THE MORPHOLOGY OF IMAGINATION
16 Aug 2018.
Dorota Michalska in conversation with Lera Nibiru
Your albums and drawings are often set in a psychedelic reality that oscillates between the macro (the cosmos) and the micro (body cells) scale. They also incorporate a vast array of visual references from pop-culture and creation myths to Russian folklore. Can you tell me more about your inspirations?
I want to understand the world. Who am I? How is the reality around me constructed? How can I interpret the phenomena that are happening? All human beings ask themselves those questions. I think all animate things share a similar structure. Our universe is similar to a biological cell with its own specific lifespan. This basic cell strives to understand itself, to reach a sort of catharsis on its way from the beginning to the end. I want to understand and discover those principal impulses and structures.
At the end of the 1990s, you were a member of Russian experimental music bands such as ZGA (Zero Gravity Anomaly) and BABSLEY – a Russian punk-folk girls band. Both had a strong connection to punk and to counter-culture youth movements in St Petersburg. ZGA – founded in 1984 by Nick Sudnik – was famous for mixing elements of noise, industrial vibes and classical music.
In the late 1990s, I was studying animation at the State University of Film and Television in St Petersburg. Those were incredible, very intense years in Russia. Not only political borders were falling, but also the borders within our minds. Suddenly, people could do what they wanted and engage in any kind of activity they wished. The reality we were living in was very wild. Everyone had to be active. If you were passive, you risked being “eaten”.
What was your most formative artistic experience at that time?
In the 1990s I had the great opportunity to see a performance by Sergey Kuryokhin in St Petersburg. His performances were famous for amalgamating music, theater, circus, ballet, cinema, erotic dances, live animals and birds. Some of them included more than one hundred people; among them were the most famous Russian musicians and visual artists of the time. A few years after seeing the performance, I met several people who were Kuryokhin’s close collaborators: one of them was Nick Sudnik, who eventually became a very important figure for my artistic development. I took part in several of his projects as a musician. Currently, we are working together on an opera based on my artbook “Kromkhel’s Journey to the Seventh Heaven”.
How have those experiences within the field of music influenced your later artistic practice?
I would say Kuryokhin’s approach – free associations, a steady flow of references and inspirations – pretty much has defined my artistic practice since the very beginning. This is why in my works I mix “high” and “low” art, pop-culture and modernism, folklore and fairy tales.
In 2016, your album “Kromkhel’s Journey to the Seventh Heaven” was exhibited at the Freud Museum of Dreams in St Petersburg. The project tells the story of Kromkhel – whose identity is uncertain but who appears to be at once a comet and God – traveling across the seven spheres. His journey is both psychedelic and spiritual. Can you tell me more about this project?
The journey of Kromkhel continues a genre popular since antiquity when the protagonist (or his soul) travels to heaven in order to learn about its structure. The “seventh heaven” is a metaphor of unearthly bliss and refers to the classic structure of geocentric cosmogony. During his journey, Kromkhel attempts to understand the successive spheres while at the same time realizing he is a wandering comet. His journey takes him from the macrocosm (the world of stars) into the microcosm (the world of the cells), from the original darkness to a world of pure light. Only there he realizes that he is an unwanted God and disappears. This story came to my mind in a dream. I believe it somehow reflects the contemporary social unconsciousness.
Kromkhel – Journey, 2016. Copyright: Lera Nibiru
Is Pavel Pepperstein and his notion of “psychedelic realism” a relevant point of reference for your artistic practice? How do you understand this term?
In the Russian post-Soviet tradition there were two radically different notions of artistic creation: one based on the conception of Everything which originated in St Petersburg and a second one based on the conception of Nothing which comes from Moscow. The Russian art scholar Ekaterina Andreeva published in 2004 a fascinating book about those two different strands of thought in Russian contemporary art. Kuryokhin’s performances represent the notion of Everything. On the other hand, Pavel Pepperstein with his artistic and philosophical group “Medical Hermeneutics” verged more on the conceptual idea of Nothingness. However, in my artistic practice, I want to combine the notion of Everything with the idea of Nothing. I believe they are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of one process. When we inhabit time, we perceive existence as Everything, as a sort of vector towards death. When there is no perception of time, there is Nothing, non-existence, the potency to emergence.
Some of your works remind me of William Blake’s poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Blake viewed childhood as a state of protected innocence, but not immune to the experiences of loss, poverty and violence.
I think about children in terms of a happiness and innocence so pure that it can transform even the most horrific events in a play. When you are truly a child, you are not afraid of death or hunger. Nothing can happen to you, you are the center of all the universe. I am very interested in children’s freedom from fear and from responsibility.
In 2017, I opened the show “Param-para” in St. Petersburg, which included works by my son Gab, and some big works we made together. The title refers to the notion of “parampara” in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhists believe that knowledge can be transferred directly from mind to mind, from soul to soul in one second without interferences. I think that this is the only way we can truly learn something important and valuable, that cannot be transferred with words. And I believe art is the place where we can gain that sort of understanding.
Montage Colocorrection, 2012. Copyright: Lera Nibiru
Dorota Michalska is a curator and art historian. She is currently working on her Phd thesis in Art History and Theory at the University of Oxford
Lera Nibiru, b. 1981 graduated from the St. Petersburg State University of Cinema and Television with a degree in Animation (2003). She lives and works in Moscow. Nibiru has twice been nominated for the Kandinsky prize and her work is held in collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou. Nibiru’s works are on show at White Space Gallery until 15 September as part of Women at Work: Subverting the Feminine in Post-Soviet Russia exhibition, which brings the work of five women artists from the contemporary Russian art scene.