Egor Koshelev lives and works in Moscow. He studied at the Department of Monumental Painting at the Stroganov University of Arts in Moscow. He has exhibited in Russia at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Moscow Young Artist Biennale and Regina Gallery amongst others. He was also shortlisted for the Strabag Art Prize International this year and received an award of recognition. His exhibition at Regina London continues until 5 October.
Our Editor Theodora Clarke visits the Regina Gallery for an exclusive viewing of the exhibition Underground Monuments/ Astro Hipster Domine and to meet the artist Egor Koshelev and gallery director Romilly Eveleigh.
Theodora Clarke: Egor is usually based in Russia. How did this exhibition first come about at your gallery in London?
Romilly Eveleigh: We had been discussing doing an exhibition with Egor for a while. He has exhibited a few times already with our Regina Gallery in Moscow. One of the challenges that we always come across, when working with artists in Russia, is the issue of transport. It’s not always so easy to get larger works here quickly. So we thought we would try something a little bit different with this show and set up a short term residency in London. That would give Egor the chance to spend quite a long time here in London, doing around a month’s preparation for the exhibition.
Theodora Clarke: So Egor you’ve actually been creating new works while you’ve been in London?
Egor Koshelev: Yes. The works which I’m going to present here are partly created on location and I hope the final exhibition will be like a painterly installation. I want to create a painted environment right here. Certainly it is related to the works I do in Russia but it will be quite different.
TC: Is that something quite unusual for the Regina Gallery – having an artist in residence?
RE: Yes. Normally the artist will make work in isolation and send it over. In this situation we thought we’d take advantage of the fact the Egor likes to prepare the works on site for some time before the exhibition. He works quite quickly on large canvases, so the residency idea works quite well with his practice.
Egor when did you graduate from university?
EK: It was about nine years ago from the Stroganoff art academy.
RE: A lot of the teaching as I understand it is quite closely connected to art production from the last few decades. This was when artists were doing a lot of public commissions – public sculptures for things like underground stations, for parks and processions. Although Egor is very interested in contemporary culture, his training was geared towards a more obsolete form of culture in Western Europe now. His practise is a mixture of these two elements of contemporary art and the Soviet monumental style.
TC: Egor, did you have a particular theme in mind for this exhibition Underground Monuments/Astro-Hipster Domine?
EK: Yes. I work in a very traditional way. I have albums with sketches and then I move onto a larger a size to finish the works. The subject of the exhibition is connected with escape. This man I represent in my pictures is a typical figure that is frequent in my works. It has some self-portrait features but in many ways he is a separate person. I call him The Last Artist. This idea represents what I think of a typical Russian artist. Many of the famous avant-garde artists finished their life in a tragic way. If you look at the last years of Malevich or Deneika, for example, the image of a refugee is apparent in their work. Russian art is an art of the people who are ready to feel loss and face their troubles. Most Russian artists expose that motif in their art either consciously or subconsciously. So I work with this figure of the Last Artist, who is partly myself and partly my understanding of this typical Russian figure.
TC: There are several pictures here which you are still painting. The gallery seems to have become your studio! Can you tell me about your working process for a site specific exhibition?
EK: With these semi abstract works I create a base and then build up from that. The process takes anywhere from a day up to several weeks. The work is dictated by purely formal reasons. I like the surface which can be provide only by the use of these abstract techniques. I paint with acrylics.
TC: Are these individual paintings or have you painted them to be a group of pictures?
EK: I design them more as a series but certainly they can exist individually. By collecting them together in a big space, like this gallery, it creates a painterly narrative. I think of these works as illustrations for unwritten novels.
TC: Most of your exhibitions have featured paintings. Tell me about the sculptures you are displaying here.
EK: Well this is kind of my debut in sculpture!
TC: Do you mean you have never made them before? Or this is just the first time you will have exhibited them?
EK: This is the first time I have shown them. They are sculpted out of new-plast and they will be coloured for this exhibition with acrylic paints.
TC: What is the reason that you have decided now to finally exhibit sculpture?
EK: One of the subtitles that the exhibition has is Underground Monuments. So one of the narrative lines represented here is the line tracing this process of going underground. This Last Artist literally goes underground. He lives in strange places under houses which are occupied by the beasts. He is often attacked by them, wolves and the bears, but it doesn’t destroy his creativity. These sculptures should all be viewed like the underground evidence of his activity. They have some grotesque forms. Sometimes I work with some very popular clichés of Russian monumental art – these images often have very strong state ideas or political ideas.
