It’s difficult to fathom Nikolay Polissky’s art. Any attempts to squeeze out an explanation for his latest project, a 22-metre high birch behemoth called Beaubourg, are gently batted away. “Think up a story yourself,” he tells me. “The most important thing is the myth. Reality alone means nothing.” Here in Nikola-Lenivets, an artists’ village near Moscow, nothing less than a fairytale answer will suffice. How else to explain a place like Nikola-Lenivets itself — 600 acres of coniferous forest filled with giant art objects, carefree Russians and Polissky himself, known affectionately to locals as “Uncle Kolya”?
The four-hour drive from Moscow to Nikola-Lenivets in the Kaluga region is long and serene. The capital’s seemingly endless high-rises soon give way to a much flatter landscape and the palette turns from grey to green. Anonymous tenements are gradually replaced by half-built or decaying wooden houses. Barren birch trees stand erect like toothpicks for the gods. A little further on, open fields, white flowers and a brown sign signal our arrival.
Before Polissky, who is in his mid-fifties, moved here in 2000, Nikola-Lenivets was just a run-of-the-mill Russian village where locals occupied themselves with more than the odd tipple. A little over a decade later, and under his supervision, residents have a new pastime: the creation of land art. Materials sourced from the natural environment — wood, snow, hay — are assembled by villagers to create art objects that have so far included an aqueduct from ice, a volcano from twigs and a copy of the Large Hadron Collider from elm wood. In 2008, they constructed a two-headed eagle the size of a house out of scrap metal and rigged the creature up so that it would spew flames until the ground beneath it collapsed. “All in all,” writes Polissky on his website, “this was an impressive image of the Russian state.”
Since its transformation from sleepy backwater to artists’ village, Nikola-Lenivets has been variously described as an installation or conceptual art project, and as the “birthplace of land art in Russia”. Yet none of these labels quite captures what makes Polissky one of Russia’s most enigmatic and important living artists. “Maybe someday, in the future, a proper name will be found,” he says. “Or maybe not.”
“The most important thing is the myth. Reality alone means nothing”
According to Polissky, traditional land art didn’t need a viewer. Instead, it privileged the work’s connection with nature. By contrast, Nikola-Lenivets privileges nature as a place for viewers to connect with each other. Beaubourg, Polissky’s imposing birch tower, which was unveiled at the Bobur Festival of art in July, is a case in point. The artist took inspiration from the architects of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, who placed many of the functional elements, such as the water pipes, on the exterior of the building. The Pompidou has since transformed Beaubourg, a neighbourhood once known for its fish market, into a centre of world culture; Polissky too has similar aspirations for Nikola-Lenivets.
Beaubourg stands as a testament’s to nature’s power and her promise. It cannot be discussed or treated like a sculpture in a garden or a painting in a gallery. While a remarkable structure, it is the interaction between spectator and object that inspires awe. Standing there, I feel temporally displaced, as if I am participating in some kind of pre-historic ritual. The result is a Russian twist on Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture in which sitting on a hay bale in an open field and merely being conscious of the ground below your feet and the sky above your head can be art. Critic Irina Kulik put it best when she wrote that Polissky’s structures “make one think of a utopian civilisation of the future in which it is not nature that will be subservient to culture, but culture that will be a function of nature.”
Borders of the Empire (2007)
Polissky is not dissimilar to his creations: profound, but not heavy. He cuts a sloth-like figure; draped in a loose-fitting salmon-coloured shirt, he traipses his kingdom in a pair of worn-down Crocs. Fittingly, Nikola-Lenivets translates roughly as “lazy Nicholas”. His exterior, however, belies an altogether different interior as is true with so much in Russia. He proves to be deeply, but airily, thoughtful, discussing existential questions in the same tone as one might deliberate over whether to have rice or buckwheat for dinner. Similarly, his art dominates the landscape but does not weigh it down. Standing next to Beaubourg with him, I feel that either one of them could lift off the ground at any moment and return to the primordial borscht from which they came.
Relocating to Nikola-Lenivets in 2000 was a turning point for Polissky, who says he experienced an artistic rebirth that year. Soon after he arrived, he gathered villagers (or “my peasants” as he calls them, recalling benevolent landowner Levin from Anna Karenina) to build 220 snowmen on a nearby hillside. The same hillside where, as the legend goes, Ivan III’s army stared down the Golden Horde, threw off the Tatar yoke and laid the foundations for the modern Russian state. Polissky’s own artistic foundations were forged in St Petersburg where he studied ceramics, painted and joined an underground Soviet art collective known as Mitki. There were “even earlier roots” but he is reluctant to speak about them. The important thing, he says, is what happened in Nikola-Lenivets. And indeed since those early snowmen, Polissky has devoted time and energy to addressing post-Soviet Russia’s most pressing cultural questions: what does it mean to be both Russian and modern? What are the true Russian traditions? What are the roots of the current culture?
“The virgin forest was the nursery of the Great Russian culture”
During the Soviet years, socialist realism forced nature out of sight in favour of shiny new factories. Painter Ilya Repin’s detailed landscapes gave way to Stakhanovite portraits of heroic workers. Leonid Leonov’s 1953 novel, The Russian Forest, touches on this clash. In the book, the forest symbolises Old Russian culture, which the Soviet regime seeks to cut down. Following its release, the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev admonished the wayward writer. “Not all trees are useful,” he said. “From time to time the forest must be thinned.” Even today, the majority of Russia’s artists flock to the cities, to galleries and other treeless trappings of urbanity.
But not Polissky. He moved in the opposite direction. He swapped a successful career as a painter in Moscow for a life in the forest. In contrast to Khrushchev, he believes that everything — trees, people, places — can be “useful”, especially where art is concerned. His decision to leave the city connects him to a deeper Russian history — with Astrov, the nature-loving, philosophising doctor in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya; with Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch in Slavic folklore who inhabits the edge of the forest; and with the bogatyry, the warriors in Russian folk epics. As the historian James Billington once wrote, “The virgin forest was the nursery of Great Russian culture.”
Hunting Trophies (2010)
By fusing folk practices with modern conceptualism, Polissky’s works appeal to people from all walks of life. From Maxim Nogotov, the founder of Russian mobile retailer Svyaznoy, who currently funds the group’s activities, to Kremlin ideologue and one-time spin doctor Vladislav Surkov, who once penned an essay on Polissky’s art as an expression of the Russian spirit. Even the once-suspicious locals from the neighbouring town of Zvizhi have come to call Polissky “an inspiration”. His sphere of influence also extends beyond Russia: he exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2008 and Art Basel in Miami. At home, Nikola-Lenivets is home to a number of events, most notably Archstoyanie, a biannual festival of land objects.
Despite creating art that, because of its relationship with nature, might have mass appeal, those who travel to Nikola-Lenivets are a self-selecting group — the village is not a place that one would randomly stumble upon. For those who make the journey, Polissky’s world is filled with possibility. His objects, built with local materials and by local hands, communicate the potential of a land that — from the outside, from the city — looks barren. “Many people don’t know it, but there are already many positive examples in Russia,” Polissky says. “This is extremely important: it doesn’t even matter what you do. It only matters that it is a positive example so that everyone can see the possibilities available. So that they, too, can say to themselves, ‘I can do that.’”