Alexey Kallima was born in Grozny, Chechnya (b.1969) and currently lives and works in Moscow. His work has been the subject of numerous solo shows including ‘Chechen Women’s Team of Parachute Jumping’ at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York (2008) and ‘Just a Minute’ at The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (2004). Kallima has also represented Russia at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2009. In 2006 he was awarded the prize for the best visual art work in the ‘Innovation’ State Competition for Contemporary Arts in Moscow.
Our Editor Theodora Clarke caught up with the artist at Regina Gallery to see Alexey’s new solo show Everything is for Sale. The show includes a new series of large scale paintings and a site-specific installation created especially for the exhibition. It is the first solo show by the artist in the UK.
Theodora Clarke: How did your exhibition with Regina Gallery come about?
Alexey Kallima: It was a reaction to some events in my life. I got invited by Regina to do an exhibition and I began thinking about how a gallery operates and how the artist has to always produce works for the space. I started thinking that there is this pressure to always produce new works. There are so many galleries right now and so many people are going into the art business – everyone seems to be working with artworks. So I came up with this joke to turn the art gallery into a supermarket. I want to annoy the visitors a bit because they come to the gallery and expect to see this wonderful art but actually here are the same things they see every day in supermarkets. I want their reaction to be “where is the art here”?
On the other hand I use the traditional language of still life in the set up. I got this idea a while ago when I started paying attention to kiosks in Russia. Kiosks there are like small city installations, especially when you walk through the city at night and see them all brightly lit. They are like these tiny installations which are packed with everything the people love. But the kiosks are also the lowest forms of business that exist. As business is becoming globalised these local stalls are threatened; these little spots of trade are in danger of disappearing.
TC: Supermarket has been created specifically for Regina Gallery and is a site specific installation. I noticed when I came in you were drawing a figure on the wall – is that a separate work?
AK: No. It’s all a part of the same work. I am interested in buying – can you buy everything or can you not? This figure stands out from this whole debate to make us ask can you buy someone? There is also a lot of self-irony in this project because I am making these works that look very commercial and at the same time I am also putting price labels on the objects. It’s a joke about yourself, the buyer. I am asking what is commercialised art? You can’t really go further than this. You come in the gallery and this is it. Here is a supermarket. The biggest thing here is the production of goods, consumerism and how we need these goods – such as vodka and beer – and, of course, in the end we create all this rubbish on our planet which you can see in my installation.
TC: Alexey, you’ve been described as the Russian Goya because of your painted works. Who would you say is your greatest influence as an artist?
AK: Caravaggio and Vélazquez from Europe and from Russia Alexander Deineka. However I am trying to move away from these influences because they have been very strong. When I did my series Chechen Women’s Team of Parachute Jumping and Its Virtual Fans I made large scale monumental paintings very much in the style of Deineka.
TC: You’re based in Moscow, do you see yourself as a standalone artist or as part of a group?
AK: I am an individual artist.
TC: Pussy Riot and Russian contemporary art have been in the news a lot recently. Are you concerned that under the new government artistic freedom is being restricted or do you find that it’s not a problem?
AK: I never felt any kind of censure or restriction of freedom even when I did my works that depict Chechen terrorists. There is a law that Putin introduced that if you portray terrorists or terrorist propaganda you can be prosecuted. I was worried my works would get unwanted attention but it didn’t happen. My philosophy is to do more so-called plastic arts and not to involve myself with politics. I want to make the kind of art that will not violate laws. I believe the artist should be free with whatever he does with his art. I am not sure why the case with Pussy Riot got so much attention; there has been an unhealthy reaction. I have always supported Pussy Riot from the beginning and the whole case shows the stupidity of our church and the laws and malpractices in Russia.
TC: What would you say is the role of contemporary art in Russia today?
AK: Art is right now more fashionable than theatre but still less fashionable than football. Contemporary art has no influence on politics. There is no reaction in politics to what is happening in the contemporary art world. Before, officially the church and the government were separated in Russian politics but recently there has been a merge. Culture has been separated from this tandem of church and politics.
TC: Olga, you work at Regina Gallery, how would you describe Alexey’s work?
Olga Grotova: I think honestly Alexey is one of the most promising artists in terms of the painting tradition in Russia right now. He is obviously very talented. I think the subjects that he chooses, in recent years especially, are very important. He usually tackles these important issues in a playful way. It can be seen in this installation and his previous ones, where he talked about Chechnya, terrorism and female rights. I think he is a very important artist for Russia right now and he deserves the attention he has received.
TC: What is Alexey’s standing in Russia? Is he very well known?
OG: Alexey is quite well known in Russia. He has work in some major collections in Russia and he has represented Russia twice at the Venice Biennale. He was also the winner on the Innovation Prize. He is already established in Russia and through this exhibition we are excited to introduce his work to a Western audience. He has already had a few exhibitions in New York but this is his first London exhibition.
TC: Alexey, how have you found your stay in London and what is it like to work on a site specific installation in a gallery?
AK: London is beautiful and so far the exhibition preparation is going well. It’s been a good experience!
TC: I’ve recently been to the Saatchi gallery where they have a major exhibition of Russian contemporary art which is helping to open up Russian art to Western audiences today. How have you found your reception in the UK as an artist?
AK: This exhibition is not open to the public yet but I had work in an exhibition in the UK about eight years ago. It was one of my fluorescent works and the reaction was great. The people had never seen anything like that before and they reacted really well to it.
TC: What are you plans after this exhibition?
AK: Right now I keep changing my strategy but at the moment I am thinking about working with animation, possibly film. Not as in full feature films but animation to be shown in the gallery context. It will take the form of video projections on the wall, like my fluorescent pieces.
TC: What attracted you to animation?
AK: Actually I’d like to return to the artistic influence question. I also like the work of Hayao Miyazaki, who is a Japanese director and animator. For an artist I think it is a good application to work not just on static paintings but on animation too.
TC: Have you ever done a work like the one at Regina before?
AK: I do it from time to time. One of the first ones was in the centre of Moscow where I created a fountain coming out of the wall made from plastic cups. I did a big installation at a festival where I used 40 000 knives and forks to make a work that symbolised the Chechen war. One of the first installations/ performances I did was to draw a chalk line around the Kremlin during Putin’s first presidential election to symbolise an invasion. The concept was quite cynical and almost a critique but we couldn’t be arrested because it was just a line.
OG: I like the idea that these installations will disappear; that you can’t store them and no one will actually keep them.
TC: As an artist is it a challenge to create works that you can’t then sell?!
AK: No. It’s easy for me!
TC: Finally, You’ve been a representative of Russia at various biennales. What do you think is the role of the biennale and can a country be represented by a single artist? How did you feel about representing your country at such an important event?
AK: My thoughts are that primarily the artist is always actually representing himself. You do sometimes feel like you are this Olympic champion with these patriotic feelings and this huge country behind you. But in the end I think that every artist is really just thinking about himself.
Translation from Russian by Olga Grotova
Interview conducted 20 November 2012. All content ©Russian Art and Culture
Everything is for Sale
23 November 2012 -15 January 2013
Regina Gallery, London