eyes. Of course, this couldn’t not have had an impact on the formation of my personality and my view on life, and it of course had an impact on me as an artist, too.
My childhood was like any other Soviet child’s. My life consisted of the pioneers [the youth organisation operated by the Communist party], family and school. But when Gorbachev appeared, politics took over our lives. It captured everyone, from teenagers to elderly people. During perestroika, we all experienced massive change.
In the West there is a myth about terrifying, all-powerful Soviet ideology. But that’s also the very reason the USSR lost the battle for the West’s brains and soul: because this terrifying ideology was flawed; it limped on both legs; it was ridiculous. We had NOTHING we could use against the ideals of the free market, human rights or free speech.
The vector for the growth of the country that emerged after the fall of the USSR went from 90 to 180 degrees. Everything changed. Yesterday’s internationalists became ferocious Nazis, Komsomol [the Communist Party youth wing] leaders suddenly turned into oligarchs, censors became advocates of open access to pornography, atheists immediately occupied mosques and churches, Russians became “Jews” and “Germans” overnight, in the hope of migrating from the beloved motherland.
The iron curtain became the golden curtain. Yesterday’s enemies became our best friends, friends and colleagues became enemies… And in this happy carousel with its cheerful music, everything was fucking spinning – and then everything slowed down. I knew guys who, in the space of 25 years, went from being communists to free market advocates and liberals, to ardent nationalists, to Putinist patriots, and are now admirers of the West…
It’s perversely pleasant to observe this theatre of the absurd when the masks and the roles of the actors change at mind-blowing speed. Almost as if one could observe the face of an Englishman if, say, at the height of Thatcherism, the Iron Lady had turned around and embraced Communism. In Russia, it’s more fun to live and observe the clowns acting out a tragedy from the comfort of our seats.
I’m Russian, and I feel very strongly about the tragic history of my country. In my work I often try and create and “anti-history,” a kind of imagined history of the USSR. A Soviet “history” of sorts of the first half of the 21st century, with ideological clichés of the former USSR. My work is meant to be a window from which you can see the world through the prism of the political absurd. “Politicalfantasy,” if youwill, of “fictional/fantasticpolitics”.
I always find it amusing when, at exhibitions, a guest congratulates me on being a “real Communist,” and a minute later another guest shakes my hand for being a “staunch anti-Soviet”. These people have just looked at the same works! Sometimes guests come up to me and ask whether they’ve truly understood the meaning of my work; they start sharing their own interpretations, and at that moment I am filled with pride for my incredible intellect, because I in fact meant something quite different and definitely not as deep as what they’re saying, and I never pretended to be a prophet as journalists quite often call me;-))
ArtAttack: How would you describe the emerging art scene in Moscow?
A: I’m really not involved in Moscow art scene any longer. As I see the situation from where I am, it has been emerging for last 20-25 years and still is.
The diversity is really impressive – now we have almost everything – both marginal and fashionable art, ‘arte povere’ and glamorous; hi-tech multimedia and good old fashioned performances;
So many new exhibition spaces were opened recently, including open air sites for public and street art; which is great;
Also quite an alarming situation concerning the latter one – street art created under governmental guidance, not only in Moscow, but all over Russia. Art of free and unconditional self-expression, mostly anarchistic or so, becomes something useful and pro-governmental. That sucks.
As for me, this art scene is emerging in Moscow and Saint Petersburg mostly, other cities and towns are almost untouched with contemporary art, and it’s depressing. Regional artists have a very little chance to make an artistic career and develop their talents. Even these two cities don’t give enough opportunities for a strong breakthrough.
When it comes to the art-market it is more or less like on the West – few influent galleries take care of promising (in their mind) artists, some lucky ones moved to Europe. Also, looks like museums play a more important role than galleries, which are getting closed or lose edge, so to say. Well-known gallery curators develop museum programs of contemporary art exhibitions and make significant retrospective expositions. Not so many galleries (almost all are small spaces in basements) work with young or nameless artists, still it’s good they exist and try to diverse this art scene.
– India Irving
Encyclopaedia will be on view at Shapero Modern until 16 June, 2016; 32 St George’s Street, London, W1S 2EA; Admission: FREE