Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. Courtesy@the artist

Early in October, many locals residing in the vicinity of the Shtager Gallery curiously observed the setting up of the installation by artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. Some got scandalised, others were delighted at it and even joined the performance later. This was the inauguration of Storming – the installation dedicated to the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Only in this case, this was not a Winter Palace in St Petersburg, but an industrial complex in South London, which was literally besieged by the hand-made plywood artistic creations. The launch began with the welcome given  by the director of the gallery Marina Shtager. Then a tour of the installation with Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai followed,  to be finally concluded by the passionate performance of the exhibition’s curator Denis Maksimov. The opening of the installation was such a hit that it even attracted the correspondents from a major Russian TV company NTV.

The installation of Shishkin-Hokusai will continue its journey across the UK and will soon appear in a number of other spaces, each time adapting to a new site, depending on the surroundings. The gallery owner Marina Shtager is interested in cooperation with various public and private institutions and will be happy to consider new proposals regarding this installation.

 Our contributor, curator and specialist in contemporary Russian art Olga Pogasova, held this conversation with Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai and asked him about his search for his own place on the Russian art scene, discussed how his artistic practice influenced his work as a theatre set designer, talked on the magical power of names, the current situation in the Russian art world  and the way it appears to the foreign observer.

  How did your chose your hybrid artistic name Shishkin-Hokusai and why?

Eight years ago I made a transition from being a professional stage designer to becoming a free artist. I seriously worried about finding a new name for myself, because I intuitively felt that I needed to reinvent myself, to take myself into a different space.

How did Hokusai emerge?

Some years ago I used to belong to the artistic group Parazit in St Petersburg. The group consisted of Vladimir Kozin, Igor Panin, Semyon Motolyanets and the late Yuriy Nikiforov. I started exhibiting as “formerly Shishkin, now Hokusai”. As you know, Hokusai sold his name as a brand, but still signed his works as “the former Hokusai”. A certain game with brands was going on. My surname Shishkin is quite common in Russia,  but it is also a famous art brand, because of the painter Ivan Shishkin (a Russian landscape painter of the 19th century, closely associated with the Peredvizhniki movement, a household name in Russia– RAC). I started playing with other Russian names but eventually decided to find a more complex reference and this was how Hokusai appeared. I even thought that with assuming this name as my nom de plume, I received some strength from Hokusai, i.e., certain elements in his manner, his type of thinking, his love for theatralisation, his work with figures – all this is very close to me as an artist.

It is a curious coincidence that eventually the realist painter Shishkin, with his Russian forests and landscapes, and the Japanese eccentric Hokusai, with his graphics, guided me to what I am doing now: make installations with plywood graphic figures in the forest. It was not what I had initially planned to do, but this was what eventually happened. So, in the beginning was the word, or rather, the name.

When did you reach the turning point and drifted away from the theatre towards contemporary art?

I started working for the theatre a long time ago. Having graduated from the Art and Design Faculty of the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music, and Cinematography, I began working as a stage designer. It was 1995, the time of hopes for a new Russia and for a new art to emerge. At that time the Institute of Theatre stood on Mokhovaya Street: between the Academy of Arts and the Vera Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design —  and it was the most free-thinking institution of that time. We experimented a lot with literature, with texts, with music —  that is, with various synthetic disciplines. But at the same time, I was not an artist in the classical understanding of this word. Rather, a non-artist from the viewpoint of the then-art establishment. As a consequence, I was living in a permanent state of frustration.

Did you find what you were looking for in contemporary art?

Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai mounting an outdoors installation. Courtesy@the artist

This far, my contemporary art experience has been rather local – mostly confined to St.Petersburg and Moscow. I have done a few projects in Asia: in Korea and China. And now this one in London, so my geography is expanding a bit. To me, the world of Russian contemporary art seems somewhat marginal in comparison. Strange as it may seem, I even view official  government institutions in Russia as marginal. They do not seem to be prominent, separate entities, which are popular or at least, accepted by the public– no, they seem to have been put on a back burner in contrast to, say, theatres, which are supported from federal or city budgets. In Russia, theatres are historically in demand, they are taken into consideration. With contemporary art, the opposite is true. Of course, there have always been such museums as the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum, but they are more like libraries, archives, rather than evolving, living institutions.

Private organizations in the field of contemporary art are a different story. Private capital appropriates art and helps to capitalize it. Private art collectors do not only buy contemporary art, but also launch it into society, enculturate it. Typically, artists in Russia have a marginal status: they are only known to their close friends and family, and very frequently, even their institutional, officially acknowledged status, helps little with promotion of their work. The general public has the vaguest of ideas about what an artist is doing or what means he/she are surviving on. However, by selling art in galleries, an artist gets a chance to present oneself as an accomplished professional, a part of a certain structure.

What are your relations with theatre now?

I still work for the theatre but in a completely different way now. That is, my theatre projects are now incorporated into my personal projects. For instance, last year I ran a project Colours in Theatre. Following the concept of this project, I designed sets for the first performance dominated by green color, for the second – by red, and for the third one – by blue. These three performances were simultaneously staged in the same city. No one, neither the directors nor the actors, knew of this secret logic. At the same time, for me, this was a whole single spatial spectacle inter-connected through colour. This way, it was not me who had been swallowed up into the theatre project, but the theatre was incorporated into my own personal project.

After all, each theatre is like a self-contained church, or a sect, with its religion, cult, and leader. Having quit this “sect”-set, you can observe it from a distance. And now, being engaged into public art, I have actively started to socialise outside this milieu.

