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Marek Bartelik in Saint Petersburg

There was this opinion voiced today at the forum that an art critic cannot maintain a friendly relationship with the artists he reviews...

I don’t agree with that. I know many artists who, apart from creating interesting art, are also essentially very interesting people. They are not in the slightest interested in perpetual adulation; what they are interested in is dialogue. Anyway, I am not particularly aggressive in my critique; a conversation between two friends can sometimes be quite intense as long as it is based on mutual understanding. For me it is a privilege to write about someone whom I know; after all, I believe in this person. And everybody has their ups and downs. Take Robert Rauschenberg – he is an outstanding artist and yet sometimes he is brilliant and sometimes terrible. Jasper Johns, on the other hand, was always the same, and I find him somewhat boring. That is why I prefer Rauschenberg. He varies, and that is what makes him more human. Anyway, we all benefit from being reminded once in a while that we are actually not something mega-special.

Who are your favourites in this century?

I just completed an extensive essay on Cai Guo-Qiang who works with gunpowder and explosions. I went to see him work in Donetsk, in Ukraine. That was a fantastic project they did there in an abandoned mine. What he did there was engage in a kind of dialogue with socialist realism. He asked a number of local artists working in the traditional manner create portraits of miners. And then he transformed these pictures into his gunpowder images. The result was an installation in a huge industrial setting; as you enter, you see these portraits of ‘blown-up miners’...
It is for this dialogue with traditional art that I like his works. Cai Guo-Qiang was born inChina, and he knows the value of both tradition and avant-garde. If you take away the ideology, socialist realism can be a pretty noteworthy art. It may not suit everyone’s taste; however, it is an interesting way of looking at things. There are lots of camouflaged, hidden things in socialist realism. Gender themes, the dynamics of these kinds of subjects are also represented in socialist realism quite significantly. Cai Guo-Qiang is exactly the type of artist with whom I would love to sustain a perpetual dialogue.

One of my fellow lecturers at the college where I teach is the Lebanese-born Walid Raad. He completely won me over with a video of his. It is a story of a spy in Beirut, an agent whose job is spying on people walking on the famous promenade along the seashore, a nice place for an evening walk. You see everything through the eyes of the spy, all those different people walking by. The spy, however, is a bit of a softie; he has this weakness for sunsets. And every time he sees a sunset, the camera moves from people (‘subjects’) to the sun that is going down. That is an excellent piece: poetic, definitely not silly and not too long, as so often is the case with videos.

There is a brilliant exhibition by Willem de Kooning running currently back home. There has been quite a discussion going on regarding his final pieces: did he or didn’t he paint them himself. He had Alzheimer’s, and there is this possibility that someone else was physically moving his hand during the actual painting. The works are very different from the stuff he did earlier. Now, there is an interesting subject: what do you actually use to create art? Is it your hand or your brain, or perhaps both? In this case, someone else was guiding his hand. So do these paintings actually belong to him? In my personal opinion, yes, they do. >>