Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Story of Klement Tchtatelnikov

This interview took place back in January on the occasion of the exhibition of Stephanos Kamaris at the Cheap Art Gallery in Athens, 7/2-9/3/2012. The interview is also published in an exhibition catalogue by the editions Futura, 2012.

Kostis Velonis - You engage with the Soviet past, while being aware of both sides. There is, indeed, a good side, that of those who resisted Stalin’s hell, through poetry and the various ingenious inventions of escape, as in the case of your hero, K. Tchtatelnikov.

Stephanos Kamaris - When I built my first wish-machine several years ago, I didn’t know anything about all that - and I still don’t. I placed a plexiglass lid on the machine and then thought of adding a label: “Wish-machine. Found in ... (date) in the frozen lands of Siberia. Considered to be the Soviet answer to Aladdin’s lamp.” I suppose I just really liked Cyrillic letters, both visually and due to that lovely mystery they create - you can understand a bit (it’s not Chinese, say), but not enough. More generally, it must also be due to that rather strange sensation that Russian history inspires, it may also be due to the various odd objects I used to see in my grandmother’s house, or even the badges and handkerchiefs my godfather used to give me when I was small - my other grandfather went on to use the handkerchiefs, when he and my grandmother still visited Greece, for cleaning shoes and other items. I think that this last detail (and the combination in general) may explain quite a lot (not to go into family matters) and is probably the reason why I can view this Soviet past more easily and critically, but also relatively cheerfully. But it’s their fault too, I mean it’s not just my impression that these Soviet objects were often very amusing and identified with self-destruction. I can think of quite a few. In any case, this story gradually took on its present form - and perhaps it was logical that it should take this direction - once the word “Siberia” appeared on the first label. The first wish-machines, however, were intended to throw coins into a well I’d built.

Stephanos Kamaris "Klement Tchtatelnikov - Magic Machine/ Icarus II", circa 1929 (80x50x40 cm)

K.Velonis- Your morphological undertaking has to do with the attempt to gather and ultimately group together narrative “utilitarian” objects in an oppositional relationship between Tchtatelnikov and Bozov. Good versus evil, which can also be a complementary relationship.

S.Kamaris- Certainly. In one of the boxes containing the personal items of the two protagonists, you can see a large pair of scissors. There I mention that the scissors once belonged to Bozov, who was a very good friend of Tchtatelnikov until he discovered that Tchtatelnikov had stolen them. So this great conflict is sparked off by this incident, with Bozov taking on the role of the bad guy more out of obstinacy than anything else. But as the story unfolds, I find Bozov becoming more and more likeable, because despite his medals and his obvious copying of his former friend’s wish-machine with the prescribed-wish machine (the one with the hammer-and-sickle that stops at an ex-voto), for me he is the truly unhappy one. And I thought of restoring his honour somehow... by having him commit suicide, or suddenly become paranoid at some gathering and start to shoot officers indiscriminately and so on. But anyway, yes, here he roughly symbolises evil, but I deliberately gave him a round and rather funny face, because I probably want him to be saved too.

K.V- While the plot of your work and the consistency of your materials is reminiscent of the atmosphere of a Dostoyevsky, Gorky or Solzhenitsyn novel, the way in which you remake your relationship with the material has a wider cultural significance; sometimes it even makes me think of the California School, for instance the assemblage guru Edward Kienholz.

S.K -I’m getting quite embarrassed now, as, after my ignorance of Soviet history, my ignorance of art and sculpture history is revealed. I might say that my excuse is that I supposedly studied painting, while my first work was probably on comics... That’s gone now, but anyway, I’ve just looked at Kienholz, I knew a few of his works (mainly the one with the pinball machine), and I can make out the affinities you mentioned. I only wish I could make things like that one day, though to be honest I’ve no idea what direction I might take in future. But I see a rather caustic mood in his work, and a mixture of different materials which I find quite familiar. Due to my origins, my dual nationality if you will, and the various disparate stimuli I received growing up, I often feel closer to certain foreign artists. The Balkan or the oriental element, so to say, are much more foreign to me, even though I’ve lived here in Greece almost my whole life. So maybe thanks to this rather fresh, if I can call it that, multiculturalism which distinguishes American history, I can more easily find affinities with artists there - when, of course, there are also affinities in character and way of thinking... I’m probably just talking at random. Never mind.

