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Oleg Kulik during the opening of his newest exhibition. Photo: Sergey Khachaturov

The white frame of the Black Square 0

An interview with artist-performer Oleg Kulik

Sergey Khachaturov

Photo: Sergey Khachaturov

On April 8th the exhibition “Ramy” (“Frames”), by famous artist-performer Oleg Kulik, opened at Moscow's Regina Gallery. The paradox is that the exhibition is not of epatage sort at all; rather, it marks a turn for a new understanding of opportunities in the formal language of art. The installation is very interesting, with references to the tradition of creating spatial environments in the Russian Avant garde, as well as to objects created by the Italian minimalists of the Arte Povera art movement. There are only four objects and one projection in the hall. At first, you see a long corridor formed by two frames brought back from Tibet. Their inner space is mirror-like, and the edges are turned into ribbons of light. Consequently, a visitor finds himself in the grip of endless reflection coming from the luminous contours of the two frames. Walking out of the corridor, the visitor finds himself under a structure that is shaped like a shallow dome, with yellow disks on the inner surface and a circle of light over the semi-sphere. On both sides of the dome there are two panels. On the right you see a black shadow of a running man with open arms. It is formed by burning church oil lamps. On the left, a silhouette of a Madonna icon is depicted by little dolls assembled in elementary geometric figures (pyramids, spheres). The dolls are girls. Right across from the entrance there is a projection of Malevich’s “Black Square”. The composition is inscribed into the Greek cross.

At the vernissage, the exposition was discussed very intensely, if not furiously. The number of its advocates equalled the number of its opponents. The advocates, namely, the maitres of Russian modern art – Boris Orlov, Alexander Ponomaryov – liked the purity of the concept and its manifestation, as well as the translated ideas that do not lie at the surface. Those who were discontented, namely, the snappy new left – Yegor Koshelev, for example – accused Kulik of nonsensical decorativeness, of imitating old themes, and of creating a sort of colonial goods shop.

How does the artist interpret the exhibition himself, and what place does it take in his art? We decided to ask Oleg Kulik about that the day after the opening of the exhibition.

Let's proceed in the direction of movement. Here we have two frames. They are from Tibet. Why? 

These frames comprise the theme of Paradise and Hell. The Paradise is the outer side of the frame, the glass in which people are barely reflected. The Hell is an inner corridor; it's a hospital light –  there is a bad infinity in it that curls into a dot. Writings and symbols on the outer side of the frame urge you to overcome ego-delusion, to look through yourself. To let the world pass through you, to become transparent. The surface of the frame is decorated with friezes in the shape of flames. It is a cooled fire that dissects the darkness of this world. Everything becomes transparent and beautiful. But you don't disappear. You become a hint, almost a ghost – but you are light and you are not traumatized. And inside the corridor, you are under the scalpel of observation. When you are in Hell, you see yourself and only yourself. When you are in Paradise, you see that the world is beautiful and you enjoy it. All normal people feel good on the outer side, where you see the world opened up and yourself as a lighted, gleaming silhouette. I found my frames in Tibet. At first, I was delighted with the harmony that opened up from looking at the world of Tibet through these frames. I looked at great Tibetian landscapes through these handmade constructions. At a height of 4500 metres, I was thinking: I could bring the frames home, and this feeling would work there as well. I brought them here and the frame became heavy, wooden, tasteless, clumsy. It became its own opposite. And then I figured out the way to retrieve the great capabilities of the frames. But there is a more global task: how is it possible to depict the divine nowadays? I understood that it could be done only by the apophatic method. By default, without efforts to capture a specific image, but to create a certain spatial strain of emptiness. 

Is that why the dome construction in the centre of the hall, and the projection of the Black Square on the other side of the corridor that is made of frames, appeared?

The construction was modeled on the vault of the rock-cut temple in Cappadocia, dated as 2nd century, AD. The temple was founded by the first Christians who hid in the caves from Roman legionnaires. It is a catacomb temple. In decorating it, a square (a symbol of the Earth) and a circle (a symbol of God and heaven) were used. I was really drawn into the space of this temple. I took photographs. And in the photos, all of the paintings with the saints disappeared. And the geometry of the golden nimbi remained visible. And I reproduced this impression.

The black square in the centre is not depicted, but it is created as a portal. Malevich called his «Black Square» the «naked, frame-less icon of my time». But the Square has its frame. He just did not see it. And he did not understand his work himself. We removed all sentimentality of the Square, all this shelling, the floating white threads. And everything became ascetic and laconic.

Aleksanrda Shatskikh, an expert on Malevich, rightly commented that the «Black Square» is also a reference to the new virtual reality. A black field in a white frame – that's what the common home computer looks like. What ideas do you put into this image? 

I don't want to be captivated by interpretations in which this image is furnished with concrete connections related to the cosmos, to flight, to the abyss etc. I believe that it is not necessary to logically load the Square with something because when they do this, people turn the Square into a certain kind of idol. It is just the «Black Square», and nothing more. It does not depict anything. And its greatness is exactly in this. For this Black Square, the whole exhibition is a frame. The exhibition is not about answers, but about questions.

And does the white frame have any semantic load?

Of course. A person cannot change the world. But he can look at it through the white frame, at will. And here the Black Square is transformed. We notice what Malevich didn't see. The white frame is the right attitude towards the world. The whole exhibition is the white frame of Malevich's «Black Square». It is like loving  somebody else, which is bigger than loving yourself.

What about the panel with dark silhouettes and oil lamps and dolls at the contours?

The dolls were made by individual order. For three months I've been tackling the sketches. Six hundred variants. First, they were girls in skirts. Then they were girls in masks (but without any reference to Pussy Riot). Then came the triangle-sphere. Malevich's suprematism helped me; it is an integration of geometric shapes. This childlike suprematism shapes the shadow of the Madonna. On the opposite side there is a shadow of a protester, surrounded by burning oil lamps. So the exchange of themes happened: secular – sacral.

