Theodora Clarke speaks to contemporary artists Andrey Blokhin and Georgy Kuznetsov of Recycle Group, and Yana Smurova, curator for International Projects at Triumph Gallery, which represented Recycle Group at Art14 at Kensington Olympia, in London.  After winning the Kandinsky Prize for Best Young Artist in 2010, Recycle Group have been working their way across Russia, Europe and beyond to America and China. Having exhibited at Multimedia Art Museum, Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, and M’ARS Gallery, the Krasnodar-based duo are making waves with their critique of contemporary society.  

Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

Theodora Clarke: As a group you have produced work in a variety of mediums from stained glass to installations, which works are being exhibiting at Art14? Recycle Group: At Art14 we’re showing some pieces from our latest show at Multimedia Art Museum Moscow such as the Facebook cross, and the Ten Commandments; there are ten commandments in the Bible and also ten rules of Facebook that you cannot break. We’ve also got the stained glass windows featuring South Park characters as modern saints. The main victim in South Park is Kenny and the stained glass windows show ‘Oh my God, they’ve killed Kenny’. We are working on two themes: the virtual reality of Facebook and the material visualisation of it. The show we did was called the Paradise Network. If you have your profile on Facebook it promises you an eternal life if you do not break their ten rules, the commandments. It’s funny to see the parallels between these two worlds. Our other theme is future archeology, looking at the cultural life of the future, what will remain for other generations, like phones and things like that.  This whole world is interesting for us because it is not the material world, it is not spiritual, it is something else, like another dimension. TC: How did you select these works for display? Yana Smurova: They were curated by the Triumph Gallery. There are two ways to display art at an art fair: to find the most commercially successful works, or to make a big impact for PR. Since this is the first time we’ve exhibited in a London art fair, and Triumph is well known in Russia but not in London. We decided to go for the reputational option and build our image to make ourselves known. The size of the work is quite big and really attracts attention, and so we think our goal was achieved. TC: Where does the name Recycle come from? Your work seems to reference the past but often in a new context… RG: We usually work with recycled materials; it’s a cycle of production. People produce something, use it, and then recycle it. We then take that material and put it in an unusual role – a work of art. We put things from an ordinary role into a work of art.
Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

Art14, Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

TC: I was very struck by your work in stained glass, because it is such a well-known and iconic material throughout history. Mostly it has been used in a specific religious context such as in church windows and yet you’ve given the material a modern resonance. What was it that attracted you to this particular medium? RG: We have created new saints. If you go to any Cathedral you see figures from the 15th or 16th centuries and we’ve now added modern saints. The first time we worked with stained glass windows we used superheroes like Batman, Spiderman and so on who were saving the humans. We found some parallels between classical art and religion, and this series is all about Kenny who is the main victim, which has parallels in Christianity. Kenny dies in each series of South Park. TC: Many artists only work in one medium whereas you are always experimenting. What is it that attracts you to working in so many different ways? RG: We are interested in experiments, it’s the first thing we do. It’s important to do experiments with materials and ideas. We’re always trying to find a new way, a new vision. It’s good when you have the option of different materials and you can mix them together. We focus on recycled materials, and this means we can do all kinds of experiments. TC: Your work can be seen as controversial because you are using well-known subjects, such as the Crucifixion, but placing it a radically different context. Do you think your work is provocative to international/Russian audiences? RG: We have not yet had any problems with the Russian Government or religious people because we are not using political themes. We don’t address politics at all; we just use our personal world. We don’t use the theme of Russia either; we just look to our personal experiences. Russia for us is like a bridge. This is why we can use things from Asia and the West and mix them together. It’s difficult to say that if you live in Russia you must work on a particular theme and address these particular issues. Our world is very interesting, everything is changing everyday. It’s interesting to see the difference between past and future. TC: I’m interested in the fact that you are a group, how do you come up with a concept together? Is it a collaborative project or does one of you come up with the ideas for each work? RG: We’ve known each other since childhood because our parents are friends, they are also artists in a more traditional style. We’ve worked together for a long time, but the Recycle Project has existed for six years. Recycle was the name of our first show in Moscow, after that we decided to keep the name. Our creative process is just us playing with different ideas. We have a studio in Krasnodar in the South of Russia with our assistants. We usually play around with ideas. We usually have a lot of ideas and materials or technology. We try to use new technology because it is very important for artists. In the past artists used colour, but now artists use material, so we try to create a harmony between the material and the idea.
Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

TC: You mentioned that Russia acts as a bridge between Asia and the West; are there any particular artists who you are most inspired by? RG: Malevich, Kandinsky, Vrubel. I love Vrubel’s Demon series and Princess of Dreams. I like his style of painting, also Repin’s work I like.  We certainly have influences from the West and from Asia too. In our last show in Moscow we took the Western or American Futurama heroes and put them in an Asian context; we had 1,000 Buddhas and 1,000 Benders. We used the Western and Asian theme, but Western culture is more familiar to us. TC: Where are you based at the moment? RG: In Krasnodar, in the South of Russia, it’s 300km from Sochi. TC: Where did you train as artists? RG: We both studied in the Art Academy in Krasnodar, and before that Georgy studied in Stavropol, which is also in the South of Russia. TC: Some of the artists I’ve interviewed in Moscow and St Petersburg have said that they studied in the Russian Academies for their technical training but they had to go to the West to understand conceptualism and contemporary art. How did you become conceptual artists with the training you had in Krasnodar? RG: We’ve travelled a lot, especially when we were children with our parents to the West and around Europe. That’s why if you need to know something you can just go from Paris to London or New York to see some shows. I don’t think you need to have special education to see the world as you see it. In our city we also had contemporary art courses, but travelling so much has meant that we understand the world better. YS: I think it illustrates well that conceptualism can’t be taught. It’s just something that is innate in artists. TC: What do you think about the state of contemporary art in general in Russia at the moment? As a Westerner I can see that the public here is very used to contemporary art, whereas in Russia it sometimes feels like a new concept for the Russian general public. RG: I think the contemporary art scene varies a lot. A lot of artists work with the theme of politics, as far as I know a lot of Russian artists have travelled and they’ve shown their work in the West. We don’t normally define an artist by their country; we are the people of the world. Russian artists and the Russian art scene also shows artists as the people of the world.
Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