TC: What was the concept of this headless sculpture?
EK: It comes out of an emotional apprehension of the contemporary situation. I wanted to make a figure of a protestor. I visited all the protests last year in Moscow. I am depicting Acephalix as the mad protestor who has no head. He rises out of the mad gadgets that give him the necessary technical power to communicate. He is the child of this new communication culture. Sometimes he functions just leading by the intertia of the informational floods. So that’s the kind of mad activity that is reflected by this sculpture. It’s a kind of self-critical image.
TC: Egor, you wrote your PhD thesis on Renaissance art. How has the work of the Old Masters impacted on your work?
EG: As an artist I am connected to the body of European culture as a whole. It’s just inside me and comes out of that experience. Russian contemporary art is very seriously marked by conceptualism. And it has influenced the whole artistic process up to this day. The other side of this influence was the lack of the artistic object, in a plastic sense. If you find yourself in a typical Russian exhibition the echoes to Moscow conceptualism are still clear. Everyone says that something has to be done about it. We now have a fourth generation of conceptualists who look the same as their forefathers. I am not a formalist, I am not a purist. Instead, I like balancing on the edge of the artistic format with a social message.
TC: We are now looking at some digital installation shots of your previous shows in Russia. What is this work here Egor?
EK: Well this work was executed for a previous personal exhibition at Regina Gallery Moscow. The show was called ‘Phobia’ and was dedicated to the phobias that exist in Russian culture and social space. This particular painted installation was designed like a three-dimensional poem mixing together different episodes of my own life and the life of my country. It’s a kind of documentary recreated right here in a couple of days. It’s like a time collage of different parts of my life. It’s a rather strange work – pretending to be documental evidence about historical moments.
TC: This is obviously a site specific work. So what happens to these works after the exhibition finishes?
RE: The installation will be destroyed afterwards, but there are elements within this that can be shown again.
EK: The objects are arranged so that they are presenting a unity; a formal and intellectual unity. After the exhibiton they will exist as separate objects.
TC: This picture here is extraordinary. It reminds me of a Soviet or Fascist monumental mural painting although you treat it in a different way. Who is your greatest inspiration as an artist?
EK: I never really think of it! That’s not important really. I just have an idea and the form finds itself from this. So this particular picture is painted like a social allegory about five years ago. It was when the political regime in Russia started to appear more totalitarian in its image. This is what I dislike in contemporary Russia; it’s moving away from democracy. That’s what I am trying to mock in this gargantuan way. I have chosen to use a totalitarian means of expression. In this picture I have painted a troop of angels but in a different manner than you would expect. There are many analogies with European art, culture and social life which also give the image fearful resonances.
TC: You said this work was created five years ago. How have you found your work as a contemporary artist has been impacted by the current political situation in Russia?
EG: The impact is very serious. Last year when it all began everyone understood that history had suddenly changed its direction. Artists couldn’t just behave in the typical way. Myself and many of my friends were at a protest meeting. We couldn’t not go. We had to be there. I try to give form to the social situation in Russia. This work tries to give form to what was going on before the protests.
TC: What is your opinion on the recent imprisonment of Pussy Riot?
This situation with Pussy Riot has impacted in a very negative way on the image of artists in Russia. And Pussy Riot’s action really had nothing to do with art. Instead, it was a very powerful social performance. The girls themselves several times remarked that they do not consider their action to be art. Pussy Riot has simply become a key through which Putin’s propaganda system can lock up opposition activity in Russia.
TC: Do you have concerns about being a contemporary artist in your country especially, given Russia’s history with Socialist Realism?
EK: The Government today has shown that it really needs no contemporary art. If you read Russian magazines, newspapers or watch our TV programs, you will be surprised to find that the contemporary artist has become a figure to be attacked. We have taken on the clichéd role of the enemy. The figure of the contemporary artist is seen as an anarchist or an agent of international agencies. It is because we do strange things which nobody understands. Russian power likes the sort of art that has its prototypes in the nineteenth century. We can see a shift to conservatism in the whole body of artistic culture today. It’s a parasite form of art used to make money and increase one’s social status. When you are in Moscow I advise you to go to the museums of the official artists. This will give you the other vision of what a typical Russian wants to see in art. However, it has nothing to do with contemporary art and tells you nothing of current Russian artistic discourse.
Interview conducted 31 August 2012. All content ©Russian Art and Culture