Vasil Artamonov (*1980) and Alexey Klyuykov (*1983) are a duo of artists who explore the avant-garde legacy with a melancholic passion full of self-irony. They work with all kinds of different media in their installations, although painting remains the most important. They come from Russia and now live in Prague.
Vasil Artamonov: At the end of a presentation or lecture we always show the diamond mine Mir by the town of Mirnyi in Siberia. It is a surface mine, about a kilometer in diameter, and it looks like a great funnel, six hundred meters deep. There’s a no-fly zone above it because whirlpools of air form there and can drag things down into it; it has already dragged in a helicopter or two. I think they’ve already mined out all the diamonds there. What we mean is that our work is about nothing. It moves, metaphorically speaking, on the surface of this crater. We work with history that is already mined out, so there is nothing there anymore. Our things just copy something that used to exist and that they don’t manage to grasp fully. Maybe you might still find some diamonds on that slope, but probably not. You bring out something that no longer exists and at the same time you look for the last diamonds, which seem to be gone. This also relates to today’s mortifying skepticism. Once it was possible to believe, but today all that is possible is to remember that it was possible.
Tereza Stejskalová: It’s an aspect of melancholy. The melancholic mourns for something without actually knowing what it was. He feels only emptiness. But that is a backward view, not at all a look ahead.
VA: So shall we try some questions or themes?
TS: For example self-irony, irony…Something so traumatic that you prefer to make a joke of it…
VA: I had a classmate at secondary school who became even wittier when his parents divorced; their sides laughing. It’s a kind of unconscious defensive reaction. You couldn’t have a serious talk with him at all. He always told a joke and killed the conversation with it.
Alexey Klyuykov: We would rather not give you an answer. Or only “yes” or “no”.
VA: Or we’ll say it isn’t true. We will over-react.
TS: You’ll be like a patient in psychoanalysis who says, “I dreamt of a woman, but it definitelywasn’tmymother.”
VA: Well, obviously. In art, at least the way we do it, what we are actually saying about this or that problem isn’t important. The mere fact that we chose it is important in itself. Whether it’s a criticism or an endorsement is secondary. That example from psychoanalysis fits perfectly,maybefor our art altogether. What do you think?
AK: I don’t know if you can generalize like that. But maybe yes, for some things.
VA: I liked the way Vančát quotes Pachmannová’s interview with Jasanský and Polák. They say, “Yes, illegibility, that’s our strong side. If, at the outset of making a photograph, we have a concept, as they call it today, we quickly try to mask it, scramble it, destroy it. In the same way, rather than a critical or judgmental tone we choose neutrality, which best expresses our wonder at reality.” That struck me as funny. And further more, in an interview it’s great to quote a quote that someone else has already quoted.
AK: I think we’re the better for never having what they call a concept. We try to invent something afterwards so that everything doesn’t look random. I used to think that was our weak side, but now I realize it’s our strong side. For me these are purely formal trifles.Just work withmaterial.
TS: It’s tinkering with stuff and then you throwing in a quote to make it look important.
AK: Maybe that’s an alibi, to make sure it doesn’t look like completely empty nonsense. But as a result it is nonsense. Maybe it’s also a matter of what the art world requires. You can’t exhibit something “just like that”…
VA: You think so?
AK: I don’t know. Maybe I would have a bad feeling about that myself. I’m confused about it.
VA: When we make something, though, this way we always arrive at some forms, some meanings. And so the question is more that of where in this process some purpose and some meaning begin and end.
AK: Meanings always turn up, the work always points somewhere, recalls something…In a nutshell, we have a lot of symbols, things, references, that we’re constantly using. Like a book…
TS: But why like a book, for example?
VA: The list isn’t there because we want to write these things down for ourselves.
AK: These symbols are archetypal. They are universal. Book, planet, flag,bee,earof corn. You highlight a universal symbol and what you are specifically saying about it is no longer important.. Our exhibition in New York was called Socialism, but it could have been called anything. A friend came to the opening and asked why the exhibition wasn’t called “Tuna Sandwich”. I told him I didn’t know.
TS: It occurred to me that if anything can have truly political meaning in art these days, it’s the strategy of movement in the field of artit self. Whichi n stitutions to exhibit in, with whom….
AK: I said that long ago. It doesn’t matter what we exhibit. What is important is that we create a situation and events for the people we think there is a point in doing it for. We create the environment for that opening. You support places, the people who create them or sustain them. I don’t credit it with any more significancethanthat…
TS: You don’t feel completely at ease in the art business. You aren’t adept at self-presentation.
VA: In New York it was particularly tragic. We had a presentation at the ISCP in New York, where we were on a residency. Our computer wasn‘t working properly. We said something in English. It was embarrassing.
AK: You didn’t say anything. I couldn’t remember the English words. I was asking the Czechs who were there. It was very unprofessional. Originally we didn’t want to do the presentation at all. In the end they talked us into it.
VA: When we had finis hedI looked at the audience, and many of them were bored. Yet the whole ISPC functions like a dream factory. We called it “Loser-grad”. There are a lot of artists sitting there and waiting to be discovered by a curator.
AK: Curators are paid to visits artists. They have 30 minutes for each artist. In that time you have a chance to tell your story, explain your concept, talk about what you do and why, and somehow convince the curator. And then you wait and hope that he calls, and that in the end you’ll sell your products in some gallery in Chelsea…
VA: It’s all tied up with the market.
TS: Why is that? Isn’t there any underground there?
VA: Probably there is, but it definitelyisn’tthe ISCP. I remember our conversation with one curator.
AK: He came an hour late. He comes to chat with you for money. Naturally your work interests him a lot.
