Russian Star: Andrei Bartenev
Text Vladimir Kozlov
Andrei Bartenev is well-known on the international contemporary art scene. His recent exhibition, Disco-Nexion, at London's Riflemaker Gallery earned him acclaim, with British art critics pointing out "the hidden depths" behind Bartenev's garish, discothemed collages and installations.
A native of Norilsk, a Russian city located inside the Arctic Circle, Bartenev has a reputation for versatility. He has designed clothes, created paintings, collages and installations and participated in art performances. "Art is a creative outlet for me, and I don't care in what forms it expresses itself", he said, adding that his reliance on a mixture of different art forms dates from childhood.
"As a child, I made models from plasticine", the artist recalled. "Then I began combining those models with animals. I would make a plasticine bonnet for a cat and plasticine houses for mice. Also, I liked to cut stuff with scissors, and I still like making collages have made a lot of them."
"It was some kind of compulsion," Bartenev admitted. "I cannot explain what made me, as a child, grab scissors, cut images and glue them into notebooks. But I know that the process gave me a thrill, and remodeling everything I could put my hands on has become natural for me. And that applies not only to magazines and books, which I use as material for collages, but to objects in my performances. It also applies to the way I think and move in space. Everything I do has this element of synthesis to it."
The artist has retained this versatility to this day. "I am currently working on a new book project with the Moscow-based publishing house Agey Tomesh/WAM," he said. "I'ts an album on the design of matchbox labels, and it is largely based on my own huge collection of matchbox labels. The book is expected to come out in September, and its release will be accompanied by an exhibition of matches and matchbox labels."
As part of the Moscow International Youth Biennale this summer, Bartenev will curate an exhibition called SOUVENIRS NLO OSLOKINO UFO. "In this project, astronomy and UFOs are used as a basis for abstract fantasy," Bartenev explained. "I hope this will provide artists with new material and bases for new visual statements."
Among the artis's other upcoming projects are plans are to write a children book using his own poems and performances at the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums in New York. According to Bartenev, despite his considerable international experience and recognition, he is still viewed abroad as a Russian artist. "In any case, theres a national component in my art," Bartenev commented, adding that recent international controversies about Russia may help to pique interest in Russian artists. "They think [my art] may also be a Russian controversy!"
Bartenev's garish, extravagant works gaudy, provocative clothing have occasionally led to controversy, making him a popular subject in glossy magazines and society events. According to the artist, contemporary art should have a controversial component to it, although it is up to the individual artist whether to address controversial political or social issues. "If an artist wants his paintings to talk about social issues, let them," Bartenev explained, adding that he is personally interested in creative ideas rather than political ones.
If you discover an island, you have to give it a name, you have to name all the seas and oceans around it.
Bartenev said that his participation in a contest to design a monument to Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, had nothing to do with politics. "What I proposed was just an object of beauty, a fountain, without any social drama. I had no hopes, though, that my project would actually win, be realized and installed in Moscow. It was just a pretext for me to get the idea into some presentable form - namely, a 3-D model."
Despite being labeled by domestic news and arts commentators as "the eccentric king of glamour" - and his participation in the high-profile Glamour and Antiglamour exhibition held last August at Moscow's Kino Gallery - the artist said the word "glamour" doesn't mean much to him. "This is just a journalistic stereotype."
Bartenev's relations with the Russian art community have been strained over the last few years. "Im sure [my audience] is not the Russian art community, he said. "For the last five years, I haven't done any large art performances in Russia, only in New York and Europe. I'll curate exhibition projects by young artists here, but I wont do my own projects."
Bartenev said that the current situation on the domestic art scene, where the state supports primarily conservative and traditional art, is not good for the development of society in general.
"In America or Western Europe, they have already passed through periods of totalitarian approaches of this kind, and they understand that the more tolerant the market is and the more tolerant the audience is, the better for society. In a tolerant atmosphere, you always find understanding journalists and art critics and sufficient audiences. All that gives society a huge potential for development."
The artist waxes a bit nostalgic when speaking about the 1990s: "In the 1990s, people had hope for some sort of freedom, and everyone worked to the limits of their talent and understanding of freedom. Now everyone knows what they should do and what they shouldn't do. In the 1990s, everyone was creating the norms by themselves, just like discovering new lands. If you discover an island, you have to give it a name, you have to name all the seas and oceans around it. Now everything has its name, and its too clearly stated what belongs to whom."
Despite these attitudes toward the Russian art world, Bartenev is hopeful about domestic audiences. "The audience here is not much different from elsewhere in the world, and there is certainly an audience here for contemporary art. If someone wants to see what I'm doing in America or Europe, they can see it on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet. This is a powerful information channel these days."