andrei roiter

Philip Pocock: You are a Soviet artist; however, you emerged a few years ago onto the international art scene without the albatross of nationalism attached to your name as in the case of Komar & Melamid, Alexander Kosolapov, and so on. How, if at all, do your Soviet roots manifest themselves in your work?

Andrei Roiter: Well, I can't say that I feel I'm just a Soviet artist. Of course I have memories, my Russian background, which is important, and I am rich with experiences of the past and with knowledge of such experiments as Sots Arts, Komar & Melamid, Kosolapov, and so forth . . . For us, it was absolutely necessary, in the late seventies and in the beginning of the eighties, to feel our identity. Later I was searching for a way to deal with my human reality, not just with local Russian problems.

Pocock: You chose not to study art formally. What course of study did you follow, if any? And if so, how has it informed your ideas? Roiter: It's true, I've never been in the university, per se, though as a child I visited, from time to time, various art schools. My first important appointment with art was when I was twelve years old because, lucky me, I had a teacher who brought me a new vision, a new feeling for regular objects. He asked us to find strange things in our daily life and in regular objects that always surround us. In that time it was a very big deal, a big chance to start to see the social landscape differently.
When I was sixteen I visited a professional art school, the Moscow Institute of Architecture. This was because my parents wanted me to become an architect instead of an artist. For them it sounded more attractive and professional.
Later I realized I wanted to escape from the inertia of society. I saw that to be an artist was not just picture- or image-making but a way of living. At eighteen I started to exhibit with older "unofficial" artists who were the same age as my parents; this became my real "university." From them I learned about the world, not just about art but also how to manage my situation at that time in Soviet life. How, for instance, to get money from one job and then make art for myself and just a small circle of friends. It was an underground society, and quite early I learned a lot from them. It was during that time that I met Kabakov and other artists from his generation. Right now, in my mind, it seems very positive that I was involved in a certain circle, about forty to fifty people who were close friends with each other. And it didn't consist merely of artists but of poets, musicians, writers, and performance artists as well — a small cultural society, with very intensive ideas and without much concern about making objects. It was just a pollution of ideas, permanent discussions, and exchanges of these ideas. Many of these are still in my mind and I'm pleased that I had been there during that time. It had nothing to do with the outside and the presentation of art.
There were no galleries, museums, or collectors. If you made a picture or did a performance, it was for yourself and your friends, without reflection about whether it would be published in any magazine or sold to any collector. And your decision to be an artist came from your desire to create a personal existence apart from official society. Instead of being dissidents, we created an alternative intellectual community. I don't know if it's possible to call this art in the Western sense because it was more life than art. This is one of the reasons why Russian exhibitions were so unsuccessful in the West because they were often done like a fast-food souvenir from perestroika without understanding the life context. At the same time we had a different notion of quality, one that has nothing to do with art being a commodity that hangs nicely on the wall. It was more or less a quality of ideas.

Pocock: What do you think of Gorbachev and his policies? Could it be said that he is as important to the development of Russian culture as Dostoevsky, Shostakovich, or Malevich?

Roiter: I will never think of Gorbachev as an angel who brought us heaven or changed the situation all by himself. It's a crisis that came to us in a certain time. OK, you can associate this change with his name, but it wasn't one person, of course, who made this change. Stalin, for instance, was a terrible monster, there is no question, but he was, from my point of view, a logical continuation of the incorrect communist ideas from the beginning. The beginning of Stalinism was the Russian Revolution and this is an interesting point to speak about Utopia. Russia is a strange region between Europe and Asia and has always been ripe for one Utopia after another. This quality has both positive and negative aspects; positive in the areas of the intrinsic Russian mysticism, spirituality, and a special kind of romanticism that gave birth to Russian literature, icons, the art of Tatlin, Malevich, Kandinsky, the Russian avant-garde, etc.; negative in that politically the people both in the past and present are always the victims of different ideologies that make their appearance as different yet interchangeable dictatorships. Russia, with her sad aura, is a huge territory filled with her own emptiness and now, from the distance of the West, the first thing I notice is the power of this emptiness.

Pocock: Is there an indigent morality or spirituality that pervades Soviet thinking and art? Are you questioning the ethical nature of modern value structures with your paintings, images, and objects?

Roiter: Well, first of all, I'm far away from the idea that I'm going to make something new; rather, I look at the things that are already here or there, already done by people in the history of culture, not just Russian culture. In general, the idea to create an artificial reality whose result will be out of control, I now can see is a way toward the end and is so much connected to ideas from the beginning of the modernist revolution. It's not just an ecological catastrophe. In my mind, it's connected with a political crisis that is now in Russia and in Eastern Europe and exists as a certain kind of "postcatastrophism." I have a feeling that it's the beginning of the end. At least we can smell this crisis. We are going to kill the trees and afterward we will paint the walls with this green color, a fake sentimental memory of nature.
We are so often preoccupied with the problems about modern art that we have the illusion art only began in the twentieth century. I'm thinking about the time before Modernism. I am curious about the idea that art was born from a religious gesture with a concentration of spirituality. In this time of postmodernism, which is the crisis of modernist Utopia, I am longing for the simple and strong features of absurdity, mistakes, irrational crimes, detective works, etc. — a kind of translation of invisible reality into a visible object, after my trip in the "social nature." I want to be a spectator translating my thoughts into a personal language. If I think of Andy Warhol wanting to be a machine, then I would like to be a spectator inside of this machine.