VA: He chats with you for money. Like a psychologist. It’s totally weird! We told him about everything at length. He was very interested, he asked cogent questions. He was well-informed, well-read, referred us to other artists and books and so on. He was enthusiastic, wrote down our names and said he would think of us.
AK: There were two Slovenian artists with us in residence – another art duo. They did completely different things from ours. But that curator talked to them in a completely identical way. He asked them questions in the same informed way, and also referred them to books and artists. He also told them it was very interesting.
VA: How can you work in a situation like that? There is probably some kind of underground there. They are there somewhere on the edge of the student gallery. But the students are also hoping that a famous curator will turn up and they will get to Chelsea. Everything is headed in this direction.
TS: But doesn’t it start as soon as you create a portfolio?
AK: Yes it does. That’s why we had mixed feelings about getting the Chalupecký Prize. It’s the beginning of a professional career. Although here in the Czech Republic it’s a ridiculous pretense. If we are going to be consistent and if we are part of the art world, then we ought to want to pursue it to its logical conclusion. We ought to want to be represented by a gallery in Chelsea. That was why I felt peculiar when we won the prize. I didn‘t actually want it…
VA: It’s half-baked…
AK: Sure, we won’t say no; it’s a compromise. You join in that game and then you are expected to develop your career further.
VA: Following it to its conclusion means having your own New York and Paris or London gallerist.
TS: Like Ján Mančuška. He did it, he “followed it right to the end”, but he remained critical of how the whole system worked.
VA: I’d be interested to know how he coped with it.
TS: But I think it’s important to think about these things. If we were all consistent and for example, decided that biographies were stupid, something would change. Most artists create works that can’t be translated into items in a biography. It’s important to have some principles, it’s important not to let yourself be ground down by it. One option is resignation – you accept everything because you feel that rather than having to wrestle with every single compromise, it’s better not to confront the issue at all. But that’s not a way forward. .
AK: Let’s go and delete the bio, or write what we want there….
VA: Pavel Sterec told a story about Viktor Pivovarov, that when someone was doing an interview with him for a London magazine, he invented a story about how he had made friends with Brezhnev, studied with him. Pivovarov claimed that Brezhnev painted and drew. He said they used to consult about it and he still had a few of Brezhnev’s pieces at home. They believed it and published it word for word.
VA: Someone will abuse our things one day.
AK: We’ll have to burn them….
VA: It’s terribly enjoyable abusing the works of dead artists. What excites me about history is that it’s so open to abuse. That’s no original discovery of course. But history is simply something that can be used as a tool, a weapon. It’s the weapon not just of historians, but of artists, politicians – anyone who can succeed in somehow making history his own. And that’s brilliant.
TS: Alexey, you have a fondness for zombies and various monsters without faces…
AK: I like drawing corpses. It’s easy – whenever I start drawing, I start by drawing the face of a corpse….
VA: I just heard about a Russian historian who was a historian body and soul. When a person died in an accident, he would findthe grave where they had buried the corpse, dig it up and take it home. And he would find out all the detail soft he life of the person. At home he dressed the corpses and wrapped them up so they looked like dolls, sitting around or lying down in different positions in his home.
TS: But why did he do that?
VA: Because he was a passionate historian. No, I don’t know why he did it…I think it was a pretty strange way of not coming to terms with death. There is someone there in a bear costume, for example…He investigated everything that had preceded their death, everything that had interested them. He had around twenty bodies there.
TS: It’s strange how ambitious some people are.
AK: You get up in the morning, corpses all around you. You go and have breakfast, you change the corpses’ clothes, you try out other clothes on them…
VA: He was simply interested in the lives of these people. If you research a historical personage, he or she has rotted away. But if they aren’t yet completely decomposed you can take them home.
AK: Nothing wrong with it… Do you want to try it?
VA: I’m also fascinated by the way he dresses these corpse-dolls, the kind of kick he gets out of it. He is freely interpreting history – in his own way, but he is a historian-scientist. He turns them into a kind of puppets.
TS: You see this as a metaphor for what you do. Dress half-rotted corpses in costumes you have chosen yourselves. What is the point?
AK: There is none…..
TS: This historian was someone obsessed by a crazy passion that no-one understands, because it’s completely incomprehensible and even appalling for others. In the eyes of society he must always be a madman. That’s the source of the generally skeptical, but in some respects romantic vision of you as artists…You are romantics and skeptics. And you are never in the present, which is something you skip.
VA: It’s not something graspable.
AK: Because there is too much of it.
VA: I don’t know what it consists of. The question is what the present is. Anyway, you always still live in the past, your always grasp the present through the past. .
TS: What occurs to me is a vision like Giorgio Agambeno’s, which connects with your distrust of the present and that skepticism of yours. He poses the question: “Who is a contemporary, who is it who genuinely understands and sees the present?” And he argues that paradoxically it’s someone who is out of joint with contemporaneity, who remains alienated from the present. But it’s in this darkness that he sees another light, which is like the glow of distant planets. That light is heading towards us, but never reaches us, because those planets are moving away from us too fast. That light in the darkness represents a meeting that has never happened. It manifest itself as an urgent feeling that it is already too late, or that, on the contrary, it is still too early.
Untitled, 2010, oil on canvas, 170 × 170 cm, photo: Tomáš Souček.
ARTAMONOV / KLYUYKOV, installation view, Asymetric Answer, 2009, variable dimensions, photo: author’s archive.
Vasil Artamonov and Alexey Klyuykov are visual artists.
Tereza Stejskalová is an art theorist and curator of the gallery ETC.