Stephanos Kamaris, "Klement Tchtatelnikov - Wish Monument", circa 1929 (120x70x50cm)

K.V- It’s probably not very important whether you know your “spiritual” relatives or not; once some possible similarities arise due to idiosyncrasy and common cultural references, it is inevitable that this story of genealogy will be repeated ad infinitum even if you or anybody else is disinclined to take it seriously. Do you believe that the viewer has the right to perceive your sculpture exclusively in static terms, as a composition in which he does not need to perceive the mechanical movement? Because in all your constructions there is always the ghost of a structure in progress, an imminent event, due to the fact that they are constructions that can offer movement, like the wish-machines for example, and also their noise when they are put into operation.

S.K- What I realise, and really makes me think, is that I’m not at all sure of my works. I don’t know if they can stand up if I remove all this history, if I remove the glass boxes and labels. But there again, I like writing and making up mythologies, I mean to say that I have never used anything with an ulterior motive, to conceal some other weakness. As to the other thing, what you’re probably really asking, I’m afraid the answer’s yes. But unfortunately, I too have got used to them being motionless and soundless, mainly for practical reasons. The machines are particularly sensitive, so half the time when I put them into operation something goes wrong and they won’t work. And even when they do, I stop them quickly because I’m afraid the worst might happen. Sometimes they seem to be avenging themselves for all the previous failed attempts and start speeding up exponentially. At least with the Antimachine, for example, I know that I can’t leave it on by definition, because - if it works - in about a minute (more or less) it will have sawn through its base and become something else. Also, in “Me and Bozov #2 and 3” (I gave it two numbers because I thought the character could change depending on the side it’s viewed from), the combustion construction, I made sure it was inoperable from the start (which wasn’t difficult), to avoid causing any damage. And you’re quite right about the noise you mention. Unfortunately though, purely for practical reasons of the machines’ survival, I can’t have them working for more than a very short time.

Stephanos Kamaris "Vitaliy Bozov - “Ready-Wish Machine”, also known as the “commissioned wish machine”, circa 1930.

K.V- Observing your constructions, I am tempted to find some analogies with modern art history, particularly a pioneering view that envisioned the application of science and engineering to sculpture, for example the industrial universe of kinetic sculpture.

S.K- I would love to have the knowledge to be able to combine science and art, but unfortunately I can’t. Of course, even there I believe that something always predominates. Searching for influences, I think first of Da Vinci, who was always been my favourite hero. But physics and chemistry were lessons I was always extremely bad at, although I would have liked it to be otherwise. All these machines are based mostly on the conversion of circular into linear motion, just as we see in train wheels, in the way they are connected. There’s nothing clever about them (I mean my own machines). I don’t think Tinguely influenced me either, as I wasn’t aware of him when I started building the machines. Duchamp probably did, and so did the famous German band Einstürzende Neubauten, with the various crazy instruments made by its members.
I’ve just remembered a small photograph I once saw in an art history book. It must have been by Giacometti, a very simple and beautiful structure, something like a male-female, with a sort of banana if I remember right, revolving or going up and down over a sphere - without an engine - but probably perpetually. That has certainly influenced me subconsciously in the construction with the theoretical combustion - where Klement Tchtatelnikov as a sphere with matches moves towards a revolving pyramid with sandpaper rings - Bozov. In two more works, again, the wish-machine with the rat built by Tchtatelnikov in prison and the Antimachine, in the little red sticks bearing the razor blades, I think I’ve been influenced by your own works.
K.V- You are referring to the best-known photographic version of the “Suspended Ball” in the Guggenheim Museum, from what I believe is Giacometti’s most creative period, before he became identified with his famous thin, elongated Impressionist figures. This playful mood of a metaphysics of mechanics which is common to you and to his early work, helps me to better apprehend a sort of Dadaist transcendence in your work, with technological know-how being used in order to be refuted, to lead from the invention to its ridicule, something which is evident in the construction with the sphere of matches moving towards the revolving sandpaper pyramid.