How do you feel about leaving Russia and doing your projects abroad? Does your personal artistic focus shift when you are out of Russian context?

Actually, I have previously had a project in London: gallerist Liza Savina brought my works here and exhibited them at the Pushkin House, but I was in Berlin at the time.

The other day in St. Petersburg there were new series of rallies again; the police detained some people. Now it is very difficult to lead a purely artistic life separate from any political context in Russia. I work in Denmark, I am here on a visit to London, and it is certainly easier to see the whole situation clearly from afar. The division and clash of different political systems within Russia, as well as the ways out of this crisis are quite obvious. No doubt, current Russian political crisis has a very strong impact on artists. My approach to this situation is very subjective, and, inevitably, distorted. I believe, something similar was experienced by Ilya Kabakov, who first worked in Russia and then went to live and work in the USA.


OP: Does it feel like there is more freedom here? That is, that the artist can afford to do more here?

Yes, of course, certainly. The distortion has now reached to such an extent, that it even seems that there was more adequacy, humour, and understanding in the USSR. While in Russia the real and the unreal have merged into a new reality… For example, I had to transfer all my children from public schools to private schools, in order to protect them from propaganda. The state machinery actively connects religious context with the political one, children sing church hymns at schools, and this has  spread all over the whole country like metastases. If this continues, then this plague epidemic will spread everywhere. So, whenever one arrives, infected with all this, to London, one tries to  recuperate and get back to sanity.

Of course, one can treat this differently: artist is always fascinated with observing the major trajectory of disease, collapse and renaissance. There is a dynamic, a process here, and any process is interesting.

Do you think that we have reached the very bottom and will soon bounce off back to normality?

This is hard to tell; the process is unpredictable. We can make many assumptions, but it is like playing the stock market: there is a certain rhythm and pattern here, but it is not that easy to figure out. Obviously, we are very ill, really damaged, and this will not let us exist normally, or correlate our situation with that of the global art industry.

And all this becomes more obvious when you look at it from here?

It all sharpens up, comes into focus. Being here, you can not approve of what is happening in Russia. It is like taking off one’s own shell, and giving oneself some time to adjust to a new temperature regime. You come to your senses, you evaluate the situation. It is like coming up from a deep dive: one needs to spend some time decompressing.

Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. Storming. In the process of installation. Courtesy@Shtager gallery

 Why did you choose Storming for your project in London? What did you expect?

This spring, Marina Shtager suggested that I should commemorate the anniversary of the October Revolution. By the way, it is very actively celebrated in our country now. It is a serious event, a great date. The project of building a communist society lasted for 60-80 years, shaped the vision and psychology of several generations, created a new world, new philosophical contexts, a new model for the transition of mankind into a non-capitalist era. All this is very interesting and can not be called absolutely unproductive. Just like in art, you constantly ask yourself the question: are we on the right course or are we following the wrong path?

Therefore, the revolution theme is very important for me: it is a theme of revival, breakthrough, storming. However, in this case, the exhibition has more to do with sexual revolution. For me this is not a social revolution, but, rather, a humanitarian one: and this is the underlying message of war ar between the dressed and the naked.

What happens to your works after exhibitions? They are made of such fragile material – plywood —  so, how do you keep them?

This is a global problem related to the secondary art market. How to store and preserve the art, which has not been included into museum collections is one of the major issues. Food rubbish decomposes, rots and disappears. Dry rubbish is stored in museums – it is repaired and preserved there. My plywood projects started as photo projects. In fact, first, the sculptures were installed, then they were documented. The photographs in themselves are artworks. Clearly, these photos accumulate and transform into an archive, a catalogue of things. Partly, it resembles a process of film-making.  Film studios can also be viewed as huge libraries full of various things, such as costumes, suits, furniture, props etc., and various images can be reconstructed with the help of these objects. Initially, the idea of my work was the  ​​”plywoodisation” of the world. Ideally, an empty, deserted St Petersburg,  which after a chemical attack becomes  inhabited with shadow-like plywood creatures. Plywood creatures are flat like photographs, prints. They are similarly fragile and have their own lives. Plywood is a good material: akin to paper, it stratifies, bends and rots… All my works are stored in my dacha —  in a separate museum–  exactly like those of many other Russian artists.

 How did you find your artistic language – graphic works on plywood?

My first contemporary art project which was nominated for the Kandinsky Art Prize, was called “Juices! Light!”. I built mise-en-scènes with paper men in juice boxes. They had to be observed through holes. This was the way to conserve some everyday scenes. There was something from the Flemish Old Masters and camera obscura experiments about them: a little surreal, a bit voyeuristic and Freudian…

Artists work with models of set designs when staging a play. Small figures are installed into these models, so that the directors and actors could understand what is happening. On the one hand, it is something completely childish, like a doll’s house; on the other hand, —  it is an alternative world. So, we are talking here about world and reality surrogates.

Then I worked on a project curated by Valentin Dyakonov in Moscow.  It consisted of artworks looking like paper heads, and by staring straight into their eyes a viewer could discern various scenes unravelling inside.  After that, in 2014, I was invited to participate in the Art-Prospekt festival, and this was my first experiment with the open space. I did not hesitate to switch from paper to plywood. The scale changed, and models simply moved into the street, but the linearity and graphical qualities remained. For me, this was an important turning point: a point of organic transition to the new medium.


 The author wishes to express her gratitude to Mila Dolman for helping in preparation of this interview.