Who inspired the running shadow of the activist? 

This work was influenced by my impression of one visit to a church. The light flickered there because of numerous oil lamps. But suddenly, the harmony was destroyed by a man who rushed into the church and started to wobble heavily in this flickering light of the oil lamps. Like the Bolshevik in Kustodiev's picture. The image was close to being hallucinatory.

The secular and the sacral are balanced in the exhibition. What about harmony in the real world?

Alas. Just two examples for you. I traveled a lot in the East, where they pay great attention to the inner world. But the outer world is abandoned. In Mumbai, thousands of people rummage in the garbage, kids eat table scraps. And with all of that, everybody is spiritual, prays to God, and disregards the material – which is malodorous and stinking over there. And then you go to Bonn, for example. All the paths are practically licked clean; everything is perfect. But people are blubbery, screechy, spiteful. They gobble beer and lard, but the world is a paradise. They all follow the rules. I was riding a bike on an empty street and swerved just two centimetres off of the path. And immediately, a beer-loaded burgher runs to me, bars the way and stops me from going further. He starts yelling and screaming that I have broken the rules and that now the world will collapse. Hell exists in every case. The frame helps to find a balance to everything, including the internal and the external.

Because God is not dead (or God is not “cast down”, as Malevich said). The one who said that God is dead was just gone out of his mind. He had been wetting his bed and eating his poop for twenty years. This is Nietzsche. People are mortal. And God is the love in our hearts. It is eternal.

The visualisation of the exhibition layout

How is this project inscribed into the logic of your art?

I fancied the theme of a frame for a long time. Because I came to the conclusion that the subject of art (if it is good) always eludes the final definition. It is always about something else. After long contemplation, I understood that you have to look at the world through a transparent frame. When I started to look at the world through glass, I felt lighter. You see that everything ugly and definite turns into a certain kind of fairy-tale. I lived in the late Soviet period, and I walked with a glass frame in order to discover the reality that was hidden from everyday vision. At the end of the 1980's, I saw through the glass that the transparent sheet had peeled the wholeness of space into five realities: indents in the glass, the very surface of the glass, behind the glass, in the reflection, and around the glass. There is a Buddhist practice: without taking your eyes off of the subject, tell what it is that you see apart from it. It is a method of training to learn to see, to acquire strong observation skills. There were mystical situations with the glass. You see a flying bird that disappears suddenly. A window has been opened in a house and its reflection doubled – you don't understand where this has just happened – in the illusion, or in reality. But I could not convey this aerial feeling. I had a trauma. I had been doing this for ten years. And I had a hard life in that period. I walked with these glass panes, but I had nothing to eat at home. We had perestroika in the country, and powerful social movements in art. And I walked with these glass panes. I was not invited to the exhibitions. Because of my love of art, I turned into some crazy person, into God's fool. And then I wanted to make a final gesture – to leave art and to stop being a cultured person. I got down on all fours and I wanted to understand the nature of wild, aggressive reality instead of the reflexive one.

I decided to become a castaway who does not understand the frame forms and who does not have psychological complexes about them. From transparency, to a dog – it was a strange, but in reality, it was a very natural move. It turned out that this primeval creature is a modern image and in demand. And then a very beautiful period began. I left the country and traveled around the East for nine years. I had been sitting in the lotus pose until I almost flew away. I am a passionate person, and finally, a lama told me: «Why do you want to depart from your consciousness right now? You don't need it; come back, get to know your personal God». And I came back to the frames and understood that they had to be formally manifested. I chose the theme with emptiness in the centre. I understood this degree of freedom and responsibility at the same time. This exhibition is about transparency as well – the transparency of the inner state.

How do you fit into the modern art situation with this work?

Now, old works, or works about hardly perceivable, almost disappearing things, are preferred. Any strong statement causes suspicion. The fair one. But I want to play it over – to leave a strong statement, deprived of the centre. I wanted to avoid declarativeness, dogma, bad intention. In this respect, I am closer to conceptualism. But I comment on the emptiness not with words, but tangibly. Many conceptualists cling not to style, but to the human mafiosi factor. One American critic said (and not by accident) that today, conceptualism has replaced spirituality. And it is impossible to change it without recovering this spirituality.

By the apophatic method?

Yes. That's what conceptualism says: it is not important what is in front of you, it is your attitude that's important. And this attitude can be expressed tangibly.

And conceptualism is also a testing of borders. Of the language of art, first of all. So a frame, as an index of the border, is a very conceptual artifact in every sense. Is that right?

Exactly. The complexity is only one – you should not play too long with the frames. The frames don't bear replication. You cannot reproduce your attitude into something endlessly. You framed it, and you delicately stepped aside. You're not in the centre of talking. You have to give way to others. One wise rabbi said that God created the world by shrinking everything in all directions. To shrink in all directions – this is exactly the image of a frame.

It is interesting that the frame speaks about infinity, precisely because it structures our view. And if it did not structure it, infinity would not have  existed. There would be a world of bad subjectiveness – the chaos of things upon which our eyes would stumble over senselessly. Like in popular, but crappy, 3D movies. Do you agree?

Yes, I agree. And just because of that, the principle of self-belittling is important. Like what happened with the frames: I found it, and then I immediately lost it. Then it is not a dictate nor a dogma. With this exhibition, there was no main image – until I found Malevich's “Black Square”. Also, Tatlin's experience of the organisation of functional reality was very interesting for me. No comfort at all, and reducing your own presence to a minimum.

What's next?

It is hard to fathom perspective with this exhibition. There is a feeling of exciting, pleasant purity. So far, I don't understand how to proceed further.