S.Kamaris, "Klement Tchtatelnikov - Wish-Machine № 5" (/Rat Machine),found in Solovki, where Klement Tchtatelnikov spent 8 years as a prisoner

S.K -Yes, that’s the one I meant, I hadn’t seen it since then and I still love it. Now, as regards the machines... They really do have something comical and ridiculous about them... But I’d better start at the beginning, with the completely useless and malfunctioning wish-machines, which just push a few coins, without of course being able to fulfil their promises. The starting-point was the habit, probably human above all (?), of dreaming and wishing for something better. When we throw a coin in the water and wish for something. I love this habit... maybe visually too, with the metal and the water. And it’s something that never stops. As a priest says, probably in 8½, we didn’t come into this world to be happy. With the “wish monument” - which does not have any mechanical function - I am also referring to this last, drawing a parallel with the wishes we make on falling stars: in this work, the wish-stars which have been fulfilled are essentially dead, as they have a bullet in their centre. So although this should normally have been a work symbolising happiness, it’s a common graveyard. But on the right we see a new star appearing again, and we start over... On the other hand, the inability of these machines to fulfil their promises clearly has something human and vulnerable about it. And from a political point of view, one could contrast these machines with the faceless and terrifying Communist regime. For me, in other words, these machines are more human than the supposedly joyful faces we see in Soviet propaganda posters. They are certainly machines, but machines running in reverse...
Let me refer here to the “Antimachine”, since you mentioned transcendence. This machine, whose concept, to be honest, seems far too simple for me not to have copied it from somewhere else - even if unconsciously - is a machine that becomes detached from itself. It is supported solely on a couple of springs and gnaws away at itself, or at least at its truly mechanical part, that which has nothing human about it, until it finally falls and is released from it. I’d originally given it a second title, “Scorpion Committing Suicide”. I’d also written a short poem (in English and then I developed it a bit), along the lines of:
Two insects dream of their future helmets,
I’ll be an astronaut, says the ant,
I’ll be a fireman, says the scorpion.
Something like that... So there goes the scorpion... But I finally decided that this was all wrong, because the Antimachine probably doesn’t commit suicide. It’s rather that it kills one of its selves, the purely mechanical one. In any case the title “Antimachine” is fairly appropriate and I think it’s enough. Now I think the poem was wrong too, as the scorpion might have achieved its transcendence, but then it would have had to be called “The Scorpion’s Revenge”, which I wouldn’t have liked at all.

K.V-The beginning of the poem is amazing... but let’s move on to the other works. The contest between Bozov and Tchtatelnikov in a final chess game with quite radically altered rules. What does this difference in the rules constitute? Evolution, revolution or sabotage?

S.K- Thank you very much... These different rules are obviously sabotage against Klement Tchtatelnikov, but one that he is probably responsible for, since I don’t think the game was ever played - I don’t think even Bozov himself would have agreed to play on such favourable terms, with over twice as many pawns and roughly an extra 4 points. Obviously the knight in chess is identified with the unexpected, with freedom (as opposed to the bishop of the same value, for example, which is a tower that moves diagonally), and therefore with the revolution. One could also say this of the pawn, since this is the only piece - with a lot of work, of course - which has the magical property of transformation. Practically, however, as any chess-player knows, the pawn always turns into a queen (like some powerful trade unionists). So I chose to use it basically for Bozov’s needs, as two rows of pawns would give him a sense of safety to start with, and of course he could also sacrifice many of them as required. So we have six knights versus two rooks, four bishops and another eight pawns, which probably means admitting defeat in advance - so this game expresses a more general futility. I tried to make them both play as well as possible (or at least make Bozov play relatively tolerably), and the fact that the game managed to reach 33 moves shows that there may have been some small hope for Klement Tchtatelnikov. The title, apart from the obvious political references, also refers to the “Evergreen Game”, an actual game played between Anderssen and Dufresne in 1852 which has gone down in history for its beauty.

Klement Tchtatelnikov - Me and Bozov # 2&3, circa 1945 (30x33x18cm)

K.V- Tchtatelnikov is recognised as a humble mortal who will be glorified for his ingenuity, his resourcefulness and, finally, his actual sense of humour, which sometimes makes the human race seem likeable. In fact, however, in the gulags there was no intention among all those thousands of dissidents of having a heroic and glorious death.
Does your own antihero represent these souls consciously, as far as you are concerned, or do you limit yourself to the requirements of the narrative? What is your ideological position?