Pocock: What significance has your signature color — the brownish green? Do you expect the viewer to react in a specific way psychologically?

Roiter: As I said before about "social nature," that green for me is the color of this "social nature." Green for kids is the green of nature: grass, trees, and plants. For older people it may be a color of a military nature. Also, when kids make a drawing of trees, they already know that the same crayon can be used to draw a tank or a soldier. In Moscow you can see this green color often because it's very cheap. I read somewhere that people find green to be a very positive color that has a calming effect on them. In Moscow the interiors of many clinics and offices are this color. So when I think of Russia, I see this color. I have a complex of ideas with this green, and I hope to send a certain kind of message to the public with this complex of associations as well.

Pocock: Both formally and substantially your work hovers between critically defined styles. By avoiding clear conceptual, postmodern, or romantic styles, how may we read the works as a whole? Are you searching for the origin of ideas in consciousness at a level that preceded the rhetorical arguments implicit in formalism and functionality?

Roiter: In general, I don't like to give myself any specific title. And the most interesting artists are also very hard to put on any labeled shelf or to put a title on their work. About the term "postmodern": from the beginning I had an ironic sense of this term; postmodernism seems to be a dress that you can wash from time to time and have the illusion that it's new.
Interest in Russian art, for me, is a nostalgic dream of postmodernism for the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of this century. As I understand modernism to be a certain kind of romanticism, I can say that my works are actually anti-romantic and anti-sentimental. I don't try to bring people into a sentimental feeling or make them cry. I see the landscape or many things done by human beings nowadays as a cemetery for romanticism. All of these topics — media, social structure, social communication, and even financial structure — interest me because one body can mutate in a historical sense. Instead of nature we are trying to create a supernature, the result of this being that we are closer and closer to becoming a biomorphical mass. Soon material objects will be part of our body and we will be part of these material objects that are now around us. Time will not be linear but a situation without beginning or end. So this is one of my ideas, which is basic to my anthropomorphic forms, in combination with the green color and filled with my own garbage. This idea is about cultural reality and my "tourism" through the social landscape.

Pocock: For years you have been existing as a nomadic artist. How has living in an ad hoc way affected your perception of things and your working methods and materials?

Roiter: Having to travel a lot and switch from one country to another gives me a new feeling, one that is very positive and exists now as inspiration for my works. I am a permanent stranger, a tourist, a spectator, and a foreigner. The idea to be an immigrant, or the idea to be a Russian in the West, or a Russian in Russia, or to become a German, a Dutchman, or an American does not look very interesting to me at all. Pocock: Is your work intended to evoke a sense of isolation? Were you or did you feel isolated growing up in the USSR? Roiter: In a way, yes. I know of one kind of isolation that all of us experienced in Moscow before perestroika. Many things are labeled "Forbidden" or "Impossible." And now I notice another kind of isolation, here in the West, that is not so much the isolation from information but isolation in the sense of people trying to be at a distance from each other for as long a time as possible. You can be more independent from your neighbors, but, at the same time, you become more and more dependent on the system itself. I speak about a certain kind of silence that interests me very much — and this is without a negative or positive mark on it — silence itself. Emptiness interests me. This I can surely say . . .

Pocock: Are you sympathetic to Suprematism? Do you share its spiritual concerns or do you relate Suprematism to a moment in Soviet history when such abstract emotions were discouraged? Do you believe that Malevich was acting in concert with European art or was he modernizing and developing the importance of the Russian icon to his native culture?

Roiter: I appreciate the quality of spiritual concentration of the art of that period. But for us Malevich appears to be a foreign artist, and this is partly because for fifty years his name had the mark "Forbidden" on it. Of course it's another Russian phenomenon that now, at the end of this century, the country that was the motherland for the avant-garde of the twentieth century is completely innocent of modern art. Of course, Malevich is a great artist and he is not guilty at all for the terrible disorder that happened later. But still, so many of the artists at that time were too much involved in a kind of radical communist idea and finally became their own victims. Pocock: Through your use of appropriation and, even at times, the images themselves, as in First Camera, you appear to reflect upon the possibilities of media. Is your installation Private Geography exposing the perception versus the intended objectivity of mass media? Roiter: This painting, First Camera, which is concrete on canvas, is about time and a view of time, and about this change, this metamorphosis that happens with the conservation of the vision of the voyeur, something about a view on reality that becomes a concrete plate. So it's a combination of important things for me. This piece is like a certain manifesto, and it's not, again, a sentimental view. It has nothing to do with nostalgia. It's about this change in time, that our present in the future will be our past. Things we are able to see now could be dusty garbage in a hundred years, or even in two days. First, concrete is just dust, then you mix it with water. It's like dirt, nothing else. After you put it on the canvas, the next day, it becomes something similar to stone. I'm interested in the media as a means of communication, in the way that it brings us many illusions and actually builds up a big transparent wall between reality and us. We now have the idea that we are well informed and have a lot of information . . . And we have the feeling that we know everything, but the most important things are not there. Not at the art fairs, not in the museums. I believe the most important things are invisible now. And about political information from TV screens: I'm sure that the articulation of situations that we have today will appear totally different in a few years. It happens all the time. In a few years we will notice that the Gulf war was different from what we know now. So, of course, it's interesting to look at this theater, but I prefer to keep my distance.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors