17 Aug 2018.

Igor Grebelnikov in conversation with Olga Tobreluts

In your 2009 performance, Prisoner of the Caucuses, you use a costume style from Oscar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballet but you refer to Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane theory. Is this an attempt to put together two artists who worked within the Bauhaus school but were within different areas of artistic practice?

In my different series of works throughout different time periods I have always been primarily interested in dialogue and analysis, therefore I never follow any one style, changing it as I change themes. In other words I ignore the idea of ‘style’ per se. I’m first of all interested in the synthesis of art and in the artistic analysis, which has been made by artists before me. To the casual observer, it may seem that by working in an abstract and figurative style and using at the same time performance, video, multimedia photography, film and other mediums, I mix things that don’t mix. But if we try to perceive the image as recycled analysis of the artistic expression of the past, adopted and adjusted to contemporary subjects, then you will see the essence of the personal expression created by all my predecessors in art. Some of them have lost the original idea a long time ago and they have morphed into pleasant ornaments, pleasing to the eye of the observer. This is logical, but studying it more attentively I build up a new image from the bits which I like, filling it in with contemporary myths. That’s why my exhibition, which has travelled to many European museums between 1995 and 2017, is called New Mythology. In the series Prisoner of the Caucuses I was interested in analysing the artistic dialogue between Oscar Schlemmer and Vassily Kandinsky. They both were searching for a resolution to the fixation of movement of geometrical figures within 3D space and on the surface. In storytelling, there is an eternal motif of the birth and death of empires. To me, born under the Soviet empire and having observed its gradual decline, it seemed natural to live this new myth independently once again but within the context of a performance as opposed to in real life. I compared the empire to a point which is pulsating and increasing and conquering new territories, and the barbarians that are destroying it to the line which cuts off the point. For that I transferred distant theories of Kandinsky about the point and the line into the political realm, making them the main characters of the performance, Prisoner of the Caucuses.


Prisoner of the Caucuses, 2009. Copyright: Olga Tobreluts

Could this performance, which in your words brings together the political aspect and dry artistic theory, be your creative manifesto, and why is this relevant today?

Everything of relevance quickly becomes out dated. That bores me and therefore I am looking for a new synthesis combining a united, informational and endless flow of dialogue with my favourite artists rather than thinking on an ideological basis which is created in order to be contemporary.  Thus, I get an interesting result, which allows movement in the individual direction and gives an understanding of the future.

For Schlemmer this was a theatrical project – you call it a performance. Is the definition of genre important to you?

I’m absolutely convinced that the concept of genre has already lost its initial meaning since we are standing on the verge of a new renaissance – the synthesis of arts.

BookA Prisoner In The Caucasuss90х140

Prisoner of the Caucuses, 2009. Copyright: Olga Tobreluts

Schlemmer and Kandinsky are representatives of new avant-garde art. Most of your works appeal to classical arts and aesthetics. Obviously this is a post-modernist approach. Doesn’t this contradict the avant-garde principles?

All that I do is avant-garde. It’s experiments with new technologies not only connected to media, but also experiments in art, 3D objects and video. Contemporary people are under continuous stress, and they don’t use their vision and logic quite so much. The use of ‘clip thinking’ has replaced analytical thinking, therefore the eye sees something that reminds one of classical art, and sends a signal to the brain after which the viewer thinks that the genre is defined and there is no point in reflecting on the concept of what they see; everything is clear to them. Therefore, as far as pleasing their eye and enjoying the beauty of the piece is concerned, use of the viewer’s cognitive abilities is unnecessary. This is what I like in the contemporary observer. I put ideological traps in my imagery, doing it more for myself than for anyone else; they are the equivalent of notes in the margins. Only after a few retrospective exhibitions which I had in European museums did I surprisingly find another type of viewer who can see these traps and is ready for this dialogue. Suddenly I found an international group of people who think the same as I do.

The title Prisoner of the Caucuses adds political rhetoric to your artwork and if we take into consideration a poem of Pushkin or a story of Tolstoy it also adds a colonial rhetoric. Have you considered this interpretation of your work?

This is precisely what the work is about. The idea of a collapsed empire is not new in my art. My first ever series of computer ‘sibochromes’ created in 1993 was called the Glitters of the Empire. I had to go to Berlin and study Photoshop in order to create an illusion of a documentary photoshoot on the ruins of a former empire; a fake time machine with photographic evidence of travels which never in reality took place asks the question ‘did these empires really exist?’


Apollon, 2012. Copyright: Olga Tobreluts

What is the connection between your traditional artworks – such as photography and painting – and performance? Is this simply documentation or is there an additional meaning to it?

The meaning is in the mixing and reflection in the synthesis and purity of expression. Sometimes in order to give a better explanation you need to repeat the same story in different ways. The same images produced in black and white photography and in colour painting don’t contradict each other. They complement each other, creating not repetition but development. How can the visual perception of a black and white image develop by adding colour, or an aesthetic image by adding a movement? Through complementing one other, and that was the thought behind this project. The music of Leonid Desyatnikov completed the cycle of additions and shorted the loop of repetition.

Fragment of Prisoner of the Caucuses 2009 performance. Copyright: Olga Tobreluts, Leonid Desyatnikov

Igor Grebelnikov is a Moscow-based art critic and journalist. He is currently the art correspondent for Kommersant and formerly for Harper’s Bazaar Art.

Olga Tobreluts has been at forefront of the post-Soviet and international art scene since the 1990s. She is one of the first artists ever to use digital and computer technology in her work. Olga’s work has been exhibited at Tate Liverpool, MoMA New York, the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow, the Ostende Museum in Belgium, the Modern Art Museum in Stockholm, Mario Testino Foundation and the Ludwig Museum.Tobreluts’ works are on show at White Space Gallery until 15th 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.


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