TC: Russian contemporary artists, particularly Pussy Riot and those with various political connotations, have had a lot of press recently, do you see your work as part of a trend in Russian art or do you stand apart from them? RG: We are friends with other contemporary artists, but not with Pussy Riot because we don’t know them personally. We have met Voina, but we are working in different directions, we have very different art. We do come across each other occasionally at exhibitions but we don’t collaborate with them. We live in Krasnodar; it’s quite small and quiet and we have a lot of time for work! TC: You’ve talked a lot about internationalism, would you define yourselves as Russian artists or international artists? RG: I would say that hopefully we are international artists. Times are changing, we are not Russian artists or British artists, we all just live on this globe. Our problems are the problems of the whole world not just one country or one artist. TC: My experience with Russian Art Week in London is that 90% of the buyers of Russian art are Russians.  Who are mainly buying your works are they international collectors, or is it domestic Russians who are supporting Russian contemporary art? RG: I would say it is about half each, a lot of Americans, French, Brits. We’ve just sold a large piece – 5 metres long – to an American museum in New York. So I think it is half and half.
Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

TC: St Petersburg is going to be hosting Manifesta 10 this summer; do you have any plans for the contemporary biennale? Are you involved at all? RG: We are involved in the Moscow Biennale but not Manifesta. TC: What do you think about Russia hosting Manifesta? RG: It is great! It’s really cool that St Petersburg will host Manifesta. It’s really good for Russian artists, and for such a cultural city as St Petersburg. I hope that the people who are coming from all over the world will see a special identity of Manifesta in St Petersburg. It’s a new point of view. It will be cool. TC: I was struck by the site specific works you have done. How do you go about doing these projects? Do you choose the building first? RG: Yes, we did one on the façade of the Grand Palais, Paris, during the art fair. It was a façade, like an empty shape of a plastic building. It was fixed on the scaffolding like the ghost of a building, like a trace. We tried to make an illusion, so it appeared to be stone, but then you take a closer look and realise that it is rubber over wire mesh. We also created the Last Supper but a view from the back, and with statistics from the Dow Jones. We also like to look at fossilising contemporary culture as a layer of history. TC: So it’s like a classical frieze but you’ve reinvented it with a modern context… RG: Yes and in the last Venice Biennale we created some kinetic pieces as well. TC: There are quite a few new regional contemporary museums opening up across Russia, it’s not just Moscow and St Petersburg any more… RG: In Krasnodar we have a space that our friends opened up called Tipografia which is like an exhibition hall for contemporary art and they’ve brought some artists for residencies, and they’ve had a lot of exhibitions and lectures there. So there are things happening in our city as well, it’s not so big but it is a good space.
Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

Image courtesy of Triumph Gallery

TC: How have you found your reception in London at Art14? Has it been successful? RG: Yes, it’s perfect here. We like the place, it looks nice and it’s cool that there are some young galleries. So we like it. I love London; it’s one of my favourite places. It’s home to all kinds of people from different cultures who mix here. It’s very cosmopolitan. TC: You work closely with Triumph Gallery and other commercial spaces. One of the questions that is being asked in the media with Art14 is whether the art fair is replacing the gallery. Now we have so many art fairs, for you as artists, how important is the role of the gallery in promoting your work? RG: For us our exhibitions in galleries and museums are more interesting because we can create big projects, something new. We like to use a big space, not a small booth like at art fairs. Art fairs are good, but for the artist it’s much better to have a show in a museum or gallery. In a gallery you can show your work how you want, and enable people to interact with the work. Art fairs are also important but people see so much art that it is difficult to concentrate on one piece. TC: Triumph is doing a project at the Royal Academy in London as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture. How important do you think the Year is to build links between our countries, does it enable you to do more projects as a Russian gallery? YS: We are definitely trying to make use of this Year of Culture. I think it will attract more attention towards Russian and Eastern European art, which I think is definitely growing little by little. Collectors are buying more Russian art. A lot of institutions are putting a lot of effort into bringing Russian art to the UK scene so I think that the Year of Culture will raise interest. TC: Will Triumph return to exhibit in London again? YS: We definitely will be considering it. TC: Last year there were five Russian galleries at Art13, and this year there are three. There seems to be more of an Eastern theme this year. YS: I think that it takes time to establish galleries at every fair. I think it is the same everywhere; on opening night the collectors come for the galleries that they usually buy from. It’s the same at Art Moscow, we always welcome our collectors and the majority of the sales are made by these established collectors. So you have to establish yourself and it definitely takes time, you need to have enough patience and finance. TC: Recycle Group have said that the gallery takes a more important role for them as artists than art fairs do. What is your take on whether art fairs will replace galleries? YS: I don’t think that art fairs will replace galleries; they have different roles and different aims. Galleries, beside the commercial promotion of the artists, also pay for their productions and help them with the realisation of their ideas. The art fair is not the space for that; it’s just a place to sell.   This interview was conducted on 1st March 2014. © Russian Art & Culture Ltd