S.K- Although I haven’t read any books on the subject, I did glance at Appelbaum’s on the Internet and bought the encyclopaedia of Russian prison tattoos (2 and 3), and I also remember I saw a book on eBay referring to plays being put on in Solovki Gulag itself. From the tattoo books I learnt that political prisoners were tortured by various common murderers, etc., with the blessings of the guards. And that the usual term for political dissidents was eight years. That’s what Tchtatelnikov got. Since, as I told you, I knew nothing about the subject, I wanted to avoid something completely simplistic like “he was sent to the gulag and died there”. From what I read, many people managed to survive. In a museum in Riga I also saw various beautiful objects made by inmates, and I thought that maybe - depending on the circumstances and at least in secret - someone might be able to make something while he was a prisoner. And of course it suited the story itself that Klement Tchtatelnikov should get out of there alive, so he would be able to refer to his experiences afterwards. (I’ve also thought of sending him to America to make completely different works, or to Uruguay where he could have, unbeknown to him, a former Nazi for a neighbour - more for fun than anything else).
Now, to answer the question, I won’t say anything groundbreaking: I’m in favour of freedom of the individual, and in favour of honesty, in a rather vague and general way. I don’t know if there are any perfect systems of government, but I do know that there is always a huge gap between theory and practice. I could call myself a leftist, but again I don’t know; all that requires a consistency that I haven’t got, and I don’t know whether people like me should appropriate the term just because it sounds good. And when I see certain public figures, especially, trying to identify themselves with the left, just making a noise, while their whole life’s attitude is based on abuse of power, I get really annoyed. So I’d better not say anything. If I talk about anarchism, maybe again it’s just a convenient word which can be applied to anything, and in my case means simply opportunism in a supposedly revolutionary wrapping. I really don’t know how to answer at all. If, of course, I didn’t think there was something good in the Communist system, I wouldn’t bother with it or criticise it. I mean to say, I wouldn’t be as interested in portraying a comparable case of a hero in the Nazi regime. There, I think things would be much simpler, and the potential hero would immediately be a superhero... So I was interested in this coexistence of good and evil, not in evil in its pure form. That, again, may sound pro-Stalinist... What can I say, I’m against all those organised situations...

K.V- With your myth-making you are sharing your knowledge of a man’s past, as though you were responsible for preserving and finally exhibiting his personal archive. By this choice you are undermining, at least theoretically, your own quality of creator, since the executor of the work is K. Tchtatelnikov himself and, in a few cases, Bozov. Apart from the special circumstances of the concept of the group, which demand distancing as a technique for better utilisation of the narrative, might there also be other reasons for this?

Stephanos Kamaris, "Klement Tchtatelnikov – Tchtatelnikov Square Model", 1/15 scale, circa 1929 (30x35x40 cm)

S.K -All right, I think this undermining is quite theoretical, as you say. But I must admit that I felt quite strange when, in one of the first versions of Klement Tchtatelnikov’s self-portrait after the gulag - the door with many eyes - I signed with his initials at the bottom… The initials have now been removed, though for aesthetic reasons. Certainly the answer requires a lot of psychoanalysis… Because it’s not the first time I’ve done something like this, and it can’t just be chance. As I told you before, I used to work - as a complete amateur - on comics. The technical part of my degree dissertation at the School of Fine Arts in Italy was entitled “The signature of Matthew Longthroat”. It was the story of a failed (at least until the final page, when things are reversed) artist, who was ashamed to sign his works, and who, whenever he did, quickly regretted it and erased his signature. I am very emotionally attached to this story, particularly the last panel. Later I also tried to write a novel, which I abandoned after some time. The hero was, again, a painter, but a relatively well-known one - as opposed to the previous hero. The plot, of course, was rather far-fetched - the painter had three secret pseudonyms (and identities), and a younger half-sister (with whom he had of course lost touch), who knew one of them because the hero had used it in the paintings he used to draw for her when they were both small. Things were so twisted that another, fourth identity of the hero was that of an art critic who constantly abused him in his reviews... So I think all this could do with psychoanalysis. It must be some sort of persecution complex. Perhaps I’m trying, out of fear or embarrassment, to find a somewhat safe point between creation and criticism, although these concepts are peculiarly relative and mutually inclusive to some degree in each case...