Evgeny Antufiev: artists are all tied to their habitats (an interview)

Marta Galli

Russian artist Evgeny Antufiev sits down with CFA to discuss about eternity, dreams, insects, ikigai and why artists shouldn’t leave their own country.

What a nice surprise to find one day, in Reggio Emilia, an artist whose world compares to no other. Everything about Evgeny Antufiev is utterly uncommon. It was back in 2013 when he came to Italy and stayed for a 3-month residency to prepare his exhibition at Collezione Maramotti. “The exhibition was a journey into his mind,” says curator Marina Dacci who closely followed his work from then until the recent exhibition at Emalin gallery in London that she curated. “Evgeny is some sort of a monad in the art system, and he is someone extremely visionary who has the great generosity to take you into his magical universe.” Through a panoply of materials that he crafts in the most “rare ways”, he reflects on archetypes and makes up veritable “environments” that live at the very intersection of his culture, pop culture and the culture of the place he happens to land in. “He’s an extraordinary kitsch,” she muses.
Born in 1986 in Kyzyl, Russia, where he currently lives and works, Evgeny Antufiev was awarded the Kandinsky Prize in 2009, and made his name exhibiting also at the New Museum in New York, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and most recently at the Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art. He is currently on show (until January 7th) at Strauhof in Zurich with his research about Leo Tolstoy. His curiosity has taken him into a journey of investigations into the life of personal heroes, experimentation with different materials and cultural alchemies; but if there is leitmotiv – and there is – it is what Marina Dacci calls “his magnificent obsession for immortality”.

“Immortality forever” and “Eternal garden” are just a couple of titles of your exhibitions. The concept comes back again in the exhibition at Emalin gallery in London, where you have built a sort of mausoleum that is home to man for all eternity. How comes your obsession with immortality, or eternity?

Eternity is the most interesting dimension in the world. More interesting than length, width, height, space and time. I am not quite sure whether we can feel it, it’s more like a gift that you feel through the wrapping. Trying to guess what’s inside. You feel the outline, but what is inside? That’s the riddle. I hope to find out. I think my passion for eternity comes from childhood. I never believed in the reality of actual things, I always felt like they were getting old and disappearing.

“With a copper mask in one hand and a vase full of secrets in the other, my body will rest in a sarcophagus guarded by twelve specially trained monsters”: where does this image come from? If you had to dismantle it, would you be able to say where the single pieces come from?

It’s like my personal “Tibetan Book of the Dead”. Although this is no “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, it is too revolutionary a product, more like the “Egyptian Book of the Dead”. “The Egyptian Book of the Dead” is a collection of hymns, spells, strange poetry, and funeral speeches. It is bewitching in its naivety. Something in between the great wisdom and children chanting. I do have my own similar phrases or hymns that I want to carve in the walls of my tomb: they perfectly explain the reality, life and death. Many of them become the names of exhibitions, others turn into texts.

What is your favourite food for the soul?

Most of all I like to read books. But now I have temporarily lost this ability. I open a book and the letters turn into insects that do not combine into words; I re-read each page many times, without success. It’s probably because I am aging, but I find it very difficult to concentrate. Now my favourite pastime is dreaming, like snakes or crocodiles do. They sleep with their eyes open most of the time!

What got you started in art, did you have some sort of epiphany?

There was no transition period. Everything I do, I have been doing all my life. I started to embroider in kindergarten. And, suddenly, at some point I was offered a solo exhibition.

Who do you consider your masters?

All the ancient masters whose names we do not know.

Do you believe in the intelligibility of symbols?

I do not believe in universal symbols. I think there are many universes around us and in each of them there is a system of symbols: sometimes they intersect, sometimes not. It’s like water, it can take different shapes. But all the roads are fine and they all lead to a single goal.

Are you a collector at heart?

All my life I have been collecting something. Coins, stamps, postcards, stones, bones, books. Many of my collections are still in my mother’s house. Art gives me an excuse for collecting. Now I can keep buying things in stores or at auctions and pretend they are for my projects. Well, artists like to spend money, no matter what, for some rare treasures that no one else seems to need. At home I still have a box of rare metals which I have never actually used to cast anything, some rare bones, a box with an iron meteorite. The very presence of these things helps me somehow.

Do you go to sleep with your work?

Previously, many things used to make their way into my bed. Knives, crystals, pieces of amber, favourite fragments of unfinished works. But since I got married (three years ago), my bed is a forbidden area for my little friends! It’s a pity, but life flows forward like the Styx river. Everything changes.

Can you normally remember what you dreamt at night?

Usually I remember everything. But I do not like it. My dream is dreamless sleep, just calm blackness, like at the bottom of a deep mountain lake.

Is there any dream you would like to share and recount to us?

I’m afraid not. A person should hide his dreams as secret places of the body, like his heart, in a dark room guarded by specially trained monsters.

What has been your biggest disillusion?

In my childhood it seemed that everything was possible. Now it seems to me that half of the things are possible. I hope this downward trend will not continue. In fact, I don’t think I have experienced a big disappointment yet. Only in a few people, but that is normal. Man’s heart is deceitful above all things, who can know it?

In Japanese there is a word, “ikigai”, which means “something that you live for” or “something that gives you the energy to wake up in the morning”. We don’t have one word in romance languages to say it. Do you have a word in Russian that means the same?

No we haven’t got one either. Actually, I think that sleeping is the most interesting thing in life. So it’s better not to wake up, but unfortunately our body need to come to reality sometimes.

And do you know what your “ikigai” is?

It is difficult to formulate. Usually it’s just a sense of the need to do something. If it was not for the workshop where I work, I think I really would sleep all the time. So, I think it’s my workshop.

You don’t believe artists should leave their own country; why?

Artists are like insects. They are different kind of insects: some are spiders, some are butterflies. But they are all tied to their habitats. Miracles do not happen and insects do not leave their climatic zones. And when they leave, nothing good can come of it.

Sometimes while growing up we reject the culture we have grown up with, and then we take it back again later in life. You are still young, but has it happened to you?

I never felt young. I felt old from elementary school. I never played with other children. Actually, my arm got broken while I was playing football once. After that, I did not believe in group games anymore.
My friends were books and the old ladies from the libraries. They gave me “old kings”. One of them gave me James Joyce’s “Ulysses” when I was 11. Another gave me a book with a story set in the late 18th century, where a variety of strange cases were described. Lovely, dusty books. I’m not sure that youth is so important. Even in my short life, so many things have changed, and so many people have aged and become ripe.

You have spent years in field trials to study the life and collect the artifacts of prominent figures from Russian culture. Does it make you feel like a “detective”?

Yes, of course, a detective or an archaeologist. It’s the principle that matters. Ancient kings in their tombs or Russian writers in their memorial museums – is there a big difference? Eternity is wrapped around them like a warm blanket. I like to follow in the footsteps of writers, to visit graves in Israel, spend the night in the same hotel rooms where they slept, collect minute details and signs. In Russia we have some sort of cult for the benches where writers liked to sit. Can you imagine anything more weird?

Do you ever wish you had lived before the social media era?

I think we can spend our time on earth in better ways than on social media. Like spending it with our favourite films and books, within arm’s reach, so we can travel without leaving home. I would not trade this time for anything else.

January 2, 2018